THE QUEST BEGINSTHEY’RE BACK, THEY’RE FEARED,THEY’RE INSPIRED AND THE FAVORITES

They come clanking into the playoffs like some science fiction monster, unbeatable, unstoppable, unkillable. Buh-dump. Buh-dump.

“Hello,” they say, “we are Detroit.”

“AHHHHHHHHHH!”

People scatter. Sirens roar. The police turn on the spotlights to try to blind them into submission. Suddenly they are Godzilla in basketball shorts, the favorites, the invincible army.

“Excuse us,” they say to the people of Boston, “we don’t mean to make a fuss. Is this the way to the Garden?”

“AHHHHHHHHHH!”

When did they become so awesome? When did this little Detroit basketball franchise become such a world beater that people expect it to mow down the field in these NBA playoffs, which begin today? Wasn’t it just a year ago that the Celtics’ jinx shadowed the Pistons like a bad dream? Wasn’t it a year ago that the Lakers threw pixie dust to dazzle them into submission? A year ago, right?

Look at them now. You couldn’t buy a bet against them in this first round. They are again playing Boston, the evil green, and yet the evil green seems more like a harmless pastel now. Larry Bird is in bandages. Danny Ainge is in Sacramento. K.C. Jones is in retirement.

The leprechaun? The leprechaun is in the alley outside Boston Garden, wrapped in a smelly overcoat, with a hat pulled over his face.

“Hey, little fellow,” they say, bending at their gigantic torso, “need a lift?”

“AHHHHHHHHHH!” The growing never stops, like some Popeye on a never-ending spinach can. The Pistons are good, whoops, look again, they’re better. Wait a day, whoops, they’re even better. Last season’s winning record improved to the best record in the NBA. The home-court advantage went from elsewhere to here’s where. The Bad Boys thing progressed from gimmick to emblem. And suddenly, what was once young and improbable seems mature and very likely.

Look at them now. Isiah Thomas has become a sort of basketball Yoda, older, more subdued, having inspired an army of Jedi Knights around him. He whispers; people listen. He points; things happen. He can still do everything; he just doesn’t have to.

And there’s Joe Dumars, who has stepped into the spotlight at guard, the perfect matinee hero: quiet, confident, even a tad dashing. Like Zorro. He’s got that little mustache, anyway.

Rick Mahorn? Hey. A year ago, Rick Mahorn was watching playoff games the way a 6-year-old watches television — on his belly, his chin resting on his hands. Bad back. Now he has a bad front. And a bad side, and a bad top, and a big bad attitude.

And how about Dennis Rodman? Wasn’t it just two years ago he was an unpredictable package of limbs and bones? Didn’t they make that movie about him, “Say Anything”? Yes. Well. Look at him now. Dennis Rodman is to defense as paste is to construction paper. Dennis Rodman never saw a rebound that didn’t fit his palm. Dennis Rodman has the soul of the new machine.

“Guess we better get dressed now,” they say, clanking down the hallways of the arena, bumping their head on the ceiling. “Excuse us. Is the locker room open?”

“AHHHHHHHHHH!”

Mouths drop. Eyes bulge. People cannot believe their size — or their depth. After all, the 10th player on the team is John Long, who is pretty darn good. The eighth player is probably James Edwards, who could be starting center for a lot of clubs. The seventh player is Vinnie Johnson, who played in all 82 games this season, started at point and shooting guard and lit up the nets like a human torch.

Look out. Once upon a time, the Pistons were disliked. Now they are feared. Listen to people talk around the country:

“Whew, good thing we missed the playoffs,” they say in Washington. “We would have had to open against . . . the Pistons.”

“Whew, good thing we had the seventh-best record,” they say in Philadelphia. “We would have had to open against . . . the Pistons.”

“Whew, good thing we’re in the West,” they say in Utah, Denver, Portland and Seattle. “We’d have to reach the finals before playing . . . the Pistons.”

You half-expect to hear thunder when you say the name. The Pistons. Brummmmpppp. Are they that good? Are they that fearsome?

That is the consensus. Bill Laimbeer is back, the sultan of swat, and he brought a few bad friends with him. Mark Aguirre is playing where Adrian Dantley played last season, grinning, running, throwing in three-pointers. Even Chuck Daly, who has made a lifetime practice of being No. 2, is now operating with a three-year contract and dressing very much like No. 1.

“Gee, this year could be tough,” they’re saying in Los Angeles, where NBA crowns have come with the sun. “If we want to repeat, we have to beat . . . the Pistons.” Isn’t that the weirdest thing of all? Since when is the defending champion considered an underdog to the challenger — just one year later? Don’t you have to win it once before they make you the betting choice?

Maybe you do, but apparently you don’t. People look at the Pistons’ backcourt. They shiver. They look at the Pistons’ frontcourt. They shake. They look at Laimbeer. They get ill.

The Pistons are like a stocked refrigerator, enough for a year, more if needed. So they cannot help it. They are bigger than life. They clank down the hallways and onto the court, bah-dump, bah-dump, a monster of a reputation, all ready to go. The crowd buzzes and holds its breath.

The danger, of course, is that one of these little teams ties a shoelace around their ankles and trips them up. They say the bigger they are the harder they fall.

They also say the bigger they are, the more it hurts when they hit you. At least, I say that.

“Well, now,” they whisper to the opponents, stepping to center court,
“shall we jump ball and get these playoffs started?”

“AHHHHHHHHH!”

Good luck.

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