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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.

We’ll see.

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.

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The most consistently successful franchise in pro sports today is located in a city where they beseech you to remember the Alamo—not to mention George Gervin, Larry Kenon and Artis Gilmore.

It’s in a town where there isn’t any other major pro sports team. It’s the Green Bay of the NBA.

The San Antonio Spurs started playing seriously for the NBA championship in the late-1990s, and they haven’t stopped since.

Other NBA franchises, some steeped in history, have been made over—sometimes several times—in the past 20 years.

The Boston Celtics, who in the 1960s were as reliable every spring as the first robin and who won several more titles in the ‘70s and ‘80s, fell on hard times in the late-1990s, early-2000s before regrouping and becoming champions again in 2008.

The Los Angeles Lakers, by the mid-1990s, had become impostors wearing purple, like a bunch of department store Barneys. Then Phil Jackson arrived from Chicago and got the Lakers wearing championship belts again.

The Chicago Bulls sank like a stone after Michael Jordan “retired”, their six championships in the 1990s becoming distant memories almost overnight.

The Detroit Pistons…well, you get the idea.

But the Spurs? They’ve never dipped, really, since center David Robinson finally joined them in 1989 after serving two years in the Naval Academy following his drafting in 1987.

The Spurs’ won/lost records over the past 20 years have been as consistent as a working clock.

The Spurs win 50+ games every year, make the playoffs, and they’re typically one of the last few teams standing in June. Four times since 1999, they’ve been the only team standing.

Their coach, Gregg Popovich, has a career winning percentage of near .700 in over 1400 games. Popovich could win 50 games every season in his sleep.

The blossoming of the Spurs under Popovich came in 1996.

The Spurs had Robinson but hadn’t been able to put the right parts around him. Much of that was on Popovich, who became the team’s GM in 1994.

You have to be lucky to be good, and that was certainly true of the Spurs in 1996. The team got off to a 3-15 start, and Popovich fired coach Bob Hill and replaced him with…Gregg Popovich. I know—it doesn’t sound lucky so far. Give me a moment.

Popovich had been an assistant with the Spurs under Larry Brown for a few years starting in the late-1980s and he figured, what the heck—I’ll coach the team myself.

Robinson broke his foot during that 3-15 start of 1996 and missed all but six games of the ’96-97 season. Other key Spurs players missed significant time with injuries, and it all ended with a 20-62 record.

Popovich didn’t fire himself as coach. He kept wearing the dual hats of coach and GM.

Here’s where the good luck kicked in.

Because of all the injuries, not the least of which was suffered by future Hall of Famer Robinson, the Spurs ended up with the no. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft and drafted a big man from Wake Forest named Tim Duncan.

Duncan’s insertion into the lineup and Robinson’s return from injury put the Spurs back in familiar territory with 56 wins in 1997-98.

One year later, with the Spurs’ version of the Twin Towers manning the paint, the Spurs won their first NBA title in 1999, beating the New York Knicks in five games.

Popovich shed the GM label in 2002 to concentrate on coaching, which was like Frank Sinatra quitting acting to focus on singing.

It worked, though, as the Spurs won their second championship in 2003, overcoming the New Jersey Nets in six games. It was Robinson’s swan song as a player.

David Robinson retired, but the Spurs kept winning, which is their—and Popovich’s—genius. Players have come and gone, including Hall of Famers, yet the Spurs have never bottomed out.

The Miami Heat won the championship in 2006, and two years later, despite having Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, and a Hall of Fame coach in Pat Riley, Miami won 15 games.

Of course, the Heat rebuilt themselves in a hurry, but they had to occupy the outhouse before getting back to the penthouse.

The Spurs don’t do that collapse-before-you-can-get-better thing.

Another NBA crown was won in 2005, and again in 2007. The Spurs’ key trio then, as it is now, was Duncan, point guard Tony Parker and shooting guard Manu Ginobili. The latter two are fine players, but probably not Hall of Famers.

That’s another thing. The Spurs rosters haven’t been filled with iconic names, like the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons and Bulls’ championship teams have been.

The Spurs win about 70 percent of the time under Popovich, but there have been no Bird, McHale, Parish or Kareem, Magic, Worthy-like combinations that Popovich has coached.

The Spurs draft well, trade cunningly and they have Popovich, 65 years old, a two-time Coach of the Year winner (2003, 2012) and four-time world champion.

The Spurs have been relevant for 15 years in a league where literally no other team of the NBA’s 30 franchises can say that.

OK, that’s the NBA, but what about other sports, you might ask.

Let’s look at other sports.

In baseball, even the mighty New York Yankees haven’t won as many World Series as the Spurs have won NBA championships since 1999. The Yanks have won three WS (1999, 2000, 2009) to the Spurs’ four NBA crowns.

In hockey, the Detroit Red Wings, perhaps the Spurs’ stiffest competition when it comes to consistent excellence in pro sports, have won two Stanley Cups (2002, 2008) since 1999.

In football, the New England Patriots have won three Super Bowls (2001, 2003, 2004) during the Spurs’ reign of terror.

Yet the Spurs are rarely mentioned when it comes to which franchises are the best in pro sports today.

Well, now they are, right here.

The beat goes on this season. At this writing, Popovich and the Spurs are 56-16. Another 60-win season, which would be Popovich’s fourth, beckons.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili aren’t getting any younger, but it doesn’t appear that it will matter going forward, as Popovich has a deft ability of adding key players from the draft or free agency that is unmatched by any basketball man in the NBA—including execs like Pat Riley.

Popovich won with David Robinson and he won without David Robinson. It’s likely that in the near future he’ll win without Tim Duncan, who is going to turn 38 during the playoffs in April.

On second thought, forget the Alamo. Remember Gregg Popovich, the best coach in pro sports who has been hiding in plain sight for 15 years.

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Back in October, when the Pistons were slogging through the exhibition season, a game was won at the Palace when Detroit’s Josh Smith hit a three-point shot at the final buzzer.

It was a meaningless game, as all exhibition matches are.

Yet running onto the court, celebrating as if his team had just won a playoff series, was Pistons owner Tom Gores.

Gores slapped it high with a few of the players, hooted and hollered, and clapped his hands, a big grin on his face.

It was a stinking pre-season game. Even some of the Pistons looked at their owner cross-eyed, as if to say, “What’s with this guy?”

It’s a question that haunts the team to this day, some five months later.

What’s with this guy, Tom Gores?

The Pistons have 12 games remaining. They won’t be making the playoffs. They play now to protect their lottery pick, though you’d be hard-pressed to get anyone within the organization to admit it. But it’s true.

Gores, the Hollywood owner whose Flint roots have been supplanted by Tinsel Town, was quizzed about his team on Saturday night, when the Pistons were halfway through losing to the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center.

Specifically, Gores was asked about the firing of coach Mo Cheeks, which came just 50 games into Cheeks’ tenure as Pistons coach.

“I feel good about it,” Gores said, which tells you something right there. There ought to be some humility and consternation when firing someone. But Gores feels good about giving Cheeks the ziggy.

“I didn’t feel like the young players were developing,” Gores continued in explaining away Cheek’s cashiering.

The Pistons, at the time, were 4-14 after Cheeks was canned and replaced by interim coach John Loyer.

“I think John’s doing a great job,” Gores said about the dead man walking coach Loyer.

