One by one, they walked off the court, surrendering the title like old sheriffs turning in their badges. Joe Dumars dropped on a table and tossed his head back. Isiah Thomas hugged Bill Laimbeer. Dennis Rodman, who looked stunned enough to cry, found Vinnie Johnson and slapped his hands. Then, with a few seconds left on the clock, they exited the Palace floor together, the deposed kings, heading down the tunnel where their wives stood clapping in the echoing silence.

Say good-bye to glory.

No tears.

Not here. No way. Never mind that this championship reign ended like a car crash, a four-game sweep by the arch-rival Chicago Bulls. Never mind that the whole series seemed as if the aging Pistons were playing in quicksand, two steps slow, two steps behind, rebounds going over their heads, Bulls racing past them at warp speed. Never mind. That was just the final chapter, not the whole book. This was a hell of a run — this team, this town, this Detroit turn atop the NBA pile. They played, they won titles and we had a ball. We laughed, we sang, we wore Pistons caps and Pistons T-shirts the way rebels wear their colors. Three NBA Finals? Two straight championships?

No tears.

“When will it hit you?” someone asked an exhausted Dumars, after Bulls crushed the Pistons in Game 4, 115-94, to capture the Eastern Conference final and end the Detroit dream of three straight titles. “When will you realize it’s over?”

“I realize it right now,” he said. “I realize that someone else will be having that parade, and someone else will say, ‘I’m going to Disneyland,’ and someone else will lower that championship banner next year . . .”

He smiled. “And you know what? If it doesn’t rain tomorrow, the sun will still be up in the sky.”

No tears.

So many times, these Pistons went to the well and found an extra bucket of power, of confidence. So many times they were down, seemingly out of it, only to come back, win and laugh at the doubters. Isn’t that why, until 5:45 Monday afternoon, some of us still believed a miracle would occur? Didn’t you keep waiting for the happy ending?

It never came. Finally, this time, they lowered the bucket and the well was dry. “No TV, no refs, don’t blame anything else,” Thomas said. “They beat us because they were the better basketball team . . . and they caught us at the exact right time.”

Looking back, that was apparent from Game 1 of this series. And maybe it should have been apparent even earlier. Don’t forget, the Bulls had the second-best record in the NBA this season — the Pistons had the ninth. The Bulls raced gleefully into this Eastern Conference final, leaving New York and Philadelphia in the dust. The Pistons, meanwhile, went the five-game limit against Atlanta, and needed six to get past Boston. Thomas was injured. Dumars was injured. James Edwards, Bill Laimbeer and Mark Aguirre were injured. Fatigue? Mental pressure? Only their reputation made the Pistons scary in this series; the truth was they were exhausted before it even began.

So we should not be surprised that it ended, ironically, on Memorial Day, when you honor fallen heroes, and we should not be surprised that it ended this way: with the Pistons sagging like an aged heavyweight on a humid night; with Chicago’s Scottie Pippen, last year’s head case, now dunking, rebounding, having a blast; with Michael Jordan slamming on a fast break, and Horace Grant slamming on a fast break, and Scott Williams — who? — slamming on a fast break, while the Pistons could only scream and moan about the fouls, drawing technicals like raw meat draws flies.

“Before today, I thought it took an awful lot to win a championship, I thought it was the hardest thing I’d ever done,” Aguirre said, shaking his head in the post-game locker room. “But now I realize that it takes more to admit defeat. That’s harder.”

And what made it even worse?

The Pistons created the Bulls. Bulls never blinked

That’s right. The team that now goes to the NBA Finals owes its rise to Detroit as sure as the monster owed its life to Dr. Frankenstein. All those years Chicago took a beating from Detroit, losing in the playoffs the way the Pistons used to lose to the Celtics? All those years, Chicago was learning. Studying. Imitating. Until this season, finally, Chicago was better at being Detroit than Detroit was. Think about it. The Bulls won the East with defense,

rebounding, a strong bench, a superstar guard and an indomitable spirit.

Sound familiar?

“They definitely paid attention over the years,” John Salley said. “They told themselves, ‘We’re not gonna do the old stuff anymore. We’re not gonna make the same mistakes.’ ”

They didn’t. In 1988, the Pistons beat the Bulls, 4-1. The next year, it was 4-2. Last year, it was 4-3. And this year? Whoa. This year, Chicago refused to bleed. It was like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator.” It did not even blink.

