One of the first great athletes I befriended in Detroit was Hall of Fame Lion cornerback Lem Barney. On his first series as a rookie in the NFL, Lem intercepted a Bart Starr pass on the Green Bay 20 and raced into the end zone for a touchdown, something many players don’t do in an entire career.
As Barney flipped the ball to the referee he thought to himself, “Man, this is gonna be easy!” It didn’t take him much longer to realize the truth about life in pro sports: It’s never easy for long, and as soon as it seems easy and you let your guard down, you’re done. It’s exactly that absence of certainty in pro sports that makes them so immensely popular.
After losing Game Six in Miami, Ben Wallace said, “This was a wasted season.” That’s how champions should feel. Ben didn’t want the public thinking he was satisfied with finishing second of the 15 teams in the east. He knows that once his team settles for second, it’ll never win a championship. But the season wasn’t a waste for you, was it? Didn’t 22,000 of you every night at the Palace and millions more watching on television, not love this season to death? Wasn’t starting 37-5 and dreaming of 70 wins and another championship a lot of fun?
The Pistons were perfectly prepared in 2006. They had an established veteran lineup that meshed precisely. And their new coach made as seamless a transition as could be hoped for, respecting the winning situation he inherited, energizing the offense and empowering his all star-laden lineup to contribute in decision making.
Fans tend to only see things from the perspective of their team. They tend to overlook that there is a fine line between winning and losing at this elite level, and others want it as badly or more. The Pistons encountered the same thing that took down San Antonio. Other teams have you in their sights and want what you’ve achieved as badly as you wanted it before you got it.
In the Pistons case, Miami had their hearts cut out when the Pistons beat them in games six and seven last spring. Pat Riley, one of the greatest coaches in history, returned to the bench and brought in four proven players to mesh with his two superstars. He also motivated Shaquille O’Neal to lose 25 pounds and nursed him to health the first half of the season. The Heat had just one mission – dethrone and avenge the Pistons, and their established stars and the new players all bought into it – willing to sacrifice in any way they were asked in order to achieve the greater goal.
The Pistons were the perfect regular season team. They had a proven, championship lineup with an amazing run of success. They incurred no injuries and rolled past less developed teams that were still searching for success.
Miami was the opposite. Riley was integrating James Posey and three guys -- Gary Payton, Jason Williams and Antoine Walker who were accustomed to playing starting and starring roles. Shaq was hurt the first half of the year and Riley was content to use the regular season to create familiarity and develop their formula. When the playoffs came, Miami was ready to roll.
No matter what raging blather you hear on talk radio or around the water cooler, you should take the measured approach with your friends and co-workers. The Pistons are still one of basketball’s top four teams with the established framework and experience to win more championships. Joe Dumars has his finger on the pulse of his team and of the league in general and will do some of the things Riley did.
Dumars will measure the Ben Wallace situation and see if Ben will take a contract that will fit in with the Pistons long range plans. Part of basketball’s Catch-22 structure is that the more great players you develop, the less cash remains to satisfy all of them. Ben may have to decide – do I want to stay with teammates I care for, an organization that’s loyal to me and renew our mission? Or, do I want to believe I can find the same success, satisfaction and happiness with someone who will lure me for more money? It’s an intensely personal decision that no one can make for him, and he should step away for a while and gauge his feelings.
No matter what Ben does, the Pistons are now the hunters and not the hunted. They know that staying on top is harder than getting to the top. It is time for them to reassess their goals and reaffirm their dedication, trust and commitment to each other and their leaders.
The Pistons really don’t believe 2006 was a wasted season. They know it was an integral part of their growth, maturity and ongoing legacy. They recognize the new sheriff down in Miami and they must vow to replicate the hunger and single-minded desire the Heat brought to the 2006 playoffs.
And they know they must ignore the so-called experts and all the accompanying blather that will attempt to pick apart and minimize the many great things they’ve already accomplished and still can accomplish in the seasons to come.