Cheeks’ winning percentage was .420. Loyer’s, albeit in a smaller sample size, was .222 at halftime of the Clippers game, which LA won, 112-103.

Gores’ comments at the Staple Center smacked of an owner who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

The words were a mixture of rah-rah and phony, canned exuberance.

“We’re going to get it done,” Gores said. “I believe in this team. I believe in Detroit.”

Then this, perhaps the most damning quote of them all.

“The team is better than its record,” Gores actually said. “It just is.”

The Pistons will play out these remaining 12 games, after which will follow perhaps one of the most important and anticipated off-seasons in franchise history.

How Tom Gores steers the ship this summer will go a long way toward determining the future of the Detroit Pistons for the next 10 years.

That declaration ought to give you the willies.

When pressed about the future of GM Joe Dumars on Saturday in LA, Gores, as expected, didn’t tip his hand. It may have been the smartest thing he did and said that night.

But what Gores chooses to do about Dumars will speak volumes about the owner’s lucidity.

If Gores brooms Dumars, as expected—and as should happen—that’s only half the deal. The other, and far more important half, is what the owner does in terms of picking a replacement.

Gores’ assertion that the Pistons, a mish-mash of parts that simply don’t mesh—how’s that for alliteration—are better than their 26-44 record, is disturbing.

It plainly proves that the owner doesn’t know a basketball from his rear end.

What Gores needs to do is dispatch Dumars, who probably is ready and even eager to be let go, and go in search of a sound basketball mind to run the show while the owner hob-nobs on Rodeo Drive.

The answer is not Isiah Thomas, who has been rumored to be next in line for the keys to the executive washroom. Isiah was in LA on Saturday, and he chatted with Gores, in plain sight.

“I’m a fan,” Isiah said when cornered. “I’m in no position to critique the team. I hope they play well and win every night.”

The Pistons will be honoring Isiah and the other members of the 1989 Bad Boys championship team on Friday night, when they gather for a 25th anniversary celebration at the Palace. Gores will have to fly to Michigan and face the media. He’d probably rather have a root canal.

Presuming that Gores doesn’t take leave of his senses and hires Thomas, it is up to the owner to settle on a basketball man and let him do his thing. Because it is apparent that Gores’ grasp of professional basketball is shaky at best.

The Pistons could do worse than Troy Weaver.

Weaver is a vice president and assistant GM with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He is regarded as a supreme talent evaluator, and has already been considered for the GM position with the Utah Jazz in 2012. Weaver turned Utah down and chose to remain with the Thunder.

Weaver held the position of Director of Player Personnel for the Jazz in 2007-08. He spent three seasons (2004-07) as head scout for the Jazz before his promotion.

Prior to joining the Jazz, Weaver was an assistant coach at Syracuse University for four seasons (2000-04), working under the great Jim Boeheim.

The man is steeped in basketball knowledge.

In a way, Weaver is the Thunder’s Jim Nill, albeit in a shorter time span.

Nill is the GM of the NHL’s Dallas Stars, but prior to that, he spent almost 20 years in the Detroit Red Wings organization, most of those years in the front office as GM Ken Holland’s lieutenant.

It was accepted that Nill would eventually leave the Red Wings to run a team of his own.

Troy Weaver is ready for such a challenge in the NBA. Tom Gores would be derelict in his position as owner of the Pistons if he didn’t make a run at Weaver.

Weaver wouldn’t be the big name that Isiah Thomas would be, but Weaver would be at least twice as smart of a choice over Isiah—and cheaper.

Gores has displayed his utter lack of basketball prowess. But he can erase all that if he makes a smart hire after Dumars is released.

Whether the Pistons owner is capable of such a hire is ambiguous in its likelihood. But he’s the one making the calls, so all Pistons fans can do is hope.

 

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Mar
15

Tanking or Not, Pistons’ Irrelevance Continues Unabated

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Scotty Robertson was the coach of the Pistons the same way that Kevyn Orr is an emergency manager—a man who inherited a mess of immense levels.

Scotty was a heart attack survivor, which usually isn’t a desired background to be a professional basketball coach—especially that of the Pistons at the time.

It was the spring of 1980, and Scotty was tabbed by GM Jack McCloskey to take over a Pistons team that had won a grand total of 16 games the season before—a team decimated by the gutting it was given by predecessor Dick Vitale.

The Pistons were bereft of talent and draft choices. Vitale had left the franchise stripped bare.

Robertson must have wanted to be an NBA coach again in the worst way; for that’s exactly what being the coach of the Pistons was when Scotty took the reins.

Scotty put his team through the paces in training camp—his collection of marginal NBA talent and wannabes, and gave a brutally honest assessment to Jerry Green of the Detroit News on the eve of Opening Night in October, 1980.

“We’re gonna try. We’re gonna work hard,” Scotty told Green. “But we’re not very bleeping good.”

The coach was right. The Pistons soldiered through the 1980-81 season, winning at a pace of about once every four tries. Their record was 21-61.

Scotty nailed it. The Pistons weren’t very bleeping good.

There is an ugly word floating around the NBA today—one that wasn’t part of the lexicon back in 1980.

The word is “tanking.”

The NBA’s playoffs aren’t like their winter brother’s in the NHL.

In the NHL, every team from first seed to eighth fancies itself as capable of winning the Stanley Cup. That feeling has been fed by recent history, as lower seeds have managed to skate their way to the Cup Finals.

But in the NBA, a low seed has to be blessed by the basketball gods to win a single playoff game, let alone an entire series. Thoughts of ascending to the Finals are mere fantasy.

The gap between the haves and have-nots in the NBA is Grand Canyon-like in scope.

You can’t fluke your way to the Finals in pro basketball. You can’t ride a hot goalie. There aren’t crazy bounces. There’s no sudden death overtime.

In the NBA, you can pretty much name the conference finals participants when the basketballs are tipped off on Opening Night. There aren’t too many surprises come June.

Hence that ugly word, tanking.

The tanking theory says that since you’re unlikely to score an upset in the playoffs as a low seed, then why try to make the playoffs at all?

Why qualify, when by your exclusion, you get thrown into the draft lottery?

And the lower you finish in the standings, the more ping pong balls you get with your team’s name on it come lottery time.

It’s a twisted reality, but a reality nonetheless.

Scotty Robertson’s 1980-81 Pistons weren’t good enough to “tank.” They were just bad naturally, the old-fashioned way.

Today’s Pistons talk publicly of playoffs and some sense of urgency to qualify. They have been hovering at between two-to-four games out of the no. 8 seed for weeks.

It may all be talk, it may be sincere. We’ll likely never know.

It’s painfully obvious that even if the Pistons wiggle into the post-season, all they’d be doing is extending their season by four games—five if they get incredibly lucky.

The first round of the NBA playoffs is filled with David and Goliath match-ups, with Goliath winning every time.

There really is no incentive for the Pistons to make the playoffs. The comical thing is, there really isn’t any incentive for those “battling” for the final seed to make the playoffs, either.

The withering Pistons fan base in Detroit appears to lean heavily on the side of their team “tanking,” that ugly word that means, basically, lose on purpose. Or, at the very least, don’t try all that hard to win.

It goes against every fiber of what competition is supposed to mean, but there you have it.

The Pistons, if they are indeed “tanking,” really can’t be blamed for simply playing the system—which makes the system all wrong, of course.

