JUST ONE ENDING REMAINS: WIN IT!

Novelists say when they start a new book that they often have several endings in mind. But at some point they choose one and throw out the others. No more “maybe this happens, maybe that.” They find their North Star and sail toward it defiantly.

Same goes for the Pistons, on this morning of the last day of the last game of the year. All other endings have been thrown out now. All other possibilities — early exits, unexpected collapses — are crumpled in the trash can. There is one page — and one page only — that completes the book of Detroit’s operatic season.

Win it.

Win it all.

Win it for the fans. Win it for the coach. Win it for the wives, children, friends and relatives. But mostly win it for the Pistons’ place in history, to put their footprints in the wet concrete of something that has never been done. A team goes on the road, brokenhearted from a last-second loss, against the odds-on favorite that almost never loses at home, in a league that has never seen two road victories to capture a seven-game championship — and that team sets its jaw and flicks its cape and kills the last two bulls before thrusting its sword into the air.

Win it.

What other ending is there?

This isn’t about victory, anymore. It’s about legacy. The Pistons, with a victory tonight at San Antonio, would earn an increasingly difficult membership in The Back-to-Back Champions Club — with credentials that outshine most of the others. Back-to-back Game 7 victories? In the conference finals? Then the championship finals? Both on the road? Both against teams with better records? Ignoring the Fight, the Coach, the Rumors and all the other distractions?

That’s not resilient; that’s darn near bulletproof.

It’s there for the taking.

Win it.

Detroit’s Culture Club

“How proud are you of the attitude of this team?” I asked Joe Dumars, the man who put the roster together, on Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m tremendously proud,” he answered, “because I always said what you want to do when you build a sports franchise is build a culture. Like the San Francisco 49ers in the ’80s, like the Dallas Cowboys, like the New York Yankees. You want people to look at you and say, ‘Wow, man, they built an incredible culture there.’ “

Well, they’re already saying “wow.” And some Spurs fans are sighing “man.” And if the Pistons pull this off, how can that culture be denied? It’s not about money. The payroll for this group is 19th in the league. It’s not about superstars. There’s not one Piston you can point to as Mick and say the rest are the Stones.

And if you want to know how hard they pull for one another, get a tape of the bench from Tuesday night’s Game 6 at the SBC Center. Rasheed Wallace, saddled there with foul trouble, never stopped screaming. He screamed over the crowd. He screamed over the loudspeaker music. He wasn’t screaming at the referees. He wasn’t screaming to get himself back in there. He was screaming plays, and screens, and picks, so that his teammates would know what they might not be seeing.

It is a culture. It’s a culture of whatever it takes, whomever it takes, whenever it takes it.

“You know when this began?” Dumars said. “It began three years ago, when we were down, 3-1, to the Orlando Magic. From that time” when the Pistons rallied to win the first-round series “to last night, that three-year period has been incredible.”

It goes from incredible to indelible with the right score tonight.

Win it.

And they should. Because at this point in the series, it is no longer about trends or talent, it’s about heart. The Pistons have shown more so far. Yes, the Spurs, early on, won handily at home, Game 1 when they were well-rested and Detroit was still living in the Miami series, and Game 2 when they were in a groove and all their cylinders were firing. But their chance to kill the snake came and went in Game 3, when they were soundly beaten at the Palace. Their follow-up in Game 4 saw them beaten even worse. They stole Game 5 on Robert Horry’s three-point shot, but there were gaps in their clutch department even that night, with Tim Duncan’s looking tepid and Tony Parker’s looking spent.

And Game 6? Well, here were all the ingredients: home crowd, opponent on its heels, momentum, chance to close it out. And it didn’t happen. The Pistons did the essential things to win — namely, things they hadn’t done before, like long-range shooting — while the Spurs’ biggest star, Duncan, continued to wilt in the heat, and Manu Ginobili, for all his miracles, went clank when he needed to swish. Truth is, the Pistons have arguably been the better team for four straight games now. Why would that change tonight?

Not to mention — but I will — that deep into the wee hours of Wednesday morning, fans in San Antonio were cruising the streets, honking their horns, hanging out of limos, partying on, screaming “GO, SPURS, GO!” This shows a distinct lack of basketball fundamentals: Always know the difference between winning and losing.

Rollin’ with ‘Dyess

I have been trying to think of a way to describe the difference between a first championship and a second straight. I guess the best way is to say that the first championship is going to a party and the second is hosting it. The second means you’ve got a spot at the table, because it’s your table. It’s your house. It’s your glow that everyone is basking in.

You can see that best through one particular Piston this year, 30-year-old Antonio McDyess. His story is well known by now: three knee surgeries so severe he had to seriously contemplate retirement. Teams giving up on him. A rough go in New York. A total of four — count ’em, four — career playoff games before coming to Detroit as a free agent last July.

But here was McDyess on Tuesday night, just after midnight, after another wonderful contribution of points and rebounds, sitting on a stool by his locker at the SBC Center. He wore a suit and tie, yet was still perspiring. Dressed to go, but sweaty to play.

“I could have been sitting at home watching (the Finals) like in other years,” he said. “But I got the opportunity to play with these guys and I’m trying to make the most of it.”

Every answer came with a smile. He looked around periodically at the other players. McDyess talks all the time about being a part of this group, as if he were lucky to get a membership card, and yet the others treat him as if he had been there all along.

“You know, you really can’t explain what makes this team so different,” he said. “People count us out, they weren’t expecting us to get this far, but we respond well to it. We don’t let anything get to us. … I think most of the energy comes from how we are the locker room as a family. It seems like we’re all to ourselves.”

We’re all to ourselves. An interesting phrase. You could take it to mean devotion — we’re all (dedicated) to ourselves — or confidence — we’re all (believing in) ourselves — or privacy — we’re all (keeping) to ourselves.

What I think it means is unity. “We’re all to ourselves” — because they’re all part of one thing. One truly special thing. And that thing is on the verge of history, sailing toward its own North Star. One page left in the book. Write it. Close it. Win it.

And let history read all about it.

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

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