If Larry Brown is serious about coaching the first champion in 27 years to a Game 7 road victory in the NBA Finals, he will eschew film, practice and all conventional preparation and treat basketball for the child's game it remains. If Brown wants to make history, he should implore his players to take part in a shooting contest for money, until the Detroit Pistons are laughing, loose and one of them is a cool $5,000 richer.
Joe Dumars, the man who put the Pistons together, should let his children stay up late to watch. After the victory, the kids should be allowed to dress the family mutt in a snug Detroit jersey and watch him try to squirm out of it. It works.
As the Pistons seek to stave off the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night in the final game of the NBA season, the book on How to Become Game 7 Champ and Celebrate in Someone Else's Arena should not be taken lightly. The players, coach and family members of the 1978 Washington Bullets swear by this manual. They were the last NBA team to win a Game 7 on the road for the title, beating the Seattle SuperSonics on their home floor.
"My brother and sister stayed at home with the babysitter and we watched," said Danny Ferry, the son of then-Bullets general manager Bob Ferry; Danny was 10 years old at the time. "Our celebration was to torture the family dog, 'Bullets.' My older brother hated us for putting that jersey on the dog."
Wes Unseld, who chipped even more paint off the rim than Tim Duncan in the fourth quarter of that game, was calm when it counted. Big Wes made two free throws in the final 12 seconds to preserve the historic win. Neither Magic Johnson nor Larry Bird won a title in Game 7 on the road. Michael Jordan never even played a Game 7 in the NBA Finals.
Astonishingly, no other NBA team or coach since has accomplished what the Bullets and their star managed to do.
"We didn't even have a meeting that day," said Dick Motta, the former Bullets coach, who spoke by telephone from a bed and breakfast he runs with his family on the Utah-Idaho border. "We played 'Knockout,' a shooting game where a player could buy back in for $500 up to three times. The whole hour and 15 minutes -- the whole practice -- was one shooting game. By the time we got to tip-off, we were loose and ready to win."
"No, I can't remember what we did the day before the game," Unseld said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "There was too much anxiety."
The game seemed over after Mitch Kupchak converted a three-point play and gave the Bullets a seven-point lead in the final minutes. Until the Sonics began playing Wack-a-Wes, fouling Unseld away from ball, which was legal then, and forcing the center to make free throws to win the title. He missed. And missed. And missed, just like Duncan in Games 5 and 6 of these Finals.
"I feel for him," said Unseld. "I wasn't as good a free throw shooter as him and I know it's the last place on earth he wants to be right now."
Motta believes Duncan "thinks too much" at the line. "He tries so damn hard to hit a free throw that he can't make one. He needs to loosen up."
Understandably, Danny Ferry does not want the Pistons to pull it off. He grew up to become the vice president of basketball operations for the Spurs. Detroit's desire is killing him as much as those last few minutes in front of his TV in 1978. "I remember Wes making those final ones and feeling such a sense of relief," he said.
"It was so ugly," said Unseld, who missed seven in a row before he made one. "I would run back to the other end of the court to hide so they didn't foul me."
Motta did not give much help on the last free throw. After Unseld made his first with 12 seconds left, the coach called a timeout.
"I was feeling comfortable and I was ready to take the second one and he calls time," Unseld said. "I was ready to hang him."
"[Bob] Dandridge yelled at me, asked me what I was doing," Motta said. "He said, 'You're destroying his rhythm.' I said, 'What rhythm? He's 1 for 7 right now.' I had to set the scene, though. It wasn't a foxhole, but it was crisis time. I couldn't let us make any mistakes at that point." Unseld made the second one and the Bullets won by four.
Thursday night, Big Wes thinks Little Tim could do no worse than relaxing and realizing he will be all right in Game 7 -- if Duncan can just let the guilt at the line go. "If he tells himself he will help his team in other ways, he won't have to worry at all," Unseld said.
Motta purposely left the starters in at the end of Game 6, an embarrassing blowout for the Sonics at Capital Centre. "I wanted to rub it in," Motta said. "I wanted them to leave the town thinking we're a better team. I think we won that game by 38."
"I'm sure they're feeling some of that in San Antonio right now," he added. "You could probably cut the emotions along the Riverwalk with a knife. All four series opened on the road for us that year. It got to where we felt almost destined at the end. I'm sure Detroit feels almost the same way."
At 73, Motta is getting up there. But he is supremely confident this is how it all went down, how the Bullets defied the odds and won a Game 7 and a championship away from home, 27 years ago.
Wes is not so sure.
"He didn't leave me in in Game 6," said Unseld, still incredulous. "He took me out right away when we got up. He put Kupchak in for me. I was [mad].
"He told you he left us all in? I think Dick is getting old."
The story about that little demon Danny Ferry putting the jersey on the family mutt? Sadly, it's true.