On Saturday night at the Palace, the Pistons hosted one of the Goliaths, the Indiana Pacers. And for 24 minutes, the Pistons must have forgotten that they were supposed to be mailing it in.

At halftime, the Pistons led the beasts from Indiana, 60-41.

By the end of regulation, the game was tied, 100-100.

By the end of overtime, the Pacers had won, 112-104.

The Pistons must have remembered to tank just in the nick of time.

Scotty Robertson survived the Pistons, just as he survived his heart attack. After the 21-61 season, the Pistons grabbed Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka in the 1981 Draft.

Scotty’s second and third seasons saw the Pistons win 39 and 37 games, respectively. Then he got fired. Someone named Chuck Daly replaced him.

Pistons interim coach John Loyer is today’s Scotty Robertson, though it looks highly unlikely that Loyer will survive the Pistons.

Elevated to the head coaching position following the cashiering of Maurice Cheeks, Loyer is 4-12 after Saturday’s loss.

Maybe the problem wasn’t Cheeks, after all.

Want another laugh? Pistons owner Tom Gores, after declaring a “playoffs or else” mandate last summer, still expected the team to make the post-season even after firing Cheeks and replacing him with a no-name assistant.

Loyer is history after the final 16 games are mercifully crossed off the schedule.

A new coach, yet again, will take over the Pistons.

He will be someone who fancies himself capable of turning the franchise around and installing that elusive “winning culture.”

He will be someone for whom “tanking” is not an option.

But the NBA is a player’s league, so how much control does a coach truly have anymore?

The Pistons continue to play fourth fiddle in a four-fiddle town. Their irrelevance is sardonic.

Whether they’re tanking or not, one thing is certain.

They’re not very bleeping good.

 

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Tom Gores is, in a not-so-nice way, the Pistons’ other piece of bread.

He is the absentee owner to complete the sandwich.

Right now, the only real difference between Gores, the Pistons’ owner, and Fred Zollner, is that Gores lives in California while The Z lived in Florida.

Zollner was the rumpled man who brought his Fort Wayne Pistons to Detroit in 1957. By the mid-1960s, the Z attended a handful of games a year. Maybe. He spent most of his time in the Sunshine State.

The Z’s ownership, splotched with curious hires, slapstick on the court and uncertainty, was on its last legs when his neighbor down south, Bill Davidson, led a consortium of basketball lovers based in Detroit and bought the Pistons from Zollner, who was in ill health. The year was 1973.

Davidson was the opposite of Zollner. He lived in Detroit more often than not, number one. And Davidson actually dragged himself down to Cobo Arena to see the team play, number two.

By the time the Pistons moved into the Silverdome in Pontiac in 1978, Davidson was very present, taking his seat on court level underneath one of the baskets. He rarely missed a game.

Davidson would build his own basketball arena in 1988, tired of being booted out of the Silverdome for tractor pulls and wrestling events. At the Palace, Davidson again took his place underneath the hoop, arms folded, usually with a pleasant grin on his face.

The Pistons, under Gores, who took over in 2011, are again a team with an absentee owner.

Gores flies into town rarely, attends a game or two, and blows back out of town. He is the Tornado Owner.

In Gores’ last touch down, he fired coach Mo Cheeks. That was a month ago. Gores hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

The dribbles of comments from ownership since Cheeks’ ziggy have come from Gores’ Platinum Equity minions like Phil Norment, in prepared statements.

Gores is more Los Angeles than he is Detroit, which is something considering that Gores is a Flint kid, having grown up there.

Gores is starry eyed and likes the glitz and glamour that Hollywood provides. Just last summer, Gores brought erstwhile Lakers coach Phil Jackson in as an unpaid consultant to aid in the Pistons’ coaching search.

Gores’ fascination with high profile people is fine, as long as it doesn’t unduly influence the basketball decision-making back in Detroit.

Chatter broke out a week or so ago, alleging that Gores was considering hiring Isiah Thomas to run the Pistons, as the team’s chief basketball executive.

Fans who think with their minds rather than their hearts should have screamed “NO!” running down the streets, hearing the notion of Gores tabbing Thomas to take over the Pistons.

Isiah as coach? Maybe that would fly. He did have some success developing and coaching young talent as coach of the Indiana Pacers.

But Thomas as executive has been a train wreck.

Platinum Equity issued a statement a couple days after the Thomas rumors started, saying that yes, Gores and Thomas did have a meeting (perhaps a dinner), but that the topic was the upcoming 25th anniversary celebration of the Pistons’ 1989 championship with the Bad Boys.

There was never any talk of Thomas joining the Pistons as an employee, the statement said.

The cashiering of current president and GM Joe Dumars is expected, so much so that just about all postulating about the Pistons’ future doesn’t include Dumars whatsoever.

Again, that’s fine. Dumars has hardly earned a new contract beyond the one that expires after this season mercifully comes to an end.

Let’s hope that the Isiah-to-Detroit chatter, in any role beyond coach, is nothing more than rumor.

The Pistons don’t need to be the third NBA franchise Thomas runs into the ground, following Toronto and New York.

Gores likes the big names, it appears. But sometimes it’s the little names that have the most success.

Davidson found that out the hard way, which is how lessons are usually learned.

Davidson fell for the dog and pony show that Dickie Vitale gave him—and everyone else—and hired the former U-D basketball coach in 1978. Vitale, in his own way, briefly owned Detroit—at least when it came to basketball. His Titans had great success at a time when the Pistons were, as usual, stumbling.

Vitale flamed out in just over a year. Davidson gave Dickie the ziggy, something for which Vitale was very grateful, from a health standpoint.

Once burned, Davidson went the opposite of high profile and dog and pony with his next hire.

Only the most intense basketball fan knew who the heck Jack McCloskey was when Davidson hired him off the Pacers bench—McCloskey was an assistant to Slick Leonard—and made Jack the Pistons GM in December 1979.

The recommendation to hire McCloskey came from none other than the deposed Vitale.

“Whenever I see Dick, to this day, I make sure to thank him,” McCloskey told me several years ago.

McCloskey had a couple disastrous years as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, following years of college coaching in the Ivy League. Still, few Pistons fans knew who McCloskey was.

A little more than three years after being hired as GM, with the Pistons still a work in progress, McCloskey and Davidson went the unknown route yet again.

Chuck Daly was perhaps even more anonymous than McCloskey was, when the Pistons hired Daly from radio row, where he’d been working as a commentator on Philadelphia 76ers broadcasts.

Daly spent a couple years as an assistant to Philly’s Billy Cunningham, and worked briefly as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, during tempestuous owner Ted Stepien’s rule.

Again, only the gym rats knew who Chuck Daly was.

Together, the two unknowns—GM McCloskey and coach Daly—built an NBA empire in Detroit. The same empire that Thomas, Gores et al will celebrate later this month in the Silver Anniversary party.

The well-known Thomas and the high profile Vitale have each crashed and burned when given opportunities that exceeded their grasp.

The unknown McCloskey and little regarded Daly built two championship teams with the Pistons.

These are the facts, but will Gores’ Hollywood shades filter them out?

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David DeBusschere was all of 24 years old when he sat down for a drink in an East Side Detroit bar in November, 1964 with Detroit Pistons brass.

The location was appropriate. DeBusschere had been a high school star athlete at Austin Catholic High School, on the city’s East side. He specialized in throwing—baseballs to the plate and basketballs toward the hoop.

