Until recently, the story of this season's Detroit Pistons was unfolding like a paperback romance, with a broken heart in every chapter. Four Detroit losses were decided by last-second shots, and five other defeats were all but determined with less than five seconds remaining. The biggest heartbreaker, however, came on Feb. 11. With a record NBA regular-season single-game crowd of 35,364 at the Pontiac Silverdome, the Pistons lost to the San Antonio Spurs 123-116. "They partied at our celebration," said a dejected coach Chuck Daly.
But just as fictional hearts can be mended, court clouds can be whisked away. The Pistons rebounded last week to sweep Houston, Dallas and San Antonio to make their record 30-22 and put them half a game behind the first-place Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA's Central Division. Never before in the 27-year history of the Detroit franchise had the team been so highly placed this far into the season. And given the shape of the rest of the division, the Pistons are now a pretty good bet to win it. The Bucks have won the last four Central titles, but injuries and age have made them an ordinary team; Atlanta is a bit green; Chicago, Cleveland and Indiana were never going anywhere anyway.
Buck coach Don Nelson believes 45 W's will suffice to become divisional champions. "I'll defer to his experience in terms of numbers," says Daly. "Right now I think I'd be happy to finish up with that many wins."
It has been 10 years since a Piston team has won as many as 45 games. That team, coached by Ray Scott in 1973-74, finished 52-30, fourth-best in the league but only third-best in the Midwest (Detroit switched to the Central in 1978). Since '74, only three Piston teams have made the playoffs. The present outfit, however, isn't interested in merely getting into postseason play. "We're beyond that," says center Bill Laimbeer. "We want the division title, and then we want to make some noise in the playoffs."
Laimbeer, who's in his fourth NBA season, is certainly being heard from. After averaging 13.6 points and 12.1 rebounds a game last season, he had improved those numbers to 17.4 and 12.7 through Sunday. And he made his second consecutive All-Star Game appearance for the Eastern Conference, albeit this time because Philadelphia's Moses Malone had an injured left ankle and couldn't play.
There couldn't have been a more fitting replacement for Malone, who has come to typify the work ethic in the NBA, than Laimbeer, a plodding 6'11", 245-pounder. "People talk about Moses having fewer basketball skills than a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar," Daly says. "I think Bill probably has less than Moses, but Bill knows that and does what he has to do to overcome it."
Laimbeer has had a lot to overcome this season. For instance, he suffered a fractured nose when the Bucks' Bob Lanier clocked him with a left after some under-the-basket jostling on Nov. 1. A month later Laimbeer nearly came to blows with Seattle SuperSonics forwards Tom Chambers and Danny Vranes, who had been jockeying with him for position. "I'm probably in the Top 10 among players who can't jump," Laimbeer says. "In order to play in this league I have to do things like lay in the lane and fight for position, but I'm not a dirty player.
"I know I'm not as physical as [the Washington Bullets'] Jeff Ruland or even as physically violent as [the Bullets'] Rick Mahorn. People crash into Mahorn and they fall away in pain. I'm just sort of round and soft, so when a player runs into me he just sort of melds onto me."
It's ironic that Laimbeer the player is a throwback, because his formative years were more silver-spoon than blue-collar. His father, Bill, is a top executive with Owens-Illinois Inc., the big Toledo-based glassware firm, but nowadays a visit to his father's office is as close to the corporate world as Bill wants to get. "I'll abuse my body playing basketball, but that nine-to-five stuff is just too much work," he says. "I'm proud of my dad, but you should see him. He runs around, writing everything down, taking notes and stuff like that. I'm more abstract and tend to forget things a lot." Like during his freshman year at Notre Dame, when Laimbeer was having trouble remembering that going to class was part of college and was booted out of school for a year.
That set the tone for a generally undistinguished career with the Irish. "It was one of the worst experiences of my life," Laimbeer says of the Digger Phelps anti-star system. "It really limited my sense of individuality."
After college Laimbeer felt he wasn't ready for the NBA, so he spent a year in Italy and averaged 21.1 points and 12.5 rebounds for Brescia. Next he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers. One of his first challenges was guarding Abdul-Jab-bar in a game in the L.A. Forum early in the 1980-81 season. "All I wanted to do was not embarrass myself," Laimbeer says. In fact, he distinguished himself, getting 16 points and eight rebounds, to Kareem's 15 and 11.
Laimbeer expected to be a starter the next season, but Ted Stepien, the Cavs' owner at the time, signed the Indiana Pacers' free-agent center, James Edwards, to a four-year, $3.2 million contract. Stepien told coach Don Delaney and the man who replaced Delaney in December of '81—Daly—that he, Stepien, wanted to get his money's worth, so Edwards had better start.
