Feels like team spirit

It’s the end of practice and the Detroit Pistons are running hard, pounding up and down the court in one long fast break. Two squads, five-on-five, are driving, cutting to the hoop, fronting each other with hands in face, bodies in the lane and no stopping for anything.

Passes fly like beams of light — shazam — the ball hitting or missing its mark. A full-court lob goes right over reaching arms and slams into a wall — “my bad” — but no harm done. Practice is where chances get taken, risky moves get tried that just might click in a real game. Though this top-speed stuff is real enough.

Run … run … run … it’s just like a high school or college drill, except these are men grown into their prime, with bodies in the best shape of their lives. They’ve never been this tall, fast or strong before — it’s also never meant as much. And there’s a clear goal at work here: Get even better. Everybody’s milling around and panting like hounds after a hunt.

So what is this: starters against the bench, stars against cannon fodder? The Pistons aren’t that kind of team. They’ve got only one bona fide all-star, shooting guard Jerry Stackhouse, and a full roster of role players — Chucky Atkins dishes the ball from the point, Ben Wallace cleans the glass and is one of the league’s top rebounders, Michael Curry, a tough defender, is honing his jump shot, Mikki Moore rejects shots like bad credit in the paint — one general and a whole lot of lieutenants. In these fast-break games, guards, forwards and centers play their positions with an eye toward interchangeability. Everybody plays, everybody works, everybody contributes.

From one end of the roster to the other, there’s no dawdling or fading out. The rookies are right in the thick of it — point guard Mateen Cleaves (from last year’s NCAA champion Michigan State Spartans) and forward Brian Cardinal (from Purdue), the former already making pro-quality feeds and layups, the latter on the injured list at the start of the season with lingering “tendinitis” in both knees. There they are on opposite squads, kicking into high gear, slashing and burning.

Somewhere in the barely controlled chaos that results from bodies pushing themselves to the sweating edge, an unfamiliar guard steps up and lofts a long shot. He jumps right off the dribble, puts up a sweet arc that cuts the air and snaps the net in the hole. It’s Dana Barros, whose 11 years with Seattle and Boston gives him more NBA seniority than any other Piston, and his 5-foot-11 stature matches him with guard Atkins as the shortest guy on the team.

Barros, who wears a portentous number 1 on his jersey, is a quick, sure shooter who handles the ball well. He’s been reclaimed from the NBA trash heap by Pistons strength and conditioning coach Arnie Kander. Until recently, his career — even his ability to walk properly — was on hold with numbness in his left leg and foot. But Kander solved a riddle that other team trainers couldn’t — and the Pistons got themselves another lieutenant, maybe even a captain.

Joe’s team

This season’s Pistons are a brand-new crew, if not quite in numbers then in bottom-line attitude. Returning from last year’s model — designed as a launching pad for the Grant Hill celebrity space shuttle (since departed for Orlando) and his Stackhouse booster rocket — are Jud Buechler, Curry, Eric Montross, Moore and Jerome “Junk Yard Dog” Williams. Stackhouse, one of the most improved players in the NBA last year, now hovers around the league scoring lead with a 28 points-per-game average and has become this fast ride’s driveshaft. With Curry and Williams — always known for their flat-out hustle, toughness and ability to show up when needed — he embodies the new work ethic, which is actually an old work ethic from the championship days of the “Bad Boys.”

As instilled by Joe Dumars, president of basketball operations since June and legendary shooting guard for the homies, this credo says that thou shalt outhustle and outmuscle thine opponent, and thou shalt never utter the words “die,” “can’t,” “uncle” or other such obscenities in the hallowed halls of the Palace of Auburn Hills — or on the road for that matter. In a sport already distinguished by pure athleticism, the Dumars approach means playing under control while pushing the limits of speed, stamina, dexterity and grace under fire.

New to the gang are such hand-picked pieces of the puzzle as Atkins, Barros, Cardinal, Cleaves and forwards Billy Owens, Joe Smith, Ben Wallace and John Wallace, all acquired with one goal in mind: Work it on out! No LA lap of luxury or Big Apple penthouse here in which to fall asleep. No fatties, slouchers, wackos or whiners. This is b-ball as we in Motown once knew it, now and for the future.

Fearless leader

At the source of this precisely organized riot is head coach George Irvine, a tall, spare guy whose body tells you he’s a former player. A forward in his college days and then a guard with the ABA’s Virginia Squires, Irvine was a high-percentage shooter who refused to let the knee injury that ended his playing career force him out of the game entirely. After 16 seasons with the Indiana Pacers, primarily as vice president of basketball operations, and a few years as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, he found himself as a Pistons assistant and in the right place when his predecessor Alvin Gentry was let go. What started as an interim job turned into a long-term commitment as players and Pistons management alike recognized Irvine as a head coach with a deep understanding of the game and the needs of players.

