June 15th, 2004. Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
Make a mark in the ledger for the good guys. Nine years ago today the Detroit Pistons finished off their gentleman’s sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers, the proudest moment of the Not Quite Second Pistons Dynasty. Things were good for the next few years, comfortably good, reliably good, but this was the moment.
Journeyman Chauncey Billups. Streaky pest Richard Hamilton. Gangly youngster Tayshaun Prince. Undersized dynamo Ben Wallace. Fiery “cancer” Rasheed Wallace. These were our heroes.
The villains were the Los Angeles Lakers. Schmaltzy, entitled, an empire in recession looking for easy victories against a rugged team with no superstar, just some spare parts, talent that just didn’t belong anywhere else. Beside bickering mainstays Kobe and Shaq, ring-hunters Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined to create a “super-team”. After a blistering start the Lake Show’s injuries and strained chemistry kicked in, but they still finished with the second seed and sauntered into the Finals as the clear favorites.
But the Lakers shouldn’t have been so heavily favored. The Pistons were not underdog in the classic sense. The cult of the underdog or the plucky Cinderella team does not apply to the (Kind Of) Bad Boys. Underdogs rely on luck, on match-up gimmicks and maybe some hot shooting. The Pistons weren’t tricksters. And despite the media’s obsessive need for the 2004 title to come with an asterisk, the Pistons not only deserved to win it, they won it with a merciless and honest defense that took every Laker (other than Kazaam/Steel/Shaq-Fu) out of the game. This was a dominant defensive stand, the 300 Spartans at Thermopolaye, except this time the Spartans actually won, and they did it with grace, and then they went back to work and got back to the Finals the next year.
The Detroit Pistons were a consistently excellent team. Later on things would start to fall apart. Rip donned a creepy mask, Rasheed appeared on MTV Cribs, Chauncey would be exiled, Big Ben bolted for Chicago, and Tayshaun developed rigor mortis before our eyes. But let’s give thanks to that team, at the height of their powers, delivering a message loud and clear to the Lakers and all the super-star laden teams to come: You aren’t the Yankees and you don’t get to buy this championship. You have to pay the iron price.
So raise a glass to the Pistons on their day. To the memories and to the future.
Larry Brown, you were alright too. Sometimes.