Archive for basketball
In the end, the clock struck midnight. The carriage turned into a pumpkin. The BMOC got the girl. The house won another.
The NCAA men’s basketball championship will be a battle of no. 1 seeds, after all.
Duke University put an end to another furious March Madness run by Michigan State.
It is April, after all.
The Blue Devils, with their legendary coach and decades of basketball excellence, pretty much flicked the seventh-seeded Spartans off their shoulder in a decisive 81-61 romp that never really was much of a game.
MSU has a legendary coach, too. They have decades of basketball excellence on their resume, too.
But on Saturday night in Indianapolis, Duke showed why they entered the tournament as one of the top-four seeded teams in the country, while the Spartans showed that sometimes you can only go so far on grit, determination and a good story.
Going into this Final Four, MSU was the one team that showed up as an interloper—a supposed hanger-on that couldn’t possibly have been one of the last teams standing because their talent didn’t measure up.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would have none of that talk prior to the game, telling anyone that would listen that the Spartans did indeed have players, not just moxie. It wasn’t just coach speak. Krzyzewski has been around long enough to know that any team that wins four games to reach the Final Four didn’t get there without guys that can play.
Coach K also knew that those players were being guided by Tom Izzo, who takes to March like a fish to water.
Izzo and his teams show up to the tournament and it’s as if nothing that happened prior to March matters in the least.
Look bad in a road loss in January? Cough up a game at home against a lesser opponent in February?
None of it matters to Izzo and his kids when March gets Mad.
The success Izzo has enjoyed in the tournament has been oft-repeated, and everyone knows it has all resulted in just the one championship (2000). But even if Izzo doesn’t win another championship, his teams will go down as ones that scare the dickens out of everyone before they’re finally defeated.
On Saturday, it took a great team from a great basketball school to put an end to Izzo’s latest improbable tournament run.
The Spartans got off to a 14-6 lead before Duke found their sea legs and ran MSU out of the gym.
Izzo wins in March, but Krzyzewski wins more. And Krzyzewski wins in April, too.
And the Blue Devils win in Indianapolis, where they captured national championships in 1991 and 2010.
Krzyzewski is 9-3 in Final Four games. Izzo is now 3-4.
So the pursuit for the elusive second championship that will ensure Izzo’s place on a level that is slightly higher on which he currently sits, continues.
Krzyzewski, meanwhile, seeks national title no. 5 on Monday night against Wisconsin, which upended Kentucky, 71-64 in the other semi-final game.
An all-Big Ten Final was oh, so close to happening, as it turned out.
But Duke was too smothering, too well-oiled, too on their game for MSU.
“After the first four minutes, we were a different team. We played great basketball tonight, especially on the defensive end,” Krzyzewski said.
Part of the genius of Izzo in March is that, while his teams certainly are not untalented, MSU has never embraced the one-and-d0ne method of going after players who pass through college like a commuter train. MSU isn’t a basketball factory, per se—its players stick around long enough to plant some roots and learn the campus without needing a directory.
Now, whether Tom Izzo can reach the mountain top again by offering recruits the more traditional, old school collegiate athletic experience, remains to be seen. He wants to produce NBA players, too, but he prefers to do it without his kids needing “HELLO My Name Is” tags at practice.
Duke is moving on. Again. Goliath advances. The hare beats the tortoise.
After Saturday’s loss, Izzo lamented the game. He was allowed.
“I feel bad because I didn’t think people got to see the team that won 12 out of 15 games,” the coach said. “So give Duke credit and give our team credit for getting someplace most people didn’t think we could go.”
That last sentence has often been attached to Tom Izzo-coached teams in the NCAA tournament.
Once again, Izzo got the Spartans to a place most people didn’t think they could go.
Once again, MSU got to a Final Four improbably.
But there is hardly any dishonor in losing to Duke, a school that doesn’t get there improbably. It’s only improbable if the Blue Devils don’t make the Final Four.
“It’s an amazing thing, I mean, just to be in the Final Four, but to play on Monday night is the ultimate honor,” Krzyzewski said.
“Now they’ve got a chance to play for a national championship, and damn, damn how great is that?”
It never gets old for these coaching legends, does it?
The Pistons teased Bob Lanier when he played in Detroit.
Lanier, the greatest big man in franchise history, got teased from the moment the Pistons chose him first overall in the 1970 NBA draft, out of St. Bonaventure.
Lanier was flat on his back in a hospital bed, his leg immobilized in a cast, when the draft took place. A serious knee injury suffered in his last college game made him a temporary gimp.
Yet the Pistons, for too many years a team that was a doughnut (a hole in the middle), had faith in the 6’11” Lanier and, despite his knee injury, snatched him off the board.
Lanier combined with young point guard David Bing to create an inside-out presence that the Pistons had never known. And the Pistons got off to a 9-0 start in Lanier’s rookie season.
One can only imagine the sugar plums going through Lanier’s head. Rookie year, undefeated after nine games. How many championships will I win in the NBA?
Lanier and Bing were great, but the supporting cast was always a work in progress. Some pieces were contributory, but others weren’t a great fit. The result was that the Pistons were frequent playoff participants in the 1970s but only once did they get past the first round (1976).
More teasing for Lanier.
Lanier played for eight coaches in his nine-plus years as a Piston. The revolving door was letting in the stench of organizational dysfunction.
There was no free agency in the NBA when Lanier played. Even now, only speculation can be used as to whether he would have bolted Detroit if given the option.
There wasn’t free agency in Lanier’s day, but there were trades. And finally, late in 1979, Bob Lanier, the face of the Pistons franchise once Bing was traded in 1975, demanded to be relocated.
The Pistons were going through turmoil, yet again, when Lanier approached new GM Jack McCloskey and all but begged to get him out of Detroit.
Lanier was 31 years old and he wasn’t in denial about that. The calendar wasn’t his friend and he wanted so badly to compete for an NBA championship.
The Pistons in 1979 were a mess. As usual.
The team had changed coaches. As usual.
Bob McAdoo, another great big man, had been added to the roster but McAdoo was unhappy, uninspired and unwilling to play nice.
The Pistons were stripped of draft choices thanks to the brief but ruinous era of Dick Vitale and the future looked bleak. The team was winning once every six games or so.
Lanier had had enough of the Pistons, though it pained him to ask for the trade. Any success he was going to have in the NBA, he wanted to have it in Detroit.
