INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Joe Dumars is gazing at his teammates on the dance floor and holding a champagne bottle, which should tell you how far this party has gone. Joey? Champagne? He lifts the bottle awkwardly to his lips.

“So you’re drinking now?” I tease.

He lowers the bottle, stares at it, then laughs. “Look at me,” he says, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m no drinker. I don’t even know how I got this thing!” He shakes his head in happiness. “Man, oh, man . . . “

Bad Boys done good. Champions of the world. Out on the floor, Rick Mahorn is bumping and swaying like a Solid Gold dancer; John Salley, dressed in California shorts and a Detroit Bad Boys T-shirt, towers over the crowd with a funky roll, a woman on the left, a woman on the right, a woman in front. Dennis Rodman is off in the corner, talking to friends, still dressed in his uniform — even though the game ended five hours ago. “I don’t want to take it off,” he says, pointing to his number. “I don’t want to take it off!”

Bad Boys done good. End of the rainbow. The Lakers had been swept, the champagne had been popped, the fantasy began to take on a real life, happy faces and teary eyes and music and yelling and laughter and . . . look out! There goes Jack McCloskey, the general manager, up on the table as the next record starts.

The table?

“You know you make me wanna

SHOUT!

Put my hands up and

SHOUT!

Throw my hands up and

SHOUT! . . . “

Shout? There were five seconds left and the Boston Garden crowd was shouting, on its feet, roaring like the flames of hell, and Chuck Daly was frantically waving his arms, screaming madly, his voice lost in the noise. It was the 1987 Eastern Conference finals, and all he wanted was a time-out. Just a time-out. Come on Isiah, LOOK AT ME, DAMN IT! But he was so far away and Isiah wasn’t looking and Isiah lofted a pass inbounds, a soft pass, too soft, and the game and the series and the dreams were dashed before his very eyes when Larry Bird — who had the one thing the Pistons still lacked, championship mentality — zipped in front, stole the ball, whipped it to a streaking Dennis Johnson, who laid it up and in.

“I was watching the thing from mid-court,” Dennis Rodman would later say,
“and I saw Bird steal it, and I couldn’t move. I was frozen. I was paralyzed. It was like a terrible dream man. A terrible dream.”

The dream turned nightmare.

The series was lost.

The Pistons went home.

Growing up.

SALLEY ON THE MICROPHONE, BABY!”

The crowd turns its head. Here is Spider John, the Pistons’ answer to Dale Carnegie (How To Win Friends and Influence People? Simple. Geek ’em!) and he is up there with the disc jockeys, holding out a finger, inviting the whole city to his weekend parties — “Friday night at Landsdowne, Saturday at Maxie’s, y’all!” — then delivering a rap he has been writing all season.

“Everybody now,” he urges, “BAAAD BOYS, BAAAD BOYS, BAAAD BOYS — pick it up!”

“BAAAD BOYS,” joins the crowd.

“What’s that, now?”

“BAAAD BOYS”

“What you say?”

“BAAAD BOYS”

“Uh-huh, uh-huh”

“BAAAD BOYS

“All right . . . “

In the back of the room, wearing blue sunglasses and a white cap, is Bill Laimbeer, grinning, pointing, singing along, a little bit tipsy. He sees me and leans in my face.

“Did you hear my post-game press conference?” he yells over the music.

“No,” I say.

“They said I made a jerk of myself.”

He grins. Only Laimbeer could grin at a sentence like that.

“What did you say?” I ask.

“I told them this finally proved all you people wrong for all the stupid stuff you had written all year long about us.”

“You said that to the national media?”

“Yep.”

“Oh, well.”

“You think I made a jerk out of myself?”

I shrug.

“You know what?” he says, smiling and rising back up, as if to remind us that basketball players are taller than the rest of us, “The way I feel right now — screw ’em.”

Screw em. It was Game 6 of the 1988 Eastern Conference finals and the anger had festered for a year like a sore. In Boston they were saying the Pistons would choke, a 3-2 lead wasn’t enough to beat the Celtics.

Laimbeer arrived that night at the Silverdome with an extra gym bag. His face was grim, his jaw was set, like the rest of his teammates, he was as focused as a laser beam. Too long. These bleeping Celtics had been haunting them too long.

“What’s in there?” I asked, eyeing the bag.

