For most of his life Isiah Thomas had dreamed of this moment—but the moment wasn't his. Champagne and merriment flowed freely throughout the locker room of the Los Angeles Lakers last June as they celebrated their winning of the NBA championship, and Thomas took it in with the wide-eyed amazement of a child. Wordlessly he watched as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hoisted his son, Amir, in one arm and the championship trophy in the other and carried them around the room. And he spotted his friend Magic Johnson being mobbed by teammates, journalists and Hollywood stars. Traces of tears appeared in Thomas' eyes. "Whatever it takes," he said, "I'm going to make sure this happens to me."
In June one might have dismissed Thomas' vow as the emotion of the moment, because the 6'1" guard is a member of the Detroit Pistons, who for most of their 26 years, have been located closer to the league's outhouse than its penthouse. But five months after Thomas' glance at grandeur, all of the Pistons are playing as if they too have been swept away by the same vision.
Following a 3-1 week, highlighted by last Friday's 111-100 romp over perennial Central Division kingpin Milwaukee (the other games were a 108-105 win over Washington, a 115-91 victory over Indiana and a 112-100 loss to the Knicks), the Pistons had a 7-3 record and stood at the top of the Central. That added up to Detroit's best start in 12 years, and the Motor City's wheels were a-spin as fans attempted to get near their team at luncheons, at dinners and at shopping center autograph sessions. Coach Scotty Robertson made an appearance on the local ABC affiliate's Good Afternoon Detroit, while Thomas did a guest shot on CBS' Sports Sunday.
Piston patrons were finding their way to the Silverdome, too. The Friday crowd of 17,147 was the eighth-largest in the team's history; the largest was the 28,222 who turned out on Nov. 5 for a game against the Philadelphia 76ers. "I can't describe how it felt seeing those 28,000 people there," says Pistons General Manager Jack McCloskey. "During our first year here we would have been lucky to get 2,800."
Thomas and 6'6" Forward Kelly Tripucka, the catalysts behind Detroit's conversion, were in their freshman and junior years of college, respectively, in December of 1979 when McCloskey left his job as an assistant coach with the Pacers to oversee the worst operation in basketball. Coached first by Dick Vitale, who was fired 12 games into the season, and then by Richie Adubato, the Pistons bumbled their way to a 16-66 record in 1979-80. "Fundamentally, we were totally unsound," recalls McCloskey. "Passing, dribbling, running, shooting...we couldn't do any of those things."
The front office wasn't very adept at its job, either. When Detroit wasn't wasting its first-round draft picks on second-rate players, it was trading away other choices for players like George Trapp and Howard Porter.
That wasn't the problem in the 1981 draft when, following a 21-61 season, the Pistons selected Thomas No. 2 and Tripucka No. 12 in the first round. Detroit invested $1.6 million in Thomas and $600,000 in Tripucka, and they immediately paid dividends. Last season Tripucka led the Pistons in minutes played and scored 21.6 points per game, second on the team only to Guard John Long's 21.9, while Thomas was third in scoring with a 17-point average and paced Detroit in assists, with 7.8, the sixth-best in the league. The Pistons finished the season 39-43, their best record in five years, and narrowly missed a playoff spot. This season anything less than a postseason berth will be considered a failure by Robertson. "Some nights we can play at the level of a Philadelphia or Boston, but we're not there consistently," he says. "We belong at the next level, fighting with the New Jerseys and Washingtons, trying to establish our identity."
The difference between Detroit and the league's superpowers, according to McCloskey, is quality talent. "People can talk all they want about things like chemistry and character," he says, "but if that was all it took, teams would be playing five clergymen at a time. If you don't have the talent to start with, you just won't win."
Detroit has overcome its lack of recognized quality with hard work and role playing. Long is one of the league's best, if least known, scoring off guards, while 6'10" Forward Kent Benson and 6'11" Center Bill Laimbeer concentrate on the boards, where through Sunday they had combined for an average 20 rebounds a game. And although this season's pair of first-round draft choices, Forward Cliff Levingston and Guard Ricky Pierce, have yet to make a noticeable contribution, the Pistons have other talents to call on. When Long and Benson each missed three games with injuries last week, Vinnie Johnson and Edgar Jones replaced them and averaged five assists and 12 points, respectively.
