You want to know why the Pistons beat the Lakers? There's a tape that explains everything.Maybe you've seen an old ESPN2 show called "NBA's Greatest Games," the series where Dan Patrick watches memorable playoff battles with one of the participants involved. Cool idea. Didn't quite work. The biggest mistake was shortening the show to 30 minutes; it's like watching a 10-minute version of "Inside the Actors Studio."
Still, the series was vindicated by one episode, the show where Patrick watched Game 6 of the '88 Finals with Isiah Thomas. If you don't remember what happened, the Pistons had already dispatched the Celtics; now they were trying to vanquish the Lakers and drive a final stake in the Bird-Magic Era. Facing elimination heading into Game 6, that Lakers team had a fundamental weakness: It couldn't handle point guards who could create shots off the dribble, as evidenced by the Sleepy Floyd Game.
(Note: The other weakness, of course, was that Kareem had stopped rebounding somewhere during the '84 season. Plus, he was a giant ninny, and he was starting to look like a bonafide alien with the goggles and the shaved head. But that's irrelevant here. Back to the column.)
If someone like Sleepy gave them problems, you can only imagine how much trouble the Lakers had against Isiah, only the best pure point guard of my lifetime. Smelling blood in the third quarter, Isiah dropped 14 straight Detroit points with a ridiculous array of shots, doing his best impression of Robby Benson at the end of "One on One." The Pistons were right there. A year removed from blowing a winnable series against the banged-up Celtics, they were finally ready to make The Leap.
Then it happened: Right after dishing an assist to Dumars, Isiah stepped on Michael Cooper's foot and sprained his ankle to smithereens. Watching Isiah rolling around and yelping in pain, you could almost see the Pistons' title hopes vanishing into thin air. If you've ever played hoops, you know what a sprained ankle feels like at the moment of impact -- like a chainsaw churning against the bottom of your leg. You don't come back from a badly sprained ankle. You just don't.
Well, Isiah did.
He wouldn't let it stop him. He had come too far, suffered too much. After a few minutes, he pulled himself up. Limped around. Chewed on his bottom lip like a wad of tobacco, trying to transfer the pain. A few minutes later, he returned on pure adrenaline, trying to save the title before his ankle swelled up. First, he made a one-legged floater over Cooper, drawing the foul and nearly careening into the first row of fans. A few plays later, he drained a long three and filled the lane for a fastbreak layup. With the final seconds ticking away, he buried a turnaround 22-footer from the corner -- an absolutely outrageous shot -- giving him 25 points for the quarter (as well as a lead for the Pistons). This was Pantheon-level stuff, win or lose.
As CBS headed to commercial, they showed a slow-motion replay of Isiah's aformentioned layup: Isiah tumbling into photographers, unable to stop his momentum on that ravaged ankle, then gamely hopping back downcourt as his teammates cheered him on. On the Goosebump Scale, it's about a 9.5. You always hear about Willis Reed's Game 7 cameo against the Lakers, or Kirk Gibson taking the Eck deep in the '88 World Series. Somehow, Isiah's third quarter in Game 6 gets lost in the shuffle, and only because the Pistons ended up losing the series. Seems a little unfair.
And yes, maybe he was somewhat unlikable during his playing days: Spiteful and manipulative, an incredibly poor sport, someone who burned so many bridges that they bumped him off the original Dream Team. But nobody cared about winning more than he did. In retrospect, that was Isiah's biggest problem: Maybe he cared too much. If that's possible.
Actually, that's definitely possible. Because when ESPN finished re-running that third quarter, they returned to the studio and Isiah Thomas was crying. That's right ... crying. He had never seen the tape before. He couldn't handle it.
And what followed was breathtaking.
I watch all of these shows. I watch every "SportsCentury," every "Beyond the Glory," everything. I eat this stuff up. And there has never been a moment, not on any of these shows, that matches what happens right after Dan Patrick asks Isiah Thomas a simple question about Game 6:
"Why does it bother you?"
The words hang in the air. Isiah can't speak. He dabs his eyes, finally breaking into a self-conscious smile. The memories are flooding back, some of them good, some of them bad. He's overwhelmed. Finally, he ends up describing how it feels to play for a championship team. To a tee. And he does it off the top of his head.
"I just ... I ... I never watched this," Isiah mumbles, dabbing his eyes with a hankerchief. "You just ... you wouldn't understand."
