SAVOR THE BIG FIVE WHILE THERE’S TIME

Rip wore the mask, Rasheed argued with the refs, Tayshaun made several gravity-defying moves, Chauncey had the sweat pouring down the back of his neck and Ben – well, Ben was Ben, except when he uncharacteristically took the microphone before the game and welcomed the fans back “on behalf of my teammates.” And he seemed to want to continue talking, but then he stopped and abruptly punched the air instead. The crowd cheered. A fist is worth a thousand words.

Game on. The old expression is “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” except in season openers like the Pistons’ Wednesday night at the Palace, where the tagline could have read: “It’s who you know AND what you know – and that’s the best part.”

The familiar quintet of Wallace, Wallace, Prince, Billups and Hamilton was, last year, considered to be the best starting five in the NBA. And this year, it is still the case. Name me one better. Their oldest member is 31. They are all only smarter and still hungry. And the fact that they are still together is the best tribute you can lay at Joe Dumars’ feet.

“Someone told me they have the longest tenure of any starting five in the NBA right now,” Dumars after the blowout of Philadelphia, 108-88, to kick off the season. “What that means is comfort. It means any one guy knows exactly what the other four are doing. Basketball is a game of familiarity, comfort and chemistry. So that’s priceless.”

Plenty of basketball intelligence

Remember, this is not a league that celebrates stability. Look at Miami. Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade came within minutes of knocking the Pistons out last year, and now those two are surrounded by so many new faces, they need nametags. Other teams will need months to absorb new starters.

Between trades, free agency, salary cap cuts, discontent or just plain weirdness (how about Latrell Sprewell saying $10 million isn’t enough and finding the alternative is zero?), it’s hard to keep a great group intact.

No such problem here. Flip Saunders, the new coach, has a lot of reasons to be happy he’s in Detroit. But none bigger than the group he gets to start night after night.

“People talk about their chemistry, how they like each other,” he said, “but the one thing they overlook is how intelligent they are.”

Wow. Defense. Offense. Rebounding. And smarts?

“Before the game, I told Chauncey in all my years I’ve never lost an opener,” Saunders said, “and he said, ‘Well, you’re not about to start tonight.’ “

As he said. Smart.

Rip by any other name

Highlights? There were plenty. Rasheed may have played only 19 minutes because of foul trouble – everything old is new again – but he pinned a Steven Hunter shot against the backboard, swiped it upcourt with the same arm he used to block it and the play finished in a lob/slam by Prince. That was highlight material on any night in any year.

And there was Ben slamming a dunk so hard over Hunter, he changed his name to Hunted.

And Hamilton? He seemed to be in midseason form and speed. He was toying with the defense, spinning away, laying it in from every angle. And when he wasn’t inside, he was outside, pulling up for the midrange jumpers that define his game.

He finished with 37 points and never took a three-pointer. Maybe one day you will get tired of his excellence. Not today. Or this season. You have to figure a guy like Saunders watches Hamilton go-go-go during a game and wonders what he did right to inherit this prize in the Cracker Jack box.

Oh. There is something new about Hamilton. His nickname. According to the booming voice of the Pistons, John Mason, No. 32 will now be referred to as “The Ripster.”

“A family member” of his “told me he uses that name about himself,” Mason said.

Really? Like, he files his taxes “The Ripster”?

“So far he hasn’t said anything,” Mason said, smiling.

Well, hey. If he shoots like that every night, he can call himself King Kong.

Game on. It was an explosive night at the Palace, with all the attendant souvenirs and video tricks and dancing women and pyrotechnics. We’ve seen that before. It just seems to get louder each year, that’s all.

But the one thing you don’t mind seeing over and over is a starting five that good and that reliable. It is the reason the Pistons will have to be dealt with when springtime rolls around. And it is something to savor for as long as it lasts, because it already has lasted longer than most.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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