The hour was late, the game had long since ended, and the last fans were filing out of the Silverdome. Suddenly, Isiah Thomas, still in uniform, emerged from the Detroit locker room, walked down the tunnel — “That’s Isiah! Hey, ISIAH!” — and entered the room where the Boston Celtics were packing up. He had come to shake hands with the vanquished.

“Hey . . . ” he said, offering a palm to Dennis Johnson.

“Hey . . . ” said Johnson.

“Hey . . . ” he said to Danny Ainge.

“Nice going . . . ” said Ainge.

The Pistons have reached the promised land, the NBA final, and yet, this morning, two days after their clinching Game 6 victory, this is the scene that lingers: Thomas, still dressed in sneakers and shorts, and the Celtics, dressed in slacks and jackets, going home.

They looked mortal at that moment — Johnson, Ainge, McHale, Bird — as if the monsters they had been to Detroit were just rubber costumes. Could they really have been that terrible? Could this city have really wanted them dead, hung from the rafters, a stake through their hearts?

Yes. This is a story about the hardest thing these Pistons ever did. About looking into the abyss. About finding their character. What a remarkable little war this was! It began with the Boston Garden leprechaun holding the Pistons prisoner, and ended with the Pistons’ feet on the leprechaun’s throat. It began with Larry Bird being the greatest guy to ever dribble and ended with Larry Bird missing lay-ups and free throws. It began with nine Detroit players scared to face the five players from Boston, and ended with the nine going on and five going home for the summer.

“What made the difference in this series?” Thomas was asked.

“We beat the mind set,” he said.

And that’s exactly right. This was a class in personal fulfillment. Somewhere in these 10 days of NBA combat, the Pistons began to see the Celtics as a basketball team. And as a basketball team, they were the one thing they had not been as a nightmare.

They were beatable. Remember that until this series, Boston had owned Detroit in the playoffs the way a bad dream owns a sleeper. The Celtics had won this series last year — although Detroit deserved to win it — and hadn’t surrendered a Detroit win in their building in six years.

Under this green cloud did it all begin, two Wednesdays ago, a rainy day in New England. The Pistons got off the bus and entered Boston Garden.

“They turned the heat up again this year, huh?” mumbled Bill Laimbeer, wiping his brow.

They had been here before, of course, this unforgiving locker room where the windows are bolted shut, and the paint is peeling, and someone mysteriously turns up the heat, so as to sap visitors’ strength. You hang your clothes on wooden hooks in this room. And then, usually, you hang yourself.

“It’s like we never left,” Thomas whispered, as he sat down in the same spot where he had sat a year earlier, after tossing that infamous pass to Bird

and losing Game 5, and after seeing the Pistons die in that final Game 7 defeat.

“Why not sit someplace else?” he was asked.

He shrugged. “Old habits die hard.”

That night, however, an old habit died just the same. The Pistons came out ready, their defense was a straightjacket, Thomas was a machine gun from the floor, and the Pistons won Game 1, 104-96. They won? They really won? Yes. And here was the first chink in the Celtics’ armor; their building, after six years of flexing its brick and iron muscles at Detroit, had taken a blow.

Boston won the second game in double overtime — because of a ridiculous shot, a three-point bomb by Kevin McHale, who almost never shoots three-point bombs. And it might not have been one anyhow, if replays counted. Still, the game went further than anyone had predicted. The Pistons flew home that night with just one victory in their pocket, but there was the soothing knowledge that, at least, in two tries, the Celtics had been unable to run away from them. Not that it made anybody feel better. The practices before Game 3 in Detroit were grumble sessions about referees, missed calls, missed chances. But that was good. It meant Detroit felt it should have won. “There’s an attitude change this year,” Vinnie Johnson observed. “The championship is up for grabs.”

So the Pistons surged ahead, took Game 3 with more tight defense and a big

game from Joe Dumars and an inspired performance by James Edwards, the sleepy-eyed center who was surprising everyone. And they approached Game 4 the way a butcher approaches the final cut. Go for the kill.

“Boston wants to steal one,” warned coach Chuck Daly, “so Larry Bird can say, ‘You guys had your chance’ — like he said in Atlanta. I don’t want my team to hear that.”

