PORTLAND, Ore. — They danced off the court and into the castle on the clouds, carrying the scars and lumps and exhausted smiles that told you the journey was tough, the journey was costly, but the journey, finally, was over.
“We’re back!” the Pistons seemed to roar as they headed for their champagne locker room and their rightful place on the throne, after beating Portland, 92-90, with a last-minute flourish to capture their second straight NBA championship. “We win! We won! We’re back! “
Back to glory. Back to the top. Back-to-back crowns on their heads, something only two other franchises have accomplished in NBA history, and that’s a long time. They did it with stamina, perseverance and, yes, just a little drama. You weren’t scared when they trailed by seven points with two minutes to go, were you? Hey. This team thrives on that stuff.
So it was that Vinnie Johnson got that look in his eye and locked his radar on the basket, jumper, jumper, nothing but net. And Bill Laimbeer got that tight jaw, and rose above all the Portland players and grabbed rebound after rebound, his 16th, his 17th. And Isiah Thomas threw a prayer into the air and down it came, good! And finally, with the clock ticking off their destiny — . . . four, three, two . . . — finally, Johnson, one of the guys who can still remember when this team couldn’t give away a ticket, left the ground and let it fly and you knew it was over, they knew it here, and they knew it in the sold-out Palace back in Auburn Hills.
Twice is nice.
“WHERE’S VINNIE AT!” screamed Mark Aguirre, wielding a bottle of bubbly in the Pistons’ locker room. “I WANNA GET HIM!”
Go ahead. Splash Vinnie. Splash Buddha. Splash Zeke. Splash Chuck. Splash them all. Because know this: It was damn tough to get here. These are not the smooth young colts who galloped to the title last year without missing a beat. These were tired warriors now, wearing the strain of all those nights in the endless season when the home team wanted a piece of the champions. They were hobbled. They were cut, bleeding. But here was the heart of a champion shining through — the last nine points of the game? On a foreign court? What do you call that?
Call it another championship.
Twice is nice.
“This is sweeter than last time,” croaked Isiah Thomas, who scored 29 and was voted MVP of the Finals. “People doubted us. But we came through.”
“Back to back, we’re the world champions!” yelled Laimbeer.
“WHERE’S VINNIE AT?” screamed Aguirre.
Twice is nice.
And twice is impressive. Remember, this is a team that has not only won back-to-back NBA championships, but in doing so has lost just one game in the Finals and — almost incredibly — has not dropped a single Finals game on the road. In two years? That alone should signal the mental toughness of this unit.
“The second year, everybody expects you to win,” said Dennis Rodman by his locker before the game. “You hit a skid for two games and people go,
‘What the hell are you guys doing?’ You have to keep believing in yourself.”
Just then, Laimbeer leaned in toward Rodman and whispered a suggestion.
“Move your stuff to the other room now, so it won’t get ruined by champagne later.”
They believe. Through injuries. Through tragedies. Through slumps. It seems only fitting then that each Piston had at least one moment in this post-season run, even from the farthest end of the bench. William Bedford? He was in there against Chicago. Gerald Henderson? He scored maybe the least desired basket of the year — the almost-disastrous lay-up to end Game 4 — but it worked out OK. And, besides, he did score.
David Greenwood and Scott Hastings? Here were two veterans who’d turned to eating popcorn during regular-season games, so useless did they feel. And yet in the Finals, where the big horses run, suddenly, they were out there together — not in garbage time, mind you, but in critical junctures, the second quarter, the third quarter, grabbing rebounds, slamming their bodies.
“We were playing!” Hastings gushed. They were, indeed.
As for the others, well, call them the Starting Eight. If you were casting a film, they would get equal-sized letters; at any given moment, any one was the star. How many games did Detroit win thanks to James (Buddha) Edwards —
“We’re riding the Buddha Train!” they used to sing in the locker room — and how many nights did Mark Aguirre pull their bacon from the fire with a sudden explosion of indoor and outdoor shooting?