Inside the bar that evening, Pistons owner Fred Zollner and general manager Don Wattrick floated an idea past DeBusschere, who by then had been entrenched as the Pistons’ star player after a ballyhooed college career at the University of Detroit.

The idea was pretty simple, yet bold. Others would use different adjectives for it, hardly complimentary.

Hey, would you coach the team? DeBusschere was asked.

Over beers, the plan was hatched and DeBusschere accepted. At 24, he would become the player-coach of the Detroit Pistons, a franchise that had moved to the Motor City in 1957 and which had already suffered some ignominious moments, such as playing playoff games against the Lakers in a Grosse Pointe High gymnasium, because Olympia Stadium was busy and Cobo Arena had yet to be built. There was also the time the team was sent a school bus instead of a chartered bus to transport NBA players to a game. Wilt Chamberlain, no less, somehow managed to curl his long legs enough so he could sit in the tiny yellow bus.

DeBusschere’s promotion had the expected results, i.e. it didn’t work. Dave was 79-143 as the Pistons coach before it became painfully evident that Zollner’s bright idea had not been so bright, after all. DeBusschere was relieved and Donnis Butcher took over as coach.

The Pistons, from their move to Fort Wayne to spring, 1983, had a reputation for burning through coaches every two years or so—if not sooner. Sometimes the coaches quit, saving the team from firing them. Many of the coaches were hated by the players. Some proved to be incompetent. But what do you expect from a franchise that, in the ’60s, moved their radio announcer (Wattrick) into the GM chair? Zollner, the owner, was an out-of-towner, based in Florida. He would occasionally jet in to take in a game or two.

Who does that sound like?

But in May 1983, the Pistons, forever cursed with bad luck, it seemed, finally had the basketball gods smiling down on them.

That was when Chuck Daly was introduced as coach by GM Jack McCloskey, who literally flipped Daly a basketball and told Chuck to “go get ‘em” at the intro presser.

Daly, on the surface, didn’t have much on his resume for the fans to get excited about.

Daly was a college coach at Penn, which is where McCloskey coached for years as well. The pair met on the college coaching circuit in the late-1960s. When the Pistons hired him, Daly’s NBA “pedigree” consisted of 41 games as head coach of the Ted Stepien-owned Cleveland Cavaliers (9-32 record) and some time on the Philadelphia 76ers bench as an assistant to Billy Cunningham. That was it.

The Pistons got lucky, because Daly was at least the third choice of McCloskey’s, after Jack McKinney and Jack Ramsay turned him down. Phil Johnson was rumored to have turned the Pistons down, too.

From those less-than-stellar NBA creds, Daly ended up becoming a Hall of Fame Coach—a two-time NBA champion and an Olympic Gold Medalist.

But aside from Daly’s nine years in Detroit, the Pistons have always been a franchise that shoots coaches on schedule.

The roster of Pistons coaches from 1957-83, then again from 1992 to current, shows that longevity means staying on for three years.

So this deal of Pistons GM Joe Dumars changing coaches almost as frequently as we change the oil in our cars, is really nothing new to this franchise. The Pistons have been doing this for 57 years, with a nine-year break in between.

Maurice Cheeks is out, in the latest forced abdication from the coaching throne. Someone named John Loyer, Cheeks’ lead assistant, is in—for now.

The Pistons have done that a few times, too—promote an assistant into first chair.

One of those promoted coaches was Ray Scott, who took over for the fired Earl Lloyd in 1972.

“It’s not easy,” Scott told Al Beaton and me on “The Knee Jerks” podcast on Sunday night, mere hours after Pistons owner Tom Gores, the out-of-towner based in L.A., gave Cheeks the ziggy.

“The thing is, as an assistant, you know what the team should be doing,” Scott said.

Scott himself would get the ziggy, in January, 1976. Assistant coach Herb Brown, a disloyal opportunist, was promoted.

With Cheeks out after 50 games, Loyer has a 32-game audition. Gores wants playoffs or else. The Pistons are on the fringes of qualifying for a spot. And Loyer has 32 games to show what he’s got. And even then, it may not be enough to be offered the job beyond this season—especially when someone like Lionel Hollins is looming, unemployed as a coach.

It’s slapstick right now with the Pistons, but aside from Daly’s run and the success from 2003-2008 (three championships in those two eras), the Pistons have been bouncing basketballs off their sneakers and out of bounds since moving to Detroit in 1957.

Gores, like Zollner was, is proving himself to be an impatient, impetuous owner. That is actually a breath of fresh air in these parts, where the football team’s owner is patient and loyal to a fault.

With Cheeks dismissed, the spotlight turns to GM Dumars, whose contract expires after the season. The natives have been restless for a few years, but now even the national media is calling for Joe’s ouster. Lists of Dumars’ ill-advised moves have been compiled by those outside of Detroit and splashed onto the Internet for national consumption.

It is unclear whether Gores has a plan beyond his “playoffs or else” mandate. The owner flew into town a week ago Saturday, gave a less-than-thrilled assessment of the team to the media, and then flew back to California. Some say that Gores made up his mind to fire Cheeks on the plane out west, if not sooner.

John Loyer becomes yet another little-known assistant to become Pistons coach in mid-season, after guys like Herb Brown and Alvin Gentry before him. And Ray Scott, who wasn’t little-known in Detroit (a stellar playing career as a Piston ensured that), but who was also an assistant-turned head coach. So was George Irvine, who had head coaching experience before taking over for the deposed Gentry in 2000.

The Pistons even moved Bob Kauffman from GM to coach in 1977, to replace Herb Brown.

And don’t forget the ill-advised promotion of young player DeBusschere to coach.

Chuck Daly came in and restored order for nine years, winning two championships along the way.

But mostly it’s been calliope music, tents and three rings.

Comments (4)

It’s become an annual tradition. Look back at 12 months of tripe and pick out the stuff that I either got very wrong, very right, or that makes one think I might be onto something (or on something, whichever).

So without further ado, here’s the Best (and Worst) of Greg Eno for 2012.

January

On the state of the Lions after their 45-28 playoff loss in New Orleans:

“There needs to be more roster massaging before the Lions can truly call themselves Super Bowl contenders. No one gets bumped out of the playoffs in the first round, as soundly as the Lions did, and comes back with the same cast and crew and expects to make progress.”

Yet that’s exactly what GM Marty Mayhew did, for the most part, as his draft was less than spectacular. And you saw what happened.

On what the Tigers should do in the wake of the Victor Martinez knee injury:

“Is there a Martinez on the list?

The closest is Prince Fielder, and while it’s intriguing to imagine Cecil’s kid accepting a one-year deal in Detroit before testing the market again for 2013 and beyond, it’ll take a boatload of cash and quite a payroll hit to make that happen. Not likely to transpire, but fun to think about.

The next closest, perhaps, is Vlad Guerrero, coming off a so-so season in Baltimore.

The rest of the list contains some acceptable names, but not all of them would one consider to be enough protection behind Miguel Cabrera. In fact, few of them would be.

So the Tigers have to realize that they just won’t go out and pluck another V-Mart from the tree.

Guerrero would be a fine addition. He is strictly a DH at this stage of his career, so in that way he’s a tit-for-tat replacement for Martinez, who even before this latest injury wasn’t going to play in the field anymore—not with the Tigers signing Gerald Laird to be catcher Alex Avila’s backup.

