Friday, May 12, 2006

Ford's Steal Was Once The Pistons' #1 Moment

Watching the Pistons dispatch these playoff newbies like the Bucks and the Cavaliers, and doing it with businesslike precision and haste, it's difficult to remember a time when the Pistons themselves were the postseason neophytes, happy to qualify and thrilled to advance.

But the Pistons' history in Detroit was once so inglorious that until the team was knocking on the door of the NBA Finals in the late-1980's, perhaps the single greatest playoff moment was about as modest as it gets: Chris Ford making a steal. In the first round.

Thirty years ago -- April 1976 to be exact -- the Pistons finished a rather ignominious 36-46 season in which their coach got fired. But yet that undistinguished record was good enough to qualify for the playoffs. And they would go up against the Milwaukee Bucks in one of those best-of-three mini-series the NBA used to monkey around with.

The Bucks weren't much, either. They won the Pistons' division, but with a 38-44 record. Yet they'd have home court advantage -- two games in Milwaukee. If necessary, those ancient words.

The Bucks won Game 1 in Wisconsin, and the Pistons squared the series at Cobo Arena, forcing a deciding Game 3 in Milwaukee.

The Pistons hadn't advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs since the early-60's. Even the 1973-74 club that finished 52-30 couldn't make it past the first round -- getting bumped out in seven angry games against the Bulls.

So the Pistons took the court in Milwaukee for that Game 3 with this resume: 19 seasons in Detroit, two winning seasons, one playoff series win. Such was their negative aura that even in the only other season in which they won more games than they lost -- 1970-71 (45-37) -- the Pistons failed to make the playoffs because they were in a very tough division.

The game was a back-and-forth affair. The Bucks, though, moved ahead in the closing minutes, and the Pistons looked cooked. But then, with coach Herb Brown (Larry's brother) ranting and raving on the sidelines -- he replaced Ray Scott in January -- the Pistons roared back, and went ahead with just seconds remaining.

The Bucks had time for an inbounds pass and a couple seconds before they'd be forced to launch a potential game-winning shot. Guard Chris Ford guarded his man while keeping one eye on the inbounder -- Dave Meyers from UCLA. Meyers tossed his pass, Ford stepped in front of it, knocked it away, and took possession. It wasn't quite to the magnitude of "Havlicek stole the ball!," but it was the Pistons' finest moment to date. They won, and advanced to the second round.

They met the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who dispatched the Detroiters in six games. Herbie Brown's team gave the Warriors of Rick Barry and Clifford Ray and Phil Smith a good series before going kicking and screaming into the night.

But for about a decade, and maybe longer, Chris Ford's steal was the Pistons' crowning moment.

We aren't so easily satisfied nowadays.

1 comment:

Big Al said...

I remember that steal like it was yesterday. It was huge for the Pistons at that time. But...It's was a sad state of affairs when that steal was considered the biggest play in Pistons history.

Much like how Bill Lochead's series winning goal again Atlanta in the 78 playoffs was the biggest Red Wings play for the 2 decades between the Gordie Howe's 60's heyday and Steve Yzerman led late 80's teams.

Boy, the 70's were sad...