They attacked all night, the way you attack a fire, the way you attack an enemy hill, no counting on luck, fate or chance, just sheer will and your own pounding lungs, drive the rim, drive the lane, until finally, the horn sounded to end their eight-month shift, which began in October and ended one week shy of summer. Rip Hamilton was jumping in place, a ball of energy. Mehmet Okur was hugging Tayshaun Prince. Ben Wallace took the spray paint and marked the last game with a big old “X.” The team whose motto is “Goin’ to Work” had put in a little overtime, and the once-mighty Lakers hadn’t just been defeated, they had been stomped and crushed like Italian grapes. The Pistons didn’t just beat L.A., they reduced it to a single letter: “L,” as in loser. And as the music soared at the Palace the Pistons soared right with it.
“Never stop dreaming,” said Chauncey Billups, the series MVP, smiling widely after the raucous 100-87 Game 5 victory that clinched the NBA title.
Never stop dreaming. But when you wake up this morning, you’ll notice a new crown in town. It wasn’t stolen. It didn’t fall from the sky. The Lakers didn’t squander it, and the referees didn’t conspire it. The Pistons — write this verb down — won it. Got that, Phil? Got that, Shaq and Kobe? They won it. They captured it. They grabbed it right from Game 1 and owned everything but 11 seconds and one overtime period, in what some are referring to as the NBA’s first “five-game sweep.”
Along the way, they broke the mold of NBA championship teams. In the final, crowning, 48 minutes Tuesday night, Detroit ran dynamite under the Lakers’ ego and blew it to shreds. From Billups’ game-opening drive to a late Ben Wallace put-back slam, the team-oriented Pistons slam-dunked the superstar era, ripped up conventional wisdom and threw a bucket of paint on the portraits of four future Hall of Famers, who, for this season, only will be remembered as all the things the Pistons were not: greedy, selfish, whiny and discombobulated.
The Pistons, meanwhile, were five bodies and 10 hands at a time. And all their hands are on a trophy now. Detroit is back atop the basketball world after 14 years.
“I’m very fortunate to coach this team,” a humbled Larry Brown said. “They play the right kind of basketball.”
A perfect first half
What’s left to prove? For pete’s sake, they led at one stage Tuesday by 29 points! And from the tip, the Pistons showed maturity beyond expectations. Long shots were passed up. Short shots were passed up. If it wasn’t a lay-up or a slam, they didn’t want it. They scored more than half of their points (52) in the paint. On one play, Prince leapt twice for a loose ball and was already moving to the hoop before he even had control. He finished with a slam. That was typical. The Pistons shot 61 percent for the first half and had 55 points.
So much for the moment overwhelming them. They made the Lakers look old and slow. The fact is, the Lakers’ best attitude came from Jack Nicholson, who played trash talk with the big screen. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Jack’s only slightly older and slower than the rest of them.
Some will call this the biggest upset in the history of the NBA. How amazing is it? Well, remember, the series was preordained as the Lakers versus “the other guys.” The Pistons were supposed to be mindful of their station. “Forget what happened before,” pundits kept saying. “This game, you’ll be put in your place.”
They said it before Game 1, at the Staples Center, which the Pistons won by 12. They said it before Game 2, when the Pistons were supposed to collapse but didn’t. They said it before Game 3, which Detroit won by 20. They said it before Game 4 — another Pistons victory — and they said it before Game 5, which was over by the third quarter. “This game, Pistons, you’ll be put in your place.”
They were. Their place is on the victory stand.
Hey. Maybe the Lakers were the “other guys” in this series.
Rings to everyone
Fingers, please. Who gets a ring?
Ben Wallace gets a ring. The big man with the big hair who was the locomotive of this chugging train finally will be a champion. He wasn’t drafted, he was traded twice, but there he was Tuesday night, grabbing 22 rebounds, scoring 18 points, including a solo fast break that saw him leave the ground somewhere past the top of the key, a feat of both enthusiasm and gravity.
Chauncey Billups gets a ring. The point guard who wasn’t good enough for the smaller stage in Boston, Toronto, Orlando, Minnesota or Denver was great enough for the biggest stage in the game. He takes the MVP award by averaging 21 points and 5.2 assists. But the best part? He wouldn’t have cared who won it. “We don’t play as a bunch of individuals,” he said. “We’re a basketball team.”
Catch that, Shaq and Kobe.
Richard Hamilton gets a ring. He was everywhere in this series, racing off of screens, pulling up in the lane, curling to the baseline and rising to the backboard. A lot of people expected a certain shooting guard to be a star in this series; nobody figured it would be this one. Plastic masks are being marketed as we speak.
