Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Leyland's Bandwagoneers Includes The Owner

He sat, conspicuous in his Tigers warmup jacket -- sunglasses on and sipping a drink. Instead of being hidden behind the glass of the suite, he was quite visible, sitting in a chair in the open air.

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch seemed to want people to see him. Certainly the TV cameras did, and his image was flashed on our tubes for several seconds.

It happened last weekend while the Indians were in town. Ironically, it was the same weekend in which manager Jim Leyland chided the bandwagon jumpers-on. But his owner appears to be one of those jumpers.

The image burned me a bit, because where was Mike Ilitch in 2003, when the Tigers were making a mockery of baseball in Detroit with a 43-119 record? Where was he in 1996, when the team was 53-109? Or in 2002, when Luis Pujols roamed the dugout, being propped up by a disinterested Felipe Alou? Where was he last year -- September, to be exact -- when Alan Trammell lost control and the team careened into the wall with a 10-29 stretch run to the finish line?

But the Tigers had the best record in baseball last weekend, and there the owner sat -- blatantly hoping to be seen by someone, and preferrably those with zoom lenses and video cables.

Bandwagon jumper-on, indeed!

Bill Davidson sits at the end of the court at every Pistons home game, dressed casually in his chinos and loafers, arms crossed. He's done so for over 20 years. Even when the team's record was hideous. No bandwagon jumper-on, he. His predecessor as Pistons owner, Fred Zollner, used to show up from time-to-time, until health problems forced him to retreat to the Florida sun. The Z only made a few games during his last several seasons as owner.

Bruce Norris, Ilitch's predecessor as Red Wings owner, was another absentee guy, also based in Florida, but not for health reasons. He preferred his martinis near the orange groves, apparently. He rarely showed his face in Olympia Stadium. Not that that was always a bad thing.

"He used to have a phone hooked up behind the bench and connected to his suite," former coach Bill Gadsby told me last month during a Where Are They Now? feature for MCS Magazine. "And his buddies would call me during the game and ask me all sorts of questions, like why I had certain people on the ice. And they didn't know a damn thing about hockey.

"I finally yanked the damn thing out of the wall," Gadsby said, chuckling into the phone.

Bill Ford occasionally shows up to Lions games, though beyond a brief on-field appearance with Matt Millen, he's usually tucked away, away from fans' view. Out of tomato-throwing range, as it were.

But Ilitch's attendance as a frontrunner when times are now good leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's fittingly ironic that his pocketbook has been hurt by bad attendance when the team foundered, yet only now does he show his face inside Comerica Park. Or even if he had attended when the losses piled up, we wouldn't have known, because he never was so public about it, as he was last weekend.

Seems he only wants to be seen when the winning is in full swing.

Who throws tomatoes when times are good, anyhow?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Heat's Mercy Killing Of Pistons Will Create Lingering Questions

We've seen all this before -- from both sides of the looking glass.

In 1991, it was a quick, coldhearted ouster at the hands of the Chicago Bulls in the conference finals. A superstar whose time had come. A playoff-weary foe whose tank emptied. Pride and determination couldn't defeat fatigue and the will of the hungrier opponent.

In 2004, it was a seriocomic drumming out of the made-for-a-championship Lakers -- a dysfunctional group consisting of feuding superstars and aging veterans who'd signed on for a title they thought would be handed to them on a silver platter. Yet they unraveled before our very eyes -- also unable to defeat the will of a hungrier opponent.

And now, it appears to be occurring again.

The Pistons are shooting blanks, except amongst themselves, and now trail the better, hungrier, and having-more-fun Miami Heat, 3-1, in a conference final that's on the brink of careening out of control.

They're beyond saving now -- the Pistons, that is -- unless you consider a Game 5 win at home that only delays the inevitable as having saved something. It's coming apart at the seams, but those stitches were beginning to fray after Game 2 of the Cleveland series.

Rarely can you point to a specific time in a playoff run and declare, "THERE! THAT's where things went sideways!"

But the Pistons can in 2006. They can point to Game 3 of the Cleveland series, because from that moment, it's been so awfully difficult for them. Difficult to shoot. Difficult to slow down the opposition's star(s). Difficult to win on the road. Difficult to keep their composure and cohesiveness.

WWJD: What Will Joe Do?

And now, most difficult of all, the continuing of a season that, thru the first seven games of these playoffs, appeared headed for a victory parade. But the Pistons are just 3-6 in their last nine postseason games, and speaking of difficult, that's difficult to do and still be alive.

When the Red Wings set an NHL record for most wins in a season with 62 in 1995-96, they struggled mightily in the playoffs and lost in the conference finals. And the team that went 62-13-7 in the regular season could manage only a pedestrian 10-9 mark in the playoffs. They almost lost, in four weeks of playoffs, the same amount of games it took them six months to lose in the regular season -- that maddeningly meaningless sojourn the NHL takes us through every fall and winter.

Now the Pistons are 9-7 in the playoffs after going 64-18 in the meaningless (ahh!) regular season. The road used to be their kingdom, yet they are now 2-5 away from Auburn Hills. And in most of those five losses -- including in Milwaukee, for goodness sakes -- the Pistons haven't even been competitive.

Surely questions will linger this summer like the odor of sweaty basketball shoes once the Miami Heat complete this mercy killing. As I've mentioned before, the re-signing of Ben Wallace shouldn't be as assumed as in prior months or years. Perhaps the Pistons could use a genuine low-post scorer -- someone they can toss the ball into on the block when the offense could use a bucket or a trip to the free throw line. Maybe some defense needs to be sacrificed. Because the Pistons are dying by the jump shot -- which has cruelly abandoned them in their time of need.

Other questions will remain, and at least team president Joe Dumars isn't one to be afraid to make changes if he feels them necessary. He won't change the coach, most likely, even though Flip Saunders' not being Larry Brown doesn't seem so refreshing right now. I hate to admit it, but maybe the Pistons could have used a little LB in these playoffs.

I was one who snickered at Pat Riley's roster shuffling after last year's conference final as smacking of panic. In fact, I was elated to see Eddie Jones banished -- the dagger thrower that he can be. But after a slow start which led to the expected cashiering of coach Stan Van Gundy and the return of Riley to the sidelines, the Heat got their act together and now those roster moves might have been the ones needed to win a championship. The Pistons stood pat, mostly, and you could hardly criticize that approach. But now the weakness of not having a low-post scorer in the playoffs is being exposed, and brutally so, for the Pistons cannot throw a beach ball into the Atlantic Ocean right now.

The season may yet live one more game, but no further. The Heat are too hungry, too driven, too on top of their game, and have one too many superstars to contend with.

The Pistons had their time, and can certainly come back next season and achieve greatness. But who will be along for that ride is, at the moment, anyone's guess.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sign-A-Ben? Maybe Not

First, Ben Wallace pouts because he doesn't feel like he's a part of the offense. Then, he passes up shots because he's afraid he might get fouled and will have to (gasp!) shoot free throws.

You can't have it both ways, Big Guy.

Wallace's inability to shoot free throws at even a 25% rate of success is beginning to officially kill the Pistons. And it's a large part of why the Pistons find themselves on the business end of a 2-1 series with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

For sure, there are other reasons. An over-reliance on the jump shot. Lack of ball movement. Weak offensive rebounding. Not enough contributions from the bench -- though it's hard to contribute when you are not allowed to snap off your warmups and enter the game.

But it's Ben Wallace who I'm focusing on, because Big Ben will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and it's time for the Pistons to make some hard decisions.

The knee-jerk reaction is, yes, the team should absolutely re-sign Wallace and give him the world while they're at it.

But should they, really?

Would a more offensive-minded center be more desirable? Surely there are others in the league who can block a shot here and there and grab some boards. Maybe not in Ben's class as far as overall defensive intimidation goes, but is that a sacrifice the Pistons should be willing to consider?

Wallace's non-factor on offense seems to be a conundrum for both player and coach. The Heat's Pat Riley used the "Hack-a-Ben" strategy with about 3:30 left in the fourth quarter last night -- and his team was leading by eight. But the percentages said it was a good move, and in two hacks, Wallace made but one free throw -- essentially robbing the Pistons of one-and-a-half possessions. Fouling Wallace and sending him to the line is tantamount to a Pistons turnover.

This nasty foul shooting isn't cute in the playoffs. It's not something to wink at and say, "Ohh, that Ben!" It's becoming a real boat anchor now.

The feeling here is that the Pistons are done. They have, for too long now in the playoffs, played below the level of their 64-18 regular season -- which tells me it isn't coming back. They've struggled since Game 3 of the Cleveland series to score -- with few exceptions. That's seven straight games, and counting. I expect them to return to Detroit down 3-1, gut out a Game 5 win, then lose the series in Miami in six games.

Am I the new Prince of Pessimism?

Nah -- just call me the of Rook of Realism.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Saunders Is Flip When Compared To Daly

The Pistons’ first round playoff series was expected to be over quickly – most likely in the three-game minimum. Even though the opponents wore the green and white of the Boston Celtics. But these Celtics were wounded – minus Larry Bird the entire season due to injury.

The first two games were comfortable Detroit victories, but as the teams prepared to fly to Boston to complete the expected sweep on schedule, the Pistons coach acted as his own Grim Reaper.

“I’m taking enough clothes to Boston to last several days,” Chuck Daly told the pallbearers with notepads and microphones who weren’t used to being beaten to the punch when it came to messages of foreboding. “Those are still the Celtics. I’m going to plan on being in Boston longer than you think.”

The Pistons bumped the Celtics out in Game 3, completing the sweep. They may have still been the Celtics, but they were the Celtics without Larry Bird, so they weren’t the real Celtics. And the Pistons had handled them. Easily. It was the first speed bump in their 1989 playoff run – a run in which they didn’t lose a game until the Conference Finals, on their way to the first of back-to-back championships.

Chuck Daly had multiple nicknames in Detroit. To the fans and the media types, he was “The Prince of Pessimism.” To his players, he was “Daddy Rich,” due in large part to his natty threads and well-coiffed hair. To others, he was simply “Chuck.” A one-word moniker – like Madonna. And alongside those of his players: Isiah. Vinnie. Joe.

Not only was the glass never half-full in Daly’s eyes, it sometimes never existed. He would find something to wring his hands about if the Pistons were playing Grosse Pointe High School.