But that clearly wasn’t going to happen in the near future with the Pistons, who weren’t even bothering to tease Lanier anymore. They had now moved on to being just plain bad.
McCloskey pulled the trigger on the deal in early-February, 1980. Lanier was shipped to the Milwaukee Bucks, who knew how to win, and the Pistons got Kent Benson, who was no Lanier, but they also received a coveted first-round draft choice.
The Bucks teased Lanier, too.
More playoffs. More post-season heartbreak, though Milwaukee once made it as far as the conference finals with Lanier at center.
Greg Monroe is no Bob Lanier but neither is he a stiff, by a long shot.
Monroe is a left-handed shooting big man, just like Lanier. He has played for a lot of coaches in Detroit, just like Lanier. Monroe has seen organizational dysfunction, just like Lanier.
But where Monroe differs from Lanier is in two respects.
One, Monroe has never played in a playoff game in the NBA. He was never teased by the Pistons.
Two, Monroe can be a free agent and shop his talents around the league.
Monroe doesn’t have to sidle up to Pistons czar Stan Van Gundy and beg to be relocated. Monroe’s expiring contract will do that work for him this summer.
There was a brief moment this season where the Pistons flirted with playoff contention. They moved on from Josh Smith and a 5-23 start and clawed their way into the picture for spring basketball.
Then Brandon Jennings got hurt and Van Gundy made some trades at the deadline and whatever fragile chemistry the Pistons had was ruined.
Through it all, Monroe has been healthy and doing his thing on the court. One can only imagine what’s going through his head off it.
When the Pistons were in the hunt for the playoffs in February, Monroe’s comments to the press didn’t even attempt to hide his giddiness at such a scenario. Even the notion of being in the mix tantalized Monroe.
But now that’s all gone by the wayside and the Pistons can’t use a playoff berth as a means to entice Monroe to sign with them long term before or after July 1.
Van Gundy will have to use a full court press to convince Monroe that the SVG Way is the path that will lead to competitive basketball in Detroit.
Monroe will have to feel good about the direction in which the Pistons are heading, or else he is sure to get big bucks elsewhere. Unlike Bob Lanier, Monroe isn’t tethered to the Pistons and he doesn’t have to beg for a trade.
Monroe can simply peel off his Pistons jersey after Game 82 this season and move on from them.
Unless he wants to stay.
Greg Monroe has leverage in today’s NBA that Bob Lanier could only fantasize about, 35 years ago.
Today’s Pistons are much closer to contention than the 1979-80 team (16-66) that Lanier begged to be removed from. But Monroe still has played five years in the NBA and all he’s known is losing, coaching changes and chaos.
The Pistons will be asking Monroe to take a leap of faith that, heretofore, has little basis on which to positively refer.
At least the Pistons haven’t teased Greg Monroe.
We’ll see if that’s good or bad.
The non-contact injury is the scariest of them all.
Sure, there have been some humdingers when bodies have collided and joints get twisted in ways that joints were not meant to be twisted. Think Joe Theismann.
But for whatever reason, the injuries that occur when nary a soul is around the victim, often are among the most devastating.
Dan Marino played 17 years in the rough-and-tumble world of pro football, at quarterback, no less—a position where boys are grown on farms in Iowa and Nebraska specifically to destroy.
Yet I watched in 1993 on television when Marino was felled by…no one.
The game was played in Cleveland. On the sod of Municipal Stadium, Marino did some tap dancing in the pocket, avoiding a pass rush. He did a good job of avoiding potential sackers, but suddenly he collapsed, writhing in pain.
Marino had popped his Achilles tendon. He missed the rest of the season, and nobody had touched him.
Norm Nixon was a whirling dervish of a guard who had starred for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1977-83, and who was playing for the same town Clippers in 1986 when he stepped into a hole in New York’s Central Park during a celebrity softball game.
Nixon missed the entire 1986-87 season, and the only contact he had was his foot in a hole.
Professional basketball players are rough on their knees, ankles and feet. They stop, start and accelerate very abruptly and with violence.
Sometimes a tendon or a ligament gives way, with no contact involved—unless you count sneaker-to-floor.
Brandon Jennings, Pistons point guard whose exemplary play had led his team to a 12-3 run starting just before Christmas, was guarding an in-bounds pass on Saturday night in Milwaukee. No one was near enough to breathe on him, let alone make any physical contact with him.
It was one of those injuries where, when watching on TV, you don’t notice it right away.
But then the camera cut to Jennings, who was inexplicably on the court, in great distress. By the looks of things, something was seriously wrong with his left leg, below the knee.
Everyone wearing Pistons blue, and coach Stan Van Gundy, and the fans watching back home in Detroit, got a sinking feeling.
Non-contact injury. Not good.
You hope for the best and expect the worst when these things happen, and with Jennings, it was the latter.
The worst: a ruptured Achilles.
Prognosis: out for the season and then some.
Jennings may miss a calendar year, if his recovery falls in line with similar injuries to basketball players.
It was a slug in the gut to the Pistons, who’d been prancing through their schedule with unbridled enthusiasm, fun and winning on enemy courts with stunning normalcy.
Jennings was the unquestioned leader of the resurgence, though the Pistons have had many heroes since December 22, when the team shockingly released Josh Smith, which spawned the 12-3 run.
Prior to the injury, Jennings was playing out of his mind, scoring and assisting and defending and growing more comfortable in the idea of the Pistons being “his team.”
The game before the injury, Jennings posted a 20/20 (points/assists), which was the first in the NBA in over five years.
Van Gundy has needed a thesaurus to describe Jennings’ play on a nightly basis over the past month.
The injury is rotten luck for a team that could sure use some good fortune.
So let’s go looking for a silver lining to this latest cloud.
During the 12-3 run, the Pistons have rightly pointed to the host of players who have contributed mightily to the team’s success. It’s not just one guy, they have said over and over.
Despite Jennings’ spectacular play, this is true.
So here’s the Pistons’ chance to prove that they’re not just made of one guy.
Backup D.J. Augustin, who now assumes Jennings’ starting role, is off to a good start in his new job. On Saturday in Toronto, Augustin scored 35 points and dished out eight assists. The Pistons lost, but the pain of the loss was at least partially mitigated by Augustin’s performance.
