PISTONS’ TWO KIDS GROW UP RESPONSIBLE

They have been “the kids” since the day they arrived in Detroit. We dressed them in short pants, we carpooled them in the backseat. “Wait’ll the kids develop,” we whispered to each other.

And here were the kids, John Salley and Dennis Rodman, playing big-time basketball Wednesday night, playing the big minutes, making some big plays, looking very, well, big. The Pistons are on the threshold of something special this evening — Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final — and they may be growing up into champions. And what a nice parallel story: For while the starters (Thomas, Dantley, Laimbeer, Dumars) will no doubt carry the boulders, the kids will be right there with them. No more pails and shovels.

Growing up.

“How important are Salley and Rodman to a win in Game 6?” coach Chuck Daly was asked after Thursday’s practice at the Silverdome.

“We’ll need everything they gave us in Game 5, at least, if we’re to have a chance,” he said. “It’s that simple. And they gave us a lot.”

Need them? That simple? How far is this from 1986, the first day of camp, when the Pistons welcomed them aboard along with Adrian Dantley and began a serious drive to glory? How far from the rookie mistakes? The rookie shyness? What Salley and Rodman gave Wednesday night was more than points, more than rebounds, more than speed, although they gave all that.

There was also this: In the fourth quarter, Rodman came out and immediately put himself near Daly’s ear. “Let me back in, even just for defense, I can guard anybody tonight, I feel it, let me back in!” he pleaded. He wound up back in and made two good defensive plays on Larry Bird in the final minutes, forcing Bird into bad shots.

And Salley? During the closing seconds of overtime, Daly instructed him to get as far away as possible from the inbounding ball — he might be fouled and miss the free throws. “Hey, man, I’ll make the free throws if they foul me,” Salley shot back. “I don’t get paid all this money to do nothing.”

The ball was inbounded. Salley wound up with it. Salley was fouled.

“WHAT THE BLEEPIN’ BLEEP BLEEP!” screamed Daly, who had turned crimson.
“BLEEPITY BLEEP BLEE-.”

Salley made both free throws.

“Way to go, John.”

Growing up.

If the NBA were like one big school system, where would you say you are now?” I asked Salley as he laced up his sneakers Thursday.

“I skipped a grade,” he said. “I’m in one of those accelerated programs. You know. For gifted kids.”

He was laughing. “Naw, actually, I began last year in kindergarten — and then I got left back. They sent me to nursery school. At the end of last year I made it back to kindergarten. That’s how bad last year was.”

And that’s pretty candid. Salley, 24, was a disappointment to many during his rookie season. He seemed to want all the gravy without slicing the meat. The first time I encountered him was on a radio program, the day after he was drafted, and the first thing he said to the city of Detroit was: “Tell all the ladies I’ll be at the local clubs this evening. They should look for me.”

He was funny then, he’s still funny now, and yet lately he has taken a turn toward his job. His focus has been more intense, his efforts less scratchy. His long, spider body climbing for a rebound has become a common sight in this Celtics-Pistons series, and Wednesday night he led the team with nine boards. “He’s played just unbelievable in this series,” Daly said. “I don’t think we’d be where we are now without him.”

This from a coach who yells at Salley the way Archie yelled at the Meathead. Wow. What a change! There is no question that Long Tall, Spiderman, The Man-Of-The-Hour-Too-Sweet-To-Be-Sour (he made that up) is still less than 100 percent NBA focused, but he’s getting there. He’s needed.

“Chuck calls us (him and Rodman) the ‘X Factor,’ ” Salley said. “For a while he didn’t know if we’d be there for him or not. . . .

“But we’re coming around. Like Wednesday night? I don’t mean this in a conceited way, but I showed some character that’s new for me. I finally didn’t let myself give up mentally for one minute. You know how sometimes you say you won’t, but you’re faking it? Wednesday, I didn’t give up at all. We were down 14? I said, ‘So what if it’s the Boston Celtics? Bleep it. Let’s win.’ “

Growing up.

By the way, ladies, he’s engaged.

And what about Rodman? Holy cow. When he first came here — a 25-year-old rookie — the guy was in a fog. He still is, sometimes. You watch him out there and it’s like a kid taking a stroll through a big rock-candy mountain.

Yet when he puts it together, he’s a joy to behold. His double-pump lay-up and his assist on Isiah Thomas’ basket off a steal, ending the third period, might have been the biggest turnaround plays of the Game 5 miracle. His defense is sharp. His rebounding is as natural as yawning. “I guess people still look at John and me as kids because we play with a lot of emotion,” Rodman said. “But we’re more patient now. We’re more relaxed.”

A good sign, considering what Rodman has already been through. He went from not playing high school ball, to playing in college, to the NBA. Suddenly

there was money where there was never money before. People wanted his autograph. He had an up-and-down rookie season, then the infamous comments about Larry Bird last year, a summer to live with that, and now this. Pressure time. Big time.

“Life in the NBA takes some getting used to,” he admitted. “Once a month I go out riding through neighborhoods that look like my old neighborhood, just to remind myself that I was nothing before this, and I could go back to being nothing if I mess it up.”

Is that Dennis Rodman talking?

It is. I asked him where he feels he stands in the NBA school analogy.

“Middle school,” he said. “Next year I’ll be in high school. And the next year I’ll graduate.”

And on they go. They symbolize something for the Pistons, these two, a sort of coming of age, just as the team has come of age these last few weeks. If they contribute tonight, and Detroit wins the conference championship, Thomas, Dantley and company will have the joy of sharing a new era with the kids.

And we might have to start calling them John and Dennis. CUTLINE

“X Factors” John Salley (left) and Dennis Rodman still ham it up like kids, but their attitude toward their work is more grown-up this season.

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