But it worked, because nobody has been as successful prowling the Pistons’ sideline as Chuck Daly was from 1983-1992. His teams appeared in five straight Conference Finals (1987-91), and three straight league finals (1988-90). They darn near won all three, too – coming within a whisker of overcoming the Lakers in 1988.

Daddy Rich, The Prince of Pessimism ... and Chuck

Daly won not only because he had the talent on his roster, but also because his pessimism act, though over the top, kept the lid on any arrogance and complacency that could poison a season full of potential.

One year – 1985 to be exact – the Pistons prepared to play the New Jersey Nets in another of those best-of-five first rounders.

“I don’t see how we can win a game,” Daly said with the usual gloom, even though his team would have home court advantage. “They’ve beaten us like a drum all season. They all but toyed with us.” It was semi-true. The Nets had lost to the Pistons only once in the regular season.

Doubtless Daly told his players something totally different behind the closed lockerroom doors. The Pistons swept the Nets aside in the three-game minimum.

Now we have Flip Saunders, and he’s been compared to Chuck Daly in some respects this season – a season in which Saunders’ Pistons bested Daly’s 1989 team by one in terms of regular season victories.

Flip Saunders was hired last summer with one basic charge: Don’t screw anything up.

“He lets the players be themselves.”

“He doesn’t really coach – he babysits.”

“He doesn’t smother his players.”

“He lets them police themselves.”

They are words that were once used to describe Chuck Daly and his style of managing his Bad Boys.

Saunders might have done all those aforementioned things this season as he guided the Pistons to a 64-18 record, but he is no Chuck Daly. And that’s not a bad thing.

Saunders seems to have a lot of “gee, whiz” about him. He is, compared to Daly, almost Perry Como-like in his relaxed state. He could coach in a cardigan sweater and not be out of place.

When Daly arrived in Detroit, he was an unknown – an old Ivy League guy who’d had one NBA shot, in Cleveland, and had a partial season record with the Cavaliers so miserable he probably wished it could be put into a time capsule and buried, struck from the NBA’s books entirely. He was 53 years old, and yet nothing he had accomplished in his basketball life excited the folks around here too much.

Flip Saunders was hired last summer with one basic charge: Don’t screw anything up. For the Pistons had had far more success in the previous two seasons than Saunders had managed in ten seasons coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Flip "Perry Como" Saunders

And so Saunders is credited with taking the offensive shackles off Chauncey, Rip, and Tayshaun. Another group of hardcourt heroes with one-word names. He was, by all accounts, the perfect antidote to Larry Brown.

To say that Flip Saunders merely rolled the basketballs out in practice for 82 games and let the boys play would be far too simplistic and disrespectful. But he certainly didn’t have to do nearly as much in his first season in Detroit as Daly had to do in his.

In the recently completed series with the Cavaliers, whispers spread around town that Saunders was being outcoached by Cleveland’s Mike Brown. Never were those whispers louder than when the Pistons fell behind their inferior opponent in the series, 3-2. Suddenly, Saunders’ “hands-off” approach was being vilified as being too laissez-faire.

I was one who wondered whether Saunders had it in him to coach the Pistons out of the Cavaliers series.

“Now, when a little smothering might be in order, it's questionable whether Saunders -- especially in 36 hours -- can muster the guile needed for such a chore,” I wrote in my “Out of Bounds” blog in the wake of Game 5’s surprising loss.

You might ask how one can write when his hands are wringing. And, unfortunately, you do not write a blog in invisible ink.

Saunders did indeed have what it took to coach the Pistons out of the Cleveland paper bag. There were defensive adjustments made at halftime of Game 7 that sealed the deal – along with a heady insertion of Lindsey Hunter into the game late in the third quarter that helped balloon the Pistons’ lead from one to ten points awfully quickly.

The naysayers were out after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals – a loss. They retreated a bit after Game 2 – a win.

But with Saunders, the glass is now half-full again.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Bavetta's Deaf And Blind Act Not Appreciated

What is it with basketball players in Michigan and timeouts?

I thought we had our allotment of timeout gaffes on the hardwood, for life, when Chris Webber called one his team did not have for the University of Michigan in the 1993 NCAA Finals.

Now we have another to add to the legacy: NOT being granted a timeout our team DID have.

I don't know what referee Dick Bavetta could possibly have been thinking Tayshaun Prince was saying to him when he looked right at the Pistons' forward in the closing 30 seconds of last night's Eastern Conference Finals Game 2. Prince, having trouble inbounding the ball with his team trying to hold on to a slippery five-point lead like it was a wet bar of soap, looked to Bavetta along the endline and mouthed something -- that much was clear from the TV cameras.

Do you think it might have been..."TIME OUT!"?

Bavetta told Prince that he didn't hear him, due to the crowd noise.

Fine, but he was looking RIGHT AT Prince when Tayshaun barked the words. What ELSE would he have been trying to tell Bavetta at that juncture?

"Hey, Dick -- how about the Post Bar after the game?"


Then, Prince said Bavetta apologized to him as the players walked off the court -- the Pistons' 92-88 win finally secured. But not for what you think. Not for failing to use common sense in a very crucial moment. For seconds later, Dwyane Wade hit a fallaway three-pointer to bring the Miami Heat within two points.

No, instead, Bavetta apologized to Prince for something he said to Tayshaun on the court after the final buzzer. This was Prince's version, as he was being interviewed by ESPN after the game.

Great -- so not only does Bavetta stick one up Prince's tailpipe, he says something regrettable afterward, for good measure. Something that requires an apology.

Had the Heat tied the game in regulation, or won it somehow -- even in overtime, the Prince non-timeout would be relived in Motown forever. It would sit alongside Isiah's pass to Larry Bird in the 1987 Conference Finals, and Rasheed Wallace's ill-timed trap that left Robert Horry open to blow Game 5 of last year's Finals. But unlike those two gaffes, this one was not the fault of the player.

Bavetta not granting Prince the timeout was inexcusable. He -- Bavetta -- is in his 31st season as an NBA referee. He knows that, as the endline official in that situation, the inbounding player has two options: toss the ball to a teammate, or call timeout. So when Prince was having difficulty, and he looked to Bavetta, who was looking directly at him, Tayshaun figured he'd take Option #2 -- the timeout.

"What's that? I can't hear you."

Give me a freaking break.

When stuff like that happens -- and I'm usually not a conspiracy theorist -- I start to wonder. And the things I wonder about would not make NBA Commissioner David Stern warm and fuzzy. I'll leave it at that.

Oh well -- Pistons win and square the series. The town can breathe again.

No thanks to Dick Bavetta. None at all.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Don't Laugh, But Lions' Tradition At Defensive Line Not All Bad

Big Daddy appears to be gone now, for good -- but then again, Papa always was a rolling stone.

Defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson was released by the Lions the other day, and barring some change of heart from both sides, Big Daddy will be tying his bandana full of worldly possessions to a stick and hopping a freight train. Maybe this time the destination will be wherever he settles when football isn't part of the equation. For Wilkinson might be retiring.

And that was the problem -- that word "might". Ever since the final gun was shot into the sky in Pittsburgh -- at the end of the Lions' last regular season game in early January, Wilkinson has been non-committal about returning for a 13th NFL season. He was our version of Brett Favre -- debating whether to spend another training camp and 20 games -- exhibition and regular -- in the grueling NFL wars.

But Favre long ago said yes to the Packers, and the Lions were still standing, one foot tapping, glancing at their watch, wondering what Big Daddy Dan Wilkinson wanted to do.

Finally, they could wait no longer.

The Lions, for all their warts, have actually a pretty decent history along the defensive line.

It started in the early 1960's, with guys like Alex Karras and Darris McCord and Sam Williams, and extended later in the decade with the addition of Roger Brown and Larry Hand. In the 70's and 80's we had Bubba Baker and Doug English and Joe Ehrmann and Dave Pureifory and Bill Gay, and they even had a nickname: The Silver Rush.

Even in the lean years there's been guys like Jerry Ball and, today, Shaun Rogers.

But no more Big Daddy.

In today's Freep, there's a piece about second-year man Shaun Cody out of USC, and how he'll have to somehow attract as much attention in the interior line as Wilkinson so often did. It's unlikely that'll be the case right away. Maybe in time. Cody has talent, and the athleticism.

There's also speculation that the Raiders might do to Warren Sapp what the Lions did to Wilkinson. Naturally, since new Lions coach Rod Marinelli spent all those years coaching the Bucs defensive line -- which for years included perennial Pro Bowler Sapp -- it's inevitable that Sapp-to-Detroit talk will start. And it already has, even though the Raiders still employ #99.

Sapp as a Lion? He would just be another in a lineage of decent D-linemen in Detroit.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Pistons Played Two Opponents Last Night: The Heat, And Fatigue

From 1987 to 1991, the Pistons made five straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. Also in that time frame, they went to three consecutive NBA Finals.

Sprinkled in that run were some grueling, emotional, gut-wrenching seven-game series -- some the Pistons won, some they did not.

Anyhow, by the time the team fought through -- for the umpteemth time -- the Boston Celtics to make it back to the conference finals in 1991, it was spent. There was nothing left in the tank.

The Chicago Bulls, tired of the Pistons being their white whale for three straight playoffs, drummed Detroit out in four coldhearted games on their way to their first league championship.

The general consensus was that the Pistons, players of so many games for so many springs, had finally had all that basketball catch up to them. Besides, it was finally the Bulls' time.

Listening to the shrieking on sports talk radio today, there was actually some astute analysis hiding, I discovered, among all the panic-driven bleatings.

Have the Pistons, perhaps, played too much basketball since 2003? And is it now beginning to catch up to them?

There's no question that the greatest culprit in last night's 91-86 Game 1 loss to the Miami Heat was one that cannot be masked, typically: fatigue. If the Heat was ever going to win a game at the Palace in these conference finals, Game 1 would most likely be it. The Heat were rested and eager. The Pistons were worn and hungover. The Cleveland series had its expected effect.

That the Pistons were able to muster a 16-3 run for a 60-55 lead midway through the third quarter is a testament more to their will than to their tired bodies. And, sure enough, the big "F" reappeared, in the form of 12 straight missed shots and a 69-61 Heat lead.

