Archive for July, 2010
Mark David Chapman killed the wrong man.
The NBA head coach is like a child in his terrible twos.
He’s up, he’s down. He can’t sit still. He always has something to say. He’s constantly asking his players, “Are we there yet?”
He stomps and screams and makes faces. He won’t eat. He wants everything right now. Sometimes he needs a time out.
The NBA head coach has typically been a former player, and one who likes to touch the basketball a lot.
Point guards and small forwards have enjoyed the most success. Perhaps they’re the most cerebral players. Nobody tell any behemoth I said that.
The NBA head coach, as a rule, hasn’t been a former center or power forward. At least not the ones who’ve won a lot of basketball games wearing Armani.
These things happen. Goalies haven’t traditionally made good hockey coaches. Pitchers aren’t normally the best managers in baseball. When’s the last time a running back became an NFL head coach?
So Ben Wallace has the odds against him. It’s not the first time.
Wallace, the Pistons’ soon-to-be 36-year-old center, went to Virginia Union, which sounds like something that should be in a Civil War Museum. Nobody drafted him, which isn’t surprising, because nobody knew where to look.
Undrafted NBA players are lucky to latch on to a roster, let alone stick in the NBA for 14 years, as Wallace has.
Wallace found a place in the NBA because he could block shots and intimidate in the paint. It takes him a week to score 20 points, but that’s not his game. That was odds-defying, too; not too many players stick around for 14 years being as offensively challenged as Ben Wallace.
Wallace found his niche and decided to be a master at one thing rather than try to be a jack-of-all-trades. He’s been named the Defensive Player of the Year four times, and has made four All-Star teams. He has a championship ring, and came very close to snagging a second.
Not bad for an undrafted, undersized (he’s 6’9″, which barely qualifies as a forward nowadays, let alone a center) player from Virginia Freaking Union.
He’s defied the odds, and will have to do so again, if what I’m about to suggest is to come true.
Ben Wallace ought to be the next coach of the Detroit Pistons, right after whoever is coaching them when he retires. Now bring your jaw back up from the floor and put your eyes back into their sockets.
I don’t mean this season, or next. He just agreed to terms on a two-year contract as a player, anyway.
Wallace has a coaching gene in him, I’m convinced of it.
I’ve taken him to task in the past for failed leadership, but that was a few years ago. Since he returned to the Pistons last summer, Wallace has been a gem, counseling the younger big men. He can’t wait to sink his tendrils into rookie Greg Monroe.
Wallace is a Piston, and always will be, despite not starting his career in Detroit, and fleeing for a couple of seasons as a free agent. He’ll retire as a Piston. Whoever is the head man at that point, whether it’s John Kuester or someone else, ought to hire Wallace to his staff, let him work with the bigs, and Ben should stick around until there’s an opening a few seats down—which there invariably is in the NBA.
Wallace would make a good head coach because he had to work his ass off to attain the success he found as a player.
Bill Laimbeer is mentioned a lot as a possible NBA head coach. I agree with the mentioners. I see Wallace as Laimbeer with a mute button.
They’re similar, in the sense that Laimbeer was a lumbering oaf with the sad-sack Cleveland Cavaliers who no one could have predicted would turn into a multiple All-Star and a two-time NBA champion.
Wallace was a lumbering oaf who couldn’t score who was playing for the irrelevant Washington Wizards because no one else would have him.
No one talks about Wallace as coaching material because he doesn’t have that “terrible two” side to him. Laimbeer certainly does.
But if yelling and screaming was all it took, John McEnroe would have been the next Red Auerbach.
Wallace was never a guard. The offense never ran through him. He never called plays, or even for time outs. His words can be measured by the handful.
But he’s won, and he’s been around a lot of different coaches. He can pull the best from many of them.
I wouldn’t put anything past an undrafted multiple All-Star and NBA champion who played a position that he’s several inches too short for, from Virginia Union.
Pistons coach Ben Wallace.
It’s just crazy enough to work.
Last Week: 3-4
This Week: at TB (7/26-29); at Bos (7/30-8/1)
So What Happened?
Someone call Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John. See if “Hot Lips” Houlihan and Frank Burns can disengage themselves and lend a hand.
Miguel Cabrera, who else?
Brennan Boesch, meet your first slump, son.
Ahh, the American League East.
The only thing we know for certain about Jimmy Hoffa’s fate is that he’s dead.
The former Teamsters union leader and jailbird disappeared 35 years ago this Friday, and was probably dead hours later, if that.
