As the crowd began to file out after the Pistons’ two-point loss to the Bulls at the Palace, one fan screamed at me: “Hey! Make sure you write about the damn refs! Make sure you write how they stole another one from us!”
My first inclination was to yell back: “Here! Take the typewriter and write it yourself. Then I can go home and watch ’60 Minutes.’ “
I did not say that, however, because it would have been a silly, emotional, knee-jerk reaction — which is pretty much what everyone was doing after this game. Blaming refs. Pointing fingers. Nothing unusual about that, by the way. It happens whenever you bring together two teams that wish the other would — and they mean this in the nicest way — fall down the sewer and get eaten by rats.
But that doesn’t make it right. Sure, there was a flagrant foul on Dennis Rodman that never should have been called, and, no, there was no such whistle when Joe Dumars was hacked by B.J. Armstrong while going for a lay-up and yes, Michael Jordan had to practically slow-dance with somebody before the refs would dare put him in foul trouble — and you know what? So what. When you’re playing at home, on three days’ rest, with a healthy roster and a full house, you either win or you forget about excuses.
It’s that simple.
“THE REFS KILLED US!”
“JORDAN IS SO LUCKY!”
I believe we’re forgetting something here. Something we all wish we could forget, but we can’t — so suck in your gut, stand up straight, and let’s face this ugliness together: The Chicago Bulls are the best team in basketball, the reigning NBA champs, winners of 33 of the 38 games they’ve played this season. Right now, just staying close to them is a pretty big accomplishment.
There. We said it.
It hurt, but we said it.
“Hey, we put ourselves in position to win,” reminded Dumars, after the 87-85 defeat, the seventh straight loss to Chicago, going back to last spring.
“If we’d been blown out, I’d be asking myself a lot more questions right now. But anytime you’re in a position to win, you’re doing something right.”
Obviously not everything.
And that’s what it takes to beat the Bulls. Bulls didn’t get the breaks And this hurts. It hurts because, for years, the Pistons had the Bulls on a leash, like a pet; Chicago might growl but we knew who was in charge. Pistons over Bulls. And now things are not that way. The pet has bitten through its leash, it feeds itself, and you’d better stay away from its teeth.
Want proof? While everyone is busy with the breaks the Bulls supposedly got Sunday, let me point out a few things they did not do: They did not score a point for nearly seven minutes in the fourth quarter. They did not go to the free throw line as often as the Pistons. They did not have as many rebounds as the Pistons. They did not get a good game from Bill Cartwright or Horace Grant, two of their starters.
They still won.
Meanwhile, the Piston had several chances to win this thing, including an easy jumper by Mark Aguirre and a three- point bomb by Isiah Thomas — not to mention two dunks John Salley missed earlier in the game — any one of which would have accounted for the two-point difference.
“We did not get it done,” said coach Chuck Daly, cutting right to the quick.
More words flew afterward. Always do. Reporters scurry from one locker to the next, asking why the Bulls hate the Pistons or why the Pistons hate the Bulls. But I have a rule about this: Never believe anything you hear after a close, bitter game. It’s going to be awfully contradictory.
Rodman: “They can’t play any better than they’re playing right now, that’s for damn sure.”
Scottie Pippen: “We played awful today.”
Thomas: “It’s not frustrating for us to lose to them.”
Pippen: “I’m sure it’s frustrating for them.”
Sometimes, you don’t even have to go down the hall to hear a contradiction. Take this little gem from Jordan when asked about his disparaging comments about Detroit.
“I didn’t say a lot of the things I was quoted as saying. People heard it the way the person who wrote it wanted them to hear it. . . . I don’t deny what I said.”
Huh? Which was it, Michael? Did you say it? Didn’t you say it? Do you even remember the question?
Forget it. The point is, this game is not played with words. If it were, Salley would be on the All-Star team. Time to see Bulls differently No, this game is played first with talent, then with attitude. And right now, the Bulls lead in both departments, although it is hard for the Pistons to accept the latter. After dominating Chicago psychologically for so many years, it seems Detroit players can’t or won’t see the Bulls the way everyone else does, as giants. It’s like accepting
the fact that your younger brother has grown bigger and stronger. You see the proof, but you don’t absorb it.
This is not good, although I respect the cocky attitude guys like Bill Laimbeer and Rodman have when they face Chicago: They still see only a bunch of ugly red uniforms and Michael Jordan. Still, it might be better if the Pistons saw the Bulls today the way they once saw the Celtics, that is, as an evil, elusive enemy that you need to outscore by 50 in order to win by two. That kind of focus. That kind of intensity. That kind of . . . madness. I asked Dumars about this after the game, because he has always been a sensible voice. He thought it over.
“It might be better if we did that,” he said, leaning against his locker,
“but it’s hard, because we were never able to beat the Celtics before we did it, but we’ve already beaten the Bulls. I agree, we need to get that kind of focus, though. We have to forget about the time we dominated them. . . . Chicago is our hump now, the way Boston used to be.”
And it will take everything the Pistons have to get over it: team defense, better ball movement, better integration of the new players — Orlando Woolridge and Darrell Walker — better bench play from Salley and Aguirre, and unfailing intensity from Laimbeer — not to mention the expected excellence of Dumars, Thomas and Rodman.
That’s a long list. More than just a few whistles. If that screaming fan is reading, he might want to consider that. UNLUCKY SEVEN The Pistons have lost seven straight to the Bulls, beginning with the last game of the 1990-91 regular season (home team in capitals): DATE OUTCOME 4-21-91 BULLS 108, Pistons 100 5-19-91 BULLS 94, Pistons 83 5-21-91 BULLS 105, Pistons 97
5-25-91 Bulls 113, PISTONS 107 5-27-91 Bulls 115, PISTONS 94 11-12-91 BULLS 110, Pistons 93 1-19-92 Bulls 87, PISTONS 85