GOOD TIMES FOR THE OLD GUARD

Thursday was some night for Lindsey Hunter at the Palace. He was draining baskets from the corner, from the key, down the lane, off the glass. He was dishing assists and shaking defenders, stepping up past flying bodies and firing away. He had a team-high 17 points, and his younger teammates spurred him on, slapping each other the way kids do when they see their father take the joystick on a video game.

“Old man, you still got it,” Richard Hamilton told him.

Well, old is a relative term. Some of us remember another night at the Palace, a dozen years ago. There was no basketball being played that evening. Young men wore suits and ties. Tables were set behind a curtain. Waitresses tended to the guests.

It was the NBA draft, being held, just by coincidence, in Detroit. A kid named Chris Webber was the big story. He had a large entourage, and when he was announced as the league’s No. 1 pick, that entourage hollered and clapped as he ascended to the podium.

A few tables away, a baby-faced young man sat and watched. No entourage with him. Just his parents, up from Mississippi. Lindsey Hunter. And at a nearby table sat another guard with his family, a taller, clean-cut guard from Tennessee. Allan Houston.

Nine picks after Webber, Hunter’s name was called. Next pick, Houston’s. Both stepped up and pulled on a cap. Both caps were the same.

Detroit Pistons.

Hunter/Houston. Backcourt of the future.

Best friends and teammates

“I remember that night,” Houston says now, talking on a cell phone as he drives to his home in Greenwich, Conn. “Lindsey and I had just gotten to be friends. Then, to be picked one after the other, it was amazing.”

They spent the rest of the evening together, driving around Detroit in the same car, talking about their futures. The city was buzzing about the new heirs apparent to Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, the most successful backcourt in Detroit history.

“We went over (to Isiah’s and Joe’s) houses and talked to them and we were both so excited,” Houston recalls. “Our personalities were even kind of like them. I was a little more like Joe, Lindsey was more like Isiah. It was the start of, for me, the closest friendship I’d had with a player to that point.”

Hunter and Houston got townhomes near one another in Southfield. They spent spare hours together, dropping by unannounced. They laughed together. Ate together. Everything seemed possible. They were young. They were rising. They were a tandem.

But tandems change in the NBA, and after three years, Houston, a free agent, signed a big-money deal with New York. Although he now says “I really didn’t want to leave Detroit,” however it happened, he did.

In the near decade that has followed, Houston’s life has had its ups and downs. Recent years have seen him injured, and he has suffered the wrath of any athlete in New York who stays a long time and doesn’t deliver a title.

Hunter, meanwhile, stayed four more years, then was traded by Dumars, who had become president of basketball operations.

“Joe called and said where would you like to go?” Lindsey recalls. “That was cool. I told him anywhere except a losing team.”

Dumars ultimately made a deal with Milwaukee. He also promised Hunter he would try to get him back. Two summers ago, in a trade with Toronto, he did.

Excelling on the defensive end

Somehow by that point, Hunter, in his 30s, had become a defensive specialist. Some of us laugh at that – Houston included – because we remember when he was out there to score.

“I was watching him Thursday night on TV,” Houston says. “I saw that old body language. I said, ‘He’s not looking to pass, he’s gonna shoot.’ Then I saw his teammates jumping up and down. That was nice.”

It’s funny. Hunter has two championship rings and is going for his third. Houston, with a much larger contract, is seeing his career wind down with a team that didn’t make the playoffs. The two of them still speak, and they still talk about what might have been.

“It was meant to be,” Houston says, philosophically. “I’m a better person for it.”

Still, there is a wistfulness in his voice, seeing the old Lindsey play so young. A lot of people felt that way. Hunter, having a wonderful NBA Finals, deserves so much credit for morphing his game into a defensive force, extending his career by who knows how many years?

But behind that rabid defender lurks the soul of a shooting point guard, who every now and then emerges from the curtain. And that makes Houston – and the rest of us who remember that first night at the Palace – feel a little younger, too.

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

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