We were in Denver in early March. The Pistons were practicing at a field house on the campus of the University of Denver before flying to Seattle. There was a side gym and I was leaning up against the bleachers talking with our TV producer Stan Fracker. At one point, I looked over to the practice session a hundred feet away on the far court and was struck by the classic ordinariness of the scene: Players standing at ease listening to their coaches and then jogging through plays as the coaches positioned them and explained things. I said to Stan, “If a stranger walked in, I could point over there and say, ‘by the way, those guys in the wrinkled practice shorts and randomly colored practice jerseys – see them over there -- that’s the best basketball team in the world.” The guy would have said, “Right, and I’m the pope.”
The point is, that without 20,000 people on hand and the trappings of the world’s great arenas; without the famous and familiar red, white and blue uniforms, this could have been any team from anywhere, USA. The Pistons were simply practicing and refining their craft, implementing the wishes of their coaches, just as they’d been doing since they were little kids. Take away the plush surroundings and the hype and excitement of the “show” – strip it to its bare basics, and you have a bunch of guys playing ball, just as they’ve done their entire lives.
It’s a case of extraordinary people doing ordinary, fundamentals things. The only difference is that they this particular group does them better than the other hundred thousand teams in the world. The sounds of squeaking sneakers and bouncing balls echoed through the cavernous facility as players moved into smaller groups or worked alone. They were continuing to repeat and ingrain the fundamentals and the refined movements of the game, that enable them to orchestrate a basketball ballet like no one else can.
Another small scene struck me in Indiana the other night. Before they played the Pacers, Lindsey Hunter explained to me the mentality of players coming off the bench. He said it’s a “Catch 22.” You unconditionally help and support your bench mates even though you still want all the minutes you can get. As a veteran, Hunter knows that it’s all part of how champions are made. He shared bench minutes with Memo Okur, Mike James and Corliss Williamson on the 2004 title team, and now his group is Tony Delk, Antonio McDyess and Mo Evans.
Lindsey said that it’s harder for young players like Carlos Delfino to deal with the sitting. Unlike Hunter, Delfino is still trying to establish himself and create an NBA persona. Delfino had played no minutes in three of the Pistons previous five games and the media had been asking him about it. Lindsey said it’s up to the veterans to keep Carlos mentally involved, working hard, and accepting what is given him.
It just so happened that Delfino got into the game early that night and played a dozen strong minutes in the first half – almost as many minutes as he’d gotten in the last two weeks. I watched him closely, thinking about what Lindsey had said.
When the horn for the half sounded, the Pistons walked off the court. My seat was right under the basket. As they walked by, Lindsey put his arm around Delfino and said something in his ear. Delfino listened and nodded his head. Lindsey had told him, “Good job. You stayed ready.”
Although just another ordinary moment, it was also an enlightening glimpse into how champions think and act.