You’ve heard the rumors, the speculation, the jokes, about what became of Hoffa after he pulled into the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant on Telegraph and Maple in Bloomfield Hills on July 30, 1975.
For days and weeks afterward, though, there was still hope that Hoffa would be found.
Likely, though, Hoffa was murdered moments after hopping into a car to go visit mob bosses.
Hoffa was about to take control of the Teamsters once more. At least, that was his hope, after serving jail time for racketeering and other charges.
According to the most reliable accounts, Hoffa thought he was meeting mobsters Tony Provenzano (of New York/New Jersey) and Tony Giacolone (of Detroit) when he went to the Machus Red Fox. Police later found Hoffa’s car in the parking lot but no sign of him.
For their part, neither Provenzano nor Giacolone were proven to be near the restaurant that afternoon (Hoffa disappeared at roughly 2:45 p.m.), nor did they acknowledge to having had a meeting scheduled with Hoffa, period.
Hoffa was declared legally dead on July 30, 1982—seven years after his disappearance.
It’s one of the most famous cold cases in history, but I never really understood the fascination.
Hoffa was dead, we all knew that. So if you’re not a cop or the FBI, or a member of Hoffa’s family, why do you care what happened to him and by whose hand?
I don’t mean to sound cavalier, but I think we all kind of know how this thing went down. We just don’t have the details.
Even the most lay of laymen knows how these mob things work. You go for a ride, you don’t come back. And if they (the mob) don’t want your body found, it won’t be found. If they want it found, they’ll make sure of that, too—on their terms.
Yet for years there has been no end to the rumors and so-called confessions about what ultimately happened to Hoffa—how, and where his remains were disposed of.
He was buried under the then-new Giants Stadium, which opened in 1976. He was chopped up in a wood chipper. He was shot dead in a house in Detroit and buried beneath the floorboards.
Blah, blah, blah.
Sure, it would be kind of neat if a definitive, verifiable account of what happened to Hoffa ever came to light. Just as it would for Amelia Earhart, Judge Crater, and any other high-profile missing persons case.
Don’t hold your breath.
If we haven’t had a deathbed confession by now or a best-selling book that proves, once and for all, what befell Hoffa after he shut off his engine at the Machus Red Fox on July 30, 1975, then I got news for you, folks: we ain’t never getting one.
What could possibly come to light now that would hold any water? And how could it be proven to be the real deal?
We’re getting to the point now where most of the people who could have provided salient, certifiable information are dead.
Hoffa, had he lived until today, would be 97 years old.
He would have made a good baseball umpire.
“I may have many faults,” Jimmy Hoffa once said. “But being wrong ain’t one of them.”
We did it all wrong, the way we watched Chris Spielman play football for the Detroit Lions.
How dare we enjoy Spielman’s eight seasons with the Lions under a Teflon roof with climate control!
How dare we have him play the game on phony grass, without a snowball’s chance in Hell of even a raindrop splatting onto his helmet?
How could we watch him in the lap of the Silverdome’s luxury, an ice-cold drink in one hand and a red hot in the other?
Spielman should have been crunching ball carriers and blockers on a muddy field under a sheet of rain, wearing a leather helmet and shoulder pads made of the latest Sears catalogues.
He should have been wearing a jersey made of wool, and shoes that went over his ankles. The football should have been more rounded.
The other team should have been from Canton, not Tampa.
The on-field officials should have been wearing all white with floppy hats, not stripes and baseball caps. They shouldn’t have been armed with penalty flags—just whistles.
The playing field should have literally been a gridiron, sans hash marks. The goalposts should have formed an “H.”
There shouldn’t have been an ambulance on standby. Instead, just a megaphone and a call for “Is there a doctor in the house?”
The fans should have worn fur coats and twirled noisemakers. And they should have gotten there by horse and buggy, or at least not until hand-cranking their automobile engine started. All the men should have been wearing hats, many smoking cigars.
There should have been no facemasks or elbow pads. The forward pass should have been considered radical. The drop kick should have been part of the playbook.
The games should have been heard on radio, not seen on television. The accounts should have been read from a newspaper, not the Internet.
The players should have played both offense and defense. There should have been one coach per team.
Red Grange should have been around for advice. Jim Thorpe, too.
Chris Spielman was born too late. Like by about 50 years. To say he was a throwback isn’t enough. Spielman wasn’t a throwback; he was a pro football player from the 1920s and ‘30s who somehow was transported to our time. Robert Zemeckis ought to give him a call for the next “Back to the Future” treatment.
It’s a good thing something called football was invented, because without it, I’m not sure what Chris Spielman would have done with himself. Maybe strap on a hard hat and ram himself into a brick wall.
