The Detroit Pistons had just finished practicing one day last week when a man in a white shirt open at the collar started walking uncertainly toward coach Chuck Daly. Daly examined the approaching specimen carefully—taking note of the inconsequential build, the receding hairline, the advancing years—and then immediately began sizing him up for a Piston uniform. He had point guard written all over him.
The defending, two-time world champions have had to take their guards where they could find them this season, and they have found them practically everywhere. There are intramural-league guards, old guards, older guards, school crossing guards, elite Republican Guards—and the Pistons might yet have to tap them all. Once the scourge of the NBA, Detroit's backcourt now includes one guard with a hole in his wrist, another with a hole in his shoe, and a 34-year-old Microwave with a hole in his game.
As it turned out, the man walking toward Daly at the Pistons' practice facility at Oakland University, not far from The Palace of Auburn Hills, only wanted the Detroit coach to write a message to his wife that said "Sometimes sports prayers arc answered" and then sign it. "Whenever you guys are behind by two or three points at the end of a game, she gets down and prays for the Pistons," the man explained. Daly started to scribble his name on a piece of paper, then stopped suddenly and looked at the fan with new eyes. "Just tell her to enjoy the games," Daly growled, "and get off her knees."
Daly has been trying to get the Pistons off their knees since they lost All-Star point guard Isiah Thomas at the end of January, and he was still hard at it on March 6 at The Palace, where Detroit had built a nine-point lead over the New York Knicks in the third quarter, only to fall behind by seven in the fourth. It was at that moment that Thomas attempted to inspire his teammates during a timeout by informing them, "You'll never win if you don't believe you can win."
The Pistons then came back and tied the game on a three-point basket by guard Joe Dumars with only 2.5 seconds remaining. Now all they needed was some of that smothering Piston D, and overtime would follow. The Knicks sent in long-distance threat Trent Tucker, who threw up a turning, falling-out-of-bounds jumper that grazed the backboard and caromed in just as time expired. Tucker wound up sitting in the lap of Detroit trainer Mike Abdenour, who says he whispered something particularly unpleasant in Tucker's ear, and the Pistons wound up with a 102-99 loss, their 23rd defeat of the season, equaling their total for all of last year.
This startling reversal of the Pistons' fortunes began on Jan. 29, when surgery was performed on Thomas's right wrist to fuse three bones he damaged in a game a year ago. During the Pistons' shoot-around several hours before the game against the Knicks, Thomas spent half an hour dribbling a ball in deft figure eights around his ankles and between his legs to strengthen his right hand, which was still in a cast. The cast will be removed next week, at which time there will be about a month left before the playoffs begin. Thomas's rehabilitation period is expected to last from six to eight weeks, so there is a real question as to whether he will be able to play at all in the postseason.
Ever since the operation, Thomas's injury has become the explanation of choice for virtually all of Detroit's problems, but the truth was never quite that tidy. The Pistons opened with a record of 13-2 in November, then lost seven of eight at the start of December. They were still healthy, but the erosion was already beginning to show.
Detroit rebounded with another 13-2 streak in January and won three of its four games after Thomas's operation, but since then the team has lost 10 of 16 games. "Isiah was an intimidating presence for us," says backup center John Salley, who was brought off the injured list—he had strained his back—last week. "Mentally, we would walk on the court and blow people away. Now we walk on the court and they take a breath of fresh air because he's not there."
Which, of course, is no reflection personally on Thomas, who is among the sweetest-smelling of all NBA players, a veritable pine-scented air freshener among point guards. The surest measure of how much Thomas means to the Pistons is not their record without him, but the fact that eight of the games they've played since his injury have gone down to the final seconds or to overtime, and that of those, Detroit has lost five. Even wounded—perhaps especially wounded—the swaggering Bad Boys of other years would have seized those opportunities by the throat.
"Anytime you have injuries when there are already problems, the problems are going to be magnified," says Dumars. "Our concentration hasn't been as keen as we're used to. Before all the injuries, maybe we could overcome those occasional lulls, but now the lulls have become paramount. Instead of 3-5, we should be 5-3 in games like that. It's frustrating, but you can't allow yourself to carry that kind of emotional baggage around or it begins to affect your game."
These are the new, warm and fuzzy Pistons, who dutifully attend their emotional baggage like bellhops. They refer frequently to the war in the Persian Gulf and how it has helped them keep their own problems "in perspective."
All this perspective has brought certain costs with it, not the least of which is the entirely unwelcome view of the Bulls' backsides as Chicago vanishes into the horizon with the Central Division title. Detroit has owned its division for three seasons, but at this point the Pistons appear far likelier to fall behind Milwaukee into third place than they do to catch the Bulls, whom they trail by 6½ games.
"The games have been close," says Dumars, who got his newest perspective on life when his first child was born two weeks ago. "But even my saying that doesn't bode well for us. People don't come to see us play well, they come to see us win."
When the Pistons lost five games in a row last month—the first time in five years that has happened—the losses were by an average of only four points. The emotionally wearying defeats could take a heavy toll on Detroit by the time the playoffs begin in late April. And though the Pistons have continued to play the best defense in the league (allowing 96.3 points per game), they are only 5-18 when they haven't held teams to fewer than 100 points. Against teams with a winning record, they are a disheartening 11-16.