But Vlad won’t hit .330, and he’s not a switch-hitter, another thing that Victor has over the available free agents.

Still, a Guerrero who can hit for power but not threaten .300 would make opposing managers at least think twice before issuing Cabrera the four-finger pass.

My money is on the Tigers signing Guerrero for a year.”

They didn’t sign Guerrero for a year. They signed Fielder for nine.

February

On the Red Wings’ Tomas Holmstrom playing in his 1,000th career game:

“Holmstrom is the crazy guy in the war movies who tosses himself onto a grenade in a fox hole. Only the fox hole, in this case, is the goal crease. The grenade is the puck. And Holmstrom has allowed his body to be battered and bruised all in the name of moving said puck across the red line—for 1,000 games.

You figure that if Holmstrom plays about 15 minutes a night, then his 1,000 games represents 250 hours of punishment in front of the net. Can you imagine being slashed and cross-checked and making yourself a target for shooting pucks for over 10 days straight?”

Sadly, Holmstrom hasn’t been able to add to his total, thanks to the lockout. And it’s no sure bet that he’ll be back, anyhow.

On the status of Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch:

Jackson shouldn’t be batting leadoff any more than Ben Wallace should be the Pistons’ new starting point guard.

Why not make Boesch the new leadoff hitter?

Dump Jackson down to ninth, where he belongs.

Boesch IV, the leadoff version, will likely hit .270-plus, start the occasional game with a home run, and—most importantly—he won’t strike out 175 times. He’s got some speed, is a competent base runner and he won’t strike out 175 times. He’ll get on base with surprising frequency. Did I mention that he won’t strike out 175 times?”

Jackson had a breakout year of sorts, and Boesch…didn’t. Shows you how much I know.

March

On the off-season (up to that point) of Lions GM Mayhew:

“Martin Mayhew seems to be the guy that can take this thing from 0-16 to the Super Bowl. He has done a marvelous job of drafting, trading, signing and re-signing.

The latter—re-signing—has been far more important to the Lions’ future than any free agent from outside the organization they’ve signed in recent years.

Mayhew wanted to keep his own free agents in the fold, and rework the contracts of some of his star players to create the financial space in which to do all that re-signing.

His off-season, thus far, has been A+.”

That was BEFORE the draft, which wasn’t very good, to say the least. And Mayhew is suddenly on the hot seat, perhaps.

On Pistons (then) rookie point guard Brandon Knight:

“Coach Frank, speaking basketball-ese, put it this way to the Free Press the other day.

“I think a big part of it is when Brandon is playing north-to-south and not east-to-west. He has those, we call them ‘rack attacks,’” Frank said in that East Coast dialect that all pro-basketball coaches seem to have.

“That’s vital, especially for a primary ball handler, you have to be on the attack and put pressure on a defense,” Frank continued. “When you do that, it might not be your shot, but you’re going to collapse (the defense) and force help.”

There you have it. The Pistons are better off when Mr. Little makes those big rack attacks.

Only time will tell if those rack attacks, and his growing chemistry with Greg Monroe, will put Brandon Knight on the path of Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas-like greatness.”

Knight this season, at times, appears to be regressing, or at the very least, not progressing as much as hoped.

May

On the dreaded retirement of Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, after it was made official:

“You don’t replace Nick Lidstrom. Let’s get that straight right now.

All the Red Wings can do is cobble together as much talent as they can on defense and hope for the best, really. They’re a much worse team now than they were yesterday, no question.

But all is not lost. Plenty of teams have won the Stanley Cup without the greatest defenseman in NHL history on their roster. I mean, look who’s playing for the Cup right now (LA and New Jersey).

The sun will rise tomorrow. It’s just hard to imagine that it will, after it set on Nick Lidstrom’s career today.”

And there STILL haven’t been any games played since, to see what life post-Lidstrom is like.

On Pistons big man Greg Monroe, as said by frequent “Knee Jerks” guest and former Pistons player and coach, Ray Scott:

“It was then when Scott said something that would have caused me to bop the speaker in the mouth—had the speaker not been Ray Scott.

“With Greg Monroe, we finally have a big man in Detroit who we can throw the ball into for all four quarters and make something happen and we haven’t had that since Bob Lanier,” Scott said of the kid from Georgetown who just finished his second season for a bad Pistons team, which Scott and Lanier know all about.

For full disclosure, Ray wanted us to know that he serves on the board of Monroe’s charity foundation. That’s OK; what he said didn’t smack of shilling. Ray doesn’t roll like that.

Monroe, to hear Scott say it, might become the best NBA center from Georgetown since Patrick Ewing. No less.”

Nothing that Monroe has done this season indicates that Coach is wrong.

June

On the Lions’ consistency:

“So far, the lack of football heads rolling in Detroit since 2008 seems to be working. The Lions seem to be getting better. Schwartz is on the last year of his contract, but that will soon be ripped up and an extension signed, I would imagine.

All of a sudden, the Lions are a model of consistency in today’s NFL. An improved won/lost record has been concurrent with that consistency.”

Never mind.

On the hype over Quintin Berry:

“Jackson, one of the premier center fielders in baseball, went down, and here came Berry, riding in from Toledo on what some people thought was a white horse.

Berry did his best at being Jackson’s stand-in. For a few games the Tigers got a lift from the journeyman. It didn’t hurt his standing that, at the time of his promotion, Boesch and Young were terrible.

But let’s not get carried away. Berry may not even be with the team come September. He might be long forgotten by then, as the Tigers, it is hoped, scramble for a playoff spot. Or, his speed alone may keep him on the roster. We’ll see.

Who will not be forgotten, who will not be a footnote to this season, is Jackson. And, I submit, Boesch and Young, when all is said and done.

Jackson has the potential to be the best all-around center fielder the Tigers have had since Al Kaline roamed there in the late-1950s.”

Berry faltered, as I expected, though his spot on the 2013 roster seems secure, for now.

On Tommy Hearns’ induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame:

“Hearns fought all the big names: Sugar Ray Leonard (twice), Roberto Duran, Wilfred Benitez and Marvin Hagler. The opponents were always the best that boxing had to offer at the time. Tommy didn’t always win, but even in defeat, he fought a hell of a fight. The Hagler bout is legendary for its fury.

He did all this mostly in the first half of the 1980s, at a time when Detroit needed a champion and a figure of respect in the worst way. The 1979 depression, which hit the Big Three automakers hard, had sapped a lot of the spirit out of Detroiters.

But then came Tommy Hearns with his long arms and his wicked right, and in a way, when Tommy kicked the ass of Duran (in 1984 with the hardest punch I’ve ever seen thrown, by the way), we felt like we were kicking ass, too. And when Tommy lost, most famously to Leonard and Hagler, we felt like we got slugged in the gut as well.

Tommy Hearns was more than a boxer. He bridged some of the gap between team champions (1968 to 1984) and made Detroiters proud again.

For that alone, he should be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.”

 I think we can all agree that this was long overdue.

August

On the worry over the Lions’ lack of a bona fide running attack:

“With Matthew Stafford throwing and Calvin Johnson catching, plus all the other competent receivers on the roster, it really won’t matter if the Lions run the football well or not.

The Lions’ fortunes, make no question, will ride on Stafford’s golden arm and Johnson’s Velcro hands. They are the best QB/receiver tandem in the NFL, bar none.