As Irvine sits still after practice for yet another of the seemingly endless interviews he gives these days, he talks of the variation in precisely that all-important work ethic from one team to another in the league.

“That’s maybe the biggest difference between teams. There’s a huge difference in character and work ethic from team to team and from player to player. First and foremost with me, when I was with Indiana and drafting players, were character and competitiveness — people who want to work. And Joe Dumars is very much in the same line. All you’ve got to do is look at the kind of player Joe was and you’ll understand the kind of player he wants to go after.”

Among the mountain of tasks facing an NBA coach during the regular season — what with personnel decisions, media demands, personal appearances, etc. — Irvine sees motivation and teaching, both of which impact directly on the work ethic issue, as primary.

“I love the teaching aspect of basketball. I’ve worked with not only coaching the pros, but also, ’cause I have children, I’ve coached young kids. They were in programs from the time they were 11 to the time they were 17. I did that for about 10 years ...

“You know, I have a philosophy: I coach players the way I wanted to be coached — being fair but being firm. And I believe that with the players we have a family. We try not to embarrass each other out in front of people, but when we’re in the gym, when we’re in the locker room, it’s family. You can say what you want to say. It’s nothing personal. We’re just trying to get better — it’s player to player, coach to player, player to coach, whatever. I think you just try to treat people the right way.”

And this includes a motivated approach to practice sessions that comes out in hard-playing, fast-break finales, rather than in so-called “suicide” sprints and reps for their own sake.

“As a coach, I don’t ever put guys and just run ’em for conditioning … In practice, we break things down to half-court … we do a lot of half-court two-on-two, three-on-three stuff … But at the end of practice, for conditioning, I let ’em just go. Today we ended up four-on-four full-court. And I’d much rather, as an ex-player, have played hard and got tired playing than get put on the end line and run suicides.”

Inventive realism

Irvine talks about this team-family with a sympathy that goes beyond the “this game is a business” attitude so prevalent among NBA coaches and players. But that doesn’t keep him from a level-headed assessment of himself, his players and their on-court chances.

“The easiest thing to do as a coach is to stand up and call plays, you dictate them … it’s like football, you can huddle up. But I think for our particular team, the way we’re built, that if I stand up and call plays every time, we’re going to have a hard time scoring. We’re not a strong post-up team (Joe Smith helps us there) … and we’re not a good outside shooting team (well, Dana brings us some outside shooting). But really, if you look at it … other than Dana, we don’t really have any player who comes off screens well and shoots the ball.

“Now Jerry’s great at catching the ball and beating you one-on-one, and drawing defenders. And then Jud Buechler’s a very good spot-up shooter, but he’s not good at coming off a screen. Though Dana can do both.”

So how can the Pistons do it? How can they score, aside from the shooting of Stackhouse, Barros and Atkins (who’s also been lighting up the scoreboard lately)? During a particular fourth-quarter stretch in the Nov. 29 New Jersey Nets game, the Pistons’ defense was blistering, their fast break a scorching mix of intuitive chemistry, merciless collective willpower and spot-on execution. In a word, the new Bad Boys were burnin’ — and the Nets just crumbled. But could the team do that “Every Night,” as this year’s PR slogan goes, and a whole game at a time?

“Why not?” says Irvine. “I expect hard effort right on through. We don’t have a lot of all-star type players, but we’ve got a lot of guys who can play. And I’m not worried about playing the 12th guy, ’cause I have confidence in them …

“I’d rather wear teams down. I thought we wore New Jersey down — they were in a ripe position to get worn down, because they’d been traveling — but at the same time I think we can do that. That’s why I want ’em up-tempo. I think we have more good players than a lot of teams. Most people would tell you that you’re much better off having quality than quantity. And I know we have weaknesses, but we also have strength in character, we have strength in attitude, we have strength in numbers … We’re going to beat you with character, guys who are going to work hard, and depth.”

Big Ben

Ben Wallace is practicing free throws. His imposing 6-foot-9 frame is all muscle as his arms punish the ball at the foul line, raising it and launching a brick … clunk, off the rim. It’s something he’s not very good at.

Fans have gotten used to low expectations when Wallace steps to the line. So after practice, a Pistons assistant bounces the ball back to him, over and over, and Wallace tries again, over and over, mostly missing. It makes you wonder if his former coaches ever bothered to help him with this part of his game.

Two days later, after more of the same, the assistant has Wallace go to one end of the gym and try full-court bombs. It seems improbable, unnecessary, crazy — but Wallace stands there, extends those massive arms of his and sends the ball up toward the rafters in a stratospheric arc — and it comes down just off the mark. He does this time and again with no apparent effort, without even lifting his feet off the floor!

Until now, offense and scoring have not been a key part of Wallace’s NBA career. One of the game’s purest rebounders, he’s been used to getting control of the ball at both ends of the court, blocking shots and harassing the enemy’s larger edifices. The Utah Jazz’s Karl Malone, a wicked 6-foot-9 power forward and the league’s second all-time leading scorer, found this out the irritating hard way Nov. 26 at the Palace. Though the Pistons lost that one, Wallace held Malone to an uncharacteristically low 12 points through three quarters, pulled down 17 rebounds of his own, blocked one shot and stole the ball five times — all without committing a single foul.