This is not to say that the Pistons are done in this series. Far from it. But it does mean that a return trip to the NBA Finals -- it would be their third straight date in June -- is less certain than we believed in February.

But the remedy is simple to say: Hit your #$!#! shots! It's less easy to do -- especially on tired legs.

The NBA is a funny league. They reserve all the days off between games and needless rest for the first two rounds, then when the stakes are higher, they play at the rapid, every-other-night rate. Those two or three days off between games that we snickered at in the Milwaukee and Cleveland series look awfully nice now, don't they?

The Pistons, I believe, will bounce back -- those superballs that they are -- and win Game 2. This series is probably going to go the distance again, folks, so buckle up.

And everyone gather their No-Doz and Vivarin and leaded coffee and mail it to Four Championship Drive, Auburn Hills, pronto.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Transitional Coaches And Managers Needn't Be Ashamed

When you have to traverse a moat, or a river, or anything that, if fallen into, would get you very wet and possibly dead, what would you like to see?

A bridge, correct?

It's the same thing in the world of sports. To get from the muck of losing to the dry land of winning, you need a plan, a mode of transport, and a stable path -- a bridge, as it were.

In coaching, that's called being a "transitional guy." These are men who are able to bring a team from the dregs of the league to somewhere around the middle class -- but no further. Their inability to be more than just a bridge can be due to many different factors. But regardless, they can only help a team ascend so far before screeching to a halt.

We've had transitional types in Detroit.

Doug Collins, the king of all transitional types, plied his trade with the Pistons -- elevating them to moderate contention before flaming out after three seasons -- right on schedule. Others would have to take the next step.

Perhaps Wayne Fontes was the Lions' all-time transitional man. He inherited chicken feathers from Darryl Rogers and turned it into chicken salad within a couple of seasons, but he couldn't make the next transformation into filet mignon. Perhaps nobody can.

Jacques Demers took the Red Wings from a 40-point season to the playoffs in one year, and even though the team made two straight appearances in the conference finals, that was as far as Jacques could take them. Scotty Bowman would have to finish the job.

Alan Trammell is getting more love now, as the Tigers ex-manager, than he got as the actual manager. Some are arguing that Jim Leyland's current Midas touch should be owed, in some part, to Trammell.

These are mostly the same players that Trammell managed, apologists for the former shortstop say, and he laid the groundwork for what's happening now. And Tram didn't have Kenny Rogers. Or a healthy Magglio Ordonez. Or Justin Verlander. Or Joel Zumaya.

True, all of it.

But that's merely another argument for the point that Tram himself was another of those transitional guys. He survived the mugging of a 43-119 season, and emerged with some shred of respectability. But he could not whip the team into shape when it mattered most to his job's future -- in September, when the Tigers sunk like a boat anchor. So the next step would once again have to be taken by someone else.

Leyland is taking that next step, and a few dramatic leaps while he's at it. And even the Trammell apologists can't possibly suggest that what's happening at Comerica Park right now -- a 30-14 record and a team ERA that both lead all of baseball -- would have, COULD have, occurred under his watch.

But that's no dissing of Trammell. Where would we be, after all, without bridges?

Back in the muck.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Hunter, A Piston When It Wasn't Chic, Provides Much-Needed Energy In Game 7

Lindsey Hunter was drafted by the Pistons in the first round in 1993. The draft that year, appropriately, was held in the Palace. I was there, seated somewhere where noses sometimes bleed, when Hunter's name was read into David Stern's microphone and the crowd cheered. What they were cheering for initially, I'm not sure, because not too many people knew who Lindsey Hunter was, let alone why he would be an ideal first round draft choice.

Then Isiah Thomas, in the twilight of his career, took the microphone, and it was plugged into the PA system for us all to hear.

"I just want to tell the people of Detroit," Isiah said, "that the Pistons just got a helluva basketball player."

More cheering.

"This guy's like a little Isiah," Thomas said, and then he laughed that hearty laugh that was, at the time, a show of joviality, but would over the subsequent years turn into a self-mocking caricature.

And so Hunter became a Piston -- given uniform #1 to boot. Half of Isiah's #11.

Fast forward nearly 13 years later, and...

"Lindsey came in and gave us some energy, both defensively and offensively," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said in the wake of Sunday's 79-61 "must" -- that ancient playoff word -- win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series.

Indeed, it was Hunter, late in the third quarter, the game still in question, who came from the bench and helped give the Pistons some much-needed, long-awaited separation between them and the pesky Cavs. Within minutes of Hunter's arrival, the Pistons lead grew from one to ten.

Which just happens to be Hunter's uniform number now, in his second tour of duty in Detroit.

Chauncey Billups wears #1 now, and while he's the piston that pumps most importantly, Hunter is the one who, on days like Sunday, pumps hardest with just as much importance, maybe more.

In '93, it was "Lindsey WHO?", from Jackson State

To start the fourth quarter, the Cavs' Larry Hughes nailed a triple to bring his team within seven points. The Cleveland snake was twitching.

But then Hunter, after a few failed trips up the court by both teams, drained a triple of his own to regain the ten-point cushion.

The snake was about to die.

Hunter, ironically, was one of the first players Pistons President Joe Dumars shipped out of town, back in 2001. He bounced around the NBA like one of its basketballs, before landing back in Detroit in 2004, after Dumars did some fancy GM footwork to get Hunter again into a Pistons uniform.

Hunter was a Piston when it wasn't cool to be a Piston, when the uniforms were awash with teal, and the team was considered a cupcake on the NBA schedule. He once made passes to the likes of Cadillac Anderson and David Wood and Brian Williams. He played for Don Chaney and Doug Collins and Alvin Gentry and George Irvine. It wasn't the grandest of basketball times here.

But now Hunter wears two championship rings -- one was culled from his days as a Laker -- and he can still, at age 33, play the kind of man-on-man, ball-hawking defense that can create turnovers, fast break points, and can balloon leads from one to ten in a hurry.

In the first half, when the referees deemed it a foul to breathe in LeBron James' direction, Hunter was playing his hard-nosed "D", but then got reprimanded for three fouls. Before halftime. Upon the third whistle, he grimaced and winced and bounced around like a jumping bean. Then he had to sit on the bench, lest he pick up a fourth foul.

It was when he returned, late in the third quarter, that he provided that energy that Saunders referred to in his postgame address.

The Pistons move on to face the Miami Heat, who are now, thanks to Pat Riley's panicky roster shuffling last summer, without their own veteran disruptor and dagger-thrower, Eddie Jones, who hurt the Pistons time and again in last year's Conference Finals.

Doubtful the Pistons would let Lindsey Hunter get away a second time.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

I Wish I Had Said That

In high school, I took a little English, a little science, some hubcaps, and some wheel covers.

And now I am guilty of plagiarizing, for I have just lifted, word-for-word, a quote by that old Tigers pinch-hitter extraordinaire, Gates Brown.

There are so many things that sports people have said that I wished I had uttered.

“I was in New York once,” former Oakland A’s owner Charlie O. Finley said, “and an empty cab pulled up, and Bowie Kuhn got out.”


Where are all the great quotes nowadays?

Does anyone roll a gem off their tongue anymore? Today’s yammerings are trash talk, thinly disguised, and passed off as “good copy.”

So when Pistons big mouth Rasheed Wallace says, after a playoff win by the opponents, “The sun even shines on a dog’s ass,” that’s not a quote – to me. That’s boorish chatter.

Good quotes contain wit, irony, self-effacing humor, and maybe a zing here and there. They’re bon mots, not a bozo’s moan.

“When a plane lands in Philadelphia, everyone gets on – nobody gets off,” legendary columnist Jim Murray once so devilishly observed about the City of Brotherly Love.

Or, this, about our neighbors across Lake Erie – Cleveland:

“The best thing about playing in Cleveland,” a former Indian player noted, “is that you don’t have to make road trips to…Cleveland.”

We have a man with the Tigers currently whose Quotation Quotient is quite high. He’s first base coach Andy Van Slyke, and he specialized in the self-effacing variety.

“They wanted me to play third base like Brooks [Robinson], and I did – like Mel Brooks.”

“Right now I have an Alka-Seltzer bat. When the pitchers see me come to the plate they say, ‘Oh, what a relief it is.’”

I asked Van Slyke a while back about his verbal artistry.

“You have a job to do, and the media has a job to do,” AVS told me. “And there’s no reason why you can’t have fun, to make both of your jobs easier.

“Besides, you’re not going to be great every night, so you might as well be ready to talk about why you weren’t great.”

Some great quotes are great for their simplicity – and brevity.

Joaquin Andujar, a pitcher with the Houston Astros at the time, was asked to describe the pennant race in one word.

“Youneverknow,” Andujar said.

Sarcasm can also be a nifty little tool.

“We didn’t block,” the first coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, John McKay, said, as a prelude to his punch line, delivered with so much deadpan it would make Bob Newhart look positively flamboyant. “But we made up for it by not tackling.”

True, I may not have said these and other beauties, but I did author one that was so devoid of intellect that it was mind-boggling.

I had left a drink glass – a wet drink glass – on our dresser, sans coaster. And my wife rightly called me on it.

“I forgot the dresser was wood,” I said – and I wasn’t trying to be funny.

Think about that one for a moment.

“I forgot the dresser was wood.”

Who says that, anyway?

Better yet, who would admit it?

Baseball, for whatever reason, has had a higher share of goofy raconteurs than its three major counterparts – football, basketball, and hockey. After all, we’re talking about a sport that gave us Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel – two men whose combined quirky quotes, if they were stacked one on top of the other, would stretch to the moon – a full moon – and back.

Berra-isms and Stengelese are too voluminous to sample here. Well, okay – just one each – even though that’s like giving you a sample of one noodle of a spaghetti dinner.

“Better cut it into six pieces,” Berra said about a pizza. “I don’t think I can eat eight.”

“I have just one rule about drinking in hotel bars,” Stengel declared to his players. “Don’t drink in the same one that I do.”

Sometimes memorable quotes are borne from a nice little setup. Or, in some cases, nice long setups.

Back to Stengel. In the 1950’s, when testifying before Congress about baseball and its possible links to organized crime, the Old Perfessor rambled on and on, giving a lengthy dissertation that had the honorable members of Capitol Hill shifting in their seats, stifling giggles, and looking at each other cross-eyed. Then, when Casey was finally done, Yankees player Mickey Mantle was up next.

