INGLEWOOD, Calif. — In the end, there would be no denying them; they wanted this more than life itself. No more waiting. No more excuses. The Pistons were storming the throne room, grabbing the basketball, stealing it, owning it, banking it off glass, slamming it through the rim, counting the seconds until destiny lifted her veil and gave them that long-awaited kiss, smack on the lips.
“BAAAAD BOYS, BAAAAD BOYS,” they sang, arm in arm on the bench, as the Pistons swept the Los Angeles Lakers in four games with a 105-97 victory Tuesday night to capture the NBA championship. “WE’RE THE BAAAD BOYS!”
Who in Detroit will ever forget? Our first NBA champions? This was the moment we had awaited forever, since the team was a laugh, since the roof collapsed on the arena, since the aura of champions used to leave them paralyzed. Not anymore.
Instead, on this magic night, against the defending world champions, it was captain Isiah Thomas down the middle like a bullet, driving and flipping and passing every Laker en route to a lay-up. And it was James Edwards, the symbol of bench strength, towering over the opponents, blocking shots, slamming in baskets so hard it brought tears to your eyes. And it was Joe Dumars, sudden hero, proving that Bad Boys can be good, shooting and driving and finally, when that buzzer sounded, finding a camera to say, “I’m going to Disney World!” although, to tell the truth, after this, Disney World will be a letdown.
“What did that final minute feel like?” someone asked John Salley in the champagne-soaked Piston dressing room after the game.
“TOO . . . LONG!” he laughed.
Doesn’t that sum it all up? How long had they waited? At the buzzer, Thomas was in tears. Rick Mahorn was grabbing everybody in sight. While Forum fans watched in desperation, Pistons fans watched in unbridled glee back home, 21,000-plus filling the Palace to watch the game on television. How long had we waited? That’s how long, America. Television.
“I can’t describe it, I can’t,” said Thomas, his face dripping champagne.
“We did everything we had to do.”
And how fitting an ending! Here in Game 4 was a finale that symbolized Detroit’s rise to the top — a climb from the very bottom. The Pistons were swamped early by a tenacious Lakers team, they were scratched, clawed, bloodied. Michael Cooper threw punches at Mahorn, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar threw elbows at Mahorn — and suddenly the Lakers were miles ahead, a 16-point lead in the second quarter.
But live and learn. These are no longer green kids, no longer awe-struck by Lakers or Celtics. They are playoff veterans, every sweaty inch of them. And so they came back: Thomas, little big man, rising over Abdul-Jabbar to strip a rebound; Bill Laimbeer driving in for a breakaway lay-up; Dumars, rising like destiny, banking a shot off the glass from a ridiculous angle, in it went, and the foul, thank you. Slowly the Lakers lead was peeled away like unneeded skin, the Pistons were being hatched as world beaters, one basket, one game, one delicious moment at a time.
A sweep? Who would have predicted a sweep? Even the pundits who cite the Lakers injuries can’t find fault with perfection. Play four, win four. The Pistons survived everything the NBA could throw at them — the Central Division, Michael Jordan, the referees, James Worthy — and finally, wonderfully, they were hugging and crying and singing like Christmas.
“SMELLS LIKE WORLD CHAMPIONS IN HERE!” yelled Mark Aguirre, dousing himself with the bubbly.
“BAAAAD BOYS! BAAAAAD BOYS!” came the response.
Champions. How wonderful, finally, for these Pistons players who, in the three-year climb to this mountain, have endured everything from Celtic leprechauns to Jack Nicholson. How great for the centers: Laimbeer, everybody’s villain, a guy who proved that slow and earthbound can still get a ring, and Edwards, the oldest guy on the team, who began his career under the tutelage of Abdul-Jabbar and won a ring in Abdul-Jabbar’s farewell performance. He played the game of his life Tuesday, scoring 13 points, all in the fourth quarter, to seal the win. “I have never played more intense basketball,” he said, blinking champagne from his eyes. “This is so great!”
For the forwards: Mahorn, who had to watch much of last year’s final series on his stomach, now standing upright, waving and slamming his big body; and Aguirre, a supposed head- case who found that less can indeed be more, because now, as a role player, he has what he never achieved as a point- scorer in Dallas: a championship. Did you see him at the end, looking like a man who had just woke up in heaven?