Why force-feed a cache of questionable running backs the football, just for the sake of laying claim to running and passing balance?

It makes no sense.”

 I stand behind this, despite 2012′s 4-12 record.

September

On the MVP race between Miguel Cabrera and the Angels’ Mike Trout:

“Cabrera is having a season that would be a runaway MVP year in just about any other, except for the kid Trout and his highlight-reel play in center field, which has combined with the power and cunning batting eye to give Cabrera a run for his money.

Trout has dropped off, however, at the bat in recent weeks. He hit .284 in August and is at .257 in September. His team is still in the playoff hunt, as is Cabrera’s, so that’s mostly a wash.

It would be easy for MVP voters to become enamored of Trout’s position of glamour, to recall the feats of derring-do he’s accomplished in center field, look at his total offensive numbers (not just the ones since August), and award him not only the Rookie of the Year, but the big enchilada, too.

Those voters will try to justify their vote by pointing to Cabrera and his sometimes uneven play at third base, which isn’t as sexy as center field to begin with, and offer that up as a reason to go with Trout as MVP.

If a man can win the Triple Crown, or come so damn close to it that we’re still wondering if he can do it on Sept. 22, his defense would have to be a combination of Dave Kingman and Dick Stuart’s to cancel it out enough to take him out of the MVP race.”

Thankfully the right decision was made!

September

On the future of Lions RB Jahvid Best, and his role in today’s NFL, when it comes to concussions:

“Some have suggested that Best hang up his spikes and call it a career, despite his tender age and this being just his third pro season. The brain is nothing to be trifled with, they say. Maybe because of Best’s youth, he should consider retirement.

Best has given no indication that he will retire. Lions fans, eager to see what Best can do for an extended period of time, haven’t exactly blown the horn for retirement, either.

No matter what Best’s fate turns out to be—short-lived career or full recovery and longevity—the NFL has a problem on its hands.”

The NFL needs to work on better helmets, among other things. Best won’t be the last player imperiled.

October

On the Pistons using big men Greg Monroe and rookie Andre Drummond at the same time:

“Two years ago, GM Joe Dumars selected Greg Monroe, a scoring big man, from Georgetown University, which has been known to produce a good NBA big or two.

Monroe has developed to the point where, heading into his third season, he is considered a team leader and on the verge of stardom. He’s the first scoring big man on the Pistons since Rasheed Wallace, only Monroe doesn’t treat the key as if there was a force field around it.

Neither does Andre Drummond, the Pistons’ rookie center from Connecticut, a seven-foot, shot blocking kangaroo who, at 19 years, is tender in age but loaded with skills, some of which still need to be harnessed, and refined.

Pistons fans are daft. They are beside themselves in wonderment of what they could be seeing on the floor, with Monroe and Drummond running side-by-side. Never before have the Pistons possessed two athletic men of this size, at the same time.

It’s enough to make one dare murmur those two words.

Twin Towers.

About time the Pistons tried it.”

Coach Lawrence Frank has been trying it more, with success, and to the pleasure of the fans.

November

On Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who I obviously soured on after the beginning of 2012:

“But Schwartz, acting as impulsively and with the same lack of discipline and brains that his team frequently shows, whipped out his red challenge flag and slammed it into the Ford Field turf, a move as illegal as going through a red light, according to the NFL rule book, which states that attempts to challenge a touchdown play are as against the rules as they are unnecessary.

Now, you can say that the rule is silly. You can say that it would be nice if the referee, Walt Coleman, would have sidled up to Schwartz and said, “Jim, put the flag away. The guys in the booth will take a look at it.”

But Schwartz should know the rules. Of all the boneheaded moves the Lions (and their coaches) have made over the years, Schwartz’s blunder might be at the top of the list. It’s right up there with Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind and Bobby Ross going for two.

“I was just so mad, I had the flag out before (Forsett) got to the end zone,” Schwartz told the media after the game.

The Lions are undisciplined, mouthy and in a freefall.

Just like their coach.”

It’s been reported that Schwartz’s job is “under review” by the Ford family, largely because of this kind of stuff.

On Matthew Stafford’s inconsistency:

“The concern, and it’s a valid one, is that Matthew Stafford this season has been too erratic. His once accurate arm has betrayed him too often, and not just with difficult throws. Basic tosses are going astray. High, just out of the reach of wanton fingertips. Wide, too far for even the longest of arms to grab. Low, skipping off the turf into the receiver’s belly.

Too many errant throws.

It doesn’t matter how much the Lions run the football. They are, not yet, a team that is going to ram the ball down anyone’s throats with any consistency. The Jacksonville Jaguars, it should be noted, are not exactly a league powerhouse.

The Lions will only go as far as Matthew Stafford’s golden arm will take them. That arm, so far this season, has been puzzling in its too-often inaccuracy.”

Though I certainly didn’t foresee an 0-8 second half.

December

On the Tigers’ signing of pitcher Anibal Sanchez, and the future of Rick Porcello:

“High profile, expensive free agent pitchers, as soon as the ink dries on their signature, become as unpredictable as tomorrow’s weather. Their arms get fragile. They need a GPS to find home plate. They spend more time on the disabled list than eggs on a grocery list.

But if you’re going to have an embarrassment of riches anywhere on your roster, then it may as well be in your starting rotation. You could do worse.

The Tigers can now trot out, weekly, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Sanchez, and a pitcher to be named later, who might as well be Dontrelle Willis. The critique is that they’re all right-handed (except for Willis). But that’s like saying the one thing wrong with Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady is that they all wear number 12.

In a business where teams struggle to even name four starting pitchers, the Tigers have four who could lead many rotations in baseball. The Tigers are so rich in starting pitchers that they actually have six of them.

Ricky Porcello, the oldest 23-year-old pitcher in baseball, will apparently battle it out with lefty Drew Smyly for the fifth spot in the rotation. But there should be no battle here. Keep the southpaw Smyly, whose ceiling is ridiculously high (witness what he did in Game 1 of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium, after the Tigers were waylaid by Jose Valverde in the ninth inning), and trade Porcello.”

Time will tell, but I maintain that Porcello is more valuable as trade bait than as a long reliever.

On the city’s two octogenarian sports owners—Mike Ilitch and Bill Ford:

“The two octogenarian owners in town, Bill Ford and Mike Ilitch, each have white whales. One is bereft of a Super Bowl, the other a World Series.

Both are proud, loyal and considered to be very nice men who are respected within their respective circles.

But when compared, side by side, it just isn’t close when it comes to rendering a verdict as to which man has the stronger sense of urgency to win.

Does Bill Ford want to win a Super Bowl before he dies? Of course he does.

Mike Ilitch just seems to want to win a World Series more.”

Anyone want to disagree with that?

 

So there you have it. The highlights (and lowlights) of another year of scribbling.

Hope you have a great 2013!