“My feelings are about the same as Casey’s,” Mantle said, as the room roared.

And Mantle’s short, succinct “testimony” ended up being more famous than Stengel’s meandering diatribe. Then again, Mick was always good as a cleanup guy.

And what happens when the King of the Anti-Quote finally opens his mouth?

Duane Thomas, a troubled running back for the Dallas Cowboys, was very noticeably silent during the 1971 season, a passive/aggressive way of tormenting the media that he so strongly felt “dissed” him when he was a holdout in training camp.

The Cowboys played 14 regular season games, and two postseason contests, before reaching Super Bowl VI. And after every one of those contests, Thomas said not a word to the ink-stained wretches or the microphone-toters. He made Calvin Coolidge look loquacious.

But after the Super Bowl – a game the Cowboys won, thanks in large part to Thomas’ running – the TV people were told that Duane Thomas would actually speak to them. Positively giddy, the reporter assigned to the live interview couldn’t wait to get Thomas up to the television podium. For these were going to be Thomas’ first words to the media in six months. Well, word, as it turned out.

“Duane, congratulations on a great game. Your team really had the running game going today,” the reporter said – or words to that effect.

Thomas grinned a Cheshire grin.

“Evidently,” he said.

Then he stepped down from the podium – done talking again.

And you could probably have made an omelette from all the egg on that poor TV dude’s face.

In fact, I wished I had told my wife about Duane Thomas. Then she could have quoted him, in response to my, “I forgot the dresser was wood.”

“Evidently,” she could have said.

But she said a whole lot more than that.

And no, I can’t quote it.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Pistons Make No Mistake By The Lake, So There'll Be Seventh Heaven

The Pistons players and coaches traipsed up to the podium after Game 6, one after the other, and one question became a running theme:

"Do you think the Cavaliers played tight in the fourth quarter?"

Rasheed Wallace had perhaps the best answer, actually.

"Well, LeBron [James] was the only cat who seemed to want to shoot, so take from that what you will," Rasheed said -- and it was a rare occasion that he asked the reporters to decipher his words. Sheed usually crams his meaning into their craniums.

But I was amused by the question, in the wake of the Pistons' heart-stopping 84-82 win -- a "must win", those ancient words.

The way I saw it, the Cavs were one measly defensive rebound away from putting the Pistons on the ropes. So take from THAT what you will.

I don't know if the Cavs played tight, but I saw the Pistons miss an awful lot of shots in the last minute or so. Wallace -- three misses, including a free throw. Chauncey Billups, a missed free throw. Yet the Pistons cleared the boards on just about every occasion, ripping the heart out of the Cavs.

All that, and Cleveland still managed to put a scare into the Pistons -- James' purposely-missed free throw nearly getting tipped in at the buzzer. And every time I saw the replay of that final play, my heart crept closer toward my throat. Man, was that close!

But ultimately credit should go to the Pistons -- whether you feel Cleveland played tight or not. It was one of those gut-wrenching, grind-it-out games the Pistons have been famous for playing, and in the most dramatic of situations. They went into lockdown mode, and perhaps all those offensive rebounds at the end were more than just the ball bouncing their way. Maybe they willed those boards. No lie. Championship-caliber teams come up with championship-caliber plays in the most needed of times. And five offensive rebounds in the game's final 90 seconds would qualify, I'd say.

Now here we go again: The Cavs are being counted out already, in Game 7 Sunday. Three straight wins and nearly a fourth over the Pistons, and still Cleveland is basically being told that Game 6 was their chance to win the series. You may have won Game 5 in Detroit, Clevelanders, but you can't steal Game 7. Six games into a series, and some folks never learn.

I do think the Pistons will win, and it may even be a blowout, because sometimes these things end that way for the favorites. But to think the Cavs are going to come into the Palace and lay an egg is unrealistic. Games 3 thru 6 have taught them that they can play with the Pistons -- in Michigan and in Ohio.

Let's hope those games taught the Pistons the same thing.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

WWLHA: What Would Larry Have Allowed?

Larry Brown makes me laugh. Not with what he says, necessarily, but what he does.

Leaving good jobs. Taking ill-fated ones. Negotiating with others during the playoffs. Combining paranoia, stubbornness, gold-mining, and pandering -- sometimes all in one week.

But, as much as I hate to pose this question this morning, I will.

Would LB have allowed the Pistons to blow three straight games to the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Some of you may honestly answer that yes, this playoff implosion would have occurred no matter who occupies the coach's seat. The Pistons have turned into arrogant, self-proclaimed Supermen that are, by their own estimations, beyond reproach.

"Not if I was the coach!"

But I think the overwhelming consensus is that, for all his warts, Larry Brown would not be presiding over such a collapse right now, if he was still in charge.

Flip Saunders' hands-off approach, in which we compared him to Daddy Rich -- Chuck Daly -- for his seeming ability to manage his players without smothering them (i.e. Larry Brown), might have gone too far. Now, when a little smothering might be in order, it's questionable whether Saunders -- especially in 36 hours -- can muster the guile needed for such a chore.

Game 6 will tell us a lot about both of these teams. And, so will it reveal much about Saunders -- much more than his youthful counterpart, Mike Brown.

I'm not buying into the theory that "the closing game is the hardest to win", when it comes to these Cavaliers, who are growing faster than Jack's beanstalk. If they haven't buckled yet -- and they haven't even come close -- then I doubt they'll suddenly play tight Friday night. Sure, they don't want to return to Detroit for a Game 7 that they'll likely lose. But haven't they already exceeded expectations? Just a few days ago the Free Press headline read, "LeBroom?", prior to Game 3. Now the Cavs have a chance to do their own in-series sweeping -- four straight over the league's supposed powerhouse.

"Hey, they're not the big, bad wolf and we're not the three little pigs," LeBron James said after last night's 86-84 Game 5 win.

LeBron, until this season a playoff virgin, is now suddenly deft enough to use a nursery rhyme as an allegory.

I think it was the "three little pigs" part of James' comment that he meant to be emphasized by the ink-stained wretches and the TV and radio blabbermouths. For certain, hardly anyone expected LeBron's "James Gang" to win more than one game in this series. Now they have three -- one for each little piggy.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether the upstart Cavs can pull off what will be, in my mind, one of the greatest playoff upsets in NBA history. I have a gut feeling that they can't. But to have extended the Pistons to a seventh game in order for them to be eliminated should make their summer gratifying, albeit disappointing.

Cleveland has the luxury of playing the remainder of this series without the daunting specter of an entire state's depression hinging on whether they win or lose. Even if they get smoked tomorrow night, doubtless the Quicken Loans Arena crowd will treat them nicely, as they should.

But here's something that should make you feel better: Most championship runs contain at least one moment of peril -- one hurdle that, once cleared, seems to make the rest of the journey easier to contend with. Maybe this is the Pistons' hurdle. Maybe this is a series that, should they yet win the championship, we'll all look back on and say, "Maybe it was good for them to be scared by Cleveland. It shook them up."

Still, you have to wonder whether Flip Saunders' predecessor would have allowed this scare to be THIS scary.

Yet Larry can stay right where he is, thank you.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Pistons Will Survive Cleveland, But Why So Hard?

What makes this Pistons-Cavaliers playoff series so annoying is that -- and this is guaranSheed -- tonight the Pistons will blow the Cavs to Kingdom come, then brush them aside on Friday, and we'll all wonder where that stuff was in Games 3 and 4.

The Pistons present a unique frustration to the fans here.

The Lions can't get started.

The Red Wings can't finish.

The Tigers -- until this season -- hadn't even crouched in the blocks.

But the Pistons start, and they finish -- most of the time -- yet it's somewhere in between where they go off point. They're like savants with a child's attention span.

It's likely the Cavaliers have the Pistons' undivided attention now -- hence the confident predictions of the first paragraph -- but we are once again left wondering: Why must it come to this?

Oh, they talk a good game -- and not just Rasheed Wallace. They all say the right things, and they've been successful enough that they're one of the few teams around here of whose bluster we'll actually believe more often than not. They spoke of looking forward to the challenge of Game 3, because their record in third games was 4-8 recently. They lost. They spoke of the loss being more because of what they did or didn't do -- as if the Cavs hadn't even shown up. They spoke of correcting those mistakes and not losing their edge, nor their advantage in the series.

They lost again.

Now the Pistons say they're glad to be home -- who wouldn't be in the NBA, where home cooking has healing powers greater than any penicillin or aspirin? -- and that THIS time, for SURE, they learned their lessons and they'll take care of business.

And still they're the only team in town that can say that after two straight playoff losses and be taken seriously.

A vast majority of the locals, I would submit, still believe the Pistons and their cocksure words. A championship and a near miss will buy you some credibility.

I suppose I'm one of the believers, but I'm more of a believer in their actions, not their words. Anyone can say they're going to win, after all. The Pistons tend to actually do it -- more than most predictors and guaranteers.

They'll win it -- this series with the Cavaliers -- and we'll grin and shake our heads and say, "Those darn Pistons."

At least with them, unlike the Red Wings, we don't replace darn with #!$#!.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Pistons Screw Up The Fourth, So Now They Must Plead The Fifth

I thought only the Red Wings were supposed to do this to the denizens around town.

I thought only the Red Wings played with fire with inferior playoff opponents, either letting them back into series in which they do not belong, or losing the series altogether.

I thought only the Red Wings caused folks to wake up the morning after a loss that shouldn't have been, precipitating a sharp increase in the sales of antacids, razor blades, and nooses.

Now the Pistons are monkeying around in the postseason.

Their second round series with the Cleveland Cavaliers is tied 2-2 because the fourth quarter was once again 12 minutes of horror. Instead of squeezing the life out of the Cavs, as is their wont, the Pistons put their boots down and hit the brake pedal instead of the gas.

The Cavs are in the series, and they did it without any LeBron James histrionics. He only made a couple field goals in the second half. Did the Michael Jordan Bulls -- pre-championships -- ever win a playoff game when MJ played so poorly? Would the Bad Boys have ever let him?