When Jordan was covered, he dished to John Paxson or Bill Cartwright. Score! When Grant missed, Pippen came flying overhead to slam down the rebound. Score! When the starters went out, guys you never heard of — I still can’t get used to Cliff Levingston making a pressure shot — came in to carry the load. The Bulls won because they had two men, it seemed, on every Detroit player. Because they had two men going for every rebound. And because they knocked down their shots. Make no mistake. That is the biggest difference. No matter what the pressure, what the defense, what the score, what the arena, these new Bulls did not flinch, they hit their baskets, something the old Bulls did not always do.

“We knew we could beat the Pistons,” Jordan said, after winning his first Eastern Conference title, “but with the sweep, we even surprised ourselves.” Jordan’s shortcomings

A word here about Jordan. A brilliant player, yes, but he has a few things to learn about dignity and championships. His comments over the weekend were enough to make you ill: “The people I know are going to be happy (the Pistons) aren’t the reigning champions any more. We’ll get back to the image of a clean game. . . . When Boston was champion they played true basketball. Detroit won . . . but it wasn’t the kind of basketball you want to endorse.”

Well, as Mr. Endorsement, Michael ought to know. But before he reduces the world to good guys and bad guys — the good, of course, being players like himself who will talk trash non- stop, while getting fouls called whenever another player breathes on him — he should understand that there are many ways to reach the playoffs but only one way to win a championship: you must be the best. The Pistons were. For two years. They didn’t win because they were dirty. They won because they were unselfish, because they played great defense, because they never gave up hope, and because they didn’t put one player on a pedestal above the others. You may notice, Michael, that your team didn’t get past the Eastern Conference until it did exactly those same things.

“If Jordan thinks we’re so bad for basketball, let him buy the league and replace us,” Rodman sniffed afterward. “He’s got all the money, anyhow.”

“Bad for basketball?” Dumars said, when informed of the comments. “Hey, if us winning two championships was bad for basketball, it was damn sure good for me. I got two rings in my closet.”

No tears. Can we ever forget?

And that’s the spirit we ought to wake up with this morning. In the days to come, there will be talk about changes — trades, free agents — there is always such talk after a crown is lost. But for today, as the final embers of this championship era die, better to remember the Pistons for what they were.

Can you ever forget their dance off the Silverdome floor the night the Celtics were finally vanquished? Or their champagne shower in the visitors locker room of the Forum, after sweeping the Lakers and claiming the crown? Or the stunned silence of the Portland Memorial Coliseum after the Pistons went there and did the impossible, three straight road victories to win Title No. 2?

Can you ever forget the slogans? “Bad Boys”? “U Can’t Touch This”? “Three The Hard Way”? Or the music that played when they took the floor, the trumpets of that “Final Countdown” song that sent shivers down your spine? Can you forget the sight of Chuck Daly, Mr. Dapper, croaking out instructions, waving his arms like a mad scientist? And the players. Most of all, can you ever forget the players? Thomas, hitting those magic shots against Boston in overtime, or Dumars, coming back from his father’s death last year to lead the title charge, or Laimbeer, defying the boos in every arena, or Rodman, waving that fist after his 16th or 17th rebound, or Edwards, turning and sinking yet another fallaway jumper, or Aguirre, lighting up the nets from long distance, or Vinnie, who goes all the way back to the embarrassing years with this franchise, hitting that jumper last spring in Portland that now and forever will be known as :00.7?

“How do you think history will remember this team?” came the question.
* Salley: “As the blue-collar guys that beat the glamour boys in LA.”
* Aguirre: “As a team that defied the odds and kept coming back to win.’* Thomas: “As one of the greatest that ever played.”

In the final seconds Monday, the scoreboard flashed the image of two fans, holding up signs that read “THANK YOU FOR 2” and “YOU’LL ALWAYS BE CHAMPIONS IN OUR HEARTS.” A nice way to say good-bye. Hell of a run, guys. Hell of a team. No tears. Just a handshake and a nod of thanks.

Now.

How are those Tigers doing?

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