Wax up the sleigh. Check it for flight. Shine St. Nick’s boots. Make sure Rudy’s nose is bright and squeaky clean.
Test the GPS. Gather the weather reports. Check the sack for rips. Tell Mrs. C not to wait up.
It’s gonna be another long night, but then it always is on December 24.
The jolly, old, fat man is set to make his annual trek. Chimneys the world over wait. Fireplaces are about to be pounced on.
Santa has something for everyone, or so they say. Keeping the faith, I’m going to accept that statement as fact. So, with that in mind, let’s see if he can find room in his big, red pack, upon his back—as Andy Williams sang—for these goodies.
For Calvin Johnson, a new NFL record, but more importantly, a football team worthy of his gargantuan talent.
For Matthew Stafford, highlight reels of Slinging Sammy Baugh and Fran Tarkenton, so the kid knows that you don’t have to have perfect “mechanics” to be a winner in this league.
For Jim Schwartz, a general manager who will draft him some defense.
For Rick Porcello, a team who wants him.
For Jhonny Peralta, a new nickname: The Kitchenette, because they say he has no range.
For Torii Hunter, nothing—because he already had his Christmas when he signed with the Tigers.
For traffic lights throughout Metro Detroit, Anibal Sanchez’s timing.
For Alex Avila, health and happiness—and for him, they’re one and the same.
For Miguel Cabrera, the abolition of sabermetrics.
For Tigers fans, also nothing—because they already have their new third base coach.
For Tommy Brookens, the new third base coach, the best of luck.
For the NHL, coal in its hockey boot.
For Mark Dantonio, a quarterback.
For Brady Hoke, a headset.
For Joe Dumars, a slashing, scoring small forward in the draft, because it sure isn’t on his current roster.
For Lawrence Frank, a book on the Pistons of the 1960s—oh, wait, he’s already writing the remake.
For Andre Drummond, the career of Shaquille O’Neal, because Ray Scott told me that Andre reminds him of a young Shaq.
For Greg Monroe, the career of Bob Lanier, because (see above).
For Pistons fans, a new RV, because you can all fit in one.
For George Blaha, some recognition (finally) as a damn good football play-by-play guy.
For Charlie Villanueva, no regrets.
For Tayshaun Prince, a nice twilight so his career will be properly book-ended.
For all of us working stiffs, the longevity of Jim Brandstatter.
For all of us husbands, Brandy’s marriage, too.
For Cecil Fielder, Prince Fielder’s smile at the next Thanksgiving table.
For Notre Dame football fans, you don’t get anything—your prayers were already answered.
For NHL fans, never Fehr.
For Alex Karras’ legacy, a diabolical plan to gain induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For Miguel Cabrera, whatever he wants.
For Dominic Raiola, a seven-second delay.
For Ndamukong Suh, peace.
For Louis Delmas, two good knees.
For the two Vs, Vinnie Goodwill and Vince Ellis (Pistons beat writers), a thesaurus to help them describe what they are forced to watch nightly.
For Jerry Green, many more Super Bowls.
For Rob Parker, see Dominic Raiola.
For Mark Sanchez, the hell out of New York.
For Toronto Blue Jays fans, somebody to pinch them.
For Chicago Cubs and Lions fans, a support group.
For Billy Crystal, the only known celebrity Los Angeles Clippers fan, a winner.
For Billy Crystal’s movie career, the same, for it’s as overdue as are the Clippers.
For Magic Johnson, all the success with the Dodgers as he had on the basketball court.
For the San Francisco Giants, the antithesis for Magic.
For Linda McCoy-Murray, happiness with her new man. But he’ll never write like Jim.
For Jim Leyland, we folks off his back already.
For our daughter, anything she wants, because she tamed Oakland University as a freshman like she had ice water in her veins.
For my wife, see Charlie Villanueva.
For all of you who read me every week, a year’s supply of Zantac.
Ho-ho-ho!!!

Life on the road in the NBA is supposed to be a battle of attrition, fraught with jet lag, living out of suitcases and sleeping in airports. It’s supposed to be filled with games in enemy arenas tilted with unfriendly whistles and acerbic leather lungs in the champagne seats.

There are supposed to be no gimmes on the road in the NBA. Even the dregs of the league can manage to play at least .500 ball in their own building.

That’s the way it is, pretty much, for visiting teams. Until they come to Detroit, er, Auburn Hills.

They’re papering the houses for Pistons games again. Just like they did when the team got dropped off on Detroit’s porch by owner Fred Zollner in 1957, when he moved his Pistons from Fort Wayne, IN.

First at Olympia Stadium, then at Cobo Arena, the Pistons would be lucky to fill a third of the building. Phony attendance figures would be announced over the PA. Even among the puny crowds, a good portion of them got in for free or at reduced rates, thanks to all the coupons floating around town.

When the Pistons grew up enough to build their own basketball Palace back in 1988, it was thought that the days of papering the houses were long gone.

But the franchise has returned to its old ways.

They’re not counting too good at the Palace, and it’s getting embarrassing.

The Palace can’t possibly afford the Pistons much in the way of a home court advantage these days. It’s too quiet, too polite an atmosphere. Once again the building is less than half full, like the old days of Pistons basketball, when the shorts had buckles and the socks were wool and sagging.

The attendance figures are again papering the house. The other night against thePhoenix Suns, the public address announced a crowd of 10,000-plus. Like the old joke goes, maybe there were 10,000 people—but 7,000 came disguised as empty seats.

I watched the game on television, and try as you might as a director in the production truck, you can’t hide empty seats—especially when they were in as long supply as they were that night. No offense to the ladies, but the crowd looked like that of a WNBAgame.

The Pistons would make a basket, make a defensive stop, do something else good—and there was plenty of good in the 117-77 romp—and the efforts would be greeted with polite applause. Golf claps, if you will.

Fans dotted the landscape at generous distances from each other, as if everyone had consumed garlic for dinner. It was a good night if you had to get up often to run to the bathroom or the refreshment stand, or merely stretch out.

Yet the Pistons had the gall and audacity to announce a crowd of over 10,000 on a night when the fans could hear the players talk—and vice versa. Maybe they counted everyone twice, to be safe.

This was Pistons basketball, some 45 to 50 years ago, when Cobo was visited by only the most curious, and sometimes for free. They announced phony crowds back then, too.

I never thought those days would return.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised, because once again, Detroit is proving itself to be a front-running town when it comes to pro basketball.

Two of the loudest venues I’ve ever experienced, however, have involved Pistons games.

They were 20 years apart.

The first was in April 1984, at Joe Louis Arena. First round of the playoffs—the Pistons first appearance in the postseason in seven years. The fifth and deciding game—the night Isiah Thomas went crazy against the New York Knicks, scoring 16 points in the final 90 seconds of regulation in a game in which the Pistons lost in overtime.

JLA was as loud that night as I’ve heard it for Red Wings playoff games—and I’m including Stanley Cup Finals tilts.

The crowd was spellbound by the drama being played out on the court, in a game that would decide the series—Bernard King of the Knicks seemingly going 1-on-1 with Isiah Thomas, the other eight players on the court merely place setters, bit players on stage.

The other occasion of loudness took place two decades later—Game 3 of the 2004 NBA Finals, at the Palace. The Pistons were manhandling the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, on their way to a third league championship.

The Palace reverberated. If you wanted to think, you couldn’t hear yourself doing so. Ididn’t know that building could be so loud—and I’d attended rock concerts there as well.

But those were shrieking crowds pulling for playoff contenders. Not papered houses, and the term “fair-weather fans” comes to mind.

Detroit, from the moment the Pistons showed up, kicking and screaming on the city’s doorstep, has never truly been a basketball town. It never will be. Detroit, when it comes to its pro basketball, is a front-runner’s town. The fans have been fair weather since 1957.

Ah, 1957.

That’s the last time the Lions won a championship. It’s been 55 years, and in that time, the Lions have won a grand total of one playoff game. One.