For the X-factors, Salley and Dennis Rodman. Their very arrival three years ago signaled the final touches of this championship blueprint. There they were Tuesday night, Rodman playing through painful back spasms, Salley called upon early, responding with a slam, a jumper. How fitting that they have both matured just in time to grab the brass ring. Dennis, of course, will probably hang from it. Salley will turn it into a commercial.
And then, of course, there are the guards. Where would the Pistons be without them in this series? Thomas’ gamesmanship, his direction, his confidence, coupled with Dumars’ deadeye shooting, his gluey defense — and of course Vinnie Johnson’s lava-flow offense. Be honest. When these three are cooking, is there a better backcourt anywhere in basketball? Anywhere in this decade?
And how fitting that, for all the years that Thomas had to carry this team, he finally reached the end of the rainbow by holding the door for Dumars, his quiet, less-noticed backcourt mate, who upped his game and collected the MVP honors. Isiah always said the team will win this title, not him. The Pistons proved it.
“What was the sweetest moment out there for you?” Thomas was asked.
“When I lost it and started crying,” he smiled, almost crying again. “It was just that everything inside of me burst out. It was everything I had ever wanted.”
And how about Dumars? What a series! Shooting on the run, on the jump, off the dribble, the high delicious arching shots that drop through like daggers. His steady hand brought Detroit back from the pits Tuesday night — as it had led them, really, all series. MVP? You betcha. He had promised if the Pistons won he would finally do something crazy. “Did you do it?” he was asked.
“Nah, I just came in and lied down for a second,” he answered, smiling.
And how about the coach, Daddy Rich, Chuck Daly? How long has he waited for this? His whole life? He had never won a championship of any kind as a head coach — not in high school, college, the pros. He knew he had a first-class roster, but he remained self-effacing all season, convinced, it seemed, that if he allowed even the slightest show of optimism, God would strike him down for being cocky. When the buzzer finally sounded Tuesday night, the veneer finally cracked, he grinned, he smiled, he hugged.
He got soaked.
“We poured so much champagne on Chuck,” gushed assistant coach Brendan Suhr, “he looks like Pat Riley now!”
Champions. Nationally they will be writing about the Pistons as the New Kings in Town, but in Detroit people know this has been stewing for nearly a year. The Pistons probably deserved to win the crown last season, but life and referees and injuries are not always fair: The Pistons lost in seven games.
“Winning four,” said a wizened Thomas this time, “is so much sweeter after you’ve lost four. Believe me.”
Injuries? Forget about injuries. Asterisks? There will be none on this series. Sure, it would have been better if Magic Johnson had been healthy and played in all the games. Sure, it would have been better if Byron Scott had played. Sure, sure, and so what? Wouldas and couldas are worthless now, just as they were worthless last year, when a gimpy-ankled Thomas had to struggle through Game 7 and watch his dreams dashed on the rocks.
A word here, however, for the Lakers. They played valiantly, with pride. Missing their starting backcourt, they played Tuesday like the champions they were, bursting out like wounded tigers, clawing and swiping, grabbing a 16-point lead, surrendering every ounce of desire before finally surrendering the keys to the kingdom. History will only weep that Abdul- Jabbar could not have exited in a more noble fashion than a four-game sweep. But he is a sportsman, and all sportsmen know that time will catch you eventually. At 42, he bowed out to a younger team, and that is probably the way it should be.
On his way back from the 1,000th interview, Dumars cut through a training room, carrying his MVP trophy. There, alone, sat A.C. Green, his head in his hands.
“Hey, A.C.,” said Dumars.
“Nice going, Joe. You earned it.”
“Thanks, man,” he said, and they shook hands.
Remember that scene. And remember these: Salley, center court, arms as high as skyscrapers. Isiah driving like a whippet. Dumars letting go a rainbow. Mahorn bumping for position, Laimbeer firing a three-pointer, Rodman up in the clouds for a rebound, Vinnie shooting in the face of countless defenders. And finally, all of them, veterans and rookies alike, in that soaking, sweet, sing-song that tells the world who now sits on the throne.
Here’s to a team of aggressive, sweaty, funny, spirited, driving, leaping, and finally dancing basketball heroes, who learned this night that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you deserve. Bad Boys, Best Boys, you know the rest, Boys:
Champions. CUTLINE Captain Isiah Thomas grasps the NBA championship trophy, with teammate Mark Aguirre at right. Thomas declared: “We did everything we had to do.”