Monday, February 18, 2013

Red Wings Now Just Another Hockey Team


It was the summer of 1990, and Mike Ilitch made a phone call. Then he got into a car and made the executioner’s sojourn.
It was the same type of visit that Bill Davidson had once made to Dick Vitale’s house, some 10+ years earlier. Inside the Vitale residence, the Pistons owner rendered the ziggy to his coach, pulling the plug on Dickie before the coach and de facto GM could do any further damage to the Pistons brand.
In 1990, Ilitch phoned Jacques Demers and before long the Red Wings owner was at his coach’s house, to render an emotional ziggy.
Four summers prior, Ilitch, with GM Jimmy Devellano as his muscle, shanghaied Demers from the St. Louis Blues. The Blues were becoming a force, and no small credit was given to Demers, the coach, for the upswing. The Red Wings were coming off a dreadful 17-57-6 season, and had burned through two coaches (Harry Neale and Brad Park); the latter’s relationship with Devellano being described as “like oil and water”—by Devellano himself.
So Ilitch went after Demers, hard, and the Red Wings might have bent some tampering rules in their zeal. The Blues cried foul, but the Red Wings ended up with Demers in the summer of 1986.
Under Jacques Demers, the Red Wings went from laughing stock to the NHL’s version of the Final Four in each of Jacques’ first two seasons. Both times they were dumped out by the mighty Edmonton Oilers.
There was a step backward in 1989 (first round playoff exit), but Ilitch stuck with Demers—even though a disturbing incident involving Red Wings players acting out at an Edmonton bar called Goose Loonies in the 1988 playoffs still rubbed some nerves raw in the team’s hierarchy.
But there had been no playoffs for the Red Wings in the 1989-90 season. This was no step backward—this was a flat out fail. It was whispered that Demers was no longer connecting with his players. The dreaded tuning out.
So Ilitch made the phone call. And the journey, to Demers’ house. Inside, in what was described by both men as a wet-eyed meeting, Ilitch relieved Demers of his coaching job.
That was almost 23 years ago. The Red Wings haven’t missed the playoffs since.
Not only have they not missed the playoffs, the Red Wings have been strong Stanley Cup contenders for most of the past 21 seasons. Rarely did a spring go by where the hockey folks didn’t include the Red Wings on their short list of teams who could win it all.
In baseball, even the iconic New York Yankees haven’t gone the past 21 years as solid World Series contenders. No team in the NBA has been championship caliber every year since 1992. The San Francisco 49ers just snapped a 17-year Super Bowl appearance famine, and no NFL team has been “all that” for the past 21 years.
Yet here are the Red Wings, constantly finishing in the Top 10 of the league standings. Sometimes they’d win a Cup along the way—four times since 1997, in fact.
Not anymore.
We knew it wouldn’t be easy, with Nicklas Lidstrom taking his magic stick and his perfection and retiring to Sweden. We knew there’d be some struggling, with fellow defenseman Brad Stuart no longer around to add a steady physical presence.
We knew the front of the net would never be the same again, with the retirement of Tomas Holmstrom. We figured age might catch up with the players still around.
Sometimes it’s no fun to be right.
The Red Wings, after losing another at home on Friday to the Anaheim Ducks, are 7-5-2, but that’s just the NHL’s roundabout way of saying that the Wings are 7-7—seven wins, five regulation losses and two more losses in extra time (overtime and/or shootout).  
Too often scoring goals is like pulling teeth—which is ironic, because in hockey, teeth aren’t pulled so much as they are knocked out.
The power play is often that in name only. Time was that you’d give the Red Wings an extra skater and it was like giving the Grim Reaper an extra sickle. Now, you take a penalty against the Red Wings with barely any impunity.
Players have been dropping like flies, which hasn’t helped.
Even line changes have become an adventure. Coach Mike Babcock has been yelling at his assistants almost as much as his players.
Turnovers are becoming commonplace. No more are the pinpoint, lasered breakout passes from behind the blue line to a forward past mid-ice, in stride.
The Red Wings used to play a selfish brand of hockey—meaning that they never let the other team have the puck. They cycled and passed and it was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters with the basketball during “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
It’s become so hard for the Red Wings now.
No longer do teams step onto the Joe Louis Arena ice shaking in their skating boots. Gone is the intimidation factor at The Joe. The crowds are still sellouts but it’s a polite crowd nowadays—19,000+ who are sitting on their hands too often.
We knew it wasn’t going to be the same this season, but for a long time it was all conjecture, thanks to the labor lockout. The hockey season was always somewhere over there, past the horizon.
Then the labor strife was over and the NHL started playing games again, and all of Hockeytown’s fears are being realized.
The Red Wings are an ordinary team, no longer one of the league’s bullies. They win on some nights, lose on others. They are 7-7 and it befits them.
We knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk to the playoffs and that a long post-season run was anything but a given.
We knew all this, but it doesn’t make it any easier to see the Red Wings, certainly one of the best franchises in all of pro sports, morph into a pedestrian unit.
The 21-year playoff streak is in more jeopardy than a nerd’s lunch money on his walk to school.
The Red Wings win, the Red Wings lose. Comme ci, comme ├ža.
There hasn’t been so-so hockey played in Detroit since 1990.
How are you adapting?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Pistons' Prince Played Stealth Basketball For 10+ Years in Detroit