"When you go to the Finals three years in a row, your team can get comfortable," Daly says. "We had been on automatic pilot for a long time because we were good enough to win without doing anything special." When the Pistons lost a game in New York by 28 points on Feb. 17 and then three games later were defeated by the Charlotte Hornets for the first time ever (122-114), forward Dennis (Worm) Rodman said Detroit was playing like "an expansion team." Rodman, who has the words WILD THANG sculpted in topiary on the back of his head, is the second-ranked rebounder in the league and the first Piston to concede that "sometimes you don't know what gear we're going to show up in."
The loss of Thomas seemed to set the Pistons churning frantically in reverse. "All of us were going in different directions," Rodman says. "It was like we had lost our commander in chief." The strain created by this confusion began to be felt by the rest of the Pistons' lineup. "Our dominoes are lined up very carefully," Daly says. "When one goes down, it can bring all the rest down with it."
Salley went down first after lifting something heavy at home. This is just the sort of thing that happens when company drops by your 62-room mansion and you have only 61 rooms' worth of furniture. You try to pick up an ottoman, and bang, you're out for eight games. Salley's recovery was speeded up by a bit of acupuncture from an institute run by Dr. Jewel Pookrum, who has had some pretty big clients. She treated Nelson Mandela, the South African nationalist leader, with an herbal mixture (he had a cold) when he was in Detroit last year during his triumphant tour of the U.S.
After more than a month of trying to carry the team on his shoulders as Thomas's replacement, Dumars finally began to break down piece by piece. He has played more than 41 minutes a game, most of them with a hole cut in his left sneaker because the hyperextended big toe on that foot is so swollen that it won't fit into the shoe. He missed two games only when his right hamstring tightened up so badly that he feared it might snap and keep him out of the playoffs. "It's not your body that tells you to quit, it's your mind," Dumars says. "My mind and body are disputing the facts right now."
His body seemed to be winning last Saturday night when Dumars hit a 17-foot jumper from the baseline with just 2.4 seconds left to beat Indiana 114-112. This time there were no miracle heaves from the opposition to negate Dumars's dramatic efforts. "We know what it takes to win a championship," says Vinnie Johnson, who has moved into the starting lineup in Thomas's absence and led Detroit with 25 points against the Pacers. The Microwave has occasionally baked his own team by shooting only 61% from the foul line, but he remains convinced that the travails of the regular season will soon pass into playoff glory. "This could be a blessing in disguise," Johnson says, echoing a belief currently popular around Detroit.
"If this is a blessing in disguise," replies Dumars dryly, "I'd like to see some blessings undisguised real soon."
Most of the Pistons' recent blessings have come disguised as retired guys or, as in the case of 34-year-old guard John Long, a guy who had retired twice. The Pistons found Long playing pickup games in nearby Southfield, Mich., and signed him for the rest of the season. Thirty-five-year-old Gerald Henderson, who had played for Detroit for part of last season, was running a transportation company that shuttles the elderly and handicapped around Philadelphia when the Pistons signed him to a 10-day contract. His first assignment, on Feb. 24, was to guard Magic Johnson in a nationally televised game against the Los Angeles Lakers. And where did the Pistons find their old teammate? Playing in the St. Joseph's University intramural league.
Performing for the Pistons, whose postseason successes have resulted in their playing a staggering 306 games over the last three seasons, is enough to make an old man of anybody. "The long seasons take their toll physically and emotionally," Dumars says. "You really have to dig deep night after night to get up for every game. Obviously, some guys are better at doing that than others."
Should the Pistons, given their remote chances of gaining the home court advantage in any playoff series past the first round, stop digging quite so deep and rest their injured people, like Dumars and Salley? The 1968-69 Boston Celtics finished the regular season sixth in a 14-team league, then turned it on in the playoffs to win their 10th championship in 11 years. Could the Pistons, without Thomas, pull off something truly stunning like that?
There seems to stir within Thomas at least a hint of ambivalence toward the regular season. When he rejoined his teammates three weeks after his operation, he seemed shocked to discover how quickly their confidence had eroded. "The thing that really worried me is that all of a sudden our goals [became] shortsighted," he said. "We have to continue to look toward the long-range goals. We can't start judging our team from February until April. We have to make sure we can see the rest of the road."
But Daly says, "Every night you lose, it's a problem, and trying to accept it simply doesn't work." And forward Mark Aguirre warns, "You coast, you coast your way right out of the playoffs. And the playoffs are a different world for most of the other teams, but they're like home for us."
So the Pistons will continue to struggle along manfully, winning a few, losing a few more. "We can't go into the playoffs on a downswing," Salley cautions. But how low is too low? How far down is too far? "If we can win 75 percent of our games from now on—maybe 14 or 15 of them—we would be in great shape," Rodman said on the afternoon of last week's disheartening loss to the Knicks. "And if you look at our schedule, we can beat 80 percent of those teams." He didn't sound as if he really believed it, which was probably just as well. One of the victories Rodman was already counting on would have come against the Knicks. Everybody around Detroit, on your knees.
NATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS
At times the Pistons—from left, Salley, Johnson and Rodman—look nothing like champs.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS
The determinedly upbeat Johnson can dish it out, but at the foul line he's hard to take.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
Dumars, sore toe and all, has come out of Thomas's shadow to carry the team.
Rodman fretted that the disorganized Pistons were playing like an expansion team.