Laimbeer unzipped it, and pulled out a garden sickle, it’s blade rusty but sharp.

“A symbol,” he said.

“For what?”

“For the team. I’m gonna use it to make a point.”

“What the point?”

He held it up, then sliced it through the air. “When you catch a snake, you chop its head off.”

Three hours later, the snake was dead. Pistons over Celtics. The Eastern Conference was theirs. No more leprechauns. No more Birds haunting their sleep. They were hugging, slapping high fives. They were going to the NBA Finals. Laimbeer zipped the bag closed and tucked it away in his locker.

Lesson learned.

Growing up.

“Do you wanna dance?”

The young woman is an unknown guest, dressed in a tight black top and jeans. Michael Williams looks at her, and shakes his head. He is smiling ear to ear, taking this all in, the rookie, sitting by a huge buffet table, dressed in shorts and T-shirt and looking like the younger brother who was allowed to crash the party.

“Do you wanna dance?” the woman repeats.

“Naw, I’m just gonna hang here,” he says.

“Aw, come on.”

Fennis Dembo, Williams’ best buddy and fellow rookie, is standing right behind, in dress shirt and cowboy boots. He is watching this whole scene. Waiting. Waiting. Finally, he steps up and looks at the woman curiously.

“Well?” he says, in that high-pitched voice. “How come you don’t ask me to dance?”

The woman is surprised. “Do you want to?”

“Yeah!” he says.

And out they go, shake ’em down, alongside Vinnie Johnson, who must have six people on his arms, and James Edwards, who is dancing so hard, even his mustache is moving. Rookies. Veterans. The captain . . .

The captian.

Where is Isiah?

Over there, on the side of the room, one arm draped around his wife, the other draped around Matt Dobek, the Pistons’ public relations director. Here is the picture of contentment, watching everything, the dancing, the food, a full-time smile on his face. For years Isiah attended parties like this for other teams, mostly for the Lakers, where his friend Magic Johnson would be soaked in glory, another ring for his finger, while Isiah stayed in the corner, trying to figure out the mystery of it all. How do they do it? How do we get it?

“It became my obsession,” he says, licking his lips as if still tasting victory. “I could never understand the secret. Then one day it hits you, a light bulb just goes off.”

He smiles.

“I understand it now.”

Once, years ago, Isiah told me his fantasy would be to win a world championship, then duck out the back, jump in his car, and drive off to some faraway playground to watch little kids play basketball, remind himself how this all began.

A few days before this year’s championship series, I got a phone call at the office. It was from a kid at West Bloomfield High School.

“You won’t believe this,” the kid gushed, “but we were playing basketball today and Isiah Thomas pulled up in his car and just sat there, watching us, and then he waved and drove away.”

Maybe he knew.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he had said, his face pure pain, his ankle throbbing under the ice. Would he be able to play in Game 7? How could this have happened? Damn it all, why now? The Pistons had the world in their fingertips. They could stroke it, feel it, they were 57 seconds away from a championship in Game 6 against the Lakers at the Forum, a three-point lead, and they had lost the game on a questionable foul call.

Now the agony set in. Isiah had been brilliant, beyond brilliant, scoring 43 points, the final 11 on a horribly twisted ankle that was now, here, in the post-game locker room, swelling to the size of a grapefruit.

“Can you play? Can you play?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know . . . “

He hobbled on crutches for the next 48 hours, then taped the thing as tight as rock, swallowed the pain, and went out there. Why me? Why now? Why must I be injured? He played gamely, he tried, he had the ball in his hands for a final desperation shot when the buzzer sounded and the court was mobbed by Lakers fans dancing on his grave.

Pistons lose Game 7.

By three points.

Why me?

Growing up.

“Yo, Mr. Davidson, you drunk yet?” says Salley, grabbing the Pistons owner in a bear hug. “Good. Let’s negotiate my new contract. I got a pen. You got a room.”

Davidson cracks up, returns the hug, his face sweaty and red and absolutely delighted. All around, the non-players are as delirious as the players themselves. McCloskey is dancing. The trainers are singing. Assistant coaches Brendan Suhr and Brendan Malone are wandering in a happy circle, red-eyed, satisfied, stuffed.

Wait. A new rap. Salley and Mahorn on the microphones.