The Pistons will still win this series, so from that standpoint they differ from the Red Wings. Because when the Wings get into a 2-2 situation with a lower seed, it's a crap shoot. And the Red Wings typically crap out.

Yes, the Pistons will win -- probably in six games -- but if you look at the last 20 or so games of the regular season, they haven't been as "money in the bank" in the late going as much as we have been accustomed. Sometimes they flick the switch, and find that the breaker has been turned off.

I remember in 1985, when the Pistons went up against the vaunted Celtics in a second rounder, and after dropping the first two in Boston, the Pistons returned home and, playing in Joe Louis Arena, won both games in Detroit to square the series. In one of those home games, Terry Tyler was unconscious in the fourth quarter. In the other, Vinnie Johnson burned the Celts in the fourth. So much so, that Danny Ainge coined the "Microwave" nickname.

"If that guy in Chicago [William Perry] is the Refrigerator, then Vinnie Johnson is The Microwave," Ainge told the press afterward.

The Celtics dumped the Pistons out in six games -- the underdog being a team who was cutting its playoff teeth.

This series is similar, and the end result will be the same, but the Pistons need to quit messing around in the fourth quarter and get back to what has made them so successful: ball movement, defensive aggressiveness, and rebounding. Simple basketball -- but they do it better than anyone when they're on. And they certainly do it better than the Cavs -- even when Cleveland is "on."

Could this series possibly go the seven-game limit? It could, but only if the Pistons let it happen. This is still about what they do or don't do -- not about what the Cavs do or don't do. Arrogant? Cock-sure? Absolutely. It's just what those Celtics teams used to say in the 1980's. And, mostly, they were dead-on accurate.

And by the way, it's not a "best-of-three". It is mathematically, but the best-of-three cliche insinuates that the first four games didn't happen. Trends and attacks and counterattacks have emerged through Games 1 thru 4. It's still a best-of-seven. The first to win two more games wins the series.


Monday, May 15, 2006

Harrington, Like Lanier, Wished It Would Have Happened In Detroit

The voice over the telephone was, by all accounts, a combination of wistful, happy, and melancholy. The now ex-Detroit athlete spoke in even, chosen tones. The words were an Epilogue on his career in the Motor City.

"I don't think the chemistry was there in Detroit...sometimes chemistry is more important than names..."

He talked about the winning never happening in Detroit, his first professional city.

"There's one thing that makes me sad. I wanted it to happen in Detroit."

"If I'm happy in Milwaukee, there's no telling how happy I would have been if it had happened when I was in Detroit."

The athlete speaking into a telephone that February day in 1980 to Jerry Green of the Detroit News was Bob Lanier, shipped away to the Milwaukee Bucks, adorned with a bow and ribbon -- gone after nearly ten seasons of performing in mostly mediocrity for the Pistons. He would lead the Bucks to a divisional title that season, and in subsequent seasons would help Milwaukee do some damage in the playoffs. The damage didn't consist of any championships, however.

I thought of Lanier's words, lifted from Green's book, The Detroit Pistons: Capturing A Remarkable Era, as I read Joey Harrington's own Epilogue of his time as a Lion. The trade, sending Harrington to the Miami Dolphins for a conditional 2007 draft pick, was completed the other day. And in the Free Press, his postscript was splashed in india ink as part of a two-part series.

Bob Lanier, circa 1976-77

Harrington, like Lanier 26 years earlier, had pushed for his exodus from Detroit. And, like Lanier, who'd only known Detroit as a professional home, Harrington has a large part of him that wishes any success he may eventually have would have occurred in Motown.

"I wanted to bring Detroit a winner," Harrington says. "I wanted the fans of Detroit to experience something they had not experienced in 50 years. My whole life, working hard had made it happen... But for some reason, in Detroit, for the first time, that didn't work."

Harrington's departure was similar to Lanier's in another way: Its occurrence was heavily anticipated, practically a given for weeks prior to it actually happening. In 1980, Pistons GM Jack McCloskey wasn't shy to tell the beat writers what he was asking for, and from whom, for Lanier. A #1 draft choice was his top priority, since Dickie Vitale had left the team stripped naked in that department, along with others. So McCloskey let it leak, and for weeks Bob Lanier's trading was treated like a vigil.

Harrington forced the Lions' hand when he publicly declared he would play only for the Miami Dolphins. For that and other reasons, President Matt Millen was only able to get a sixth-round choice (it could go up to fifth) for Harrington, the third player taken overall in the 2002 draft. And the Joey Watch began in earnest sometime in March, when the Lions signed first Jon Kitna, then Josh McCown to fill the vacancy left by one failed draft pick -- Joey Harrington. Two men to replace one. Joey should be flattered.

Finally, the Harrington era has an Epilogue

In his ramblings to the Free Press, Harrington called Dre Bly's public tossing of him beneath the proverbial bus after the Thanksgiving Day game a "betrayal." He said former coach Steve Mariucci "made it OK to be mediocre." He said he knew Mariucci stopped believing in him sometime around midway in Harrington's third year here -- 2004. He didn't think Jeff Garcia should have been playing when he was.

But, what was funny to me was this comment when asked about his first impressions of Mariucci, the supposed West Coast Offense guru:

"I especially remember when he first addressed the team. I thought to myself, 'My God, this guy sounds just like Marty Mornhinweg.' His mannerisms, his phrases. I think a lot of the West Coast offense guys who worked together sound that way."

I always had a feeling Mornhinweg and Mariucci were two peas in a failed football pod.

There was, frankly, nothing all that earth-shattering in Harrington's exit interview with the Freep. It mainly cemented what we already surmised, although I suppose it was nice to finally get the Epilogue from one of the horse's mouths.

Then there was this:

"It [Detroit] was my first opportunity in the NFL. There were people who taught me a lot of very important lessons here. But it was the most frustrating football experience I've ever had."

Substitute NBA for NFL, and basketball for football, and that quote could pretty much sum up Bob Lanier's career in Detroit.

Only, Lanier has his number retired by the Pistons. Jon Kitna wears #3. He'll probably wear it as a Lion. So our football team can't recycle it soon enough, it appears.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Drafts, Like Trades, Can’t Be Judged Immediately -- Unless The Jury Is Made Up Of Fans

The Lions had a pretty good draft in 1967. Not bad in 1968, either. Perhaps even better in 1989, even if luck played a part. Not so good in 1973, or 1975. And I can tell you that 1990 wasn’t much to write home about, either.

When did I know these statements to be true? Well, as far as ’67 and ’68 goes, probably sometime in the early 1970’s. I knew that 1989 was good after one carry by its #1 choice in the season’s opening game. And I didn’t know how bad the ’73, ’75, and ’90 drafts were until a few seasons later.

Yet the jury already seems to have rendered its decision on the Lions’ 2006 draft – if you consider wailing voices calling in to sports talk radio, and its equally-as-screeching hosts, to be a proper jury. In the court of public opinion, verdicts are reached within seconds when it comes to pro football drafts.

Lions President Matt Millen selected, with his #1 choice – ninth off the board – Florida State linebacker Ernie Sims.

I think some folks are still booing.

But why? Sims is, by all accounts, a good, solid football player. “He loves football,” new head coach Rod Marinelli says. Well, good. Better than to select someone who’s only in it for, say, the money. Not that that ever happens.

Sims, we are told by the people whose lives consist of hunkering themselves up in football’s equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s spider holes, is a crunching hitter who “seeks collisions.” So much so, that Sims has endured at least five concussions as a result of his collision-seeking. No matter, the Lions say. He was checked out by some medical professionals, and all the wires in his brain are still connected.

That may be more than we can say for those who vilify the selection.

I have no idea if Ernie Sims was a steal at #9, a bust, a mistake, or a smart choice. But then again, I’m just now realizing that OT Jeff Backus might not have been all that terrific of a first round choice. And the Lions picked him five years ago.

"BOOOO!" "YESSSS!!!" Which will it be? (FSU LB Ernie Sims)

But when Sims’ name was spoken into NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s microphone April 29 and broadcast for all the Lions draft party attendees to hear, you’d have thought the commish had announced that beer sales were being cut off.


“Why HIM?”

“Who’s HE?”

“Why not Matt Leinart?”

That last one is the key question.

The Lions had a shot at USC quarterback Leinart, about as sexy a pick as you’re going to get in the ninth spot. They passed – no pun intended – and I’m sure they had their reasons. Like, they had already signed three quarterbacks since last season ended? Or maybe this reason: Joey Harrington. Or this: Andre Ware. Or this: Rodney Peete. And Peete went to USC.

“Fire Millen!”

“Millen Sucks!”

All this, within 10 seconds of Sims’ name being read into Tags’ mike.

The truth of the matter is, there is no such thing as a sure bet in sports, truly.

When the Chicago Cubs, during the 1964 season, traded a young outfielder named Louis Brock to the St. Louis Cardinals for a pitcher named Ernie Broglio, do you think the overwhelming consensus within moments of that announcement was that they had a made a great deal? Or a lousy one? Or something in between? Doubtful. Yet that trade – Brock for Broglio – is regarded as one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. But that ignominious distinction wasn’t solidified until several years later, when Brock was helping the Cardinals win two World Series and appear in a third.

Look, I know that asking the sports fan to bite his or her tongue and not make a knee-jerk reaction to a trade, or a draft pick, or a free agent signing is akin to asking a hungry shark to check the Nutritional Information of a wayward swimmer before he chomps. But what amuses me is the surety with which those reactions are declared.

The truth of the matter is, there is no such thing as a sure bet in sports, truly. Not in draft choices. Not in trades. Not in signings. Although, I could probably have played the “Told you so” card a few times when it comes to free agents. Basically, here’s my rule: If it’s a pitcher that you’ve signed, may God have mercy on your soul. With VERY few exceptions.

But what else is there to do on Draft Day, and the 48 hours that follow? Exercise cautious optimism? Take a “wait and see” approach? There has to be SOME reaction, after all, when Commissioner Tagliabue reads those names in the first round. And the reactions are segmented thusly:



“BOOOOO!!!! What the #$!@!?”

No in-between. That would be so un-American.

Maybe, in 2011, we’ll proclaim the year the Lions selected Ernie Sims as a turning point in franchise history. Maybe we’ll still be kicking Matt Millen’s dead horse for making such a first round blunder. Maybe Sims will just be a good, solid player that invokes neither of these reactions.