Spielman played football as if it was his duty. He treated the sport with respect and was mindful of its history and tradition.
One time, he scored a touchdown at the Silverdome and rolled into the end zone, pounding the football into the turf, like they did when FDR was president.
They put Spielman, the great former linebacker from the Ohio State University, into the College Football Hall of Fame last week.
Considering Spielman last played a down of college ball 23 years ago, I’d say someone was asleep at the switch on this one.
He’s finally in, but damn them for being late, because Stefanie Spielman wasn’t around to enjoy it.
Spielman got everything he wanted on the football field by willing it to happen. Everything except an NFL Championship, that is.
But aside from that, Spielman cracked heads every Saturday, then every Sunday, with behemoths from the other side. If there was a problem, he’d take care of it on the field.
Then his wife Stefanie got sick with cancer.
Spielman quit pro football in 1996 to take care of her. No word on who took care of him, however. It had to kill him, to be so helpless for the first time ever.
“People say, ‘It’s a great thing that you’re doing,’ ” Chris Spielman said at the time.”I always say it would be a terrible thing if I didn’t.”
This was one opponent Spielman couldn’t beat into submission, but Stefanie proved to be as tough, if not more so, than her husband.
She gave breast cancer all it could handle. She was Joe Frazier and the cancer was Muhammad Ali. She’d win a round, and then cancer would take a few. It would land a big blow to the head, and Stefanie would counter with a jab to the face.
On and on it went for years.
Four times the cancer came and went. When she lost her hair to radiation, Chris Spielman shaved his head, too, in an act of solidarity and love.
But when it came back for the fifth time—cancer is as stubborn as the day is long—Stefanie didn’t have any more counter-punching left in her. She died last November, at age 42.
She had started an awareness group and became a spokesperson. The Spielmans became a sports couple to be admired and by whom to be inspired.
Her husband went back to the grind of pro football, but he didn’t last long. Chris Spielman retired in 1999 as a Cleveland Brown, his back and neck no longer in proper condition to withstand the head-on collisions that occurred every week.
So Stefanie wasn’t at last week’s ceremony in South Bend, Ind. At least, not physically.
Spielman was a Buckeye, and then he went to the Lions, which was like being plucked from the crystal waters of the Caribbean and being dunked into the swill of a swamp.
The losing killed him in Detroit. But there was just enough winning, eventually, to keep his hopes up. The Lions would make the playoffs, and then get drummed out in the first round, usually convincingly.
The last straw was the 58-37 thumping in Philadelphia in the first round in 1995—after the Lions had won their last seven games in a row to make the playoffs.
Spielman was 30 and he had had enough. He went to four Pro Bowls and led the Lions in tackles in all eight seasons he played for them, but after the playoff disaster in Philly, Spielman said the Lions were “spinning their wheels.”
He went to the Buffalo Bills for the 1996 season, and about a year after that, Stefanie was diagnosed.
Spielman probably won’t go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The collegiate honor will have to suffice.
Ironic, really, because Spielman was an old soul, more in tune with the players who were in the NFL during its inception than those he played with and against.
We had him for eight years in Detroit. We watched him play on plastic grass in perpetual 72-degree weather that was dry and sans wind.
That was just plain wrong.
Ralph Houk managed the Tigers when the team was in suspended animation.
The Tigers were between eras when GM Jim Campbell tabbed Houk to replace the fiery but out-of-control Billy Martin.
It was just after the 1973 season.
Martin had been fired in August, the last straw being his brazen order to pitchers Fred Scherman and Joe Coleman to throw spitballs in retaliation for the ones he felt Gaylord Perry was squishing to the Tigers hitters.
Martin had been brought in to resuscitate a moribund Tigers team that had laid down shamelessly for Mayo Smith in 1970.
But after a tad less than three seasons of Martin’s bizarre behavior and insubordinate comments to the media, Detroit News sportswriter Jerry Green was sitting in the press box at Tiger Stadium one night, shortly before Billy was given the ziggy.
Green asked Campbell what Tigers owner John Fetzer thought of Martin.
“Mr. Fetzer is disgusted with Bill Martin,” Campbell told Green, the story related to me by Green not three weeks ago.
Hiring and firing coaches and managers is like experiencing a between-seasons day in Michigan. You get cold and put on a jacket, and keep the jacket on as long as you can stand it. Then you inevitably get too hot and shed the jacket, until you inevitably get cold again.
The Tigers needed some heat when they hired Martin. Then things got too hot and Martin had to go.