He was the sullen Piston—at times a scowling player, even before there was anything to scowl about, as there has been aplenty lately.
He was the one with arms like Stretch Armstrong and shoulders like a men’s store hanger. He had the babiest of hooks and a left-handed jump shot that had the rotation of a knuckleball and the trajectory of a soft line drive.
Tayshaun Prince didn’t smile much as a Piston. He was, at the same time, the team’s best on-ball defender and a recluse. He was the Garbo of the Pistons. You didn’t dare go to battle without him, yet he was as overlooked as a valley.
In the most recent salad days of Pistons basketball—the championship of 2004 and the near-miss the following year—Prince was content to be the Piston in the shadows of the satellites around him.
Chauncey Billups, the point guard and unquestioned leader. Richard “Rip” Hamilton, the beanpole sharp shooter with the big smile and the “Yes sir!” rallying cry. Rasheed Wallace, the brooding hot head. Ben Wallace, he of the ‘Fro and the biceps, who if he played baseball would be known as a “good field, no hit” kind of player.
These were the four satellites, and then there was Prince, the quiet kid from Kentucky, with arms so long they looked like they could swat a basketball away near the rim, even if he was standing at the foul line.
Prince was content to let the others take all the glory—certainly content to let them talk into the microphones and look into the TV cameras that invaded the Pistons locker room every night.
When the four satellites made the All-Star team in 2006, Prince was the only one of the five Pistons starters to stay home that weekend. And that was OK.
Prince didn’t only play small forward, he played small ego. He showed up for work, punched the clock, and when the work day was over, he had his 13 points, his six rebounds, his two steals and a blocked shot. You’d have been hard pressed to recall any of it.
A Billups triple, as the shot clock expired? Check. A Hamilton jump shot off a screen to cap a 10-2 run? Check. A Rasheed Wallace technical foul? Check. A Ben Wallace blocked shot to turn the tide? Check.
All of that, you could recall. But any of Prince’s points, rebounds, assists, etc.? Not so much.
Then one by one the rest of the party was traded. Prince was the last of the 2004-05 powerhouse Pistons team remaining, once Hamilton was jettisoned a couple years ago.
Suddenly the team looked to Prince for divine wisdom. Suddenly he was the elder statesman. The media went to Prince on those nights—and there were many as the Pistons sunk into the abyss—when they needed the answers to the age old question, asked of the losers: “Hey, what happened?”
Prince told it like it was, the sewage unwashed from it.
But what Tayshaun Prince wasn’t, really, at any time in his 10+ years in Detroit, was the heart and soul of the Pistons. It wasn’t his fault.
Prince didn’t have the brashness of a Bill Laimbeer or Rasheed Wallace. He didn’t have the flair for the dramatic of an Isiah Thomas or Chauncey Billups. Prince didn’t have the smile of a John Salley or Rip Hamilton.
Some have said, as the obits of his Pistons career are being written this week following his trade to Memphis, that Prince could be compared to the man who engineered the swap, which was one of those three-team affairs that happen when two teams can’t come to terms and need a third accomplice to make everyone happy.
Joe Dumars—the player from McNeese State, it has been written, is the man you could most closely compare Tayshaun Prince to, in terms of his team value, personality and wisdom.
It says here that the comparison is a broken one.
Dumars was, often, the Pistons’ silent assassin. Dumars’ offensive contributions were not stealth. They didn’t sneak up on you. The stat sheet at the end of the game rarely surprised you when looking next to Dumars’ name. Joe Dumars may have been less than verbose, but his game spoke volumes.
The images, we can close our eyes and see now. The images of Dumars, bouncing the basketball, 20 feet from the hoop, as he sized up his moves. The shot clock winding down, and then there it was—a simple step back to create the six inches of separation he needed from his defender, so he could launch (and drain) a silky smooth set shot.
Or Dumars, curling to the ball off a screen, the basketball delivered with precision from Thomas at the elbow of the key, and No. 4’s effortless catch-and-release—a pretty 17-foot jumper that did nothing but tickle twine.
Who can forget Dumars’ performance in the 1989 NBA Finals against the Lakers, when he was the series MVP? Or his rainmaking floater in the lane against Portland in the ’90 Finals, delivered when everyone on his team knew that Joe Dumars’ father had just passed away—everyone except Dumars himself?
Prince was quiet, and that was the best comparison to Dumars. But Prince played his game in a vacuum on most nights. His stat sheet was filled with numbers that made you ask, “When did those happen?”
This is not a knock on Tayshaun Prince, who frankly might be one of the last of the true small forwards in the NBA—certainly based on the time that he entered the league, in 2002. He slashed and passed and could shoot from the outside, when needed.
But he was no Joe Dumars. Again, not a knock.
Prince had his block of Reggie Miller in the 2004 Conference Finals. That’s true. It is certainly an iconic moment for the Pistons franchise. Some say Prince lived off it for too long, but was he the one who kept playing it time and again? Did he inundate us with re-telling of the block? Was the block the only thing that kept him in the starting lineup for years to come?
No to all of the above.
Prince plays in Memphis now. The Grizzlies are a team that is among the best in the Western Conference. Prince will return to the playoffs, four years after his last appearance in the post-season. Maybe Memphis can surprise and do some damage in the playoffs. Maybe Prince can be that “X-factor” that the media loves to talk about—something Prince was in the 2003 playoffs, coming off Rick Carlisle’s bench as a rookie.
It might seem strange to see Prince in a Memphis uniform, after 10+ years as a Piston. But when you look back at his time in Detroit, did we really see him as a Piston?
Prince was present, but he wasn’t there. And that’s OK, too.