A prince among men

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The hardwood floor will be a replica of the Detroit Pistons court. There will be a Nintendo Wii and a pop-a-shot basket and 16 tickets for children with cancer and their families. "There is a picture of my hand on the wall," says Tayshaun Prince, the Pistons forward who has made all of this happen, "so they can put their hands up against it to see how big they are."

On Thanksgiving eve Prince will be seeing the redecorated suite at the Palace of Auburn Hills for the first time. He and his wife, Farah, purchased it in order to donate its use to Kids Kicking Cancer, an organization that uses martial arts techniques to empower hundreds of children and help them cope with their illness. "It's pretty amazing," says Cheryl Good, director of operations for the charity headquartered in Detroit. "A month ago we got a call from the Pistons' Palace Foundation letting us know that Tayshaun and Farah were looking at different charities to whom they might donate a custom-made suite."

The children were invited to the Pistons' first two home games while the suite was under construction. Now the renovations are complete and the doors will be flung open. Before the Pistons' play the Knicks Wednesday, the 16 ticketed members of the Kids Kicking Cancer entourage will be invited onto the court to sit on the Pistons bench and watch the players warm up for the game. Upstairs in their red-and-blue suite they will receive T-shirts and thundersticks and eat and drink and play and watch the game. This will be repeated for every Pistons game in Auburn Hills this season, with all of the bills going to Prince and the Meijer department stores, a Pistons' sponsor.

"It makes a tremendous difference for these kids who are undergoing or recovering from treatment," says Good. "These kids are in incredible pain, more pain than we could imagine. We try to empower them physically, spiritually and emotionally, and to have them feel like they're the hero, the superstar walking in there for the game that night, it empowers them to stay strong. It encourages them to just behave like kids; when we took them to a game earlier this month I've never heard so much noise. It was great, and and all they did was scream out Tayshaun's name throughout the entire game."

For Prince this donation is another example of his growth as a leader. Though he is one of the game's most quiet personalities, he has emerged as a tri-captain (with Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton) of one of the league's pillar franchises.

It goes back to the decision by Pistons' president Joe Dumars to use the No. 23 pick in the 2002 draft on the then- skinny senior from Kentucky. "I'll never forget interviewing him with Joe in Joe's office," says Pistons VP John Hammond. "Tayshaun has this habit where he turns to the side a little bit and points his shoulder at you when he speaks. And we could barely hear him. Joe and I were laughing about it afterwards; we're both leaning over the table trying to hear what he was saying."

That early impression was deceiving. Though he looks a frail 215 pounds at 6-9, Prince hasn't missed a game over the last four years while emerging as one of the league's toughest defenders. He doesn't demand shots, but in the crunch he often has the ball in his hands to make a big play. He is the only Pistons' starter to never make the All-Star team -- but would the Pistons have made the last five Eastern conference finals without him?

This season Prince is averaging career-highs of 15.7 points, 52.1 percent shooting and 6.0 rebounds a game as the Pistons begin to prepare for challenges in the spring from the reinvented Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic. "The East is getting better and more well-rounded," he says. "What has to be understood now is that this is an opportunity for us to really be inspired. This has to be a boost in our confidence to know that they're trying to get to where we're at."

The Pistons have struggled to a 6-4 start, but first impressions of their record are as misleading as those of Prince. And in fact, playing the underdog might be of great assistance, as they need to build their inspiration toward May and June instead of depleting themselves in the conference finals, as they've done the past two seasons.

While those challenges await Prince and his teammates, Wednesday night, they will be focused on the struggles facing the children who will be the stars of the evening. Though Prince and his wife of two years do not yet have kids of their own, they will be serving as benefactors to hundreds of children who desperately need help of every kind.

"For the parents to see their kids so happy, they couldn't be more grateful," says Good. "I went to the Pistons' home opener with them, and they were all caught up in the night. But then every single child came up to me that night to say what we should do to thank Tayshaun and his wife. They were talking about making scrapbooks, they wanted to sign posters. The kids had all of these ideas about how they wanted to give back for what was being done for them, and I thought that was very consistent with the altruistic spirit that Tayshaun and his wife have been showing by doing this."