Campbell went searching for someone to cool things down.
Houk was a World Series-winning manager with the Yankees whose time in the Bronx was winding down. Familiarity with Houk was breeding contempt in New York. The Yankees hadn’t been to the World Series in nine years.
Houk was made available, and Campbell thought Houk’s experience and reputation for patience with younger players would be perfect for the Tigers, who were about to enter a long and painful rebuilding process.
The Tigers of 1974 were really nothing more than an older version of their 1968 and 1972 teams that won the World Series and the AL East, respectively.
A much older version.
The core was still Kaline and Horton and Cash and Freehan and Northrup and Lolich. But they were well into their 30s, and some were approaching 40.
Houk was brought in and he had the old guys and peach-fuzzed kids. No in between. For the next four seasons, losing came in bunches as the Tigers hit bottom.
Houk, 90, has died. He passed away today in Florida, dying peacefully after a brief illness.
Channel 4 sportscaster Al Ackerman used to call Houk “fifth place Ralph” for his usual finishes in the East Division. It was a terribly unfair moniker, not unusual for Acid Al.
If Houk was “fifth place Ralph,” it was simply because of the proving of a corollary: a manager cannot win if he doesn’t have any talent.
The Houk years in Detroit were a bridge—something that had to be suffered and endured in order to reach the rainbow at the end. If it wasn’t for Mark Fidrych in 1976, the process would have been even worse.
Houk was in Detroit, doing his damnedest to beat the Red Sox and A’s and Royals with the likes of Leon Roberts, Danny Meyer and Tom Veryzer, while kids named Trammell, Whitaker, Parrish and Morris were being cultivated on the farm.
By the time the new core of Tigers reached Detroit in 1978, Houk announced it would be his last year as a big league manager.
1978 would be Houk’s only winning season of the five he spent in Detroit. The Tigers didn’t have another losing campaign until 1989.
Houk retired, but that didn’t last long. The Red Sox coaxed him out two years later, making Houk one of the few men who managed both the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Houk was a rookie manager in 1961 with the Yankees when he presided over the amazing, record-breaking years of sluggers Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.
In his first three seasons of managing, Houk won 309 games.
Again, the corollary was proven, in reverse. A manager with talent has a much better chance of winning.
Houk moved upstairs to be the Yankees GM in 1964 and ’65, then returned to the dugout from 1966-73.
Campbell had the utmost respect for Houk, even more so coming on the heels of the destructive Martin. The GM knew Houk didn’t have much to work with, but Houk gave Campbell five years in a situation where most managers would have been found dangling from the ceiling, a towel tied around their neck.
The Tigers didn’t win much when Ralph Houk managed them. They couldn’t, not with the rosters he was provided. OK, so he was “fifth place Ralph,” as Ackerman had sneered about him.
But there’s no telling how much worse they would have been without Houk’s calming guidance and patience. They would have finished south of the equator.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Literally, in the sad, pathetic case of LeBron James.
James, the mercurial star who jumped to the Miami Heat a couple weeks ago, has already, at age 25, tarnished his legacy in an irreparable nature.
Even if James manages to win an NBA title as part of the Heat’s new triumvirate of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he’s a loser.
The kid, by fleeing Cleveland, has put himself in a lose-lose situation.
Never will his legacy shine as brightly as those of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan. Not even close.
Especially not when two of those—Magic and Jordan—have already come out publicly as saying that they would never have dreamed of joining their rivals simply to form a powerhouse team.
“I came out of college wanting to beat Larry Bird,” Johnson said of his plunge into the NBA after his sophomore year in 1979, when his MSU Spartans beat Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores for the NCAA National Championship.
And thus was born an individual rivalry that injected the NBA with much-needed sizzle for a decade, when by that time Jordan was about to start winning championships—with a Bulls team that he paid his dues with.
Magic never once considered phoning Bird, suggesting a truce and a partnership.
Jordan, for all the heartbreak he suffered as a Bull trying to get past the Detroit Pistons in the late-1980s, didn’t bail on the Windy City.
It would have been unthinkable.
What if Coke and Pepsi threw down their arms and teamed to form an uber-cola?
LeBron James is taking what he thinks is a shortcut to greatness. He’s 25 but in a hurry, apparently. He’s been led to believe, by someone, that he won’t be considered truly great unless he wins the brass ring.
But James is too young, immature, and just plain short on brains to realize that by going to the Heat, he’s done the exact opposite.
Anything LeBron James wins with the Miami Heat—and it’s not fait accompli that he gets his championship, by the way—will be tarnished. It will be sneered at and derided.
