June 16, 2004

A Glorious Championship

Today's Musical Selection: "Busted" by Ray Charles

Hello there, all! A special word of welcome to Michiganders and Pistons fans. How about that game last night? I desperately needed sleep yesterday, but I blew off my better instincts and stayed up for the end of it. Rarely in my life have I seen such a complete dismantling on the court, and never in a championship. The Pistons were the team with the must-win intensity and hustle, and the Lakers were sluggish and indifferent all game. The Pistons just blew the doors off the vaunted LA machine. As David Stern said, it was an outcome no one expected. (And judging by the look on Stern's face, he intends to make damn sure it doesn't happen again.)

Where to begin? Let's start with the losers. Has there ever been a loss more richly deserved than the Lakers' pratfall in this series? The Lakers have been a maddening team for basketball purists, especially this year's model. Undeniably talented, they've too often allowed themselves to coast, doing the absolute minimum necessary to ensure victory. They're like the gifted kid who never does homework, blows off classes left and right, comes in late for the final and still pulls an A. He may merit the grade, but it doesn't seem right, not to those who bust their tails just to pass. (Incidentally, how can Lakers fans stand to watch their team? Is victory all that matters? Don't you want effort? Don't you want to see a team that plays to its potential? I don't understand it.)

The minute the Lakers snagged Payton and Malone on the cheap, they officially established themselves as The Story of the 2003-04 season. Baseball fans who watch the Yankees fatten themselves annually on other team's unaffordable stars know the feeling. The spotlight was officially on LA, and from then on the dynamic was the Lakers vs. the NBA.

Then Kobe Bryant let the little head think for the big one, and suddenly the storyline was the Lakers vs. themselves. The other 28 teams in the league apparently did not pose enough of a challenge for the Lake Show, so it was time for the Family Feud. Shaq vs. Kobe, Kobe vs. Phil... the spotlight was so blinding that the rest of the league had to scramble just for an occasional headline.

As usual, the Lakers treated the regular season as a tiresome preamble to the important stuff. But this time around, they treated the playoffs with the same nonchalance. They sleepwalked through their series with an undermanned Houston team (a fact I had to look up, given that this season's playoffs began in approximately 1975). They let the Spurs whip their tails around for two games, then suddenly woke up and decided to start playing (and still needed Derek Fisher's miracle shot to put San Antonio away). They rolled through Minnesota in a series primarily remarkable for its chippy play. Then they stretched, yawned and acted as though the title were a fait accompli.

Except Detroit was ready. And the credit for that goes to Larry Brown. In a nice open letter of apology to Brown, King Kaufman admitted that he never thought Brown could tamp down his coaching ego long enough to let his players play. He felt Brown was the consummate overmanager, and was too fascinated with his off-the-wall ideas to try anything conventional. But Brown proved that he could do it, as I suspected he could.

Why? Because it's another challenge! In his wandering career, Brown has made silk's purses out of sow's ears in any variety of ways. Nothing new in that. But his tenure in Detroit is, in a way, the culmination of his experiment in Philadelphia. With the Sixers, Brown took on the challenge of molding a winning team around a hugely talented but moody and selfish star. He brought them as close, I suspect, as Allen Iverson will ever come to a title. But he knew he'd reached the end of the line there.

Several times in his coaching career, Brown has coaxed playoff-caliber teams out of basement-level talent. His acceptance of the Sixers job was a signal that he was ready to go to the next level. He wanted to take a playoff-caliber team and make a champion of it. When he saw that wouldn't happen in Philadelphia, he left. And then Detroit came calling. Here was a team that fired Rick Carlisle for a 50-win year. It was clear that this was a title-or-bust situation. What better place for Brown to go?

I doubt Brown feels "vindicated" by this title; I doubt he ever felt he needed vindication. For him, this championship is worth savoring because he met the challenge he set for himself. That's the satisfaction that Brown takes from this title, I suspect.

Some random notes from my game-time chat with Papa Shaft: As time was winding down, Papa Shaft offered the Lakers' epitaph: "Kobe needed another trial date." Kudos to Detroiters, by the way, for not burning the city down in celebration, defying my snide prediction that the Pistons fans were "leaving the arena early to get a head start on the riots." And in the post-game celebration, I saw Rasheed Wallace holding up a little girl who proved to be his daughter. I said to Papa, "Hey, look, Rasheed's holding up a baby! I hope it's his. 'For God's sake, Rasheed, put the child down! You cannot smoke it! No, Rasheed...'" As you might have noticed, Papa Shaft and I can be pretty vicious when we're going back and forth.

And how about Chauncey Billups winning the MVP award! No, the voters were not sampling Rasheed's stash. Chauncey actually deserved it. However, if someone had said the words "NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups" to you at the start of the season, what would you have said, other than "What is this, Bizarro World?"

Congratulations are also in order for the Washington Wizards, who at one time or another owned Richard Hamilton and both the Wallaces, and gave them away for, among other things, the immortal Jerry Stackhouse. If not for the Wizards' contribution, no way do the Pistons win the title. Sombody cut off part of the trophy and mail it to Wes Unseld.

A comment from the Big Fool himself, Carl, on Eleanor Holmes Norton's tribute to the Tampa Bay Lightning, which I mentioned yesterday:

Boooooooooooo EHN! The delegate from Washington further proves she's not a hockey fan (or at least not a Caps fan) by praising the Lightning. WE LOATHE THEM.

former Caps season ticket holder

Agreed! I didn't even think of it at the time, but the Lightning are, thanks to the cruel whims of NHL fate, our division rivals! Is Delegate Norton that desperate for floor time?

A big hello to my man Frinklin, who's watching the Brewers-Mariners series with the same intensity that I am. So far it's Mediocre Fred 1, Frinklin 0 after my Crew captured a 3-0 beauty over the M's last night. Victor Santos pitched great, particularly for a man suffering from gastrointestinal unpleasantness. This gives new meaning to the idea of "preventing the runs." (Sorry.) A couple points that Frinklin brought up:

So, how many fans out there knew the Brewers would have a winning percentage 100 points higher than that of Seattle when this series started? Yeah, sure ya did.

No, I wouldn't have guessed it, either. What a crazy year it's been, eh?

Lastly, would it be too damned hard to make this a Throwback game and have the Pilots vs. Pilots game?

Excellent idea! (For those not in the know, the Brewers were the Seattle Pilots for one season in '69 before moving to Milwaukee.) If the series was in Seattle, it'd be perfect. Get Jim Bouton to throw out the first pitch! Fun for the whole family. If it weren't for the fact that MLB seems to pretend, as best it can, that the Pilots never existed, it would happen.

That's all for today. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at June 16, 2004 06:43 PM
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