There have been winless seasons, and seasons nearly so. There have been poor coaching hires, bad drafting and the handing over of the team’s reins to a color analyst.

Yet the Lions need only to open the doors at Ford Field and the place will be packed on Sundays. And on Thanksgiving Day. The folks here can’t get enough of its football, the same way a masochist can’t get enough lashes with a whip.

The Red Wings have a fan base deeply rooted and passed down by generations. It’s a core group that has never abandoned its team, even in the darkest days—and from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, those days were dark indeed, and they couldn’t all be blamed on Ned Harkness, whose name formed an unfortunate rhyme.

Mention the Tigers and folks’ hearts naturally warm. The mention will invoke memories of first visits to Tiger (or Briggs) Stadium; of family and Boy Scouts outings; first dates; the thrill of seeing Kaline, Cash, Colavito, Lolich, Freehan, McLain, Gibson, Parrish, Whitaker, Trammell et al doing their thing in their creamy white uniforms with the Old English D branded over their hearts.

No fair-weather baseball fans here. No sir.

The Pistons, today, are losers. They are trying desperately to remake themselves on the fly, so as not to be tagged with that dreaded “rebuilding” label. Rebuilding smacks of years and years of suffering. But the fans won’t be fooled. They know how far away the years of playoff contention and shrieking for winners are, and those days aren’t exactly right around the corner.

So the Palace is half empty, at least, on most nights, while the 10 players do their thing on the court. Detroit can open its wallets and its hearts to losers in the other sports, but not with the Pistons.

Some say the detachment is due to geography. The Pistons should move back downtown, they say. I think you could plop a Pistons game across the street from some of the so-called fans here, but if the team is losing, they won’t bother to make the walk.

The Pistons have been Detroit’s redheaded stepchild and always will be.

Fair-weather fans!

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Before the events of 9/11 sullied the term, Twin Towers conjured up a different meaning entirely in the world of sports. Basketball, specifically.

Basketball is a tall man’s game. Everyone knows that. Players who are bean stalks with arms. When it rains outside, the guy who plays center knows it before everyone else.

It all started with George Mikan, old No. 99 for the Minneapolis Lakers. Mikan, from DePaul University, stood 6-foot-10, weighed 245 pounds, and when he entered the league in 1948 (it was called the Basketball Association of America, BAA, back then), pro basketball was more of a medium sized man’s game.

When Mikan stepped onto the court for the first time as a 24-year-old rookie, the next tallest Lakers teammate was four inches shorter than he. The rosters of the day were filled with guys 6-foot-5 and shorter.

It wasn’t long, however, before the NBA grew—literally. Taller players entered the league. Mikan was joined by other bean stalks. Then the tallest bean stalk of them all, seven-foot Wilt Chamberlain from the University of Kansas, burst onto the scene in 1959.

The year before Chamberlain loped onto the hardwood for the Philadelphia Warriors, the team posted a 30-42 record. With Chamberlain clogging the middle, the Warriors improved to 49-26. They were strong championship contenders from that point on.

It was official: if you wanted to win in the NBA, you had to have a capable big man. Just ask the Boston Celtics, who won title after title with Bill Russell dominating in the pivot.

Or ask Jack McCloskey.

Trader Jack, long before he made a name for himself as one of the league’s shrewdest executives with the Pistons, was a haggard coach—first in the Ivy League, then with the NBA’s expansion Portland Trailblazers.

Jack loved big men. He was infatuated with what they could do, how they could be game changers. In 1981, McCloskey rued the decision by Virginia’s 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson to not come out in the NBA draft. The Pistons, with the second overall pick, “settled” for a pipsqueak point guard from Indiana University named Isiah Thomas.

So it was with cruel irony that McCloskey, as coach of the third-year Trailblazers, was saddled with maybe the biggest NBA draft bust of all time.

LaRue Martin was 6-foot-11, and he wasn’t even a bean stalk; he was a bean pole. Martin barely managed 200 pounds on that nearly-seven-foot frame. The Blazers grabbed him first overall in 1972.

McCloskey liked Martin as a person, he once told me, but Jack preferred another big man instead.

There was a leaping scorer from the University of North Carolina that McCloskey fancied. The scorer stood 6-foot-9, which qualified as a big man. McCloskey liked the athletic big man so much, he recommended to his bosses that they use their No. 1 overall pick on the kid from UNC instead of the bean pole LaRue Martin.

Jack’s bosses didn’t listen. They grabbed Martin. And the player McCloskey coveted, Bob McAdoo, went to the Buffalo Braves.

McAdoo is in the Hall of Fame. Martin lasted four dreadful seasons, a total bust.

McCloskey suffered two seasons with Martin, then was fired as Portland’s coach. And that’s when the cruelty of the irony reached its zenith, for not long after dismissing McCloskey as their coach, the Trailblazers drafted a big man from UCLA. His name was Bill Walton. Three years later, the Blazers won an NBA title with Walton and his headband banging the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens and Bob Lanier in the middle.

McCloskey’s fetish for big men was still there when he joined the Pistons as GM in December 1979. He liked towering centers, sometimes to a fault. Hence the Pistons overpaid for guys like Kurt Nimphius and William Bedford.

But never did McCloskey have the wherewithal to have on his roster, two big men with supreme offensive prowess. Hell, it was hard enough to find one such player, let alone two.

The Houston Rockets were the first team to try it.

Ironically, it was Sampson, the man who stayed in school in 1981, who was half of Houston’s Twin Towers experiment, teaming with seven-footer Hakeem Olajuwon when the latter was a rookie with the Rockets in 1984.

It didn’t produce the desired results.

The Rockets made a surprise trip to the NBA Finals in 1986, but within two years Sampson was shipped off to Golden State, his own career in a downward spiral.

The Twin Towers experiment had been a failure.

It hasn’t really been tried again since. The champions of the past couple of decades have been inside/outside teams—comprised of a creative little guy, a ridiculously athletic medium guy, and a dominating big man—the San Antonio Spurs of David Robinson and Tim Duncan a notable exception.

The Pistons, certainly, haven’t had Twin Tower capability. Ever.

Even when they were winners—in the Bad Boys years and in the mid-2000s—the Pistons never had even one dominating big man, let alone two. Bill Laimbeer was an OK scorer, but not a traditional low post, intimidating figure with the basketball. When Ben Wallace was on the court, the Pistons played every offensive possession with one arm tied behind their back.

But now it’s 2012, and the Pistons find themselves in an intriguing position.

Two years ago, GM Joe Dumars selected Greg Monroe, a scoring big man, from Georgetown University, which has been known to produce a good NBA big or two.

Monroe has developed to the point where, heading into his third season, he is considered a team leader and on the verge of stardom. He’s the first scoring big man on the Pistons since Rasheed Wallace, only Monroe doesn’t treat the key as if there was a force field around it.

Neither does Andre Drummond, the Pistons’ rookie center from Connecticut, a seven-foot, shot blocking kangaroo who, at 19 years, is tender in age but loaded with skills, some of which still need to be harnessed, and refined.

Pistons fans are daft. They are beside themselves in wonderment of what they could be seeing on the floor, with Monroe and Drummond running side-by-side. Never before have the Pistons possessed two athletic men of this size, at the same time.

It’s enough to make one dare murmur those two words.

Twin Towers.

About time the Pistons tried it.

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