The New Bad Boys
The season isn't even half over, but it has already been a long, hard one for the Pistons, who have had enough turmoil in three months to last them several years. Through Sunday, Detroit was last in the Central Division with a 9-28 record, and only the lowly Mavericks stood between them and the worst record in the league. With a 118-98 win over the Heat on Friday, the Pistons snapped a 14-game losing streak, which equaled their single-season record. Detroit is giving a whole new meaning to its old nickname, the Bad Boys. But the numbers don't fully reflect how turbulent a season it has been for the Pistons.
The turmoil began in November when guard Alvin Robertson, upset by his impending suspension by the team for missing physical therapy sessions, grabbed general manager Billy McKinney by the neck. That's the kind of thing that will get a guy traded, and Robertson was, some two weeks later, to the Nuggets. Then there was the Isiah Thomas-Bill Laimbeer bout, in which Thomas broke his right hand sucker-punching Laimbeer and ended up missing seven games. That was followed closely by Laimbeer's retirement (say what you will about Laimbeer, but through Sunday, Detroit had gone 4-20 since he took a seat in the stands on Dec. 1). Then came the Isiah gambit, in which Thomas flirted with approving a trade to the Knicks but agreed to a deal with the Pistons that might put him in charge of the franchise's basketball operations as early as next season, which places McKinney and coach Don Chaney in the awkward position of dealing with a player who could be their boss just a few months from now.
Take all that, mix in some embarrassing losses—including a 91-89 defeat by the Magic on Dec. 7 when Detroit blew a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter—and it's not surprising that Chaney's patience is wearing thin. He pulled his starting back-court of Thomas and Joe Dumars less than five minutes into what turned out to be a 109-94 loss to the Jazz on Jan. 17 and said afterward, "I should have yanked them earlier. Not just them. The whole starting lineup. It's about pride and effort and earning your money. Today we didn't earn our money. Not one dollar."
The dissatisfaction goes both ways. Chaney didn't make any friends among his players when, for instance, he called a practice the day after the Pistons beat the Cavaliers in overtime last month. The following night Detroit responded by losing to the 76ers by 29 points.
As bad as they have been, the Pistons do have the beginnings of a brighter future, with a core of young players, including guards Lindsey Hunter and Allan Houston. But this season would be a success for Detroit if it could avoid any more major blowups before the lottery that they will almost surely be a part of in May. After the skid-stopping win over Miami, Dumars summed up how far the Pistons have fallen. "There was the game, we won for our first championship," he said. "And there was the game we won for our second championship. Right now, this one comes in third."
Good Seats Available
One of the season's biggest mysteries is the Case of the Missing Fans in Atlanta. The Hawks, the most pleasant surprise in the league, have been battling the Knicks and the Bulls for the best record in the Eastern Conference, but the news has apparently escaped most of the city. Atlanta's average attendance of 12,194, leaving more than 4,000 empty scats in the Omni, is the second-worst in the NBA. Last season the Hawks' average of 11,981 was the lowest in the league, but Atlanta was an uninspiring 43-39 in 1992-93, so the tepid fan support was easy to understand. This year, it isn't.
One theory is that the fans are tired of the same old cast of characters, led by Dominique Wilkins and Kevin Willis. But probably the biggest reason for the disappointing turnout is that Hawk fans, having been burned before by talented teams that produced disappointing results, are being cautious. "They still don't think we're going anywhere," Wilkins says. "Maybe we have to win the division."
The Hawks' poorly attended turnaround is reminiscent of the reversal the Braves pulled off three years ago, when they went from last in the National League West in 1990 to the World Series the following year. Hawk general manager Pete Babcock talked with his Brave counterpart, John Schuerholz, earlier this season about the time between improved performance and improved attendance. "John reminded me that even though the Braves had turned it around that year, it was September before the fans started coming out," Babcock says. "But I've always taken the position that it's the franchise's responsibility to earn the respect of the fans."
That's true. No community owes it to its team to fill an arena; fans can spend their entertainment dollar any way they choose. But, hey, Atlanta, the Hawks are good. Really. You should see 'em.
From our personals file comes this tale about the dating game. In a Jet magazine article, Sun guard Kevin Johnson advertised for a bride, saying he hasn't been able to find the right kind of girl traveling in NBA circles. He has even hired an assistant to screen applicants.
So you're in an NBA rotisserie league and you accidentally drafted Clipper center Elmore Spencer when you thought you were getting Jazz center Felton Spencer. Relax, lots of people confuse the centers Spencer, who are unrelated. In terms of numbers, they're almost interchangeable. Examine their stats through last weekend.
ANDREW BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS
Willis & Co. have bounded to the top. but Atlanta fans seemingly haven't noticed.