And here’s where Van Gundy’s dual role of coach and president comes into play.
As a coach, he doesn’t have to petition his GM for a certain player to take Jennings’ place on the roster.
As president, he doesn’t have to convince his coach of anything personnel-wise.
Van Gundy wears both hats, and this is a prime example of why the Pistons thought hiring one man to do both jobs was a good idea.
It’s an unwanted, unplanned example, but here we are.
Van Gundy, like his players, has no choice but to carry on in Jennings’ absence. But with the power invested in him by owner Tom Gores—power that all but a handful of NBA coaches don’t possess—SVG can move on without any hint of disconnect between the court and the front office, which happens more often in the NBA than you think.
It was that disconnect that Van Gundy spoke of back in May, when he was introduced to the media and explained why he took the Detroit job over others that may have been closer to winning.
Those supposedly more attractive jobs were coaching-only gigs, and Van Gundy talked about how sometimes the coach and the front office don’t always see eye-to-eye.
Hence his decision to take the Pistons job, with its direct pipeline from the offices to the court.
Brandon Jennings’ heartbreaking Achilles injury is awful, but at least with one man running the basketball show, and with the players buying into that one man’s message, maybe it will be a little easier to overcome.
The cigar smoke wafted toward the lights above the court. The basketball Mecca was filled with stogies, men clutching rolled up programs and, most of all, breathless anticipation.
Would he, or wouldn’t he?
Could he, or couldn’t he?
Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals was nigh, and Madison Square Garden in the heart of Manhattan was brimming with drama.
The date was May 8, 1970.
New York Knicks center Willis Reed had missed Game 6 in Los Angeles with a severe thigh injury. If you were a betting man, the smart money would have been on Reed not playing in Game 7. Not because of his heart, but because of his body.
The thought of the Knicks going up against the powerful Lakers in Game 7 without Reed, even with the game being played at home, was daunting.
The tip-off was nearing and 11 Knicks were on the court, warming up. The missing Knick was no. 19, Willis Reed, who was in the locker room getting some last-ditch treatment on his bad thigh. No one could be certain whether the doctor’s frantic efforts would pay dividends.
The Lakers tried not to notice, but Reed’s absence was deafening.
ABC-TV was into its pre-game segment; Chris Schenkel and analyst Jack Twyman talked of a Game 7 without Reed.
Suddenly Twyman, on camera at the time, got wide-eyed. He pointed toward the court.
“I think we see Willis coming out now!” Twyman yelled.
The roar inside the Garden was tornado-like in its decibel level. Indeed, Willis Reed, dressed in his warmups, was emerging from the tunnel and making his way to the court. The walk was made gingerly; the gait was determined but clearly distressed.
Nobody cared, or noticed. All the fans knew was that Willis Reed was going to give it a shot.
Reed’s grand entrance that day in 1970 was voted as the greatest moment in the history of Madison Square Garden.
Reed started the game and hit his first two field goal attempts—mid-range jumpers that Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain refused to challenge.
“I don’t know what was going through Wilt’s mind,” Lakers guard Jerry West said about his teammate’s laissez-faire defense on the hobbled Reed. West, speaking to actor/filmmaker Michael Rapaport, added, “”But I never knew what Wilt was thinking.”
Each bucket that Reed made in the opening minutes of the game injected even more noise into the roar from the Garden crowd.
The Knicks didn’t really need Reed beyond those two jumpers, which were his only points in the game. Guard Walt Frazier scored 36 points and dished out 19 assists as the Knicks clobbered the mind-blown Lakers, 113-99, to claim the NBA title.
The Knicks won another title three years later, but the 1970 championship is the franchise’s watershed moment.
Those Knicks teams played in a time when Madison Square Garden was the place to be to watch professional basketball.
MSG wasn’t an arena, it was a place of worship.
The Knicks roster was filled with Hall of Famers: Reed, Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. The coach, Red Holzman, is in the Hall as well.
Basketball, college and pro, has always been an East Coast game. Up and down the Atlantic coast are cities where Dr. James Naismith’s invention has rattled gyms with impunity and glamour and glory.
But it was Madison Square Garden that rose to the top of all the gyms. It was basketball’s Broadway. It was like what Sinatra sang: If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.
Willis Reed’s spine-tingling entrance onto the court on May 8, 1970 absolutely deserves to be considered the Garden’s greatest moment.
The Knicks haven’t won a championship since 1973. There have been two Finals appearances since: in 1994 and in 1999, but no ring in 42 years.
Phil Jackson was a role player for those Knicks teams in 1970 and ’73. He went on to become perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history.
But Jackson’s rookie year as an NBA executive (Knicks president) is starting out as bad as the 1970 championship was good.
The Knicks of today, at this writing, are 5-35. They are doing a 1984 Detroit Tigers, in reverse. Words like grisly come to mind.
The Knicks still play at MSG, but they do so the same way a child plays inside his father’s car.
The Knicks have one star player, Carmelo Anthony, who after 12 seasons still can’t seem to find himself on a championship-caliber team. Anthony is injured now and the Knicks brain trust of Jackson and first-year coach Derek Fisher are trying to determine whether Anthony should even bother coming back this year.
This is turning out to be, by far, the worst Knicks team in franchise history. They are on pace to win 10 games.
Jackson doesn’t do losing. He never has—not as a player and certainly not as a coach. He was hired by the Knicks last summer with great fanfare and he didn’t come out of retirement to preside over a bloodletting.
You can say that hiring a rookie coach working for a rookie executive (Fisher was a player as recently as last season) wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Think Matt Millen and Marty Mornhinweg with the Lions in 2001.
But Jackson has continuously defended Fisher, flat out saying that this season of horrors “is not Derek’s fault.”
Jackson is pointing the finger of blame at himself.
Jackson just got done trading J.R. Smith in the first indication that the white flag of surrender has been planted at the Garden.
No matter what you think of Jackson or the Knicks, the NBA needs a strong franchise in New York. The Knicks are one of the cornerstones on which the NBA was built. Despite the 42-year championship drought, whenever the Knicks have been competitive since 1973, the league has been better for it.
But the past decade around the Garden has been pocked with strange hires (Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown), lawsuits (Thomas; sexual harassment) and bad basketball.
But nobody saw 5-35 coming.
And it’s not going to go away overnight. Jackson has a major rebuild job on his hands—maybe one he wasn’t expecting when he signed up.
