Yes, I'm from Detroit. But more than that, I root for the underdog.
The 2004 Detroit Pistons were decided underdogs. Their best player, Ben Wallace, was an offensive liability. The entire starting lineup, including Wallace, was in fact composed of outcasts:
- A castoff (Wallace)
- A draft bust (Chauncey Billups)
- A draft-day pariah (Tayshaun Prince)
- Unwanted trade bait (when Rip Hamilton was traded to the Pistons for Jerry Stackhouse, then-Washington Wizards general manager Michael Jordan said he had "picked [Pistons GM Joe] Dumars' pocket")
- A problem player (Rasheed Wallace)
By contrast, the Los Angeles Lakers team they were facing had been touted as one of the greatest ever to grace the court. Besides Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers also had future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
The Pistons led the series 3-1, and were it not for an unwillingness on the part of the Pistons to intentionally foul during a two-point attempt in Game 2—and a resultant Kobe Bryant three-pointer to send the game to overtime—the series would have been over in four.
But here the Pistons were up by 12 in Game 5 but with the game still in doubt. Shortly before the sequence, color commentator Doc Rivers told the national audience, "I get the sense that the Lakers are still in this game." Should the Pistons lose, the final two games would be played on Lakers soil.
I was watching the game at the Royal Oak Music Theatre in Royal Oak, Mich. Despite the lead, the massive crowd was still tense when Billups missed on a drive. But when Ben Wallace stuffed it back home, the crowd went berserk, and I remember thinking palpably, "We're gonna win this."
But it was still the thinking of an underdog. Wishful, hopeful.
Then Kobe drove, and Billups somehow got him to cough up the ball. C-Bill drove again—and this time, he sunk his shot and got fouled. The free throw made it 72-55. And then, on the Lakers' ensuing play, Ben Wallace rejected O'Neal like a flyswatter decimating an insect.
It was goaltending. It didn't matter. What mattered was the message it sent.
To me, and to the berserk crowd in attendance, the star-studded Lakers were suddenly seeing stars. They had suddenly been stopped cold. They could do absolutely nothing against this Pistons team, who now seemed to hold them captive on the court.
It was as if the Pistons had tired of the ESPN commentary wondering how the Lakers were losing, rather than how the Pistons were winning. As if they'd grown weary of the media love their opponents kept getting despite their finals losses.
The Pistons were the better team. And they wanted everyone, everyone, to know it. So it wasn't good enough for Detroit to win. It wanted to humiliate its opponent. The Pistons wanted to stamp them out like a spent cigarette.
And remember, their opponent was supposedly the greatest team ever assembled in the NBA.
This sequence left no doubt the Pistons would win going away, which they did. It also reduced the vaunted, storied Lakers to a helpless, flailing, almost pathetic bunch.
It was breathtaking in the moment, and considering the context. And when we spilled out into the streets for the postgame celebration, this was the moment I remembered: the moment David showed Goliath who was boss.
A footnote: I do a lot of business in the L.A. area. That summer, I must have told 40 strangers in L.A. that I was from Detroit. To a man, every fan I met said some version of "Detroit was the better team. You deserved to win. Hats off to the Pistons." I will never forget their graciousness and humility in calling it like it was.
I say it was this sequence, more than any other, that contributed to the overwhelming—and accurate—public perception that the underdog Pistons were a better team than Shaq, Kobe, Malone and Payton.
Marshall Zweig, NBA League-Wide FC, @IHaveTheWrite