NEW YORK — As they showered and dressed for the last time together, zipping the bags on their fading legacy, they seemed lost as to where to go next. Once upon a time, they had lived for these showdown moments, they were potent, unbeatable, they went all the way to the final buzzers and took all the final buzzers to June.

Now, here, on a Sunday afternoon in early May, in a Madison Square Garden that couldn’t even sell out, they were finally and completely mortal — and they died like so many teams had died against them, heaving desperation three-pointers as a hostile crowd sang farewell.

“NA-NA-NA-NA . . .”

Joe Dumars missed a jumper.

“NA-NA-NA-NA . . .”

John Salley missed a jumper

“HEY, HEY . . .”

Isiah Thomas missed a jumper.

Good-bye.

“It was eerie, it was . . . weird,” Dumars said of the final minute of the 1992 season, after the Pistons — not so long ago the NBA champions — exited the playoffs in the first round, losing to the Knicks, 94-87. “To think there are three more rounds of playoffs and we’re not in any one of them. . . . I don’t even know what to do now.”

Here’s what you do: You go home. Camelot has been closed. The illusions are over. The Detroit hockey team will play longer into this spring than the Detroit basketball team, and Lord knows the last time that happened. On this final Sunday, even the ball seemed to wave farewell. It ricocheted over Mark Aguirre’s head on a missed free throw. It jumped out of Salley’s palms as he tried to slam it. It left Thomas’s fingers and went smack into the swat of Patrick Ewing, who rejected it with a roar.

The Pistons could no longer score. They could no longer intimidate. When the final horn sounded, and the young Knicks were hugging in celebration, Bill Laimbeer, once the symbol of Detroit’s smug dominance, pushed through the crowd and grabbed several of his vanquishers. He made no threats. Instead, he said the only thing that seemed appropriate:

“Congratulations. Now go bleep up the Bulls.”

Say good-bye. Agony of offense

This is the end of this team, the real end. Even last season, when the Pistons were dethroned by Chicago, they did not go gentle into the good night.

“We’ll let the Bulls have the trophy for one year,” Thomas had said then, smirking. “Next year, we’ll come back for it.”

There were no smirks this time. And they won’t be coming back for anything.

The Pistons weren’t dethroned Sunday, they were defrocked.

And now they will be dismantled.

Chuck Daly is gone. History. He could make the announcement this week or he could wait for months, but know this: He has coached his final game in Detroit. And when the coach changes, everyone else is fair game. It is quite possible you will not even recognize this team in two years. Between the players Jack McCloskey would like to trade and the players Thomas would like to trade, there are few — if any — safe lockers.

“If Chuck goes, I’ll remember him for all the success we had under him as a

team,” Thomas said diplomatically in the locker room, already laying out the farewell speech. “All of my success as a professional has come under him.”

Some would suggest it was over him.

But that is an issue for another time.

Sunday was a time for endings, bitter as they often are. It was a time to realize that although the Pistons were once the newest model, state of the art, the NBA teachers, they are now watching their students surpass them. Chicago beat them last year with the Detroit paw print, defense. The Knicks, no great team, beat them Sunday with defense and toughness.

“They play,” Laimbeer sighed, “like we used to.”

And the Pistons do not. Oh, they can still make you sweat to score, but not as much as they do themselves. Watching this team try to put the ball in the basket is like watching Sisyphus try to push that boulder up the mountain. It is painful. A migraine headache. No better symbol of the empty tank of Pistons offense came during the second quarter Sunday, a quarter in which Detroit managed just 12 points total. Midway through the period, they cleared out for Aguirre, who tried muscling inside, dribbling, dribbling, finally leaving the floor and forcing an ugly baseline shot that missed everything — only to be caught by Laimbeer, who followed with another shot that missed everything.

Two air balls in a row?

Jake O’Donnell, the veteran referee, came downcourt after that one and yelled at a reporter: “What’s the deal, first one to 70 wins?”

Say good-bye.

No wishes left

Now the reporters and TV cameras were pushing their way into the cramped and steamy room. The questions flew. What about Daly? What about McCloskey? What about the future?

“Ask Chuck,” came the answers.

“Ask Jack.”

“Who knows?”

In one corner, Aguirre talked about “not being sad, because I’m realistic.” In another corner, Laimbeer said, “It’s not how high you jump anymore, it’s how much space you take up. And New York is such a big, physical

basketball team. . . .”

Off to one side, Dennis Rodman, only a towel around his waist, kept walking in small circles, like an expectant father. He would shrug off strangers with a “no comment,” then see a familiar face and begin to gush.

“The saddest part isn’t that we lost,” he said, his eyes ready to moisten,
“the saddest part is, we’re not a team. . . .”

How different this was from just two years ago, when they all hung together in a happy champagne shower, singing and whooping and feeling like they would live forever. They had won just two championships in a row. They were as good as they could get and as bad as they wanted to be. They were Joe and Zeke and Buddha and VJ and Lam and Dennis and Mark and Sal-Sal. They were a unit defined by winning. They were the embodiment of success.

But defeat erases your blueprints, you tinker, you disrupt. James Edwards was dealt. Vinnie Johnson was released. Scott Hastings, Tree Rollins, gone. New bodies were brought in, but they could only be bodies, they could not have shared the experience, and a steaming resentment began in the locker room. Things were said. The hunger dried up. The players got older. The opponents got smarter . . .

You get nostalgic when greatness fades; you wish you could have frozen everything before it took a downturn. You wish the Pistons could have stayed in those parade cars rolling down Woodward Avenue. You wish they could have kept their cocky smile, laughing at the world, saying, “Hey, who’s got the ring, you or us?”

You wish.

But Detroit’s basketball wishes have been used up for now.

Say good-bye.

Once upon a time

And, finally, they did just that, walking one by one out into the Garden tunnels. The arena was nearly empty. Through the opening, you could see the basketball court being taken up in favor of ice for the evening’s hockey game. Brendan Suhr, Aguirre and Laimbeer walked slowly down the concrete ramps. Daly was already gone. He had commented on the game, wished the Knicks well, then disappeared without taking questions, because he knew what those questions would be. He did say, “Everything is a consequence of your actions.” He was talking about the Pistons’ play. He could have been talking about his future.

Back in the locker room, only Dumars and Thomas remained. They had been the cornerstones of the championship teams, Dumars the NBA Finals MVP the first year, Thomas the second. But now the burdens were too great. Thomas, who tried one last desperate time to win it by himself Sunday, scoring the Pistons’ last 19 points, nonetheless, shot a miserable 34 percent for this series. And he was left in the dust several times Sunday by Knicks rookie Greg Anthony, who hadn’t even hit puberty when Isiah entered the NBA. And Dumars, still an excellent player, simply cannot do everything.

“We played hard,” Thomas kept saying, “but . . . “

Once Upon A Time, they put their footprints in the sand and they were kings of the beach, stronger and tougher than anybody out there. They shook up their city. They shook up basketball. Once Upon A Time, when the baskets came easier, nobody could best them in the final quarter of the final game. They said, “This is our moment.” And it was.

“May,” sighed Dumars now, picking up his bag, “I don’t even know what goes on in May.

“I guess I’m gonna find out.”

And that is the end of Once Upon A Time.

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