FEEL THEIR PAIN AS THE PISTONS CONFRONT LIFE AS EX-CHAMPS

SAN ANTONIO – They were taking Richard Hamilton to the interview area, and because the Pistons’ locker room was on the other side of the arena, the walk was long and he had to look at everything. This is what he passed. He passed a huge open area with tables full of Spurs fans. He passed a group of Frenchmen, soaked with champagne, cheering Tony Parker. He passed Spanish-speaking journalists, emerging from the steamy San Antonio locker room, gushing over Manu Ginobili. He passed a curtained area where Spurs VIPs posed for photos with a giant golden trophy. He passed beautiful women, wives and girlfriends, already donning caps that hailed San Antonio as the “2005 World Champions.” Coming down the hallway, in the opposite direction, was Tim Duncan, cradling his MVP trophy in his long left arm. Bruce Bowen, the Spur who’d stopped Hamilton much of the series, stood against a wall, hugging well-wishers, still wearing his game uniform.

It was a Fellini-like parade of bodies and faces and lipstick smiles that had everything to do with a championship and nothing, suddenly, to do with Hamilton or the Pistons. Rip might as well have been walking naked, one of those dreams where everyone is staring at you.

This is how quickly pro sports will strip you down. One minute you’re the defending champion, the next minute you’re just another guy walking through someone else’s party.

If Hamilton and the Pistons remember one thing from the wee hours of Friday morning at the SBC Center it should be this: how fast it all goes away. It is likely just hitting them now, today, this morning, this evening, like a blow to the head that makes you wobble for two or three weak steps, then fall down. It’s over. It’s gone. The glow that had cast them in a champion’s light. They are just another team that came close now. There is no shame in that. But they are not special.

Only one team every June gets to use that word.

“It’s tough,” Hamilton would say when he finally reached his chair at the podium, “it’s tough,” and “it’s tough,” again and again, perhaps because saying “it’s tough” is easier than saying “it’s over.”

A few weeks ago, Hamilton had been chanting in the locker room in Miami, a different mantra, a Detroit jingle: “They don’t know that’s what we do!” What they “did,” these Pistons, was stare down adversity and drive it like a nail through soft wood. They’d outlasted Miami that night, the way they’d outlasted Indiana and Philadelphia before them, the way they’d outlasted the Los Angeles Lakers for the crown the year before.

“That’s what we do.”

But what happens when you don’t?

One shining moment

There was a moment in that clutching Game 7 Thursday night when the Pistons came over the mountain and saw the land of milk and honey below. It was almost midway through the third quarter. The Spurs had missed all seven shots in the quarter. The Pistons had scored seven straight points and they led by seven. Had this been a slot machine, bells would be ringing, triple-7, jackpot! Antonio McDyess had the ball with Tim Duncan on his back, and he couldn’t find anyone to pass to, the shot clock was ticking down, so he spun and he released and the ball went off the glass and straight through the net.

Suddenly, Detroit had its biggest lead, nine points, in a game in which nine points might as well have been a million. The tireless lungs of the sold-out crowd seemed finally to be taking a breath.

“This,” Pistons fans thought, “is our destiny being fulfilled.”

But just as Moses got to see but never enter, so, too, for the Pistons, was that moment a peek at paradise, nothing more. Twenty seconds later, Tony Parker hit a jump shot, then Tayshaun Prince missed a floater, then Chauncey Billups committed his only turnover of the night, a bad pass stolen by Ginobili. Duncan rebounded his own miss, put it in and got fouled, and the crowd was back into it, screaming with new life. Robert Horry blocked a Ben Wallace try, Ginobili raced downcourt for a fast break lay-up, the noise was thunderous now, ear-splitting, and the Pistons’ eyes were going blurry, their glimpse was fading, their grip on the title slowly releasing.

A few minutes later, the game had tilted. Detroit had enjoyed its last lead of the year.

And the long walk of the runner-up was beginning.

“We had a chance to win,” coach Larry Brown said afterward. “Shots that we made in the games we won, we didn’t make.”

Can it really be that simple?

It can be if you want it to be. And perhaps Brown can tell himself that as he determines whether he has coached his last game with the Pistons. Logic would say, if you want to coach and win, Detroit is the perfect place. The roster is set. The players are young. The environment is excellent. What could be wrong with the picture?

Nothing, but then landscapes have never been Larry Brown’s specialty, unless the landscapes are changing. And there may be something about a New York skyline or an office in Cleveland that interests him more. Trying to guess at this point is pointless. He said he wanted a week or so to get checked up and thought out. Give it to him. That will happen soon enough. It still won’t change the more poignant fact: He was this close, after a lifetime of never winning an NBA title, to having won two in two years of service.

“That’s what we do.”

But what happens when you don’t?

Close isn’t good enough

“We’re going to get back to Detroit, wrap this thing up, and hopefully everybody will enjoy the summer with their family,” Ben Wallace said, before leaving the building. But enjoying the summer will be harder this year. Every time they lay back in the sun, a small movie will run inside their heads. And it will always end badly.

You want to pat these Pistons on the back, don’t you? You want to say to Hamilton, “Hey, great job, don’t sweat it. There were so many games when you were the motor that made it run. So you had one off night. So what?”

You want to say to Billups, “Hold your head up. You kept calm in every swirling storm. You sank incredible long-range shots when they mattered. So what if you only had three baskets in Game 7? So what?”

You want to say to Rasheed Wallace, “Never mind that last one. How many games did you inspire this team? How many times did you make a block or hit a long three-pointer? So what if you missed half of Thursday night with foul trouble? It’s one game. Don’t kill yourself over it.”

You want to say to Prince, “Never mind those ill-advised jumpers, you’re a budding star.”

You want to say to Lindsey Hunter, “So what if your shot wasn’t falling? You worked so hard.”

You want to say to Brown, “So what if it’s your last game? You did all you could. You can’t win them all. So what?”

You want to say that, but part of you resists, because the “so what” in sports is winning the title. It is so what’s important that “so what” won’t suffice.

Someone asked me this week how professional athletes could deal with all the pressure of a Game 7, with so much on the line and so many people watching. I said they could deal with it because, for most of them, there has been a game like this since they were children. An AAU showdown in a summer league. A jam-packed high school gym for some state championship. An NCAA tournament night, where it was win or go home. Every one of those games prepared them for this one.

But none of it prepared them for what followed. Waking up empty. Giving back what you once had. With the exception of Hunter, no Piston knew what being “former NBA champion” felt like.

Now they all do. Here is what it feels like. It feels like Rip Hamilton in those wee hours Friday morning. It feels like that black-and-white SBC Center. It feels like a long walk down a noisy corridor, wishing you were part of the party and having to explain, over and over, why you weren’t.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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