James turned down more money to stay with his hometown Cavaliers, and went to the Heat instead.
It was a cowardly act.
James’s Cavs surprisingly made the NBA Finals in 2007. They were swept away by the San Antonio Spurs, but making it was a high accomplishment. The last two seasons have ended in bitter disappointment in Cleveland—tons of regular season wins but playoff flameouts.
James’s body language was abhorrent in the 2008 and 2009 playoffs when things began to go sideways for his Cavaliers. He has a “pouting gene” that the aforementioned superstars, plus many others who never won titles (John Stockton, Karl Malone, et al), never possessed.
The only glares and sour looks Magic or Bird or Isiah or Jordan had were reserved for the officials or for their opponents—not for their own teammates or their coach. And they certainly never sandbagged it on the court, as James did.
James’s absconding to Miami was an act of cowardice because he didn’t have it inside of him to stick it out in Cleveland. His impatience is only matched by his gutlessness.
James had an opportunity to never turn his back on the folks in northern Ohio, and to see the journey to an NBA Championship all the way through. He had the chance to be a genuine hero, and to be placed shoulder-to-shoulder with other true NBA greats.
LeBron James can’t hold the jock straps of any of the superstars who won championships in the 1980s and 1990s. His heart is infinitely smaller. His fortitude is laughable.
James can’t win by playing for the Heat. If he never wins a championship, that speaks for itself. But even if the Heat do manage a title, whose titles will they be?
The Lakers’ titles were Magic’s first, then closely followed by Kareem, Worthy, and the rest.
The Celtics’ championships were Bird’s first, without question—despite the Hall of Famers he played with.
Same with Isiah and the Pistons.
Certainly the same with Jordan and the Bulls—all six times.
But LeBron James and the Miami Heat?
You don’t think that the Heat is still Wade’s team?
Perhaps none of this is important to James—he couldn’t care less about journeys or loyalty or missions. His Ohio roots mean nothing to him. He wants his ring and he wants it now. He thinks it cements his legacy as an NBA great.
This is where it gets pathetic, because James couldn’t be further from reality by holding this misguided viewpoint.
LeBron James can win as many championships as his calculated plan can muster.
But never can he be held to the same idyllic reverence as those champions who preceded him. For they took the truest, most proper route to greatness—a route filled with pride, guts, honor and distinction.
James is taking a short cut, and all he’ll find is a dead end when it comes to his legacy.
Shame on him.
Last Week: 0-4
This Week: TEX (7/19-21); TOR (7/22-25)
So What Happened?
Do you really want to know?
The Tigers went to Cleveland and they wished they hadn’t. That’s not unusual—Cleveland’s a great town if you want to spend a weekend but only have a few hours—but in this case it was even worse.
The Tigers came off the All-Star Break refreshed, invigorated, and hot. They were a mere half-game behind the White Sox for first place, and three full games in front of the third-place Twins.
Then they went to Cleveland and became their own worst Mistake by the Lake.
The Tigers couldn’t hit. Aside from Rick Porcello, they really didn’t pitch. The Indians looked like those terrors of the mid-1990s, not the pratfallers of the mid-1980s—as they have for most of this season.
An Indians four-game sweep, with the Tigers outscored 21-8 and licking their wounds.
The Twins took three of four from the Chisox in Minnesota and have pulled virtually even with the Tigers, 1-1/2 games behind Chicago.
Hero of the Week
Sadly, that’s an easy call: MMM chooses Rick Porcello.
The just-recalled Porcello, making his first Tigers start in weeks—after serving time in Toledo—pitched brilliantly on Saturday night. He didn’t walk anyone. He had command of his pitches, and even threw a slider on a 3-1 count—something Porcello himself could scarcely believe.
Didn’t matter; Tigers lost, 2-1.
But Porcello was very good, which gives hope to Tigers fans worried about the starting rotation’s depth. Funny how, back in April, Porcello was counted on as being the solid No. 2 starter behind Justin Verlander. Now, we’re thrilled that he looked good after a stint in the minors.
That’s baseball for you.
Goat of the Week
Take your pick.
Nothing went right in Cleveland, save Porcello’s start.
The heart of the Tigers’ order—Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, and Brennan Boesch—was as quiet as a church mouse all weekend. The stellar Indians pitching staff—yes, I’m being smarmy and bitterly sarcastic—shut them down, for four straight games.
The pitching was nasty, and not in the good meaning of that word.
The overall play was lethargic and trance-like.
“We weren’t ready to play, and that’s my responsibility,” manager Jim Leyland said. “Frankly, I’m shocked.”
