LOS ANGELES — One by one they came down to the lobby, dropped their bags, and made the final rounds. Vinnie Johnson and Bill Laimbeer grabbed a quick buffet breakfast. Isiah Thomas stopped for autographs. Joe Dumars wandered into the gift shop, picked up a Time magazine and a can of orange juice.
“You guys did your best,” said the woman behind the cash register.
“Thank you,” said Dumars.
“Do you recognize this man?” she asked her associate. “He’s a Detroit player. He’s one of the good ones.”
Dumars smiled. One of the good ones. That about says it all, doesn’t it? This journey, this adventure, this crazy basketball ride that did not stop until two seconds were left in the final game of the longest season ever — Lakers 108, Pistons 105 — and the Forum crowd stormed the court as Laimbeer’s desperation pass to Thomas landed in the middle of a mob scene.
One of the good ones? You bet. From the opening tap against the Washington Bullets in the first round of the playoffs — how long ago was that? A month? A year? — to the final maddening seconds against the Lakers Tuesday night. How much did they lose the world championship by? Three points? Three lousy points?
“Is it easier the morning after?” I asked Dumars, as he peeled open the orange juice top.
“Harder,” he said. “I woke up this morning and said, ‘Oh, man! We lost!’ “
He took a sip. He shrugged.
“It feels like we’re not done, you know? It feels like we oughta be getting ready for Game 8.”
One of the good ones. Didn’t you lose your very breath to this team? Didn’t you surrender your body clock to their playoff rhythm, so that you practiced, you rested, you warmed up, you played the game?
Especially the series against LA. Here was a war that began each night with a smooch on the cheek (Isiah and Magic) and continued on through elbows, forearms, arguments, ejections, injuries, blocks and miracle defense.
There were last-second makes, last-second misses, James Worthy, possessed, Adrian Dantley, possessed, Isiah Thomas, possessed. Thrilling? Dramatic? Before Game 5 — labeled a “must-win” game for Detroit — I asked several Pistons how many “must-win” games they had played since these playoffs began.
“Six or seven?” said Dumars.
“At least four,” said Laimbeer.
“Five, maybe six,” said Dantley.
You get the point. How many times can you corner a wild animal? Yet the Pistons kept coming back. We had them buried after two foolish losses to Washington. We had them buried after they blew a game to Chicago. We had them buried after they lost Game 4 to Boston.
They proved us wrong every time.
They made the final — heck, they stormed the final — they were supposed to be scared, but this is how scared they were: In the locker room before Game 7, I went to Laimbeer and shook his hand, in case I didn’t get to see him afterward.
“Oh, you’ll see me,” he said. “How am I gonna spritz you with champagne if you don’t see me?”
Scared? Baseball has its wonderful history. Football has its explosiveness. The great thing about pro basketball, if you ask me, is that it involves so few players. You can really come to know them. If you’re lucky, you may even like them.
We were lucky. More than lucky. What a cast! There was Dumars — quiet Joe, dependable Joe — and his best buddy, Dantley, the superstar who waited 12 years for a championship ring. Did you know Dantley would have been the guy who says, “I’m going to Disney World!” had the Pistons won? No Mickey. No fair.
There was Rick Mahorn, the powerhouse hobbled by a lower back injury so unforgiving he had to lie on a towel in front of the bench throughout the playoffs. And Laimbeer, ever bombastic, who hit a cold streak in the final few games. (“I’m coming back next year in the best shape of my life,” vowed the man who has always sworn against off-season conditioning. Perhaps that’s how much his performance bothered him.)
There were the “kids,” John Salley and Dennis Rodman, growing before our eyes, taking over in that miracle fourth quarter Tuesday night. Rodman will spend the summer regretting one foolish fast-break jump shot with 39 seconds left (“What was I thinking?” he said later. “I haven’t made jump shots all year and I shot that?”) and yet, the truth is, without him and Salley, the Pistons would never have had a chance.
Same goes for the super subs, Vinnie Johnson and James Edwards, the former a familiar Detroit firecracker, the latter a sleepy-eyed veteran, rescued at midseason from the Phoenix Suns.
And of course, there was Thomas, the angel-faced captain. What’s left to say? He came to symbolize this Detroit team: He limped with a bad back. He used crutches for his bad ankle. He was like the Piston portrait of Dorian Gray, all the abuse was heaped on him. And yet he responded heroically, he played that final game when 20 other guys in his position would have sat it out, he dived for balls, twisted for steals, landed in the seats time after time.
“I just didn’t want to have any regrets,” he said, his ankle still swollen, when it was all history. “I didn’t want to say years from now, ‘I should have, I should have. . . . ‘ ” No. We save that hell for the coach. Can I say this on Chuck Daly’s behalf? ARRRGGHH!How much more does this guy have to go through? He’ll turn 58 this summer, and he is yet to win a championship as a head coach — at any level. And the kick of it is, he’s good! He’s real good. Know this: Few people could have melded the personalities on this team the way Daly did. You try getting Dantley, Thomas, Laimbeer and Salley to get along. After that, we’ll bring you the loaves and the fishes.
Daly did it. He never slept during these playoffs, not more than an hour at a time. He was haunted. Obsessed. Heck. The guy worked the last few weeks without a contract! Maybe he figured if he gave up all material goods, like Gandhi, he might be deemed more deserving by the basketball gods.