In Thomas and Tripucka, though, the Pistons have a duo comparable in quality to any in the league. Thus, Detroit revolves around them, despite their lack of experience. "It's not an ideal situation, relying on two youngsters, but it's the one we've found ourselves in," says Robertson. "We've restructured this entire franchise and put all our eggs into two young baskets."
Neither Thomas nor Tripucka would have it any other way. "I've never been the kind of player who would back down and hide in the corner saying, 'Please don't pass the ball to me,' " says Tripucka. "I'd rather be taking the big shots. I've been doing it for a long time. Why stop now?"
"That's the way I have to play," says Thomas. "I'd be terrible if I were allowed to just go through the motions. It's my job to make sure everyone else on the floor is doing the right thing. And if I'm not right, I can't make them be right either."
Thomas has pushed his scoring up to 22.8 points a game this season while still averaging 7.3 assists. He was scoring at about the same clip at a similar time last year, but his average and attitude plummeted during a falling-out with Robertson. "I'd never done things the way he wanted them done," Thomas says. "I'd always felt I played an all-round game: scoring, passing, playing defense. But it seemed he wanted me to change my priorities: pass the ball, play defense and then, maybe, score. For a time I felt one-dimensional on the offensive end of the court, just penetrating and dishing off. It was like part of my game was taken away from me. Now I know how he wants things done. I'm a little smarter, a little more mature. But he's relaxed a bit more too."
Tripucka has also learned to relax, although you couldn't tell it from his nonstop motion on the court. "Every time I walked out on a floor last season I felt I had to prove one thing or another," he says. "People were second-guessing me and my ability to the point where I felt like I wasn't allowed to have a bad game. Now it's a whole different world out there. I'm relaxed game in and game out. The statistics may not be as good as last season but my productivity has increased."
Actually, Tripucka's stats have improved; he's playing 38.2 minutes a game and averaging 25.7 points, enough to stifle any critics. Although Tripucka had an 18-point regular-season average and some impressive performances in postseason all-star games following his senior year at Notre Dame, some people in the NBA questioned whether he would be a factor in the league. Too slow, too in-between, too ordinary.
Tripucka says, "First I wasn't good enough, then I didn't score 30 points a game at Notre Dame. Still, I always felt I could play whatever game a team wanted to play—slowdown, fast break, whatever. Ever since Adrian Dantley, people just don't score much at Notre Dame; you play 26 minutes a game, take 10 to 15 shots and play team ball."
That formula was good enough for Tripucka's teammate on the Irish, Laimbeer, who has never really worried about being a star. The son of what he calls "a vice-president of a very large corporation [Owens-Illinois]," Laimbeer isn't over-serious about the game. "There have always been other options available to me. Basketball is just a game," he says.
After an undistinguished year and a half with the Cleveland Cavaliers, it appeared that the 25-year-old center would have to fall back on one of those other options. Then last Feb. 16, only nine minutes before the end of the league's trading deadline, Laimbeer was sent to Detroit. Since his acquisition, the Pistons have had a 23-17 record. "I've always felt that my time was my time, whether I wanted to travel or fish or just lie around and do nothing," says Laimbeer. "Basketball never entered into it. But after I came here last season and everyone showed such confidence in me, I felt I had to do something to repay them."
Laimbeer reported to the Cavaliers' camp at 280 pounds a year ago but weighed in at a relatively svelte 254 this fall, the result of "touching a basketball between the last game and the first practice for the first time since junior high school." Thus far, Laimbeer has averaged almost 13 points and 12 rebounds a game. "I don't know about the future, but this year I want to do something, like be a top-10 rebounder," he says. "Everyone has said I can't do this or that. I want to show them I can."
So do the rest of the Pistons. Although to a man they downplayed the Milwaukee game beforehand, they saw it as an indication of how far the team had come—or how far it had to go. Not only would the Pistons be judged by the Bucks but also by the Detroit fans.
Early in the game it seemed that the Pistons hadn't traveled far enough. The Bucks bullied their way to a lead of seven points in the first quarter and as many as nine in the second. Each time, though, the Pistons battled back to within one and trailed 54-53 at the half.
In the second half it was the Pistons who took charge. Thomas and Tripucka scored 14 of Detroit's first 17 points in the third quarter and keyed a 19-9 spurt that put the Pistons into a lead that they maintained to the end.
After the victory, one might have thought the Pistons had lost the game, such was the calm throughout their Silverdome locker room. Perhaps such victories were becoming commonplace. Or perhaps Thomas and his teammates were dreaming of celebrations yet to come.