Frankly, I’m not; Leyland’s second half Tigers have mostly been the evil twin of the first half version since 2006.
Upcoming: Rangers and Blue Jays
Those days of last-place teams invading Comerica Park, bringing switchblades to gun battles, are long gone.
The real big league teams will be frequenting the joint from here on out, with few exceptions.
It all starts tonight with the AL West-leading Texas Rangers.
But the Tigers won’t see lefty starter Cliff Lee, who pitched Saturday and is not scheduled to start again until after the Rangers leave town.
Still, the Rangers are formidable. They are second in the league in team batting average. They can rock you with Vlad Guerrero, Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, and Michael Young. All of them are batting .300-plus this season. And don’t forget RF Nelson Cruz, who’s sailing along at .319.
An intriguing pitching matchup occurs Tuesday, when Armando Galarraga returns to the Tigers after a brief stint in Toledo. He’ll go up against right-hander Tommy Hunter, who’s 6-0 with a 2.39 ERA.
The Rangers have lost a mind-boggling 11 straight games in Detroit, which makes MMM feel uneasy; those streaks can’t go on forever, you know.
A four-game series with the Blue Jays used to make the town buzz in Detroit.
That was when the Tigers and Jays were both tenants of the AL East, back in the good old days.
But the Jays aren’t chopped liver, and here they come for a four-game set, starting Thursday.
The Jays are funny; they lead the majors in home runs, yet are batting just .243 as a team and have scored just 421 runs, which puts them in the middle of the MLB pack. So they clearly aren’t manufacturing a lot of runs.
But they can bash you—no less then eight Blue Jays are in double digits in home runs.
Jose Bautista is a great example of the Blue Jays’ all-or-nothing offense. The RF has 25 homers and 58 RBI, yet is batting only .233. Maybe those 72 strikeouts have something to do with that.
Comerica Park is no haven for right-handed hitters, and most of the Jays’ sluggers bat that way. So we’ll see which force serves to be more stubborn.
That’s all for this week’s MMM. See you next Monday!
They were a ramshackle pro basketball franchise, with a history of slapstick. Their story seemed to have been written by Mel Brooks in collaboration with Albert Camus.
Since moving to Detroit in 1957, the Detroit Pistons in 1974 had, at various times: hired their radio guy as the team’s GM; made a 24-year-old player the head coach; played playoff games in a Grosse Pointe high school gym; had a coach quit on the spot after just 10 games into the season; and had an owner that was so absentee, he only knew of his team’s nightly fate via the wire services.
All that, and more, played out against the backdrop of losing in a vacuum. A typical Pistons season in those days finished at 26-56, with home games attended by only a few thousand of Metro Detroit’s most curious. The Pistons didn’t have fans, they had gawkers.
But Bill Davidson liked pro basketball in the worst way, so the Detroit Pistons were perfect for him.
It was a perfect time, too. 1974 was pet rocks and mood rings and polyester and Richard Nixon out, Gerald Ford in. It was Patty Hearst with a machine gun and boycotts of lettuce. It was like the country threw up in its throat a little bit.
So what better time to lead a group of investors in buying the Pistons, the NBA’s deadbeat son? 1974 did very nicely in that regard.
Davidson, the millionaire from Guardian Industries, came from a world where a deal was a deal. So imagine his umbrage when Dave Bing held out for more money.
Davidson wasn’t the Pistons owner for more than a few months when superstar guard Bing wanted a raise from his 1973-74 salary, even though Bing was under contract at that rate.
Davidson didn’t understand. In his world, a contract was a contract.
The Pistons had just completed, finally, a relatively successful season in 1974. They went 52-30. Their coach, Ray Scott, was named Coach of the Year. The blind squirrel had found its nut. Every dog really did have his day.
Now Dave Bing wanted more money. He threatened not to attend training camp unless Davidson ripped up Bing’s contract and wrote another one.
Davidson looked at Bing and saw a petulant player who was using his team’s only good season in Detroit as leverage.
A year later, Davidson traded Bing away—for Kevin Porter. Davidson went from the frying pan to the fire; Porter’s photo could have been found next to Webster’s entry for petulant.
Such went the beginning of Bill Davidson’s foray into pro sports ownership.
Somehow, the Pistons remained in Detroit throughout the 1960s and early-1970s after moving from Fort Wayne, Indiana, even though the teams were lousy and the crowds were skimpy. The Pistons were dinner theater; the Red Wings, Tigers and Lions were Broadway.