Jackson is going to turn 70 years old in September. He already is grizzled with white hair. What on Earth will the Knicks do to him?
When the Knicks do manage to win a game, you can’t even light up a cigar. No smoking inside the arena, anymore.
And where there’s no smoke, there’s no fire.
Welcome to the world of Pistons basketball, Stan Van Gundy.
Giving the coach all the personnel power in the world can’t save this bunch from itself.
Van Gundy is 17 games into his reign as Pistons czar and already he has that look and demeanor of his recent coaching predecessors.
Heavy sighs, long pauses before answers and a tight mouth punctuated his press conference after Sunday’s 104-93 loss to the Golden State Warriors.
Someone asked if the lineup he used for the game was the one he would use for the next game.
“Look, when you’re 3-14, you’re never happy with the lineup,” the Prez/coach said.
Van Gundy already has the look. He’s already imploring his players to “fight” during games. He has the body language on the sidelines of a man trapped in a phone booth.
Too bad he can’t change into Superman.
The Pistons are chewing up another coach, but this time from the inside out.
Van Gundy has fallen on the sword for his players several times in the first 17 games. He’s pointed the finger at himself for everything from the team’s lack of energy (maybe he worked them too hard in training camp) to not making good substitutions (there’s been more than one instance of bemoaning taking a player out and/or leaving him in) to being unable to find the right quintet that can actually deposit the basketball into the hoop.
The Pistons can’t shoot—and that includes free throws. They allow far too many layups. Nobody knows what to do or where to go on offense. They can’t even win at home anymore. They are, again, running a lengthy fourth place in a four-team town when it comes to relevance and fan interest.
I didn’t think it would go this badly for SVG out of the gate. I didn’t see 3-14 coming. I doubt Van Gundy did, either.
But it’s here, and it’s not likely to get better until it gets worse.
The Pistons have lost for so long that they literally don’t know how to win. With them, it’s not just a catch phrase. They actually do not know how to win.
Van Gundy is in a world of hurt with this roster.
He wants badly to play an inside/outside game but nobody can shoot from the outside, and the inside guys keep getting in each other’s way.
Nobody can make a stinking free throw. Their prized player, Andre Drummond, practically starts every game with two fouls.
Nobody trusts each other. Why should they? No one has really won anything, anywhere in the NBA.
The coach has had success, but he’s had much better players, too.
Van Gundy has to coach heads more than x’s and o’s. He has to burrow himself inside the addled brains of his players and somehow convince them that his way is the right way and that they can win if they stick to it.
Right now, no player (save Caron Butler, who’s played for SVG in the past) really believes in Van Gundy, and that’s not his fault. They wouldn’t believe in Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach, either; they’re too full of losing to think that there’s any way that can work in Detroit.
The players might talk a good game and put on a brave face, but the fact is that there isn’t a dude on the roster who’s truly experienced any sustained success in the NBA. All they know is losing, and that’s why the Pistons might stay in games after 36 minutes but collapse sometime in the fourth quarter.
Van Gundy surely knows all this. He didn’t sign with the Pistons after falling off a turnip truck.
But it’s one thing to know what the problem is and quite another to be able to fix it.
Pat Riley won 15 games one year with the Miami Heat, just two years removed from a championship. And that team had Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal.
Riley is a Hall of Fame coach, but sometimes you just don’t have the rest of the players.
Van Gundy, I believe, knew that the Pistons had some issues when he took the President/coach jobs, but I don’t think he expected this, right out of the gate.
The Pistons are on track to win about 15 games—just like Pat Riley’s 2007-08 Miami Heat.
The talent would seem to indicate that 15 wins are ridiculously low for a roster of the Pistons’ caliber, but as usual with this team, it’s not as much about talent as it is about getting everyone to trust and believe and know where to go on the court.
Van Gundy hasn’t come close to figuring that out yet, and he would be the first to admit it. In fact, he already has—several times.
The prez/coach has been pretty good at not tweaking his players publicly, with the exception of Cartier Martin and Gigi Datome for their often-injured ways. But other than that, SVG is careful not to throw his players under the proverbial bus.
That’s fine, for now. But sooner or later you know Van Gundy is going to lose his patience and someone’s feelings are going to get hurt. It’s one thing to pick on scrubs like Martin and Datome.
The one saving grace SVG has is that he is likely to outlast his players in Detroit, and you haven’t really been able to say that about a Pistons coach since Chuck Daly. With the power of president, Van Gundy can freely wheel and deal. He can cut and waive and bench players with impunity.
The greatest challenge Stan Van Gundy has now is to convince his players not to pack it in for the next 65 games. And staring down the barrel of 3-14 isn’t making that task any easier.
After the Golden State game, Van Gundy was asked by the Detroit News’ Vinnie Goodwill about the “FIGHT!” remark during the game.
Van Gundy gave a long pause and looked down before commenting. For a moment, it appeared that he didn’t really want to answer the question—almost as if he was hoping nobody had heard him yell the word to begin with.
“Yeah, I thought at that point we fought harder,” he finally said.
“But,” he added with exasperation, “by that time the hole was too deep.”
Too little, too late.
That’s been the Pistons’ epitaph since 2008.
It’s the refrain of the real estate professional.
Location, location, location!
It’s true. You can take the same 1200 square foot ranch house, lift it from its current lot and plunk it down in another, and the property value will go up or down based on the neighborhood and other location-related factors.
The home itself is officially the thing that is being appraised, but everyone knows that where that home is located largely determines what price a prospective buyer is expected to pay.
Rochelle Riley, columnist for the Free Press and self-admitted non-basketball fan, recently joined the latest mini-consortium of folks who are calling for the Pistons to move downtown.
“We left at halftime because it was too hard to stay,” Riley wrote of a recent trip to the Palace with a girlfriend to watch the Pistons play. “The parking lot wasn’t full. The highway was clear. It took less than an hour to drive back. It just wasn’t the same.”
It wasn’t the same—she compared it to going to a game in 2004—because the team hasn’t won in years.
You want the Pistons to move downtown?
They tried that—remember?
In 1960, the Pistons started playing in a shiny new, circular-shaped arena at the riverfront called Cobo. The arena was an extension of Cobo Hall, which was built for conventions and other big events.