“I think the officials, they like to see guys come out and work hard,” says Wallace modestly. “I’m pretty sure there was an opportunity where they could’ve called a foul, but the officials are fans of the game too. They like to see guys come out and work hard, not do so much bitchin’ and moanin,’ and they let you play your game.”

“Big Ben” — the name Wallace has tattooed among other designs on his right arm — has begun to discover new aspects of his game with the Pistons, as he gets the kind of encouragement that seems to have been lacking in his past. A player who worked out first with the Boston Celtics and then with the Washington Bullets in order to get into the league (he wasn’t drafted out of college), Wallace has had a hard row to hoe.

Says Irvine, “If I was more of an offensive coach, if I was really worried about offense, we probably wouldn’t play Ben. But he creates offense from his defense, that’s my whole philosophy … I love Ben Wallace and I’d like to see him get more aggressive offensively.

“I get here with the press after every game, after every practice, and they keep talking about offense and scoring, offense and scoring … I keep telling them, as I do the players, that I don’t worry about scoring. If we’re playing the right way defensively … and if we’re playing the right way also offensively, if we’re moving the ball, passing and cutting, and are unselfish, we will score. But my mind is not into always worrying about scoring.

“There are plenty of coaches who’d take one look at Ben Wallace and go, ‘He can’t make a shot. He can’t score. He won’t make a foul shot. And I can’t play him.’ But I love the guy. He may not score, but he’s going to get better at that. We’ve just got to get him in that mind-set. Because the guy is all about what you want your team to be about. He’s all about winning, he’s all about hard work, he’s all about toughness … His offensive rebounds have an effect on the game, even if he only scores two points.”

For someone sitting up in the stands at the Palace, Wallace isn’t easy to miss. Though old photos of him with a mammoth Afro have been circulating, he’s currently wearing either a mop of short braids or elegant superhero cornrows. The Pistons have even run a promotion centered on his hair. But it’s Wallace’s bulk, not the hair, that makes the difference. And his quick hands. And his gravity-negating jumps — the ability, as players say, to “sky” — which are his ultimate weapons on the boards.

“I don’t come out and put a whole lot of emphasis on scoring,” says Wallace. “We’ve got other guys to score, you know, I do the little dirty work.”

Such nasty necessary duties have seen him pull down rebounds in the teens all season, with a personal best of 23 against the Nets. And as his own scoring has increased (he’s regularly had games of eight and nine points, with a season-high 14), his intensity has as well. As fans have been quick to notice, Wallace does whatever it takes, putting his body on the line, in the air or on the floor, to get results.

In the white-knuckles fourth quarter of the Dec. 3 Washington Wizards game at the Palace, Wallace goes to the line for a free throw. He bounces the ball three times and everybody crosses their fingers. Then sighting along a curve in space, he puts up a lovely floater that comes down in the net. Count it.

Time waits for no one

Fans in love with their memories —Isiah Thomas, James “Buddha” Edwards, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis “Worm” Rodman, Vinnie “Microwave” Johnson, Rick Mahorn, John “Spider” Salley, Mark Aguirre and Joe Dumars — have suffered for a decade in Detroit. Grant Hill came and went with much ado about nothing. Head coaches have filed in and out of the Palace, one whose face cracked when he tried to smile and others who seemed too nice for words. Trades gone bad and trades gone wrong have brought money worries and regret for too many years to think about.

But in 1996, the Pistons took the Junk Yard Dog with the 26th pick in the NBA draft. In 1997, the club got Stackhouse and Montross in a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. And in 1999, after Curry returned from two seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, the foundation was laid, though few at the time would have known for what.

Now with Dumars at the helm, Irvine in the trenches and their moves to acquire a whole new species of Pistons player (a kind familiar to older fans), the ground floor of a no-time-for-jive hoops concept is ready for immediate occupancy.

If you haven’t seen Stack attack, if you haven’t seen the slammer-jammer master of the unexpected slash to the rim and finish with a reverse dunk — if you haven’t seen Wallace give no quarter in the paint, Mateen’s passes zip like guided missiles or the pinpoint barrage of Atkins, Barros and Buechler from beyond the three-point line, then what are you waiting for? Jump on the bandwagon while there’s still plenty of room.

So the radio sports croakers and blubberers are just too bored or out of it to pay much attention — what do we care? Check out this workingman’s team once and you’ll see what it’s all about. These Pistons don’t want to “be like Mike,” they want to rock the league like a gang of collective improvisers with attitude. And though fireworks don’t usually go off in January, Stack, Ben, Dog and company mean to light up our lives. The boys, and the best game in town, are back.

George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]
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