Or maybe not. Maybe there’s a fourth reaction.

See what I’m saying?

In 1967, the Lions drafted Lem Barney and Mel Farr. Good stuff, though Farr’s career was cut short by injuries. In ’68, it was Greg Landry and Charlie Sanders. Again, productive. But in 1973 it was defensive tackle Ernie Price, and in ’75 it was guard Lynn Boden. Yuck. 1989 brought the Lions Barry Sanders, but only because the Green Bay Packers, picking in front of them, went for MSU offensive tackle Tony Mandarich. Obviously, the Lions aren’t the only team that’s suffered brain lock on draft day. In 1990, the Lions selected QB Andre Ware, a gunslinger from Houston whose arm fired nothing but blanks in the NFL.

But in each of these instances, and in countless others, involving every single team in the league every single year, the final verdict wasn’t made with any certainty until at least a season later – and it usually took several campaigns to pass fair judgement.

The Lions drafted LB Ernie Sims from Florida State?

Let me get back to you on that.

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.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Limo Rides To The Grocery Store? You Poor Thing, Kellie Droughns!

I have never taken a limousine to the grocery store, but I can imagine it would be quite a kick. In fact, I've never really been chauffered around anywhere since I was an adolescent, except after our wedding, and that was just from the church to the reception hall.

So I can't imagine what it must be like for the Droughns family.

Reuben Droughns, former Lions draft choice and current Cleveland Browns running back, was recently acquitted of DUI charges. And apparently it made life a living hell for wife Kellie, too.

"It's been hard on us, hard on Reuben. We're taking a limo everywhere, even to the grocery store," Kellie Droughns was quoted in this morning's Detroit Free Press.

Yeah, that had to be rough, Kellie -- being chauffered everywhere. And why do I think the limo rides weren't limited to trips to the A&P? I'm sure there were dinners. And manicures. And more shopping.

So maybe Kellie Droughns' comments were taken out of context when I read them in this morning's Freep, though I don't know how. Maybe she was chuckling when she said it. You can't read emotions in a newspaper, and the ink-stained wretches conveniently leave them out most of the time.

But that benefit of the doubt can be given to an Andy Van Slyke, who's famous for joshing with the press. It can be given to Jay Johnstone, or Bob Uecker, or Charles Barkley -- athletes who had far more fun talking to the media than the rest of their brethren.

Take Van Slyke's comment when asked if Tigers manager Jim Leyland's outburst on April 17 was the worst he's seen the skipper behave. Van Slyke played several seasons for Leyland in Pittsburgh, so he was a logical person to ask.

"No," AVS said. "This time he had all his clothes on."

But when we read that, we know it was said with a wink and a twinkle in the eye. We know Van Slyke knocked another fat media pitch out of the park.

I'm not so sure with someone like Kellie Droughns, who's certainly not the problem, but she represents the out-of-touch athlete who has no clue what others in similar, or worse, situations have to contend with. How many folks do you know who've had DUI issues that get to be driven around in a limousine?

But now husband Reuben has been acquitted by a jury -- peers who don't get limo rides on a daily basis, by the way -- so I suppose he can get behind the wheel again and put an end to all those miserable rides he and Kellie have to endure. And by the way, what was keeping Kellie Droughns herself from strapping herself into the driver's seat and putting the pedal to the metal? Why couldn't she have been the family chauffeur for the time being?

I guess she hadn't thought of that.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Playoff Newbies Like The Cavs Keep It Humble -- And I Like That

It's nice when the Pistons play these playoff neophytes like the Bucks and Cavaliers, because their players and coaches know their places. There'll be plenty of time for the bluster of the Nets or the Heat or the Spurs or Mavericks or Suns another day.

But for now we have the Cleveland Cavaliers, and quotes like this:

"I think their experience will overcome our youth right now."

"They're already a doggone good team, so we can't make it any easier for them."

"We have to play 48 minutes, or else we're not going to beat the Detroit Pistons."

"I thought our guys did a good job in the second half, but that's not good enough against this team."

And so on.

Enjoy this humility from the opposition while you can, because after this, it's going to get a lot more trashy.

The Cavaliers obliged on the court, too, bowing to the Pistons, 97-91 -- a score that was close only because the Pistons let their minds wander before they regained their interest. It was amusing how the TNT announcing team of Matt Devlin and Mike "The Czar" Fratello got themselves worked up into a lather when the Cavs drew within five points with under 90 seconds remaining. Like the Pistons were going to let the game get away.

I like Cavs' coach Mike Brown. He didn't try to pull the wool over the ink-stained wretches' eyes afterward by pinning false hope on his team's comeback in the second half. None of this, "I think we can take a lot from this" blather.

"I like some of the things we did in the second half," Brown said with the proper amount of humbleness and respect, "but that's just not good enough. We have to be the aggressor in this series. They're too good to allow them to take the game to us."

The Cavs may yet win a game, and it'll probably be Game 3, frankly. By the way, I checked the schedule and I believe Game 3 will be played July 17 (okay, it's Saturday, but STILL...). That's usually the one game the team that loses a series 4-1 wins. They feed off their home crowd's energy, they play above their abilities, and they snatch one. Then in Game 4, the favorite gets serious and closes the door. In Game 5, they turn the deadbolt.

Pistons coach Flip Saunders blamed the Cavs' comeback on playing his starters too much, leaving them tired in the fourth quarter. I like Saunders, too, because he has already learned how to talk like a moderately arrogant prohibitive favorite. He speaks of "playing not the Bucks but ourselves," and how last night's mini-drama was "my fault. I took a calculated risk and what you saw was a bunch of tired starters in the fourth quarter."

Nothing about what the Cavs did. I like that. Don't give your opponent anything they can use to feel good about themselves. That's what the OTHER coach's job is.

So by the time we reconvene for Game 3, it'll be the weekend, so I'll say this before you leave:

Have a great week!

As for you, Mike Brown, keep chowing on that humble pie. There's plenty in the oven.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Lions' Whistle Blowers Probably Not Long For Detroit -- And Can You Blame Them?

When Alex Karras was a rookie defensive tackle for the Lions in 1958, he was surprised that he made the team, because he played so poorly.

"I was always drunk," Karras said.

Seems Alex was quarterback Bobby Layne's personal rookie whipping boy/drinking buddy/chauffeur that summer at Cranbrook.

"Bobby would toss down 10, 15 Cutty Sarks a night," Karras told the Free Press' George Puscas years later. "And he'd make me drink with him. Then I'd have to drive, or he would drive, and once I saw him put a brick on the gas pedal and we're speeding down the freeway and he's singing 'Ida Red,' hanging halfway out the car.

"He would only require an hour or two of sleep. So I was either drunk or sick that entire training camp," Karras recalled.

Ahh, the good old days.

We don't know what form of mental or physical abuse new Lions head coach Rod Marinelli has inflicted upon his troops -- which led to the team being disciplined by the league for violating rules regarding offseason workouts. Chances are, however, that they didn't involve players being forced to toss down whiskey and practicing with hangovers.

So we know what the violations weren't.

One of Marinelli's assistants demonstrates a portion of the new offseason preparation program

Whomever took their concerns to the league offices is, in my mind, traversing a slippery slope. But that's nothing new for a franchise that always seems to operate with the rest of the football world tilted against them.

But it's impossible to fully understand the gravity of the consequences of the complainant(s) until the actual nature of the violations are revealed. And nobody seems to want to talk about it.

Marinelli's "I love the smell of pads crunching in the morning" philosophy is probably exactly what the Lions need, but if he did, indeed, go overboard, then I suppose there should be ramifications.

But there also will be the same for the player(s) who raised the issue. Can you imagine the cross-eyed looks in the lockerroom? The players who have spoken publicly -- Dre Bly, Roy Williams, and Marcus Pollard, to name three -- all seem unified in thinking, "Hey -- have you seen our record lately?"

So it's unlikely the whistle blowers will present themselves without some degree of discomfort.
If you think that complaining about the offseason conditioning/preparation program is rather odd behavior from any player employed by a franchise that hasn't won the Big One in 49 years, well there you are.

The NFL Players Association will do whatever they can, of course, to keep the identity(ies) of the plaintiffs unknown. But it'll come out -- one way or another. Maybe we'll find out in a form of process by elimination -- as in training camp cuts, or trades. Chances are, whomever blew the whistle probably ensured themselves a ticket out of Detroit.

Maybe they're not so dumb after all.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Pistons Likely Won't Shoot That Well Again, But They Won't Need To

If this Pistons-Cavaliers second round playoff series had an injury list-type categorization for Game 2 and beyond, here's what it would look like:

Doubtful: Pistons three pointers (hit 11 of first 12); LeBron James (scoreless in second half); Lindsey Hunter (hit four triples in one quarter); Pistons (scoring 43 pts. in one quarter); Cavs' Ronald Murray (shooting 0-7 from field)

Questionable: Tayshaun Prince (outscoring James); Rip Hamilton ("tweaking" his left ankle); Cavs' Eric Snow (mostly a non-factor); Ben Wallace (making a free throw)

Probable: Kelvin Cato (appearing in at least three games); Cavs' non-James starters (wilting as the series moves along); Damon Jones, Cavs (making at least one outlandish statement)

Out: Cavaliers (winning this series)

For the poor Cavs, going from playing the Washington Wizards (so named because they made their defense go "Poof!") to the Detroit Pistons must be like switching from a breezy tank top to one of those lead-encased jackets they make you wear when you get chest x-rays taken.

The moment I knew the Cavaliers were going to be in trouble in this series came before it began, actually. For when I saw LeBron James drive the baseline and get a layup in the closing moments of Game 5 against the Wizzes, I chuckled.

"When he plays the Pistons," I said -- to no one there, as Neil Diamond wrote -- "he won't be going up against pylons." Which is what the Wizards were on that game-winning shot. They let him breeze by and to the hoop as if they had just found out he was carrying the Bird Flu virus.
If James had tried that against the Pistons, he would either: A) Be decapitated (figuratively -- barely); B) Be maimed (figuratively -- barely); or C) Knocked on his ass (literally).

But the Wizards let him lay it in, as if they were the Washington Generals and James was Curly Neal. Or Geese Ausbie. Or Meadowlark Lemon. Anyhow, you get the idea.