Daly says he envisioned playing the two together, with Laimbeer, a fine outside shooter, at forward. But just nine minutes before the 1982 trading deadline, Laimbeer was dealt to Detroit with Kenny Carr for Phil Hubbard and Paul Mokeski. (Daly, fired by the Cavs in March of '82, was hired by the Pistons last summer.) Laimbeer has benefited from the trade. Still, recognition has been slow in coming, because of his more glamorous teammates, Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka, both All-Stars.
Although he's the Pistons' leading scorer with an average of 22.3 points a game, Tripucka has lately been criticized by some of his teammates. "Our white superstar sometimes doesn't show up for games," said one, his way of saying he thought Tripucka was sulking over a slump. But last Sunday, Tripucka, who like Thomas is a third-year pro, showed up in time to sink the winning jumper with four seconds left in a 142-140 overtime defeat of the Spurs.
"Every player would love to be the star of the show," says Laimbeer. "If anyone says otherwise, he's just wacko. But Kelly and Isiah attract others to them. They're flashy, I'm not. That's O.K. with me and everyone else, too."
One Piston who has had to sublimate his individuality for the good of the team is guard John Long, 27, the oldest Piston—along with forward Terry Tyler, also 27—in point of service. "John's had to undergo some changes," Laimbeer says. "Here was a guy who was averaging 20-some points a game. It was his team. Then Kelly and Isiah get here and the team starts building around them. I'm sure it hurt John for a time, but he's adjusted well."
It has also helped that Long has been healthy this year. Although he missed only 12 games last season, a nagging groin pull and an arm infection bothered him to the point where "mentally I just wasn't into the game." Indeed, his average of 10.5 points a game was almost seven lower than his career average. This season Long is averaging 17.2 points, and it's easy to see that he's back mentally as well.
Early in the season Long and Vinnie Johnson vied for the starting spot Long now has, and then, on Jan. 6, Lionel Hollins, another guard, was acquired from San Diego. Tyler announced that if he couldn't play more he wanted to be traded. Other Pistons were grousing about their allotted court time, too.
But as the season progressed, the subs sounded off less and less. Now they can even make jokes. At a recent shoot-around, seldom-used guard David Third-kill expressed dismay when Daly canceled a drill, with a cry of, "Coach, that's the only time I ever get to shoot here."
"You can't argue with the bottom line, the winning," says Johnson, who contributes 11.7 points a game and is second to Thomas on the club in assists. "And you can't worry about minutes, either. If you're brooding about not getting enough time in the last game, you won't be ready for this one. The idea is to use this time to show the coach why he should have been using you before."
Thomas never had doubts that he'd be used, but he wanted to put the ball up, not just pass it around. That became a sore point between him and Scotty Robertson, the Pistons' coach from 1980 to '83. Never enamored of the Detroit area, Thomas, a native of Chicago, talked about leaving the Pistons at the conclusion of his contract. He has stayed, of course, and has become the premier point guard in the NBA.
Says Daly, "I have no qualms about Isiah shooting at all. There are times that I'd love to put him at the shooting guard spot. Isiah plays for the sheer enjoyment of the game, and for him that's being the little man taking the ball to the hoop. But now teams are playing him for that, so I've been trying to get him to take the jumper, to be more aware of situations."
"I think things like judgment and control are going to be a problem for me throughout my career," says Thomas, who free-lanced his way to the MVP trophy at last month's All-Star Game. "But when I play, I'm not thinking about judgment or control—I'm just doing what I think it takes to win."
As a result, there are times when Thomas makes Daly want to tear his hair out. A perfect example occurred in the game against the Spurs at the Silver-dome. Leading a two-on-one fast break, Thomas looked off the defender, 7'2" Artis Gilmore, then went up to try to dunk over him. The ball hit the heel of the rim and caromed out near midcourt, and the Pistons eventually lost possession. Any sort of pass would have been preferable, but little guys love to take advantage of their rare opportunities to throw one down against a big man.
Still, Thomas and Daly are in synch most of the time. Under Daly, Thomas. says he has felt "an incredible surge of freedom," indeed so much so that he has talked about signing a lifetime contract with the Pistons. "I really decided that I wanted to stay here over last summer," Thomas says. "I have a chance to be on Detroit's first division winner, maybe its first championship team ever. I like being the first to do things."
The Pistons NBA champions? Now that would be an ending worthy of a paperback romance.