Sunday, July 04, 2010

Today's Pistons Sans Identity

We can recall them now like all the infamous gangs—crews of James, Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, and the Black Hand.

Call Warner Brothers. Commission the first draft of a screenplay. Start casting the principals. Find a sexy femme fatale.

The godfather was called Daddy Rich. He wore $500 suits whose creases could slice an apple.

The wise guys were led by a runt that went by Zeke. His seconds were a big oaf named Laimbeer, a sharp shooter called VJ, and a quiet assassin named Joe D.

The minions had names like Spider and Worm and Buddha.

The architect of the whole operation, they called Trader Jack.

This marauding, brawling posse reigned terror throughout the National Basketball Association some 20 years ago or so.

The Detroit Pistons, aka The Bad Boys.

They were on the NBA’s Most Wanted List. G-men like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson were powerless to stop them, when the Bad Boys were in their heyday.

Enter the lane at your own risk. Zeke’s gang gave no quarter, showed no mercy.

They pulled jobs at all the NBA burgs. They were detested, feared, but celebrated—in that infamous way that we’ve reserved in twisted fashion for the likes of Charlie Manson and Robin Hood.

The Bad Boys didn’t play basketball, they committed it.

They squeezed the life out of you, 48 minutes at a time.

The Pistons of the late-1980s, early-1990s. Legendary now. Forget the Hall of Fame; their exploits should be in the Smithsonian, in the American crime history wing.

They traveled the league in their own jet plane, the first NBA team to do so. It was their getaway vehicle, parked on the tarmacs of all the airports around the country, the engines running. The pilot could have been prosecuted as an accessory, unless the Bad Boys held his family hostage in exchange for unmitigated destination-to-destination travel.

They were branded as thugs, bullies, heathens. They hardly denied it.

Zeke and the Bad Boys would swing into town, mug you for 48 minutes, and make off with another victory. You can practically imagine them in their getaway plane, cigars in mouths, swapping stories of infliction, as they jetted to their next stop.

They carried on in this manner, thumbing their noses at NBA Commissioner David Stern, Jordan, Bird, and anyone else who had a problem with they way they conducted themselves.

It was fitting that they were around courts so much.

Was there shame? Ha!

Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn—Ricky was one of the heavies, part of the muscle—once posed for a magazine cover with a deflated basketball and one of them was chewing on a rim. They wore dark glasses and sleeveless shirts. They all but dared Stern to arrest them.

Daddy Rich, Chuck Daly, was the coach but he wasn’t so much coach as he was boss. Daly was a hands-off administrator. He let Zeke and the Bad Boys police themselves.

When Trader Jack McCloskey traded for Mark Aguirre in 1989, Laimbeer and Zeke’s other seconds took the new guy to dinner. They may as well have taken him to a backroom and shined a bright light in his face.

Throughout dinner, Aguirre, whose reputation as being a team player was less than sterling, endured a third degree. He was warned: play nice here or we’ll break your legs.

And I might not even be exaggerating.

Whether you liked them or not, admired them for their brashness or were disgusted by their tactics, the Bad Boys had one thing that no one can ever take away—besides their two NBA championships.

They had an identity.

So did Creepy Karpis and Baby Face Nelson and Bugsy Malone, I know. But at least you knew who those guys were.

One of the Bad Boys alums—the one they called Joe D—is in charge of today’s group of Pistons. It’s not the easiest of gigs these days.

Joe Dumars has seen the highest of highs as a player, and as a team executive. He’s one of the few who’s won NBA titles as both player and GM, for the same franchise.

He was the quietest Bad Boy. Every gang needs one of those, who doesn’t say much. Daddy Rich would give an order, and Zeke would gather his seconds and minions to carry it out. And Dumars was the one leaning against the wall, chewing on a toothpick, nodding when given his assignment.

Last year’s Pistons finished an unsightly 27-55. They were Pistons in tank tops only. The franchise’s once-appropriate motto, “Going to Work”—leftover from the championship of 2004 and the near miss of 2005—fit it last year like a Speedo on Rush Limbaugh.

It was a team of no leaders, no guts, no passion.

And no identity.

Dumars’s charge is to rebuild his team into a winner, like the glory days. But right now he has no Zeke, no Laimbeer, no Spider and no Worm. The players wander around aimlessly, looking for their leader. It’s a bunch of Joe Pescis waiting for their Robert DeNiro.

At last week’s draft, Dumars grabbed Greg Monroe, a six-foot-eleven, skilled big man from Georgetown University—the school of Ewing, Mourning, and Motumbo. Georgetown used to be a Big Man Factory. John Thompson, the old coach, was a center’s kindred spirit. And Thompson sent some of the very best to NBA greatness.

Thompson’s kid, also named John, coaches Georgetown nowadays. And he says the Pistons got a whale of a player in Monroe.

Monroe isn’t the leader type—at least not now. But he should be a competent, steady player. A big—literally—piece to the puzzle.

I submit to you that Dumars needs to find an identity for his team. Right now, there’s no “there” there, as was once complained. The basketball clothes have no emperor.

It doesn’t have to be “Bad Boys, Revisited.” Not necessarily “STILL Going To Work.”

But it has to be something.

Dumars needs to figure out in what mold he wants today’s Pistons to be cast. The great teams all have their identities.

He ought to know.

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