The team was three years removed from moving to Detroit from Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Pistons shared Olympia Stadium with the Red Wings in those days—and the experience was often less than desirable.
The floor would get slippery from the condensation that formed due to the basketball court being placed on top of the ice surface. The seats near the court—the supposed “good” seats—gave the patrons cold feet, literally.
The Red Wings were the primary tenants, and they weren’t about to constantly melt and re-freeze the ice to accommodate the new basketball team. So the court was plunked on top of the ice with minimal wooden planking in between.
On top of that, the Pistons were losers in the 1960s. Attendance was always going to be a challenge because basketball was—and still is—running fourth place in a four-team race for market share in Detroit, behind the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings.
Even the drafting of Hall of Famers Dave Bing (1966) and Bob Lanier (1970) couldn’t lift attendance at Cobo into five figures for a night on anything more than rare occasions, even when the Pistons won 52 games in 1973-74.
Owner Bill Davidson finally pulled up the stakes and moved the Pistons north in 1978, starting with the Silverdome in Pontiac and, 10 years later, the Palace of Auburn Hills.
The Pistons have been in the northern burgs for 36 years—15 years longer than they spent playing downtown. That’s about 60 percent of their 57 years since moving from Fort Wayne.
The Pistons are in a conundrum, and they partly have their arena to blame.
The Palace continues to be one of the NBA’s crown jewels—still a state-of-the-art facility that was built ahead of its time, with some suites positioned at mezzanine level instead of in the nose bleed part of the arena, as was the norm for so many hockey and basketball arenas built in the 1970s and beyond. It simply isn’t old and decrepit and in need of replacing, as is Joe Louis Arena.
The Palace is a great venue but now that the Pistons are losing again, suddenly it’s in the wrong part of town?
In pro sports, the real estate mantra doesn’t apply.
It’s not about location—it’s about winning.
If the Palace was where Cobo Arena is, and the Pistons were losing like they are now, attendance would still be a challenge, despite the arena’s amenities.
Conversely, if you put the Pistons in a dump like JLA and the team is winning, the arena could be in Kalkaska and the attendance would be OK.
Fans will drive a bit to see a winner. The Pistons have proved that—twice.
They proved it in the late-1980s and they proved it again for most of the 2000s. The common denominator? Winning, championship-caliber basketball.
The Pistons simply don’t have, and never will have, the kind of following in Metro Detroit that their three brethren enjoy; i.e. the ability to draw fans even when the team isn’t all that.
The Pistons rely on winning for their attendance figures to remain aloft, more than any pro team in Detroit. It’s been that way since 1957 and that will never change.
Detroit has never been a pro basketball town. The major colleges draw very well, but the pro game is still the redheaded stepchild of Detroit sports.
Pistons owner Tom Gores has been pretty diplomatic when the subject of the Pistons moving downtown crops up, even when broached by heavy hitters like Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.
Gores knows he has a gem in the Palace. He has backed up that adoration by pumping millions of dollars of improvements into the arena, including a monstrous new scoreboard, aiming to enhance the basketball attendance experience.
So when the question arises of the team moving back downtown, Gores has deftly demurred. He doesn’t want to hurt feelings, but he also wants folks to know that, for now, the Pistons are happy to play at the Palace, some 45 minutes north of downtown Detroit.
The question isn’t whether the Pistons should move downtown. It’s, when will they be good again?
The quality of the team has always driven Pistons attendance, not the location of the arena.
Been there, done that.
To hear the media tell it, the Stan Van Gundy hire is the first time the Pistons have given so much power to one man.
Don’t they remember Dickie Vitale?
On Wednesday, the Pistons will tip-off in Denver against the Nuggets to open the 2014-15 NBA season—which will be Van Gundy’s first as the team’s judge, jury and executioner.
SVG wears the hats of coach, President of Basketball Operations and de facto GM. Players will find Van Gundy at every turn, should they ever act out.
Power? Oh yes. But 36 years ago, the Pistons unwittingly gave lots of power to Vitale, and it didn’t end so well.
Vitale was a year removed from coaching at the University of Detroit in the spring of 1978, having just served one year as the school’s Athletic Director. He quit coaching because his stomach turned against him.
But Dickie V’s tummy made a miraculous recovery in time to accept a hefty contract from the Pistons.
There have been many cautionary tales of college coaches trying to make it in the NBA without first serving as an assistant. Vitale’s time with the Pistons should be the mother of all those tales.
Vitale was officially hired as coach only, but the Pistons in those days were a strange little organization. And Dickie got a lot more power than anyone thought he was going to have.
The Pistons had a GM when Vitale was hired, a former NBA player named Bob Kauffman, who also served as interim coach for half a season after firing Herb Brown.
But not long after Vitale was hired, Kauffman, who could see the writing on the wall, resigned. Kauffman knew that Vitale was ownership’s darling.
Oscar Feldman held the title of general manager, but like so many other GMs before him with the Pistons, Feldman was less of a basketball man and more of something else. In Oscar’s case, that meant lawyer.
So Vitale was the coach only, in title, but in reality, Dickie had pretty much the same power that Van Gundy enjoys now with the Pistons.
That meant Vitale could make trades and draft players, unabated.
There have been GMs in Detroit who have been among the most hated men in the history of sports in this town.
Ned Harkness with the Red Wings. Russ Thomas with the Lions. Matt Millen with the Lions.
Vitale wasn’t hated; he wasn’t with the Pistons long enough to hate him. But Vitale arguably did more damage to the Pistons in his 18-month reign than the above men did to their teams over many years.
Operating with little to no supervision, like a puppy left alone at home by his owner for the first time, Vitale ran amok. He had never been able to trade and draft players in college. In the pros, he could—and he wreaked destruction on the Pistons franchise.
Feldman, the feckless GM and owner Bill Davidson (who bought the bull that Vitale sold in his interview) pretty much looked the other way as Vitale traded, traded some more, and drafted very curiously.
First, Vitale apparently didn’t get the memo that the Pistons were allowed to draft players who went to school in states other than Michigan.
In 1978, Vitale chose John Long and Terry Tyler (both in the first round), his old players at U-D. A year later, he famously (and foolishly) gave the Milwaukee Bucks $50,000 to trade places in the first round, so Vitale could draft Greg Kelser from Michigan State. The Bucks wanted Sidney Moncrief anyway. Later in the first round in 1979, Vitale grabbed Phil Hubbard out of Michigan. In the third round, Dickie drafted Terry Duerod, another former Detroit Titan.