“March, April, May and June

You will see soon

That we are the Bad Boys, from

Mo-town, Mo-town, Mo-town,

Mo’ money, Mo’ money, Mo’ money!”

And here comes Big Daddy. Chuck Daly. He has been through it all, and now, he is screaming, laughing, a woman comes up and begins dancing right by the Mexican food, and he briefly returns the dance, a delighted look on his face.

The coach. Is he ever truly appreciated? Daly has swallowed a thousand wasps in his time in Detroit, season after season, and they buzzed around his stomach driving him twitchy mad. But he never quit. He molded a group of guys that might not otherwise even like each other, much less commit to each other
— Mahorn and Dumars? Laimbeer and Aguirre? Isiah and Edwards? — and he got them to play the most unglamorous part of the game, defense, together, in unison, with the ferocity of a mother lion. He has worked without a contract. He has worked for half of what the Rileys and Browns are getting. If he wasn’t the coach of the year, nobody was.

“No one will ever know what we’ve been through here,” he croaks. “God, I remember years ago, getting up one morning and we were 4-19. We got on the bus and I looked at Mike (Abdenour, the trainer) and he looked at me and we had nothing to say. We were that bad . . . “

BAAD BOYS! BAAAD BOYS! BAAD BOYS!” They were singing on the bench, arm in arm, swaying like kids around a campfire, the final seconds of Game 4 ticking away. They knew they had it won when Joe Dumars pulled up on the baseline with 1:04 left and let one fly, it went high and true and came down like a comet. Dumars, who had blocked David Rivers’ shot to save Game 3. Dumars, who had lit up the nets in Game 2 the way he used to in Louisiana, where his legend was born. Dumars, the quietest Piston, who finished with the most to say. Take that, take that. Swish. Pistons by six. With 64 seconds to go. There would be collapses. No demons. The baton had finally been passed.

Growing up? They were all grown up. Isiah broke into tears at the foul line and Mark Aguirre broke into tears on the bench. Rodman raised his fists to the sky and suddenly, the buzzer, it was over, it was really over, and the ball was sent flying to the rafters and Dumars was swamped by a camera crew that gave him the signal.

“Hey Joe. Now that you’ve won MVP of the series, where are you going?”

“I’m going to Disney World.” BAAD BOYS! BAAAD BOYS! BAAD BOYS!”

Which brings us back to the party. Dumars looks again at the champagne bottle and laughs. The music is pounding, the floor shakes with dancing feet.

“Man, oh, man,” Dumars repeats. “You know, I was so excited about this, I didn’t sleep at all last night. I can’t believe it. I played the game on no sleep. All day long my stomach was going crazy, I was so nervous.”

“What did you do when you finally got a moment alone?” I ask him.

“I went to my room, I opened the window, I looked out on everything and I went ‘Aaahhhhh.’ “

That’s a wrap, Detroit. Take their picture and paste it in your photo album: Isiah, Joe, Laimbeer, Rick, Mark, Worm, Salley, Fennis, John, Michael, Microwave, Buddha, the Brendans, and Chuck, and a cast of thousands. Wasn’t their ride everything you dreamed it should be, quiet heroes and nasty villains, crazy calls and crazy balls, wild shots and muscle blocks, tough games and tight games and edge-of-your seat games. It was Boston swept, and Milwaukee swept, and Michael Jordan’s one-man army, and, finally, the proud measure of a Lakers team that would only surrender its crown to the very best. The Pistons had to prove they were the very best.

They were.

Aaahhhhh.

“I’m never gonna forget this,” sighs Dumars, and he puts down the bottle, and follows the music to the party bath of glory in which they can all lay back and blow away the bubbles. World champions? The Detroit Pistons? Let the rest of the country blink. Michael Jackson penned the words that may sum it up best: Who’s bad?

We are.

And damn proud of it.

CUTLINES:

The feeling was fabulous at the Forum for John Salley and Isiah Thomas — key players for the best team in Pistons history. Bad Boys Mark Aguirre and Bill Laimbeer had a good old time in the locker room after the Pistons beat the Lakers in Game 4 — completing the fifth sweep in finals history. Lakers guard Magic Johnson took time to congratulate the Pistons during their locker-room celebration. With the bubbly flowing out of control, John Salley wiped a bit off Isiah Thomas.

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