In the end, that wasn’t just a basketball, that was a message slamming through those Palace nets: John Salley hammering home an alley oop, then spinning with the look of a killer. Bill Laimbeer banging home a lay-up, coming down with his fists clenched. Mark Aguirre waiting for Michael Jordan to get close, then windmilling one in his face. The Palace fans rose in a thunderous roar. They understood, and so did the Bulls. Here was the message: Enough already. Our building. Our defense. You go home. We go on.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m not smiling, I’m not grinning, I’m not laughing today,’ ” said an exhausted Salley, after the Pistons choked the Bulls in the biggest basketball game here in a long time, 93-74, to win the Eastern Conference finals in Game 7 and advance to the promised land. “Even the coaches said to me, ‘Lighten up.’ But I said ‘Nuh-uh. Not until I see 00:00 on the clock.’ “
Lighten up? Who could lighten up? It was a leaden afternoon, filled with dark omens and nasty ghosts and voices, all these voices saying, “Don’t lose it. You can’t lose it. Not after all you’ve accomplished.” This is what it’s like to be defending NBA champion. You have to battle your reputation as well as your opponent.
On Sunday, in the 12th meeting between these rivals this season, the Pistons were up to both. It was hardly a beautiful game, but it was bodies slamming and bodies jamming and bodies fighting midair for free balls. It was Isiah Thomas driving in, then dishing off to wide-open teammates. It was Salley playing larger than life — and he’s pretty big to begin with — blocking five shots and sparking a second quarter that broke Chicago’s spirit.
It was the Pistons shooting a torrid 82 percent in that quarter, with Aguirre leaping and swinging a fist after every basket.
Mostly, as usual, it was defense, three Pistons rising with every Jordan levitation, three Pistons rising with every defensive rebound. No surprise that the loudest crowd noise on this very loud afternoon came when the Pistons set up not to score but to defend; fans here know where Detroit’s bread is buttered.
“They overwhelmed us,” Jordan would sigh, which is exactly what you should do to a one-man army. And when the buzzer sounded, and the crowd sang the NA-NA-HEY-HEY song, the Pistons raced past Jordan, the best basketball player on the planet, and slapped his hand, and kept on going. You’re the king, but we’re the champs. See ya in November.
Finally, Finals. Self-evaluation at airport How long was this series? A month? A year? By Sunday, it seemed as if Detroit’s entire schedule was against the Chicago Bulls. Every time the Pistons brought the ball up, the Bulls players shouted out the play. Every time Jordan eyeballed his teammates, the Pistons yelled out his intentions. It was like watching two grizzly bears in a broom closet. They couldn’t avoid each other even if they wanted to.
Maybe that’s why this thing went seven games, with each team winning its home games. So close are they now, Chicago and Detroit, that crowd noise can make a difference. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe it’s something else, a pride thing for the champions that needed the threat of extinction to bring it to life. On Friday night, the Pistons were at their lowest point of the playoffs, blown out in Chicago, down to one game, hearing whispers.
“And then this funny thing happened,” Salley explained. “We got stuck at the Chicago airport when our plane was damaged. We had to hang around in this lounge for an hour or so waiting. It’s longer than we usually stay together after a game. We started talking, you know, about where we were, and what we had to do.”
By the time they touched down in the wee hours Saturday morning, the directive was clear: Remember who we are. “The better team,” Thomas insisted.
And Salley may have been listening more than anyone. When he entered Sunday’s game late in the first period, the score was tied; by the time he left, the thing was Detroit’s for the taking. This is all the Spider Man did: block Jordan, block Horace Grant, block Ed Nealy, slam a basket off an Isiah dish, swish a jump shot with the shot clock at one second, make a great pass to Aguirre for an easy lay-up and — get this — drive the length of the court for a basket and a foul. Salley? The length of the court?
“Hey, you know how many guys I’d have to beat up if we had lost this game?” he joked afterward. “This whole room. No way we were losing.”
No matter what it took. And it took all they had — holding Chicago to the lowest playoff output in the Pistons’ history. Make no mistake. This is a difficult Bulls team, growing stronger and more confident with every playoff battle. They were playing Sunday without John Paxson, on a foreign court, with everyone but Jordan shooting a collective 24 percent. And they still didn’t die until the fourth quarter. There were moments where you wondered if Jordan (31 points) really could win a series all by himself.
In the end the answer was no. “It was not meant to be,” he admitted, sadly, after the game and his season were over. “It’s tough to lose as a leader. It’s my job to show the other guys how to relax and stay calm, but some of them still didn’t play as well as they’re capable. . . .
“Detroit proved they’re the better team on paper. And the better team on the court.”
Nice. Classy. You have to admire Jordan, who for several years now has tried to drag his team single-handedly to the Finals. He is getting closer. But like Sisyphus, he seems doomed to roll the boulder up the mountain, only to see it roll back down. As a fan, you feel sorry for him.
But that’s as a fan.
“Sympathy?” Joe Dumars said Sunday, responding to a question. He grinned. He hobbled back a step. His right thigh was wrapped in a bandage. The cut in his mouth — courtesy of two Jordan elbows — was still unhealed. He had the look of a man who had just worked triple shifts at the plant. And Jordan is his friend. “I like him. I admire him. But sympathy? I don’t have any sympathy for him.”
Or as Salley put it: “He’s from Mars? Let him go back to Mars. We got things to do.”
Finally, Finals. Third straight trip Wait a minute. Finals? Good Lord. That’s right. This the third year in a row the Pistons have reached the glory round. In less than 48 hours, the Portland Trail Blazers will walk out on the Palace floor and a whole new war will begin. Odd, isn’t it? So intense was this Chicago series, you almost forget it was for the right to go on, not to go home a champion.
“One day, years from now, people will look back and realize how special a team this really was,” Thomas said wistfully. He’s right. But why wait? Before the championship nuttiness begins, a salute here to the indomitable spirit of this Detroit team, a team many had nearly abandoned over the weekend. What the Pistons have done is quite remarkable, for many is the champion who finds it impossible to go through the Finals door a second time, because its head no longer fits. Not these guys. Somehow, something seems to drag them beyond ego and beyond coasting and beyond most all the pitfalls that are dug for winners. They are sitting on the big porch again, wearing the “EAST” pin on their chests.
Finally, Finals. Close the book on the pictures from this 15-day war: James Edwards with gauze over his bloody eye, Dumars spitting out blood, Jordan hanging like Tinkerbell in midair, Aguirre leaping in a holy celebration. It was tough. It was intense. It was ugly and scary. And it is over.
“Should be a hell of a series next year,” someone said to Dumars as he left.
He ran his tongue over the cut inside his lip. He smiled and nodded.
“Yup,” he said, “and I don’t plan on thinking about it until next year, either.”
Now what do these guys from Portland look like?