The NBA had killed the territorial draft allowance in the mid-1960s, yet Vitale drafted as if the state of Michigan was the only repository for NBA players.
Then there were the trades.
(above) Vitale, probably announcing the drafting of another Michigan-based collegian
Just a few games into his first season, Vitale dealt guard Chris Ford to Boston for Earl Tatum. It was a lopsided trade, one that was made because Ford and Vitale didn’t see eye-to-eye.
Later in that season, sticking with his U-D theme, Vitale brought in former Titan Dennis Boyd, whose claim to fame was hitting the game-winning jump shot that beat 8th-ranked Marquette in Milwaukee in 1977.
But the most egregious trade Vitale made occurred in the summer of 1979.
Again acting without supervision, Vitale had his good eye on scoring center/power forward Bob McAdoo, a malcontent who the Boston Celtics were eager to jettison.
McAdoo was a former multiple league scoring champion, but in recent years his stints with the New York Knicks and the Celtics hadn’t gone well.
Vitale had sugar plums dancing in his head about what McAdoo and center Bob Lanier could do together for the Pistons.
The Celtics, all too eager to trade McAdoo, told Vitale that they wanted M.L. Carr in return. For starters.
So Vitale engineered a deal that essentially brought McAdoo to Detroit and which sent the Celtics two first round draft choices and Carr.
The Celtics used one of those draft picks to select Kevin McHale and the other to trade for Robert Parish. Those big men, plus Carr and rookie Larry Bird, helped turn the Celtics from a 29-win team in 1978-79 to strong championship contenders, overnight.
And McAdoo? He didn’t want anything to do with Vitale and the Pistons, and so Mac spent an uninspired season-and-a-half in Detroit before being benched and eventually waived. McAdoo would turn up a few years later with the Lakers as a role player for championship teams in Los Angeles.
Vitale was fired 12 games into his second season with the Pistons, but he left the franchise bereft of draft choices and with little future.
But there was one good thing that came from Vitale’s reign of terror and subsequent dismissal.
He recommended that the Pistons hire, as a bona fide GM, a haggard assistant coach sitting on the bench with the Indiana Pacers.
Jack McCloskey told me that to this day, whenever he sees Dick Vitale he makes sure to thank him for the recommendation.
The question, I suppose, was fitting, because Travis Bader seems to like to do things in threes.
“They asked me what three celebrities I’d like to have dinner with,” Bader told Al Beaton, Adam Biggers and me on the latest episode of “The Knee Jerks” podcast last Sunday.
The “they” were a consortium of NBA scouts and coaches. The reason for such a question was the NBA’s version of the NFL combine, particularly the portion where the draft hopefuls are taken away from the court, away from the workouts, and interviewed one-on-one.
So how did Bader answer the celebrity dinner trio question?
“I can’t remember all three,” Bader said. “But I know Bill Gates was one, so I could appear smart.”
Three is Bader’s favorite number. He wore it on his jersey at Oakland University, and he made a college career out of 3, including setting a new all-time NCAA record for triples, breaking the mark set by Duke’s J.J. Redick.
Everyone knows Bader can drain a trey, so there was more to explore about the shooting guard when he had his 11 workouts for 13 NBA teams over the past several weeks.
Hence the oddball questions.
“They also asked me, ‘What does two plus two mean to you?’,” Bader told us on the podcast.
“I said four.”
When we cornered Bader on the phone, the NBA Draft had yet to occur. It was four days away, and at the time there was hope that somehow, some way, Bader would be selected in the two-round, 60-player process.
He wasn’t, but that’s OK.
That’s not the end of his NBA dream.
That he has gotten this far is a testament of sorts.
Bader’s dad was closely tied to the Michigan State University basketball program, and because of that connection, an adolescent Bader got to hang around the Spartans and coach Tom Izzo.
“Coach Izzo was great. He’d let me hang out at practice, shooting for hours,” Bader recalled. “I traveled with the team. I went to Sweet Sixteens and Final Fours.”
But despite Bader’s up close-and-personal relationship with the Spartans program, there was no real interest by Izzo from a recruitment standpoint. And Bader doesn’t blame the coach one iota.
“Whenever people suggest that Coach Izzo let me ‘get away,’ I always laugh,” Bader said. “I wasn’t very impressive coming out of high school. I was six-foot-two, 165 pounds.”
But one coach did see something in Bader.
Greg Kampe has won over 500 games, all at Oakland. He has built a program that flies under the radar but which has been very competitive over the past decade especially. And Kampe went after Bader, the skinny shooting guard from Okemos.
“Coach Kampe has been amazing to me,” Bader said. “He was the only one to offer me a Divison-I scholarship. He saw something in me that nobody else did. He’s very honest. When he says something, he means it.”
After Kampe recruited him, Bader grew a tad (he’s six-foot-five now), filled out some, and became perhaps the best player in Golden Grizzlies history, though Keith Benson, who has played in the NBA, is also in the conversation.
As Bader grinded his way through college, the three-pointers started raining down.
They kept coming to the tune of 504 in 1,246 attempts, which is not only an NCAA career mark for triples made, but Bader did so by making them at a 40 percent clip, which is another impressive stat.
The obvious question we had for Bader on “The Knee Jerks” was, “Was there any team that impressed you the most during the workout process?”
His answer was diplomatic but understandable.
“You know what? Not really. Every team treats you well. They put you up in nice hotels, give you a food stipend. I just want to be drafted.
“I’ll be a practice player, if that’s what teams want,” he added.
OK, so the guy can shoot, but what else does he bring to the table? I wanted to know why an NBA team should take a flyer on Travis Bader, according to Travis Bader.
“Well I’m a team player. I believe in the team. It’s not about me. My work ethic. But the idea is to put the ball in the hole. And that’s my real strength.”
The NBA game today is played so close to the three-point line, and so often. The most prolific three-point shooters aren’t just little guys. Big men are stepping behind the line with dizzying frequency. Whether you choose to call it The Dirk Nowitzki Effect or not, the fact is that being proficient as a long-range shooter is a very important weapon to have, no matter if you’re six-foot-two or nearly seven-feet tall.
But Bader knows that he can’t make the NBA on outside shooting alone.