Davidson’s predecessor, Fred “The Z” Zollner, was committed to Detroit. It would have been so easy to up and move the Pistons. He could have fled town with them and had gotten a one year head start before the team would have been reported missing.
But Zollner stayed in Detroit. He’s one of the most under-celebrated figures in Detroit sports history, for showing such resilience.
Today, Bill Davidson’s widow has shown how smart she is.
Karen Davidson, from the moment her husband passed away in March, 2009, made no bones about it: she wanted no part of being the owner of an NBA team.
Women usually are the brains of the group.
Karen Davidson has no delusions of grandeur, like her late husband did when he purchased the Pistons in 1974, thinking owning a pro team would be swell. She knows how shark-infested the waters can be.
“I think you need an owner that’s passionate, engaged,” she told the media during the latest basketball season.
What she didn’t add because she didn’t have to, was that she is not the passionate, engaged owner that the Pistons need. She’s the Accidental Tourist.
The Pistons are for sale. Only those sleeping under rocks don’t know that.
Karen Davidson stands to make quite a haul when she gets someone’s signature on a receipt. The Pistons are just part of the deal. She’s selling Palace Sports & Entertainment (PS&E), too—which includes the DTE Energy Theatre, Meadowbrook Theater, and the Palace itself.
The irony is that, after all those wretched years in Detroit in the pre-Davidson era, after all the times Fred Zollner could have moved the Pistons elsewhere, there are rumblings that after this upcoming sale, the Pistons might not have Detroit as their prefix.
“It’s always our preference to keep the sold team in its market,” NBA Commissioner David Stern told the media this week. “But we haven’t always been successful in that endeavor.”
Cue the foreboding music.
The Pistons would leave Detroit now , after all they’ve been through and all they’ve overcome? It’d be the couple divorcing after 53 years of marriage.
For what it’s worth, Karen Davidson doesn’t think that will happen. She thinks the lure of PS&E would make moving the Pistons unattractive to potential buyers.
But the fact that Stern didn’t slam the door shut on such a notion is a little troublesome.
The Pistons leaving Detroit? After 53 years?
We’ve already lost Stroh’s and Uniroyal and Towne Club. Vernor’s, too. And Hudson’s.
Karen Davidson thinks that’s not going to happen. David Stern says, cavalierly, who knows?
If the Pistons leave Detroit now, decades after having no business even being an NBA franchise—and after three championships and many near-misses—then the franchise’s story will not have been written by Brooks and Camus, after all.
It sounds like something LeBron James’s biographer would pen.
Ken Holland comes from a world where the TV announcers say, “He’d probably like to have that one back.”
He comes from a world where, when you make a mistake, they turn a red light on and 15,000 zealots with leather lungs might try to boo you out of the building.
It’s a world where you’re assailed with dozens of vulcanized rubber discs every night as the last line of defense. And when Holland played goalie for the Red Wings, he was often the only line of defense.
It was 25 years ago this summer, when the goaltender Holland became the scout Holland. The Red Wings assigned him to Western Canada, mainly because that’s where he was born and reared.
Then it was 12 more years of working his way up in the organization, this time wearing a suit instead of the tools of ignorance.
Holland bided his time, learning how to put a hockey team together, as the apprentice of Scotty Bowman, no less.
The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997 and it was determined that Bowman would no longer hold the dual titles of coach and general manager. Holland was promoted.
Almost immediately, the naysayers were out.
Keith Gave, mostly right than wrong as Red Wings beat writer in those days, pegged it badly.
No way, Gave wrote, could the Red Wings stay on top with a rookie GM.
Gave fretted over the return of Bowman to strictly coaching duties.
Holland then went out and made some astute trades—several at the March deadline—and the Red Wings repeated as Cup champs, despite the loss of Vladimir Konstantinov to a tragic car accident.
It was following that Cup when Holland returned to his goaltender days and made a move that I believe he wished he could have back.
He didn’t name it specifically, but I hit Holland with the question late in the 2005-06 season.
Go back into goaltender mode, I said into the phone, and tell me what trade or signing you’d like to have back, looking back on your almost-nine years as Red Wings GM.
He acknowledged there was one, for sure, that made him wince.
He wouldn’t tell me what it was, for fear of embarrassing the individual involved.
I submit that the soft goal he let in was the signing of defenseman Uwe Krupp in the summer of 1998.
Krupp was a hulking man who, on skates, could almost have looked over the glass without even stretching. He wasn’t a hockey player, he was a building on blades.
The German-born Krupp was signed from the hated Colorado Avalanche, where he had scored the Cup-winning goal for them in overtime in 1996. He wasn’t known for being extraordinarily physical, given his size, but how physical does have a building have to be? You’re still going to bounce off it.
