"None of you cats believed in us. You all had everybody else in every other series. That's all right, we're just hoopin'. We don't need y'all."
-- Rasheed Wallace
Michigan excluded, 'Sheed is right. Until they were beaten, the Detroit Pistons were taken for granted, disrespected for who they were or what they stood for amid an era of extreme individualism. Their championship was taken Thursday night only by a cohesive team matching their heart and endurance over nine months. Standing upright and unbowed in the final seconds, they still nearly repeated.
The San Antonio Spurs won their third title in seven years, an 81-74 scrum of a Game 7 that ended amid streamers and screams a few miles from the Alamo. Validation for MVP Tim Duncan came as much as celebration for a small and prideful South Texas city.
The Pistons? They lost nothing more than a material possession no one ever gave them credit for winning anyway. Rarely was it said, "The Pistons won it all last season." No, more likely, it was "the Lakers lost."
"We had to hear about Shaq, Kobe and Phil all summer, all summer!" said Darvin Ham, the Pistons' reserve forward. "And over Christmas too. They've been throwin' potshots at us all year.
"People felt, 'How can a bunch of castoffs win a championship?' I'm like, 'People on this team have immense talent in their own individual way.' We came together and put our egos aside. The egotistical stuff that you normally see in the NBA is totally not part of our game. We showed what you can when you really play as a team.
"We just wanted to be looked at as a humble bunch of warriors going about their way, going about their business."
Nah. That would too proper and right. We had to antagonize and anger rather than appreciate. There are 24 chips on 12 shoulders in Detroit's locker room, a feeling of persecution fostered by multiple trades, roster cuts and ego bruises.
Ben Wallace's walk down an SBC corridor prior to Game 7 said as much. He moved purposefully and scowled, until civilians moved aside for the soul of the Pistons. Big Ben did not have the demeanor of an all-star or a two-time defensive player of the year, an established NBA veteran. He appeared angry, as if he had been stuck in Yakima for three years, exiled to some CBA outpost. When the NBA preview cover of Sports Illustrated features Shaquille O'Neal grinning from a Miami swimming pool -- and not a collage of the reigning NBA champions -- that is the look of disrespect.
Larry Brown, the coach, walked the sideline during the playoffs with a catheter inserted into his body. He has a bladder ailment that will result in another surgery this summer. "This is pretty special, just to be a part of this," he said. Brown can see the next train in the distance, always more exotic than the one in the station. But tonight he sounded as if he has taken Valpairaiso to the Final Four instead of the most determined bunch of millionaires to the precipice of back-to-back titles.
Antonio McDyess and Chauncey Billups talk about all the teams who gave up on them. Billups was a couple of shots and possessions away from a second straight MVP award, a clutch-shooting point guard who has shamefully not been voted on to an all-star team.
Did you see McDyess, three surgeries later, dumping in 10 points, hauling in seven rebounds, blocking two shots, virtually keeping the Pistons in the game as the Spurs caught fire in the second half? To see him playing the game again -- let alone a Game 7 -- was a marvel not to be taken for granted.
On it goes, this running theme throughout the locker room, throughout the season:
You didn't believe in us. We did.
The Pistons will get excoriated for throwing away a nine-point lead in the third quarter, falling apart offensively and letting the Spurs back into a game on the verge of a rout. Unfortunately, analyzing what a player did not do is more popular than appreciating the guy who found a way to get it done on the other end. Manu Ginobili and Duncan were money when it mattered most. A team that commits six turnovers in 48 minutes of Game 7 and loses did not throw a title away.
'Sheed made some incredibly tough shots in the final minutes, Big Ben stood his ground and, in spite of missing 12 of 14 three-pointers, the Pistons were very much in it until the end.
Looking back, it was an amazing psychological feat. The defending champs came into the league's signature game somehow having convinced themselves that they did not win the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy last season.
Not that the media and fans deserve credit for their inability to appreciate athletes playing for each other before themselves. But the combined ability to write off, disregard and disrespect the defending NBA champions probably helped motivate 'Sheed, Big Ben, Rip and Chauncey to take San Antonio to the limit on the last night of the season.
They internalized this season-long slight to a level that made them all appear as if they had signed 10-day contracts before Game 1 of the Finals on June 9 and and signed their second 10-day before Game 5 on June 19th. They competed with a desperation befitting frightened rookies, who feel as if they might be sent to the developmental league in the offseason. Watching their grit and resolve from courtside, the way they defend and refuse to give an inch on the blocks, was a great privilege in a world of isolation, two-man basketball.
After the brawl last Nov. 19 in the Pistons' home arena, we made all their fans out to be violent thugs. The sane among them responded by loudly rooting their taken-for-granted team on, overtaking Sacramento and Dallas as the noisiest, most emotional fans in the league.
Last season was called an aberration. No team had won a title without one of the top 50 players in the league since the Dennis Johnson-led SuperSonics in 1979. There was no way they were supposed to do it again. They were told this, even as the Pistons pushed this series toward a seventh game.
Between Games 6 and 7, Rasheed Wallace said, "It feel real good to prove y'all cats wrong."
We were wrong. The Pistons did not repeat as champions. But they came back to show us that gold-plated trophies and made-up boxing belts are status symbols, hardly indicative of what to takes to remain a champion.