He was the sullen Piston—at times a scowling player, even before there was anything to scowl about, as there has been aplenty lately.
He was the one with arms like Stretch Armstrong and shoulders like a men’s store hanger. He had the babiest of hooks and a left-handed jump shot that had the rotation of a knuckleball and the trajectory of a soft line drive.
Tayshaun Prince didn’t smile much as a Piston. He was, at the same time, the team’s best on-ball defender and a recluse. He was the Garbo of the Pistons. You didn’t dare go to battle without him, yet he was as overlooked as a valley.
In the most recent salad days of Pistons basketball—the championship of 2004 and the near-miss the following year—Prince was content to be the Piston in the shadows of the satellites around him.
Chauncey Billups, the point guard and unquestioned leader. Richard “Rip” Hamilton, the beanpole sharp shooter with the big smile and the “Yes sir!” rallying cry. Rasheed Wallace, the brooding hot head. Ben Wallace, he of the ‘fro and the biceps, who if he played baseball would be known as a “good field, no hit” kind of player.
These were the four satellites, and then there was Prince, the quiet kid from Kentucky, with arms so long they looked like they could swat a basketball away near the rim, even if he was standing at the foul line.
Prince was content to let the others take all the glory—certainly content to let them talk into the microphones and look into the TV cameras that invaded the Pistons locker room every night.
When the four satellites made the All-Star team in 2006, Prince was the only one of the five Pistons starters to stay home that weekend. And that was OK.
Prince didn’t only play small forward, he played small ego. He showed up for work, punched the clock, and when the work day was over, he had his 13 points, his six rebounds, his two steals and a blocked shot. You’d have been hard pressed to recall any of it.
A Billups triple as the shot clock expired? Check. A Hamilton jump shot off a screen to cap a 10-2 run? Check. A Rasheed Wallace technical foul? Check. A Ben Wallace blocked shot to turn the tide? Check.
All of that, you could recall. But any of Prince’s points, rebounds, assists, etc.? Not so much.
Then one by one the rest of the party was traded. Prince was the last of the 2004-05 powerhouse Pistons team remaining, once Hamilton was jettisoned a couple years ago.
Suddenly the team looked to Prince for divine wisdom. Suddenly he was the elder statesman. The media went to Prince on those nights—and there were many as the Pistons sunk into the abyss—when they needed the answers to the age old question, asked of the losers: “Hey, what happened?”
Prince told it like it was, the sewage unwashed from it.
But what Tayshaun Prince wasn’t, really, at any time in his 10-plus years in Detroit, was the heart and soul of the Pistons. It wasn’t his fault.
Prince didn’t have the brashness of a Bill Laimbeer or Rasheed Wallace. He didn’t have the flair for the dramatic of an Isiah Thomas or Chauncey Billups. Prince didn’t have the smile of a John Salley or Rip Hamilton.
Some have said, as the obits of his Pistons career are being written this week following his trade to Memphis, that Prince could be compared to the man who engineered the swap, which was one of those three-team affairs that happen when two teams can’t come to terms and need a third accomplice to make everyone happy.
Joe Dumars—the player from McNeese State, it has been written, is the man you could most closely compare Tayshaun Prince to, in terms of his team value, personality and wisdom.
It says here that the comparison is a broken one.
Dumars was, often, the Pistons’ silent assassin. Dumars’ offensive contributions were not stealth. They didn’t sneak up on you. The stat sheet at the end of the game rarely surprised you when looking next to Dumars’ name. Joe Dumars may have been less than verbose, but his game spoke volumes.
The images, we can close our eyes and see now. The images of Dumars, bouncing the basketball, 20 feet from the hoop, as he sized up his moves. The shot clock winding down, and then there it was—a simple step back to create the six inches of separation he needed from his defender, so he could launch (and drain) a silky smooth set shot.
Or Dumars, curling to the ball off a screen, the basketball delivered with precision from Thomas at the elbow of the key, and No. 4’s effortless catch-and-release—a pretty 17-foot jumper that did nothing but tickle twine.
Who can forget Dumars’ performance in the 1989 NBA Finals against the Lakers, when he was the series MVP? Or his rainmaking floater in the lane against Portland in the ’90 Finals, delivered when everyone on his team knew that Joe Dumars’ father had just passed away—everyone except Dumars himself?
Prince was quiet, and that was the best comparison to Dumars. But Prince played his game in a vacuum on most nights. His stat sheet was filled with numbers that made you ask, “When did those happen?”
This is not a knock on Tayshaun Prince, who frankly might be one of the last of the true small forwards in the NBA—certainly based on the time that he entered the league, in 2002. He slashed and passed and could shoot from the outside, when needed.
But he was no Joe Dumars. Again, not a knock.
Prince had his block of Reggie Miller in the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals. That’s true. It is certainly an iconic moment for the Pistons franchise. Some say Prince lived off it for too long, but was he the one who kept playing it time and again? Did he inundate us with retelling of the block? Was the block the only thing that kept him in the starting lineup for years to come?
No to all of the above.
Prince plays in Memphis now. The Grizzlies are a team that is among the best in the Western Conference. Prince will return to the playoffs, four years after his last appearance in the postseason. Maybe Memphis can surprise and do some damage in the playoffs. Maybe Prince can be that “X-factor” that the media loves to talk about—something Prince was in the 2003 playoffs, coming off Rick Carlisle’s bench as a rookie.
It might seem strange to see Prince in a Memphis uniform, after 10-plus years as a Piston. But when you look back at his time in Detroit, did we really see him as a Piston?
Prince was present, but he wasn’t there. And that’s OK, too.