Sunday, May 06, 2007

In The Playoffs, The Best Games Are Played In The Head

The opposing hockey team walked into their locker room inside Joe Louis Arena, their first day in town to prepare for a playoff series against the Red Wings. The first thing that greeted them was the smell, followed shortly by the visual.

The smell was of freshly applied paint on the walls of their digs. The visual was the color of the paint.


On another occasion, in another playoff year, the visitors and their coach noticed something amiss about their bench area. Specifically, the bench itself.

It was short, by several inches. Not long enough to accommodate all of their hockey playing fannies.

The artisan of both of these incidents was the noted mental prankster, and former coach of the Red Wings, Scotty Bowman.

He had an opponent’s locker room painted pink, it was presumed, because it would subconsciously make the opponent a little less tough. Prissy hockey players are easier to shove around.

The bench was sawed short because it would make the coziness of the players a little too uncomfortable

Of course, Bowman never admitted to such shenanigans. But he was the master of the head game. In fact, he usually reserved most of his nefarious ways for his own players. It led to a storied line by one of his Montreal alums.

“For 364 days of the year, you can’t stand him,” the player said, “and on the 365th, you hoist the Stanley Cup.”

Few played head games better than Bowman

I thought of Bowman and some of his antics when I read a revelation printed in the Free Press Friday – Drew Sharp’s retrospective of the great Pistons-Bulls rivalry in the late-1980s and early-1990s.

To me, it was a bombshell, but it wasn’t accorded bombshell space.

When the Pistons duked it out with the Bulls and Michael Jordan in some of the nastiest, most brutal, angriest playoff games I’ve ever seen, the matchup was billed as the Detroit team against the Bulls’ superstar and his “Jordannaires.” And how the Pistons planned on containing the superstar Jordan became a sketchy strategy supposedly hashed out in a sweaty locker room on a chalkboard by their well-coiffed coach.

Chuck Daly had a plan. It was foolproof, gathered and formulated sometime between trips to the tailor to pick up his exquisite suits, presumably.

The strategy had a name: The Jordan Rules.

The Pistons leaked it, and the press pounced. The desired effect. The Pistons had a secret plan to contain Michael Jordan! The Jordan Rules!

Apparently nobody noticed the twinkle in Daly’s eye, nor in his players’.

The Jordan Rules, it was revealed by Sharp in his discussions with former Pistons for his piece, were nonexistent. A complete falsehood. Totally made up.

Here’s Bad Boy Rick Mahorn:

“We were just throwing stuff out there for (the media). It was just a joke. Chuck throws it out there that we had some secret plan to stop Jordan, and everybody just jumped on it … Isiah (Thomas) told us that we had gotten in their (the Bulls’) heads, and that’s how we had them beat.”

And longtime trainer Mike Abdenour:

“You talk about the prince of disinformation? Chuck Daly threw a whole lot of nonsense out there that didn’t exist. That should have gone down as one of the greatest fakes of all time.”

"If anyone asks, we have a plan to stop Jordan"

Daly wasn’t interviewed for Sharp’s piece. But judging from the comments of Mahorn and Abdenour, it hardly seems necessary.

The Pistons used the nonexistent Jordan Rules to bump the Bulls out of the playoffs in three consecutive years (1988-90), a time they spent comfortably ensconced in the Bulls’ craniums.

The Pistons’ supremacy over the Bulls was on the heels of their inferiority complex against the Boston Celtics. For a few years the Celtics planted shamrocks inside the Pistons’ cerebellum.

It started with the dingy, old Boston Garden. There were basketball leprechauns that inhabited the creaky arena, according to lore. Supposedly inside the Garden – some imagined and others documented – were dead spots on the floor where the basketball didn’t always bounce so good; rats in the visitor’s locker room; cold water in the showers; and a climate that was controlled to the point where the visitors suffered through temperatures that were always a few degrees higher than what the Celtics existed in.

“When you beat the Celtics, you have to beat more than just a basketball team,” Thomas said back in the day of trying to exorcise the Beantown hardcourt demons. “You have to beat the mentality that they’re not supposed to lose.”

Years later, players like Kevin McHale and Larry Bird, Pistons tormentors par excellence, scoffed at the notion of dead spots on the floor and a “Celtic Mystique.”

“As if we would know where to bounce a basketball, and where to steer our opponents to do so,” one of them said in so many words. That’s logic talking, but logic has no place when you are conducting head games. Daly’s Jordan Rules, once upon a time, seemed logical. And effective. Effectively logical. Or logically effective.

I thought the news of Daly’s hoax, nearly 20 years after the fact, was rich. And it brought up memories of Bowman and his antics.

Today the Red Wings are in a tussle with the San Jose Sharks in the second round of their playoffs. It’s been suggested that the Red Wings have taken up residence in a portion of the Sharks’ skulls, due to the fact that in all three of their victories of the 3-2 series, the Detroiters fell behind, only to come back to win.

“You guys are looking for way too much crap out there other than just saying there’s two very good teams playing a great series,” Sharks coach Ron Wilson said between Games 4 and 5, bristling at the suggestion of head games.

How dare he think so logically at a time like this?

1 comment:

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