Patrick doesn't say anything. Wisely.
Isiah takes a second. Then he keeps going.
"That type of emotion, that type of feeling, when you're playing like that, and you know, you're really going for it ... you're going for it. You put your heart, your soul, you put everything into it, and ... "
He chokes up again. Takes a moment to compose himself.
And then ...
"It's like, to look back on that, to know that all we went through as a team, and the people, and the friendships and everything ... you just wouldn't understand."
He smiles again. It's a weird moment. In any other setting, he would come off as condescending. But he's right ... somebody like Patrick, or me, or you ... none of us could understand. Not totally, anyway.
Isiah keeps going. Now he wants Patrick to understand.
"You know, like you said, to see Dennis, the way Dennis was, to see Vinny, to see Joe, to see Bill, to see Chuck, and to know what we all went through and what we were fighting for ... I mean, we weren't the Lakers, we weren't the Celtics, we were just, we were nobody. We were the Detroit Pistons, trying to make our way through the league, trying to fight and earn some turf, you know, and make people realize that we were a good team. We just weren't the thing that they had made us."
Patrick steps in: "You weren't Showtime, you weren't the Celts, you were the team that nobody gave credit to."
"Yeah," Isiah says, nodding. Now he knows. He knows what to say.
"And seeing that, and feeling that, and going through all that emotion, I mean, as a player, that's what you play for. That's the feeling you want to have. When 12 men come together like that, you know, it's ... it's ... "
He struggles for the right words. He can't find them. And then, finally ...
"You wouldn't understand."
Maybe he's right.
I was thinking of that show last night, right as the 2004 Pistons were finishing off the Lakers in Detroit. Nobody believed in them. Not even me. I watched Game 1, watched what they were doing, quickly realized that they were the worst possible matchup for this Lakers team, even described the similarities between the 2004 Finals and the Douglas-Tyson fight in a column ... and still assumed the Lakers could hold them off. After all, they had Shaq and Kobe. That should have been enough, right?
The Pistons played harder. They found every loose ball, controlled the offensive boards, kept beating the tired Lakers down the floor. They never stopped coming, never stopped "going for it." It was like watching one of those old fights from Roberto Duran's prime, the way he would keep coming and coming after his opponent, always moving forward, never letting the other guy breathe. Eventually, the other guy would cave. Just like the Lakers did.
The Lakers weren't ready for them. Maybe they had the best two players on the floor, but the Pistons had everything else: chemistry, bench players, coaching, you name it. Much like the Rams-Patriots Super Bowl, everyone kept waiting for the favorites with the recognizable stars to impose their will, but the underdog kept landing haymakers and making plays. Usually, the team with the best player wins the series; in this case, Detroit's defense was more dominant than any single player in the league. So they deserved to win the title. They're a worthy champion.
More importantly, the sanctity of the game was restored. A team like the 2004 Lakers shouldn't win the title, not with so many involved for the wrong reasons. Shaq and Kobe have been co-existing uneasily for years, like two people trapped in a bad marriage, neither of them displaying the guts to ask for a divorce. Malone and Payton swallowed their pride for supporting roles on a potential champion, then folded like accordions when the team actually needed them. Phil Jackson kept holding on for a chance to break Red Auerbach's record of nine titles, even though he stopped breaking a sweat years ago. (His team was jarringly unprepared this spring.) Even the organization has been mailing it in for years -- it hasn't developed an above-average starter, much less an All-Star caliber player, since it traded for Kobe eight years ago.
These guys didn't care about each other. They didn't like playing with each other. They didn't play hard until you practically stuck a gun to their heads. They thought passion came with an on-off switch. With the season slipping away before Game 4 of the Finals, five of the veterans pulled the coach into a bathroom and threw everyone else under the bus. The message was clear: Every man for himself. The exact opposite of 12 guys coming together as one.
And then you had the Pistons. Years from now, they'll remember their journey just like Isiah remembered everything during that TV show, when the memories came flooding back, when the footage of a 10-year-old game brought him to tears. As Isiah described it, "Seeing that, and feeling that, and going through all that emotion, I mean, as a player, that's what you play for. That's the feeling you want to have."
Maybe we can't understand, but the 2004 Pistons certainly did. As one of the remaining 19 NBA diehards on the planet, I'm just glad that order was finally restored. There's hope for this league yet.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. On Thursday, he'll answer the lingering questions from the 2004 NBA Playoffs