PORTLAND, Ore. — The shot went up, the shot swished through, and suddenly the Pistons were dancing 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.
Twice is nice.
“BACK TO BACK, BABY!” they sang in their champagne locker room, dancing and wiggling literally back to back, after beating Portland, 92-90, with a last-minute flourish — and a last-second miracle jump shot by Vinnie Johnson
— to capture their second straight NBA championship. “We win! We won! BACK TO BACK, BABY!”
Back to back, indeed. Back to glory. Back to the throne room. 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, desire, and, ho-ho, just a little drama. You weren’t scared when they trailed by seven points with two minutes to go in a foreign arena, were you? Hey. This team thrives on that stuff.
So it was that 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 the Portland players and grabbed rebound after rebound, his 16th, his 17th. And Isiah Thomas threw a prayer into the air and the prayer was answered, good! Tie game!
The crowd was swallowing its tongue now. The Pistons’ bench was hollering encouragement. John Salley hid his head in a towel — “I couldn’t watch” — and Chuck Daly felt his stomach flip over. The clock ticked down, destiny hung in the balance — “. . . four, three, two . . .” — and finally, Johnson, 33, 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, where 21,500 were watching on a giant TV screen.
Twice is nice.
“Vinnie said, ‘Gimme the rock,”‘ Salley recalled, wiping champagne from his eyes in the victorious locker room. “And we said, ‘Oh, you want it? OK.”‘
Johnson laughed and doused himself again. “It’s the biggest shot of my life!” he exclaimed.
“WHERE’S VINNIE AT!” screamed Mark Aguirre, wielding another bottle of bubbly. “I WANNA GET HIM!”
Go ahead. Splash Vinnie. Splash Buddha. Splash Zeke. Splash Chuck, who may have ended his career on the highest note. Splash them all. But 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 during the endless season when the opposing team wanted a piece of the champions. These Pistons were hobbled. They were cut, bleeding. Dennis Rodman was rolling on a bum ankle. Isiah was swallowing blood from a blow to the nose. James Edwards was taped above the eye. Joe Dumars was playing with the memory of his father, who passed away Sunday, still tugging at his insides.
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.
“Was this sweeter than last time?” someone asked Thomas, who scored 29 points and was easily voted MVP of the series.
“It was, because people doubted we could do it this time,” he said, tugging on a brand new cap that read, “Back to back NBA champions.” “We’re not as physically talented as last year. But we’re smarter,”
And they’re in the history books. Remember, not only have they won successive NBA titles, but in doing so they have lost just one game in the Finals, and — almost incredibly — have not dropped a single Finals game on the road. In two years? They really won three straight in Portland? It takes a full team to do that.
How fitting then, that they were all dancing back to back, all these players, subs and starters, relieved, overjoyed, exhausted. And how fitting that each of them 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 weirdest basket of these Finals
— the almost disastrous lay-up to end Game 4.
David Greenwood and Scott Hastings? Here were two veterans who had 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 of the game.
“What will you do with your ring?” someone asked Greenwood, who had waited 11 NBA seasons.
“Safety deposit box,” he said.
Smart. As for the others, well, call them the Starting Eight, for 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?
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, and he makes the biggest shot of the year to end the season?
Amazing. And what about John Salley, the only member of this team to do a nightclub comedy routine. 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. “I want to announce if Chuck Daly leaves, I’ll take the coaching job!” he yelled at a TV camera.
Well, not completely grown up.
Bill Laimbeer? He deserves some kind of award for these Finals, maybe the Joyce Brothers Award, for crawling into the heads of the Trail Blazers and screwing them all up. He kneaded them, nudged them, out-rebounded them, out-glared 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 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, 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. “We tried everything,” moaned Portland’s Terry Porter after Game 4, Isiah’s finest moment. “We got a hand in his face. We jumped with him. What can you do?” Nothing. This was his series, his ball, his net, his time.
His magnificence was matched only by the courage of his backcourt mate, Dumars, who will never forget these Finals; he can’t. His father died just hours before his best game, Game 3, and that long walk to the office where the phone call awaited will forever be etched in his brain. “It was awful hard,” he finally admitted, talking for the first time after the game.
“Sometimes I was dying out there.”
Yet this is the character of the man: He did not ask for sympathy. 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. His teammates understand.
“When my shot went in I grabbed Joe and said, that was for our dads,” said Johnson. “My father passed away in October. He used to let me stay up late and watch the Knicks on TV. Now we’re here and . . . well . . . I just told Joe, this is for our pops, man.”
What can you say after that? The conquerors
Nothing. Just as there was nothing for the Trail Blazers to say. They gave a good effort, but they crumbled at the end, as inexperienced teams will do. Even the normally crazed Portland fans seemed to sense it. Finally, they could only stand and applaud the Detroit conquerors as they ran off the court. Nice.
And why not, 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 stuff.
A word here about Daly. I believe he coached his last game for the Pistons Thursday night. If so, he deserves a curtain call. Seven years ago, he took a franchise that never had back-to-back winning seasons, and in his time, he has never had a losing one. He is a master motivator and people manager, and he has succeeded in bringing out the part inside players that makes them want to win rather than argue. With that magic, he has built a team.
And in the end, it’s those team scenes that stay with you: Salley palming Isiah’s head and rubbing it joyously. Rodman hurling himself into the arms of a startled Aguirre. Laimbeer punching Edwards in the arm, then grinning. Hastings and Greenwood kissing each other for the cameras. And finally, all of them, dousing each other with champagne and wiggling in unbridled joy for all they’ve done, all they’ve endured, all they’ve accomplished. “BACK TO BACK, BABY!”
Twice is nice.
Anybody for three?