“I’ve been working hard on my defense,” he told us on Sunday. “I want to show teams that I can defend multiple players and positions.”
But let’s face it. Bader’s real appeal is that three-point gun he carries in his holster.
So the NBA dream lives on, despite Bader going undrafted on Thursday night.
Just today, it was announced that Bader will play for Philadelphia and Golden State in two separate summer leagues next month.
“Travis thought it was the best-case scenario for each league,” coach Kampe told the Oakland Press. “He felt like each team was the best fit for each camp.”
After the draft, Bader texted me and said that six NBA teams were showing high interest in him and had already reached out to his agent.
Is one of them the Pistons, who are in dire need of outside shooting?
Not sure, but Bader listed the Pistons as one of his best workouts.
“To be honest, I’ve been thinking about the NBA since my sophomore year (at Oakland),” Bader told us.
Bader, who literally wore 3 on his chest at Oakland, could still find his way onto an NBA roster.
“The NBA is full of great, great players and specialists. He’s a specialist. Everybody needs a shooter,” Kampe said.
Stan Van Gundy was less than 30 seconds into his first press conference as the Pistons’ coach and director of basketball operations, and his voice was already hoarse.
But that’s par for the course. Basketball coaches always sound like they’ve been screaming bloody murder for days on end.
Listening to Van Gundy speak today at the Palace, two things came to mind. One was, get that guy a Sucrets. The other, was that Detroit is going to love this guy.
Van Gundy fits perfectly in what the Detroit sports fans crave in their coaches.
They like the fiery, no-nonsense type. The athletes can be quiet leaders of few words—Steve Yzerman, Barry Sanders, Nicklas Lidstrom and Calvin Johnson come to mind—but the coaches need to be engaged and have some hothead in them.
Based on that description alone, Van Gundy will win over many a fan, initially.
Van Gundy spoke with urgency, energy and fire, and if any franchise in this town needs that in its leader, it’s the Pistons.
The fan base is dwindling. Worse, they’re flat-out bored and disinterested.
There’s nothing boring about Van Gundy. Maybe the most exciting part about him is that he has never had a losing record as a coach. His .641 winning percentage ranks in the top five of coaches with at least 500 NBA games under their belt.
In the late-1980s, when the Lions were again stumbling and bumbling through the NFL, owner Bill Ford levied a most damning indictment against his football team.
“We’re losing,” Ford said as he made his way past the media in the press box after yet another loss, “but worse than that, we’re boring.”
Not long after uttering those words, Ford gave coach Darryl Rogers an overdue ziggy.
The Pistons have been losing for five years, and they’ve been boring—unless you count player revolts, a flavor-of-the-month coaching plan and the death of the owner and subsequent sale as exciting stuff.
No one comes to the games anymore, but that’s nothing new. Detroit has always been a front-runner’s town when it comes to pro basketball. Unlike its three brethren in football, baseball and hockey, the Pistons don’t get love unless they’re winning. It’s been that way ever since the team moved here from Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1957.
When you consider that the Pistons haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, the hemorrhaging of fans in five years from an already shaky base is significant.
Van Gundy will return some lost interest in the Pistons. He will be front and center, and not just because he is wearing two hats. His is a big personality, matching his physical girth. He won’t be a wallflower, operating in clandestine fashion behind the scenes. His face won’t end up on the side of a milk carton upon the first long losing streak.
It would be that way if Van Gundy was only coaching, or if he was only in the front office. There isn’t any run away-and-hide in him.
That was proven when Van Gundy went shoulder to stomach with Dwight Howard in Orlando. The coach lost, but he didn’t go down without a fight—nor without some hard truths about the All-Star center.
Howard, by the way, now counts himself as a Van Gundy fan, after further review.
This hire isn’t about whether Van Gundy can do both jobs—and Lord knows we’ll be hearing that question being asked relentlessly over the next several months.
This is about the Pistons frantically waving their arms and saying, “Look at us! We’re the Pistons! Pay attention to us!”
But that’s being a little unfair, too.
The Pistons needed a high profile hire at either coach or GM in the wake of the non-renewal of former president Joe Dumars’ contract last month. They ended up getting a high profile guy at both jobs, so hats off to Tom Gores.
That’s right, I said it. As someone who has been less than kind and thrilled with the Pistons owner, I must admit that he hit a home run here.
I was concerned that Gores, who I viewed as a clown of an owner, wouldn’t have the acumen to hire the right people after Dumars’ departure.
I was wrong.
Stan Van Gundy has respect, a fine track record and he’s refreshed after being away from the game for two years.
He can coach, big time.
This is the Pistons’ best hire at coach since Flip Saunders in 2005, and some cynics might go back two years earlier, to Larry Brown.
The dual hat thing even has some national people who don’t follow or cover the Pistons wringing their hands.
But I would ask them, how much worse can it get?
I’ll roll the dice with a coach who has a .641 winning percentage any day. I’ll gamble that he knows enough about the players in the league that he can cobble together a workable roster.
This isn’t Matt Millen, redux.
Millen, the atrocity of a president with the Lions, not only had zero GM experience, he had never coached. So he didn’t have an aura about him—a presence that would automatically attract good football people without any coercion or major sell jobs.
Van Gundy, on the other hand, will have little trouble, I believe, in attracting quality basketball people to Detroit—and that simply wasn’t possible under the previous administration, anymore. Dumars was too tarnished by the time his contract ran out.
So this won’t be Van Gundy doing two jobs. It will be Van Gundy coaching—and he’ll attract quality assistants as well—and a presumably sharp front office staff being the new man’s eyes and ears on a day-to-day basis.
This won’t be Millen, who hoarded power and who tried to take on too much by himself. The most egregious example was hiring a rookie head coach, which made things worse.
People already seem to have this misconception that Van Gundy will conduct practice in the morning, run upstairs to change from sweats to a suit in the afternoon to be the front office guy, and then race down to the floor to coach that night’s game, skipping lunch and dinner.
It won’t work that way, folks.
There’ll be quality (assumption) people in the offices, doing the grunt work, and reporting to Van Gundy at the end of the day.
It’s very doable. Frankly, I wonder why more NBA teams don’t try this model, which has been very effective in San Antonio and Miami, as Van Gundy pointed out in Thursday’s presser.
I’ll go you one further and say that more teams will go this route before too long.