Vinnie Johnson? Critics had him buried after Game 2 of these Finals —
“too old, he’s done” — and yet out came the Microwave and scorched the Blazers in Games 3 and 4; make no mistake, without him Detroit would not have won those games. And John Salley? The only member of this team to do a nightclub comedy routine during the playoffs? Wasn’t it delightful to see him get serious once the whistle blew, rising on his jets, blocking Patrick Ewing, blocking Michael Jordan, blocking Clyde Drexler. The Joker is growing up, folks. Just in time.
Bill Laimbeer deserves some kind of award for these Finals, maybe the Joyce Brothers Award, for crawling into the heads of the Blazers and screwing them all up. He kneaded them, nudged them, outrebounded them, outglared them; by the end, they were so aggravated by his presence, they were like a man destroying his house trying to kill a fly. And after every win Laimbeer, who still can’t run or jump worth a nickel, smirked and said, “Whatever it takes.”
Aren’t you glad he’s on our side?
And wouldn’t you say that about Dennis Rodman, who drove himself to tears during these Finals battling his own bones, fighting to play on that bum ankle, jumping on a trampoline during games to stay warm?
And for all Rodman was unable to do, Isiah Thomas seemed doubly capable. His shooting this series seemed to come from the gods — they kissed each ball in mid-air and, swish, it fell through the nets. How about that third quarter in Game 4 — 22 points, 16 in a row? Or the first quarter Thursday, where he drove into the jungle of the lane and kept coming away with the prize? “We tried everything,” moaned Portland’s Terry Porter after Game 4. “We got a hand in his face. We jumped with him. What can you do?” Nothing. This was his series, his ball, his net. So true was his aim that I honestly cannot recall a Thomas three-point basket that even hit the rim.
His magnificence was matched only by the courage of his backcourt mate, Joe Dumars, who will never forget these Finals; he can’t. His father died just hours before his most magnificent game, Game 3, and that long walk to the office where the phone call awaited will forever be etched in his brain. Yet this is the character of the man: He did not ask for sympathy. He did not ask for special treatment. His father had taught him endless lessons from the bed where he spent his final years, among them, “Do your job and see it through.”
Joe stayed just long enough to do that. He will be on his way home by the time you read this, tending to more important matters now, the family, the funeral. It seems terribly sad that he could not enjoy the post-game party, could not really dance in the champagne as he had done last year. But then, there is a lesson here; real life does not stop for sports. Keep things in perspective. What better person to teach us this than Joe Dumars?
Twice is nice.
And twice is impressive. Even the normally crazed Trail Blazers fans seemed to sense it Thursday night. They were a shade more subdued, more quiet, as if they had come to say “thanks” and not “KILL!” Understandable, when you consider this list: Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago, Los Angeles, Indiana, New York, Chicago and, now, Portland. The Pistons have, in order, chopped them all down over the last two post-seasons. That’s serious.
“How would you finish this sentence?” someone asked Chuck Daly before the game, “These Detroit Pistons are . . .”
He did not hesitate. “Big-game players.”
So it was that Game 7 against Chicago — “They’ll choke” said the critics
— was not even close. So it was that Game 3 against Portland (“They can’t win in that arena”) was not even close. So it was that the finish, Thursday night (“They can’t win three in Portland”) was taken care of in swift, execution- like fashion. The Blazers tried. They ran into a wall.
And two well-coached. A word here about Daly. I believe he has worked his last game on a Pistons court. He deserves a curtain call. In seven seasons, he has taken a franchise that never had back-to-back winning seasons and has never had a losing one. This is the reason: He can relate to players, he can somehow bring out the part in them that wants to win more than it wants to quibble. He creates a team.
Team. In the end, it’s those scenes that stay with you — the team scenes, the camaraderie, the spirit. Salley palming Isiah’s head after a great game. Rodman hurling himself into the arms of a startled Aguirre. Laimbeer punching Edwards in the arm, then grinning. Hastings and Greenwood laughing on the bench, high-fiving baskets even though they were not theirs. And finally all of them together in the locker room, arm in arm, dripping champagne, singing some song you couldn’t understand, but it must have gone something like this:
Twice is nice.
Anybody for three?