So here the Cavs were, less than 48 hours after disposing of Washington, and after the Pistons got off to their requisite slow start, they flipped that switch that they all seem to have access to, and blew Cleveland back to Parma. Or at least as far as Toledo.

Game 2 will probably be different. That's usually the best chance for the visitors to steal one on the road. Sometimes, losing big in Game 1 can be a blessing. Puff out the chest of your opponents a little bit, you know. But these are the Pistons, and they're on a mission, and the Cavaliers' best chance to square the series will be to find someone other than #23 to score some freaking points. And not just someONE. A bunch of someones have to get involved. The "box-and-1" strategy the Cavs used against Washington -- only this one is offensive -- may have worked against the Wizards, but it doesn't have a sno-cone's chance in Hades of working against the Pistons.

Granted, the Pistons probably won't shoot as well in subsequent games as they did in Game 1 (by the way, did you notice your TV screen getting darker as the game wore on? That's because the Pistons were shooting the lights out), but neither will they allow much more from the Cavs.

Someone in the Palace crowd held a sign that said "LeBron WHO?"

Wrong. It should have said, "LeBron AND who?"

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Cobo Was Pistons' Palace Long Before Auburn Hills

The Pistons, we are told, just performed before their 129th consecutive sellout at the Palace of Auburn Hills. And this time they really are telling the truth. I don’t see too many seats where there should be fannies, and we’re talking about a 21,000+ capacity.

It wasn’t always that way, though – telling the truth about game attendance. The Pistons didn’t count so good back in the day.

“What year are we in?,” one of the old P.A. announcers once asked Jerry Green of the Detroit News.

“1967,” Green replied, puzzled.

“Tonight’s attendance,” the P.A. guy boomed into his microphone, “One thousand, nine-hundred and sixty-seven.”

At least, that’s the way Jerry recalls it.

I don’t doubt him, because when the Pistons slogged around in the muck of apathy in Detroit, trying to sell pro basketball to the denizens, Cobo Arena – their spiffy new digs on the city’s riverfront – was a great place to go, if you needed to study for a test, or wanted some peace and quiet away from the spouse and kidlets.

Cobo Arena

It wasn’t that the team didn’t try to draw even the most curious to their product. They left free vouchers at a lot of the fast fry chicken joints and burger biggie holes around town. The Pistons, so desperate for living, breathing humans, didn’t always care if the folks who came to see them paid any admission for the privilege.

Most of the time, the people stayed away. Like Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, you can’t stop them.”

And Pistons fans couldn’t be stopped from not coming to Cobo. A crowd of 5,000 was considered something to shout about. This is circa the mid-1960’s.

But after the team drafted a guard named Dave Bing, then added a big, brooding center named Bob Lanier, folks started to notice their pro basketball club. A brutal, angry, seven-game playoff series with the Chicago Bulls in 1974 helped stick the pin into Detroit on the NBA’s map. Crowds that came close to touching 10,000 were becoming more and more frequent. Still, it would take about three of those 1970’s crowds to fill the Palace once.

Pro basketball has long been thought of as a New York game. Or a Philadelphia game. Or a Boston game. It has never, truly, been a Detroit game. Recent success aside, when the Pistons were suiting up dreadful ballclubs throughout their history – including some recent bad teams of the 1990’s – seats at the Palace, or the Silverdome, or very definitely Cobo Arena, were plentiful. And this from a town that can’t get enough of a football team that hasn’t won the Big One in nearly 50 years. Even meaningless exhibition games achieve sell-out status at Ford Field.

There was supposed to be a “popping” sound. But with the crowd typically small, it was more of a “puff.”

Yet Cobo – that big, round black building nestled between the RenCen and Joe Louis Arena – was actually a pretty good place to watch basketball. The sight lines were pleasing, the intimacy was there, and of course you could always get a ticket. It may not mean anything to today’s fans, with their Ben Wallace afros, but the roster of players who played in Cobo as they made their way through the NBA is impressive: Wilt Chamberlain; Bill Russell; Elgin Baylor; Oscar Robertson; Lew Alcindor, All these, and many more, ran up and down Cobo’s hardwood floor at one time or another from 1960-1978. It’s not thought of in that way, though, as Tiger Stadium or Olympia Stadium are – old sports Taj Majals whose interiors were invaded by legends of their respective sports. But it’s no less true. Sports fans around here may not have cared very much, but Cobo Arena has history. Just not very many people bothered to come out to see it happen.

Dancing Gus did, however.

He was Gus Sinaris, a legitimate vendor at Cobo, and he was tagged Dancing Gus because of his act he often performed during timeouts, peaking in its popularity during the 1973-74 season, in which the Pistons went 52-30 – big-time winners for the first time in their inglorious history.

Gus, a large, roly-poly man with a smushed-in nose and a perpetual 5:00 shadow, would set his wares down between aisles and wiggle and jiggle his candy stripe-uniformed barrel of a body to the timeout music, while the scoreboard above center court screamed in big, lighted letters: DANCE FOR US, GUS!!

I once saw Gus do his thing in Cobo’s upper level, perilously close to the balcony railing. As the crowd roared, Gus boogied a little too close to the short barrier, and darn near toppled over onto the folks below. There was a collective gasp, then cheering as it was apparent that Gus was, indeed, still alive and well in the aisle. I’m sure it wasn’t the first nor last time Dancing Gus almost became Broken Gus.

The Pistons also broke out a mascot called the Magic Cylinder that season. Inside was equipment manager Jerry Dziedzic. Outside of him was a large, heavy, foam and rubber knock-off of an engine’s piston. Pretty clever, huh?

“We had the Magic Cylinder one season,” Dziedzic told Green in a book about the Pistons that was published in 1991. “Then we retired it into the Mascot Hall of Fame.”

Once, the team tried Turkey Pop Gun Night, around Thanksgiving time. Fans were given paper and cardboard muskets, and were told to, on cue from the P.A. announcer, snap them in unison. There was supposed to be a “popping” sound. But with the crowd typically small, it was more of a “puff.”

In 1968, the Pistons, coached by Donnis Butcher, went up against the daunted Celtics in the playoffs. And after three games, the Pistons held a 2-1 advantage, thanks to an upset in Boston in Game 3. So in front of one of the loudest, craziest, and largest crowds in Cobo Arena history, the Pistons played Game 4 against the Celtics and…got their asses kicked. They lost the series two games later. And in typical fashion, fans who weren’t in attendance may not even have known about that Game 4, thanks to a long newspaper strike. Certainly they couldn’t have been listening on the radio. You think the attendance figures were bad?

Ask a Pistons fan born after 1970 about Cobo Arena, and you might get something like, “Isn’t that where some cool concerts have been held?,” or, “Isn’t that where Nancy Kerrigan got whacked in the knee?”

Well, yeah. It’s also where this writer was chased halfway around the perimeter of its hockey rink configuration by Brad “Motor City Smitty” Smith, who wanted a piece of me. If you missed that column, e-mail me and I’ll enlighten you sometime.

But it was also the home of the Pistons. Served the team well, too, for 18 seasons. Even if it was mostly an empty Palace in those days.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Tigers Haven't Turned The Corner Until They Win In The Metrodome

You know, they never did ask Hubert H. Humphrey what he thought a stadium bearing his name should look like. I don't care if he was dead when they built it. They should have channeled him somehow.

Maybe a seance would have helped the folks in Minneapolis, because instead they ended up building one of the most putrid sports venues in history.

The HHH Metrodome is God-awful, and maybe I'm a little more incorrigible because our teams in baseball and football have fared so poorly in that Hefty bag-infested plastic bubble.


The Tigers, for all of their deserved accolades for their nifty 19-10 start, still have some proving to do. For if they can take two out of three from the Twins this weekend in the Dome, then the right foot that I have dragging along the ground will officially be lifted and will join the rest of my body on the Tigers' bandwagon.

Yeah, I know the Tigers engaged in a systematic, total, complete, bazooka-filled annihilation of the Twins last weekend in Detroit -- outscoring them 33-1 for the three games. I know the Twins are but a shell of their former selves -- the ones that have used the Tigers as their personal punching bag during this decade, and prior. And I know the Tigers themselves are a different bunch than the motley group masquerading as major league players recently.

But the Metrodome is a funny place. And I don't mean funny as in "ha-ha." I mean funny as in...not funny at all. So the Metrodome is funny the same way a fat guy is named Tiny. Strange things happen inside of its teflon roof. Let's face it: Had the Twins not had home field advantage in 1987 or 1991 -- years in which they didn't deserve such an advantage, due to their regular season record -- they wouldn't have won either of those World Series championships. They are, in my mind, paper titles. Or maybe, to be more appropriate -- plastic titles.

The Lions have been terrible, and haven't won much on the road in recent years, but even when they managed a few victories away from home, there was always a loss in Minnesota on their record. Usually, in a different fashion every time.

The Tigers have done even worse amongst the big, black Baggies. Their winning percentage in Minnesota is closer to the Mendoza Line than anywhere near .500. Again, even before the teams they fielded were in the toilet, the Tigers had trouble peroforming under the Dome's shiny lights.

So before we can declare the Tigers a different team, let's see them win a couple in the Metrodome this weekend.

Even Hubert would want that. He was a fair, decent sort.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Pistons Fans Should Be Rooting For LeBron And His "James Gang" To Survive Arenas' Wizards

Hail to the King -- it's better for the Pistons

Go, LeBron! Go, Eric Snow! Go that Ilgauskas guy!

I've watched the Washington Wizards a few times this season -- mainly when they've been beating the Pistons -- and I watched much of last night's Game 5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and I have four words.

Gilbert Arenas scares me.

I mean, he doesn't scare me to the point that I think the Wizards, despite their 3-0 record against the Pistons this season -- can win a playoff series over Detroit, but he's enough of a hotshot shooter that he could make a best-of-seven affair rather uncomfortable.

The Wizards lost it in OT last night, 121-120, but Arenas was constantly throwing daggers: Three-pointers; turnaround jumpers; driving layups; off-blance circus stuff. And his shots hardly touched rim. He swished more than a toilet in a public restroom at Grand Central Station.

Arenas frightens me more than LeBron James because: He seems to have longer range than LeBron; and Arenas appears to make his teammates better players more than James does. Maybe I can just see the Pistons containing James more than I can see them handling Arenas.