Through it all, Pistons fans will enjoy Van Gundy’s blue-collar, no-nonsense manner of coaching and they’ll enjoy seeing the top dog in the front office not shying away from the cameras and microphones.
Dave Dombrowski with the Tigers, Kenny Holland with the Red Wings and even Marty Mayhew with the Lions aren’t afraid to show their faces on a regular basis.
You can now add Stan Van Gundy to that group.
This is all well and good, but of course there is a roster that needs some overhauling. There is a losing culture that needs to be discarded. There is a certain restricted free agent big man who needs to be addressed.
But at least we won’t be looking under rocks to find the man who is making the decisions.
Some 43 years after Gordie Howe got it, looks like another Detroit sports legend is about to get the “mushroom treatment.”
Old-timers will remember this one. The Red Wings, after Howe retired in 1971, gave him a job title—Vice President—and an office inside Olympia Stadium.
Gordie didn’t find the new “job” all that enthralling.
“They give me the mushroom treatment,” Gordie said to reporters back in the day about his new role, in words that reverberate to the old-timers—yours truly is guilty as charged—to this day.
The mushroom treatment, Gordie?
“They keep me in the dark and every so often they dump (manure) on me.”
The Red Wings’ pathetic effort to keep the franchise’s—and perhaps the sport’s—greatest player in a meaningful role lasted just two years before Gordie got tired of the mushroom treatment and came out of retirement to play in the World Hockey Association with his sons, Mark and Marty.
Gordie would play professional hockey for seven more seasons—six in the WHA and one last go-round in the NHL.
So now it appears that the mushroom treatment is being dusted off and brought back out of the dark office, so to speak.
Joe Dumars’ tenure as Pistons president and GM effectively ends at the final horn of Wednesday’s game at Oklahoma City. His contract, which officially expires at the end of this dreadful (again) season, will apparently not be renewed.
But that’s not all.
Dumars, it is being reported, will take an advisory position with the Pistons. It is shaping up to be a do-nothing, strictly titular job that will have no influence over the thinking—and I use that term loosely here—of owner Tom Gores and his Platinum Equity minions.
The Pistons are going to be giving Joe Dumars, one of the team’s iconic players, the mushroom treatment.
Let’s hope he doesn’t put up with it for two years, like Gordie Howe did with the Red Wings.
Maybe this will be Dumars’ way of slowly fading from view and from our consciousness. Maybe there is method in his madness. Frankly, if I were Joe, I would have told Gores to take his adviser role and shove it where a basketball doesn’t fit.
That, of course, isn’t Dumars’ style.
Maybe we’ll see Joe on TV sometime soon, perhaps as a studio analyst for NBA TV or ESPN. The cast of characters on those two networks is filled with ex-players but not really any executive types. Joe is both, but his playing days ended some 15 years ago. He’d bring a different perspective.
But today isn’t so much about Dumars’ future as it is about his recent past.
As the Joe Dumars Era, Part II winds down this week, it’s easy to do the “What have you done for me lately?” thing. I’ve been guilty of it already, in the wake of the news that broke last week that Dumars likely wouldn’t be coming back as team president/GM.
But then I got to thinking about what it is that Dumars is leaving. And he should be thankful that he’s going.
In too many horrific ways, current ownership reminds me of the Pistons circa 1978.
Bill Davidson, still finding his way as Pistons owner—he bought the team out from a group of investors in 1974—was clueless about the sports ownership thing in ’78.
Davidson moved the Pistons from Cobo Arena downtown to the cavernous Silverdome in Pontiac in time for the 1978-79 season.
To help augment the move from a PR standpoint, Davidson took leave of his senses and bowed to pressure from local riff raff, such as sports columnists, and hired Dick Vitale to be coach and de facto GM in the spring of 1978.
Vitale fed Davidson—and those same columnists—a line of bull and miraculously, his suspect stomach, which supposedly forced him to resign his gig as U-D’s coach in 1977, all of a sudden got all better in time for him to take the Pistons job.
Davidson bought the bull and, dazzled by the allure of hiring Vitale—who at the time could have been elected mayor of many cities around town—the owner gave Dickie the keys.
Of course, it all blew up in Davidson’s face just 16 months later and Vitale got the ziggy, but not before leaving a path of destruction to the franchise in Dickie’s wake.
The Pistons were a circus in those days, and Dickie Vitale was the leading clown under the big top.
The Pistons are back to being a circus again, but this time the owner is the biggest clown.
The Pistons, right now, are beneath someone of Dumars’ stature, and I have been one of Joe’s harshest critics in recent years. In fact, I was browbeating Dumars before it became fashionable to do so.
The Pistons are a joke, being run by an absentee owner who directs his Platinum Equity Dweebs—Phil Norment and Bob Wentworth, Detroit’s PEDs—to keep an eye on the franchise in Detroit while the owner hobnobs in TinselTown.
The Pistons were absentee-owned by Fred Zollner, who was based in Florida, when Davidson bought the team in 1974. Forty years later, they are again owned by someone who barely sees the team play in person.
Dumars, I have a feeling, may be somewhat relieved that his run as a Pistons executive has ended. The difference between Davidson’s personality and style, and that of Gores, couldn’t be much further apart. I also have a feeling that Dumars knows that what Tom Gores knows about sports ownership could fit into a thimble.
All this being said, Joe Dumars is certainly not without culpability for what the Pistons franchise has become since their last appearance in the NBA’s Final Four in 2008. There is blood on his hands, for sure.
But that’s what it has become on the basketball court. And the Pistons, today, are more than just broken on the court. They are broken upstairs, and the confidence level as to whether Gores can hire the right person to fix things from the top down can’t be terribly high among the fan base.
Nor should it be. Gores is a clown under a big top.
But the owner can stuff those words down my throat and reverse his image if he somehow, by hook or by crook, makes a good hire (or two) this off-season.
Pistons fans are pretty united that when it comes to turning points in team history, the biggest came on December 11, 1979, when Davidson, stung by Vitale’s turbulent tenure, hired Jack McCloskey off the Indiana Pacers bench (assistant coach) to be the team’s GM.
By the end of the next decade, the Pistons were starting a three-year run in the Finals, winning two of them.
Gores could make a great hire this summer. Because you know what? Davidson hired McCloskey off a recommendation.
The recommendation came from Dick Vitale.
So you never know.