It didn’t work. They must be deaf. I can still see him after the last game Tuesday night, his collar tight, trying to keep the same even keel he has always kept. I’m sorry. The guy deserves better. Across the hall, Pat Riley was declaring his Lakers “one of the greatest teams in history!”
Baloney. The Pistons had their feet on LA’s neck twice and let up. The sole difference between these teams is championship experience — the Pistons had none; the Lakers had tons — and it showed only in the final seconds of the last two games.
Let’s be honest. The last minute of Game 6 was Detroit’s for the taking. But a questionable foul on Laimbeer, a bad shot by Dumars, a missed rebound by Rodman — and the Pistons were out of it. Their mistake. A self-burial.
And in Game 7? Another tragic finish. Rodman’s crazy shot. Laimbeer’s bad pass to Dumars. Laimbeer’s failure to get back to stop A.C. Green’s lay-up. Self-burial. Suicide. But don’t give me this stuff about greatest team in history.
“They like themselves a lot, huh?” Dumars said.
Well. Hey. This is California. But, OK. Maybe those are the scenes that replay in your mind today. The Pistons walking off, dejected, as the Lakers leaped into each other’s arms in familiar celebration. I’ve been with these guys for six weeks now. I see other scenes.
I see Salley filming this whole experience with that stupid little home video camera, yelling at people to “SMILE, HOME BOY!” promising to drop the tape in the machine next year when the coaches aren’t looking.
I see Chuck Nevitt, the 12th man, the ultimate sub, chatting during Game 2 with comedian Billy Crystal — who happened to be seated right next to him at the Forum. For once, Nevitt had the best seat on the bench.
I see Thomas, talking in his hotel room about his newborn son, Joshua — who arrived between Games 4 and 5. “I can’t describe what holding him felt like,” he said. “It was . . . it was. . . . “
I see Mahorn walking around in California shorts and dark sunglasses. I see Laimbeer, during the Boston series, pulling a sickle out of his bag to show Daly the Pistons really could “kill the snake” that was the Celtics.
I see Dantley screaming at his teammates during Game 5 of the final, pushing them to a new level of intensity, and Thomas whispering to Rodman at the free-throw line, while the Forum crowd jeered “AIR BALL! AIR BALL!” — and, lookie here, Rodman sank two in a row.
I see Daly cracking a smile, and Johnson cracking a smile, and Dumars and Dantley, the quiet buddies, sharing apple pie and ice cream — hey, for them, that’s a big splurge — at 3:30 a.m. after the final defeat.
But most of all, I see the last practice of the season, Tuesday afternoon, when the Pistons were still alive, still in the hunt, one game from glory, and for the last time this season — who knows, perhaps forever? — alone together with no fans around. Nervous, right? Choking, right?
“GOOOODD MORNING, VIETNAAAM!” yelled Daly at the start. And everybody laughed.
“Forty-eight minutes!” countered Salley as he dribbled. “Forty-eight minutes till we’re all traded!”
“A.D., you’ll be going into coaching, right?”
“Naw, A.D. will go to that 6-foot-4-and-under league!”
“Forty-eight minutes, baby!”
“Goooood morrrrrning, VIETNAAAM!”
Their last practice. Just hours before the biggest game of their lives. I was sitting on the sideline, along with several Free Press writers who have watched these guys all year. And we laughed out loud, a warm laugh, an end-of-summer laugh.
I’m really going to miss this team. And so it ends. They were our boys of autumn, our boys of winter, our boys of spring, of summer. How long did they play? From October to June. One hundred and thirteen games. One hundred and thirteen tugs of the socks over the ankles. One hundred and thirteen jump balls. One hundred and thirteen towels in the face as they came back weary to the bench.
One hundred and thirteen games.
They missed the championship by three points.
“Time for some crawfish,” Dumars said in that lobby Wednesday morning. He smiled. He’s going back to Louisiana. Dantley was already two days late for his annual summer camp in Utah — the kids were there without him. Thomas is flying home to a new child of his own. Laimbeer has his wife, his kids, his four boats — and his new conditioning program. Salley will continue his quest to be known by every living person in Michigan, Rodman, ever the puzzle, said he might just “drive across the United States or something, I don’t know.” Daly has a contract, hopefully, to hammer out.
One of the good ones? One of the best. You can’t give the NBA title to these Pistons. But you can’t take anything away from them, either.
As I watched them get on the bus for the airport, I saw Thomas — still with that bandage on his cheek — limp aboard and find his seat. And I was reminded of the night before, in the Pistons’ locker room, when, in the midst of a pack of reporters, Thomas reached above his locker, pulled down a bottle of champagne (“courtesy of the Lakers,” he said), popped it open and took a swig.
“Are you drinking that champagne for the Detroit effort, if not the victory?” I asked.
He paused. He smiled. “I’m drinking it,” he said, “because I feel we deserve to be drinking champagne as much as the Lakers do.”
And you know? He’s right. Here’s looking at you, Pistons. You exhausted us, drained us, took us into thin air and made us dizzy, crazy, hair-pulling, nail-biting, basketball-happy fools.
Wanna do it again?