Krupp came to the Red Wings, his wallet stuffed and before long, his back got creaky.
Krupp dressed for only 22 games during the 1998-99 season. He wasn’t heard from the next season, or the season after that, his back too painful.
Then it was discovered that Krupp, while he was supposedly too hurt to play hockey, was participating in dog sledding.
That made the Red Wings mad.
It got ugly and into the courts. In 2001, Krupp said he was healthy and wanted to come back to the Red Wings. The Red Wings told him to stick it in his five hole.
Showing more fight in the courtroom than he had shown on and off the ice for the Red Wings before and after his injury, Krupp finally won the right to play for the Red Wings, after all.
He suited up for eight games in the 2001-02 season, Bowman not thrilled with him at all.
Bowman gave Krupp a shot in the playoffs, putting him into the lineup for Games 1 and 2 of the first round against Vancouver, in Detroit. The Red Wings lost both, and Krupp was minus five.
Bowman yanked Krupp and declared privately that the tall German building would never play another game for the Red Wings. And Krupp didn’t.
Holland threw a ton of money at Uwe Krupp, when the Red Wings really didn’t need another defenseman, despite Konstantinov’s loss the year prior. The ’98 Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, but Holland, in the pre-salary cap world of the time, couldn’t keep from tweaking.
I believe it was the signing of Krupp to which Holland referred as being his “mulligan”—Holland’s word to me in 2006.
Holland hasn’t had too many mulligans in his 13 years of managing the hockey club in Detroit.
There are those who fear he might be on the verge of another one, if he’s able to entice 40-year-old Mike Modano to play this season, and do so as a Red Wing.
The signing of Modano doesn’t look as olly-olly-oxen free as it did a couple weeks ago. Where the Red Wings looked to be Modano’s only suitors then, other teams have been mentioned lately as sniffing around the Westland native; the Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks are the two late entries.
There might not be enough money, when all is said and done, at Holland’s avail to sign Modano, when put up against what the Wild and/or Sharks could possibly offer.
If that’s the case, then the hand-wringers who worry about adding a 40-year-old center to the Red Wings roster need not fret.
The worry warts would have more credibility, to me, if Holland’s track record with aging veterans was pocked with cautionary tales.
Instead, it’s the polar opposite.
“We feel Mike Modano can help us,” Holland told the papers. “We feel like he has some hockey left in him.”
Those might have been the exact words Holland spoke in the late summer of 2001, when the Red Wings brought Brett Hull in when the interest in the veteran sniper was less than overwhelming.
Hull wasn’t exactly fending off teams with a hockey stick when the Red Wings called. He was 37, and even though he had just scored 39 goals for the Dallas Stars, teams were put off by Hull’s run-ins with coaches and his loud mouth.
Holland took a swing with Hull, and that swing didn’t result in the need of a mulligan.
Hull scored 30 goals and the Red Wings won another Stanley Cup.
The worry warts think the Red Wings need to get younger, and the last thing they need now is a 40-year-old Mike Modano clogging the pipeline for players like Darren Helm and Val Filppula.
I’ve written it before: they do something funny with the water that flows from the Detroit River and into Joe Louis Arena. Somewhere in the bowels of JLA lies a fountain of youth.
Dominik Hasek. Luc Robitaille. Chris Chelios. Dallas Drake. Joey Kocur.
Shall I go on? I can, you know—for quite some time.
The Red Wings are more successful than other NHL teams with aging players because those players are brought in to play specific roles; they’re not asked to do what they did when they were 10 years younger.
Compare that to the Detroit Lions, who all but embarrassed DBs Todd Lyght and Eric Davis during the Matt Millen administration, because the Lions wanted Lyght and Davis to be the players of their mid-to-late 20s, not their early-to-mid 30s.
There were times when I actually felt sorry for Lyght, especially, who was asked to cover, with his 33-year-old legs, receivers nearly ten years his junior. The results weren’t pretty.
That kind of nonsense doesn’t go on with the Red Wings. With the exception of Hasek, who was brought in at age 36 to be the starting goalie, the Red Wings make sure the aging guys are signed only if there are enough other pieces surrounding them to camouflage their deficiencies.
Mike Modano might not be a Red Wing, after all. The longer he takes to decide might mean the decision doesn’t bode well for the Red Wings.
Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have worked.
Kenny Holland feels Modano can help the Red Wings.
That’s good enough for me, and ought to be good enough for everyone else.
Holland is a man of few mulligans, after all.