Of course, this doesn't mean the Wizzes can wave their magic wands for anything more than two victories in a series with the Pistons, but I don't see all four Detroit victories being as easy as they'd be against the Cavs. The Wizards also have Antawn Jamison, and he can cause trouble, too.

Arenas' range can be deadly

But back to Arenas. His range is impressive, and whenever a guy can rain triples on you, it makes him harder to defend. And the more I watched that fabulous Game 5 last night, the more ghoulish thoughts I got in my head about what Arenas could do -- nearly single-handedly -- early in a series. Steal Game 1? Lead the Wizzes to a 2-1 advantage after three?

Defensively, however, is where the Wizards fall short, and it's what might keep them from advancing past Cleveland to begin with. On the game-winning shot -- taken by James, naturally -- the Wizards defenders let LeBron drive the baseline, squeeze out of a weak trap, and slither under the bucket for an easy scoop and score. Without hardly being touched. In less than three seconds. The Pistons would never allow that to happen, first of all -- at least not without a couple of conks on the noggin. Secondly, if that's Washington's idea of clamp-down defense when the chips are down, then what in the world are they going to do against Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace? Everyone in the free world last night knew LeBron James was taking the last shot, so the Wizzes had one player to worry about. And they let him squirt through them -- all of them -- like it was a no-contact drill. End of game. Maybe end of series.

But like I said, that would be okay by me -- if the Pistons were to face the Cavs instead of the Wizzes. LeBron James and his team have a lot of a 1988 and '89 Bulls look to them. It's not his time yet.

And it's not Gilbert Arenas' either, but I just sense there'll be a bit more drama and angst for the Pistons, facing he and his fellow Wizards in the second round, than if they went up against LeBron and the "James Gang."

Besides, you know what happened to the James Gang in the end, don't you?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Baylor's Clippers Finally More Than An Opening Act

Bob McAdoo is a 54 year-old former NBA scoring champ who now sits on the bench of the Miami Heat, glasses propped on his head, functioning as an assistant coach for Pat Riley. It's an ironic job, for when he played, McAdoo drove many of those suit-clad coaches to the funny farm. There was even a line about him: "McAdoo, McAdon't, McAwill, McAwon't."

McAdoo played for the Pistons, of course. Dickie Vitale was so hellbent on bringing him to Detroit that he gift-wrapped M.L. Carr and two draft picks -- who would later be used or traded to become Robert Parish and Kevin McHale -- to the Celtics in order to put McAdon't into a Pistons uniform. It was a short-lived, awkward marriage that ended in bloody divorce.

I bring up McAdoo because he was a player on the last team of the Buffalo Braves/San Diego Clippers/Los Angeles franchise that advanced past the first round of the playoffs. It was in 1976.

Until now.

The Clippers brushed aside the Denver Nuggets of Carmelo Anthony in five measly games, and now await the winner of the Phoenix Suns-Los Angeles Lakers series.

A Clippers-Lakers series? Yikes!

Oh, where are Kurt Nimphius and Benoit Benjamin and Danny Manning? They should be enjoying this -- Clippers of bad teams gone by. When they played, the thought of a Clippers-Lakers playoff series was about as folly as it gets. But what's even funnier, if the Clips and Lakers squared off -- and they'd have to call it the Hallway Series, as they both play in the Staples Center -- I believe the Clippers might be slight favorites.

Not to be dramatic, but that's sort of like Eastern Michigan University and U-M finally meeting in a football bowl game -- and U-M being the underdog. Of course, with the Wolverines' bowl history....


These may not be your father's Clippers, but they're still Elgin Baylor's, and that's a story that fascinates me.

In this day and age when a man can be a coach in a city for 10 months and have the most seniority of all that city's coaches (read: Mike Babcock in Detroit), the fact that Baylor, who's been the Clippers' equivalent of a GM for nearly 20 years -- for a team that hasn't won a playoff series under his watch -- is still employed, is either amazing or an indictment on that franchise's ownership. Maybe it's a little bit of both.

Baylor: His ship (Clipper) has finally come in?

Well, Baylor is a former Laker player and at age 71, it would be nice to see him taste some team success as a Clipper -- beyond even this second round appearance. If the Lakers should upset the Suns, Baylor's team could find itself in the Western Conference Finals.

And Jack Nicholson would gag on his arrogance.

The NBA has always been a league of vagabonds and geographical shifts. The Buffalo Braves of Bob McAdoo moved to San Diego and became the Clippers of Bill Walton and Jellybean Joe Bryant, who has a son named Kobe who I think still plays in the league somewhere. Then the Clippers moved two hours north to Los Angeles and became the longest-running second banana in pro sports history. The Lakers were Johnny Carson and the Clippers were Ed McMahon -- except in some years, they were more like Doc Severinsen. Or Tommy Newsom.

But these Clippers, with ex-CMU player Chris Kaman, and Sam Cassell, and Elton Brand leading the way, are a nice blend of youth and veteran leadership. Their coach, Mike Dunleavy, once coached the Lakers before being run out of Tinseltown. But now he's baaaack, to steal a line from nearby Hollywood.

I'd say the Clippers are back, too, but they were never "here" to begin with. They started out bad, and got progressively worse. I remember once, in the mid-1980's, the Clippers were in town and Bob Page, who was on Detroit radio at the time, declared it "Guaranteed Win Night."

"If you're the kind of fan that seems to only go to the games where the home team loses, then buy a ticket and see the Pistons-Clippers game tonight," Page said on the air. "It's 'Guaranteed Win Night. I guarantee if you go to the game, you'll see the Pistons win. It's the one night that you can make such a guarantee."

The Pistons won -- in a season in which the Clippers went 12-70.

But those days appear to be long gone. And it only took Elgin Baylor 20 years, hundreds of players, and a gaggle of coaches to get it done.

Matt Millen, there's hope for you yet.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Even Had The Red Wings Escaped The Oilers, A Cup Wouldn't Have Been In The Offing Anyway

For those of you who are in mourning this morning, here's something that'll make you feel better: The Red Wings weren't going to win the Stanley Cup anyhow.

Stanley Cup champions don't have their top scorers go into the tank. Stanley Cup champions don't have their top defenseman outplayed by their opponent's top defenseman game after game. Stanley Cup champions don't blow two-goal leads in the third period of games in which thier playoff lives hang in the balance. And Stanley Cup champions certainly don't possess the kind of golatending that the Red Wings lugged around with them during their series with the Edmonton Oilers.

Yes, it's about the person minding the net. And Manny Legace was a boat anchor around the Red Wings' ankles all series. Never was it more true than in this first round debacle against the Oilers, in which the Red Wings were put out of everyone's misery last night, 4-3, courtesy of one of the most obnoxious third periods of an elimination game that you'll ever see. Four goals against in the frame, and in every way imaginable: Rebounds into open nets; fancy-shmancy individual efforts; a controversial video review; and a "How was he left all alone?" tip-in.

But the Red Wings weren't going to win the Cup. That was painfully evident as this series moved along, even if they were able to muster the moxy to win it in seven games. Do you know what the New Jersey Devils would do to the Red Wings? Or the Calgary Flames? Or maybe even the Colorado Freaking Avalanche?

We've seen it all before: Outplayed in net; scoring stars silenced; unheralded players from the other team rising to the occasion; mediocre performances at home. It happened under Scotty Bowman, Dave Lewis, and now Mike Babcock. It's happened with Chris Osgood in net, Curtis Joseph, and now Manny Legace. It's happened against the Los Angeles Kings, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and now the Edmonton Oilers.

So how does that 58-16-8 regular season record look this morning?

Here's my theory -- and I think it's a pretty good one -- for why this keeps happening to the Red Wings in the playoffs: Every year, the team has little to play for from late-February to the end of the season. And don't tell me that the President's Trophy is incentive. I'm talking about a season in which perhaps the divisional title is on the line, or -- and here's the kicker -- a playoff berth itself is in question. So the Red Wings go into cruise control mode for the final, say, 20 games, and their first round opponent is some poor team that's been scratching and clawing for weeks just to get into the damn playoffs. Yes -- some pathetic lower seed, right?


These teams come into the playoffs already in playoff mode because they've been playing playoff-like games for several weeks. They probably even have their postseason beards growing, if you look hard enough. And they don't consider themselves lucky to just be there. They consider themselves victorious already, having survived the regular season while the #9 and #10 seeds are on the outside looking in, despite records that are far above .500.

So these lower seeds are ready to rock and roll, and they have the momentum of having qualified after a tough as nails battle to the bitter end. The Red Wings, meanwhile, have to take off their dinner jackets and slippers and suddenly change into a warrior's outfit. And by the time they realize it's the playoffs, they're down 1-0, or 2-1, or 3-2.

Wanna argue that I'm wrong?

But let's return to that man in net, shall we?

I truly don't believe that this is a knee-jerk reaction, but I think the Red Wings need to go goaltender shopping this summer. Manny Legace had his chance to prove to us that he's more than just the "best backup in the NHL", or that he's more than a guy who "blossomed into one of the best goalies in the league this regular season." And he failed. Miserably.

It would have been nice had Legace bailed the team out with a save here and there. Fernando Pisani's goal last night that tied the game 2-2 was a nice play, and he shouldn't have been that open on a 3-on-3, but that happens from time-to-time, you know? And you need your goalie to be, like, that last line of defense. Legace, only once, made a save that made me say, "Thank God for that stop." It was in the third period of Game 1, with the Red Wings trailing 2-1. He stoned someone -- can't remember who -- and enabled the team to tie the game several minutes later. Other than that...

Even the game-winning goal last night, I won't give Legace a free pass on. Again -- horrendous defensive breakdown, especially considering there was barely a minute to play in regulation of a 3-3 game. But the top shelf goalies can make that save. Dominik Hasek made them in 2002. Osgood made them in 1998 -- maybe to make up for the 90-footers he let in that year. And Mike Vernon made them in 1997.

Manny Legace didn't make them. And now the Red Wings hit the links this afternoon.

Gotta Get a Goalie.

Maybe the team's marketing darlings can do something with that one on billboards this summer.

So fret not, my little Wing Nut. Your team didn't have a prayer of hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup after all.