Murder, he urged his team. Show no mercy. The Pistons hovered over the green carcass — and the animal rose from the slab and bit them on the butt.

“ONE-POINT AGONY!” read a headline after the Pistons blew their chance, 79-78, in perhaps the ugliest game to ever be breathtaking. They missed 20 consecutive shots in that Game 4. They played like amateurs. And, in a moment of truth, the final seconds, Laimbeer passed up a shot — he was open and he passed it up — and the sting of that threw silence over the Detroit locker room.

“He should have shot it, man,” one player said in a deserted hallway. Others felt the same (including Laimbeer himself). It would not have mattered if it missed. Shots miss all the time. What mattered was the courage. Detroit didn’t want anybody questioning that. Especially not the Celtics. So they flew back to Boston, Game 5, with Celtics fans whispering about guts and character and claiming the Pistons didn’t have either. It hurt. No doubt Laimbeer heard those whispers. And no doubt his teammates entered that small, sweaty locker room wondering how much of themselves would be hanging on the wooden hooks when the game was over.

It did not start well. In fact, Game 5 was a disaster into the third quarter. Before a raucous, rafter-shaking crowd, the Celtics were sticking their jumpers, the Pistons were missing theirs. Critics figured: Goodby, nice try, grease the wheels for another Lakers-Celtics final.

Guess again. Third quarter. Pistons trailing by 16. And suddenly, deep inside the Pistons’ collective pysche, who knows why, the rubber band snapped. Adulthood struck. “No more,” the Pistons declared. “We’re sick of stolen passes and banged heads and three-point bombs and lousy calls and leprechauns. We’re sick of it all, and not afraid to do something about it.”

And this is what they did: Jump shots, Isiah Thomas. Drives, Adrian Dantley. Rebounds, John Salley. Defense, Dennis Rodman. Intensity, everybody. The greatest comeback in the history of the team. Twelve points to 10 points, 10 points to eight points, eight to five, five to three, three to even. It was like climbing a window pane, but they would not stop. They were screaming, on the bench, screaming from the depths of their souls: “NO GIVE UP! NO LET UP!” All around the swirl of Celtics magic was climaxing a final death spell, and yet Detroit would not yield. The Pistons went to overtime and would not yield; they went to the final seconds and would not yield. John Salley, who cannot often be trusted at the free throw line, sank two free throws as if he were born 15 feet from the basket. The buzzer sounded — 102-96.

They won. And from that moment on, there was a difference. It was as if the skies had cleared, the green clouds had been chased away. Game 6, the clincher Friday night, was tough, no doubt, it was hard work — but it was a basketball game for the Pistons. Not a head game. Not a tarot card reading. There were no dry throats, no missing heartbeats, no hypnotized looks, no magic spells.

It was Dantley spinning to the hoop, as he has done all year, and Thomas pushing the ball upcourt, as he has done all year, and Salley blocking shots and Edwards banking jumpers and Vinnie Johnson, oh, my gosh, bang-bang-banging. And finally, it was Kevin McHale, who simply kills the Pistons, coming up to Thomas as the last seconds ticked away.

“Whoever you play, Dallas or LA, stay physical,” he said. “Take it to them. Don’t go into the finals just happy to be there. Go to win.”

Thomas nodded, he smiled, he must have had goose bumps. In all of sports, there can be no sweeter moment; the defeated champion passing his blessing onto the challenger. No ghosts. No demons. Two men, talking man to man. This was the greatest accomplishment of all by these Pistons. They had fought a legend, a giant in their own minds, and had whittled it down to where they could shake hands and wave goodby.

In the years to come, there will be lots of talk about this series: Why did Bird’s shooting suddenly desert him? What if Robert Parish hadn’t been injured in Game 6? Did the refs really steal a game — or two — from Detroit? They will be answered a thousand times, and will never be answered. And that’s OK. The big question was finally laid to rest.

“You know, I’ve known Red Auerbach for a long time,” Dantley said in the victorious Detroit locker room Friday night. “He lives near me in Washington.”

“What would you say to him right now?” he was asked.

“I’d say, ‘Hey, Red. Sorry we beat your team.’ “

They did, didn’t they?

Class dismissed. CUTLINE Hankies and spirits were high at the Silverdome after Friday’s game.

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