Larry Brown gets a ring. The coach who had done everything but this has now done this: won an NBA championship at age 63, oldest ever to do so and perhaps the most deserving to wait this long. Brown’s stubborn focus on the old-fashioned basics — ball sharing, rebounding, group defense — brought down a Cyborg Lakers team built for a title, and stamped him in the history books. Five games? None of the victories was closer than eight points? Give us the finger, Larry.
We mean that in a good way.
Rasheed Wallace gets a ring. The newest Piston and arguably the most influential — sorry about the word “arguably” — was there again Tuesday night, hitting easy jumpers, playing big-man defense. People used to describe him only as “a hothead.” Now they’ll have to modify that. At worst, he’s “a hotheaded champion.”
Tayshaun Prince gets a ring. Watching Prince defend Kobe Bryant was like watching the invention of the iPod; suddenly, everyone’s going to want one. Prince’s long arms and quick instincts draped a net over the NBA’s flashiest star, and by the end, Kobe was merely mortal. He failed to shoot 40 percent for the series. Meanwhile, you hate to see the NBA Finals end because Prince is getting better every night. It’s hard to believe this quiet, lanky man is in only his second season. It is not hard to believe he was the reason the Pistons passed up on Carmelo Anthony. Not anymore.
And how about the man who made that decision, Joe Dumars? Joe gets a ring. It means more, he says, than the two he won as a player “because this time I’m responsible for the whole team.” Not too long ago, supposedly wiser general managers were advising Dumars to construct a team the way they had done it, one superstar, maybe $20 million a year, and a bunch of role players. Dumars thought about it, then said, “No thanks.” He built on character, toughness and team defense. And consider this: Besides Lindsey Hunter, who went and came back, there is not a single player on this roster from four years ago when Dumars took over, yet everyone that he would want to keep for next season — with the possible exception of Okur — he will keep.
That’s his hand in this.
Give it a ring.
Hunter gets a ring, his first as a Piston. So do Corliss Williamson and Elden Campbell, all men who are well-traveled in this league and old enough to know how rare these moments are. On the other end, Okur gets a ring, as does Darko Milicic (what a baptism!). Mike James gets a ring. Darvin Ham, too. The coaching staff, loyal to Brown, is rewarded, too.
All of the above, and all next year, will be referred to as part of “the Detroit Pistons, defending NBA champions.”
How’s that sound?
Shocking the hoops world
So how will history remember these Finals? Mostly for their shock value. Here’s how shockingly good the Pistons were. They beat the Lakers in five, and the Lakers had home-court advantage. Remember, these were the same Lakers who knocked off San Antonio, the defending champion, by winning four straight, then knocked off Minnesota, the West’s top seed. Obviously, they must have been doing something right.
But suddenly, in this series, as the losses mounted, it wasn’t about the Pistons’ success, it was about the Lakers’ loosening their screws. This Finals series, it seemed, would only be over when the Lakers said it was. Even before Tuesday’s head-chopping — facing a 3-1 deficit that no team had ever come back from in the Finals — the purple-and-gold superstars acted as if fate had promised them a championship.
“I’m telling you right now, we’ll win Tuesday,” Kobe Bryant said.
“We have every intention of winning this game,” Phil Jackson said.
“Got to win,” Shaquille O’Neal said.
Enough already about the team upended. Can the sports world focus on the team that did the upending? If folks watching this series weren’t so busy rubbing their eyes, they might have seen more of the obvious: The Pistons outplayed the Lakers in every facet of the game. Outrebounded them, outdefensed them, outhustled them, and, yes, outshot them. Hello? If the Pistons’ offense is so awful, well, it scored more points in four out of five games — so what does that make the Lakers’ offense?
You know what? Who cares? “Lakers” is now just another word the Pistons have scratched out, alongside Milwaukee, New Jersey and Indiana.
Hooptown, now. There were gas stations in the Detroit suburbs selling Pistons paraphernalia out of small tents, and cars on the highways flying Pistons flags from their windows. The Motor City has big new wheels, orange with laces, and kids everywhere will be growing out their Ben Afros and nicknaming themselves “Rip.”
Nothing given. Everything earned. They hit pay dirt in a way that every laborer and sports fan alike can admire. Take a picture of that final moment — Ben spray-painting where X marks the spot — and frame it for next year, above a modified slogan:
Goin’ to Work . . .
As the Boss.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org