by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — They lost? They lost. Those are all the words needed. There was only one team in the world Tuesday night for Detroit, and all night long — in this breathtaking Game 7 of the NBA final — that team, the Detroit Pistons, fought off defeat like some Atlas in basketball sneakers, the weight of the world on their shoulders. Until finally, with just moments left in the longest season in the history of the game, their shoulders buckled and the world caved in.

They lost. It’s over. The most magical of all Detroit basketball seasons ended one victory short of glory Tuesday night, final score 108-105, Los Angeles, a heart-breaking, heart-stopping final show that wasn’t over until A.C. Green beat the Detroit defense for a lay-up with two seconds left that gave LA the win by inches.

“We came within a hair’s breadth,” said Piston coach Chuck Daly when it was all over. “A hair’s breadth . . . “‘

“Does that give you any consolation?” someone asked.

“No.” he said.

They lost.

Oh, but what a war! Weeks from now, when the bitterness has subsided, these pictures will remain: Here was LA rocking and rolling in its home arena — and here was Detroit, miles from home, refusing to die. Here was LA, playing champion, saying, “Had enough! Ready to quit?” And here was Detroit saying
“Never! Never quit!”

Here was LA’s James Worthy — the eventual series MVP — spinning and hooking and seemingly toying with the Pistons, 36 points, 16 rebounds.

And here were the Detroit kids — Dennis Rodman and John Salley — growing up before our eyes, refusing to let anybody intimidate them, playing the games of their lives.

It was all the Pistons had, all the courage, all the desire, all the strength oozing from their pores. Their captain, Isiah Thomas, was hobbled with an ankle injury; he was on the bench down the stretch. Their toughest scoring threat, Adrian Dantley, was on the bench as well. Youthful enthusiasm was carrying them, but youthful enthusiasm would do them in. With 39 seconds left and the Pistons trailing, 103-100, Rodman came downcourt on a fast break, he had a lane to the hoop, and suddenly, dear God, he pulled up for a jumper. A jumper?

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he would say in the locker room afterwards, shaking his head. “I don’t know why I did that. I can’t explain it.”

His shot was long, it bounded off the back of the rim, Daly buried his head in his hands, and moments later the Lakers buried the Pistons, although not before Bill Laimbeer had cut the lead to 106-105 with a three-point bomb with six seconds left. What a finish! What a final act!

“I left everything I had out on that floor,” said a weary Joe Dumars, who scored a team-high 25 points. That close. That scary.

But when that buzzer sounded, the Detroit players walked off the court with that empty feeling, like the last day of school. Out of gas. Out of games. Out of time.

They lost.

How sad. How tragic for these gutsy Detroit heroes. How many times did they come back? The third quarter seemed like the worst kind of basketball burial, the Lakers streaking past the stunned Pistons, dropping in fast-break lay-ups the way you drop pennies in a piggy bank. The Forum thumped and roared, rock music blared, it was ugly and insane and awful for anyone who didn’t wear purple and gold.

Here was Byron Scott streaking past a wounded Thomas, burying a jumper, dropping a lay-up. Here was Michael Cooper — cold all series — suddenly heating up his three-point jumper. Here was Worthy — oh, Lord — we need a whole chapter for him.

Surely, the Pistons will be seeing this bearded man with goggles in their dreams this summer. Nobody could stop him. All night long, he tossed in one short hook after another, one lay- up after another, one driving bank shot after another.

“It looked like they were going to bury us,” said Dumars. But how many times have you seen this? The Pistons came back. They whittled, they chipped
— Vinnie Johnson lit up like a Roman candle — and suddenly, a 15-point third-quarter lead was two points with 2:48 to go.

How did they do it? With defense. With unlikely heroes. With everything they had.

And it wasn’t enough.

Unfair? Unacceptable? No doubt most Pistons fans feel that way this morning. Nobody likes to lose, but it’s the way these Detroit heroes went down
— a bounce here, a twisted ankle there, one missed shot — well, it’s enough to drive you mad.

“It always seems to happen to us,” said Rodman, “one pass, one mistake, one something.”

Why them? Why us? There is no answer, except perhaps this compliment: that is how close the Pistons were to winning. Had they been blown out by the Lakers game after game, a final defeat would have been almost kind. But Detroit proved it no only belonged with the elite of the NBA, it proved, it stated, it yelled to the world that NBA crowns come in its size as well. No longer the small boys, no longer the thugs, no longer a warm- up act for the men in purple and green.

The 1988 Detroit Pistons might be the best team that never won it all.

And that will have to be enough. That and the memories of this final gutsy effort. They stayed with this Los Angeles juggernaut, on guts, on effort, on desire.

And on courage. And that begins with Thomas. How quickly did your heart go straight to your throat when you saw him hobble out to start this game? Two days earlier, after twisting his right ankle and spraining it in three places, he was in such pain he seemed to be crying as he answered questions.

And yet there he was, in the first half, diving into the stands and chasing passes and making steals — until his body gave out.

“What was it like for you, the captain, to have to watch from the bench during that final period?” someone asked.

“I was very proud,” he said. “The guys out there played well, they played great defense. It was a joy and a pleasure to be a part of that.”

But it was not enough.

How sad for these Pistons: for Thomas, who braved more pain than any man should; for Dantley, who thought, after 12 years, he was finally going to see his reward; for Laimbeer, who had his bad games at the worst times; for coach Daly, a second banana his whole life, and a second banana once again this morning.

Theirs will be a postseason of what-ifs, they will haunt the Detroit psyche like empty foundations of buildings never built. What if Rickey Mahorn had been healthy, a dominating force, as he had been all season?

What if Dumars had hit that running bank shot in the closing pandemonium of Game 6?

What if Thomas had never turned that ankle? What if Rodman hadn’t taken that ill-advised jumper? What if Laimbeer had been able to save that ball from going out of bounds in the final minute?

What if? What does it matter? Life goes on. The Pistons stop here. You can remember the heartbreak — Lord knows there was plenty — or you can remember the near-glory, and everything that brought them to this oh-so-close finish.

This was more than a season for these guys, it was a sweet moment in time, a clean and well-lighted place in the history books. They won more games than any Piston team before them. They went further than Piston team before them. They came onto the stage as brutes and left with an entire nation’s respect — for their courage, their determination, for their talent. They played and they fought and they sweated and they laughed and they shook the world, they took on all comers, the Bullets, the Bulls, the Celtics, the Lakers, they could beat any team in the league.

They just couldn’t beat them all.

So this is where it ends: with 108 for the Lakers and 105 for the Pistons, three points. Three lousy points. While the Forum was rocking and dancing and singing its happy tune, the gamest athletes ever to play basketball for Detroit trudged slowly into their locker room, and peeled off their uniforms for the last time this season. They lost? They lost.

But man, what a ride. CUTLINES

Isiah Thomas chases a loose ball as Magic Johnson follows.

Isiah Thomas is helped to his feet as fans run onto the court at the end of Tuesday night’s game.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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