Last Saturday morning, 12 hours after the Detroit Pistons had beaten the brutish Philadelphia 76ers 115-112 in overtime at The Palace in Auburn Hills, the ever-smiling Isiah Thomas limped into a suburban Detroit restaurant for breakfast. The Pistons' point guard had been up much of the night packing his badly sprained ankle in ice. He had twisted it for about the thousandth time in his career on a fearless drive into the tall timber, drawing a foul and pushing his team on by example. Last season's world champions finished the week with a 44-15 record and were far atop the Eastern Conference standings, due in large part to Thomas's passionate play.
While waiting for his food, the relatively diminutive Thomas (5'11" and change, no more than 175 pounds by playoff time) took the mustard bottle and placed it at one end of the table. Then he slowly moved his water glass toward it. "This is the NBA championship," he said of the mustard. "This is our team," he said of the glass. He bumped a teacup with the glass. "The teacup is not a distraction. When you're focused on this [the mustard], nothing's going to get in your way."
Then he sighed. The mustard has pretty much been beaten out of Thomas's game in recent years. His left thumb has been fused straight. His knees ache. There are scars lacing his eyebrows. Nine stitches came on two occasions, courtesy of the elbows of the Chicago Bulls' 7'1", 245-pound Bill Cartwright. The last time Big Bill got him, Thomas went after him with fists flying. It looked like a weasel attacking a bear. "I regret doing that," said Thomas, "but when you're playing with intensity, sometimes you can't help it."
And intensity is the watchword of this Detroit team. Behind a chain-saw defense that had allowed opponents a league-low 97.8 points per game through Sunday, the Pistons had reeled off 31 wins in 36 games after starting the season 13-10. "This season mirrors last season," says center Bill Laimbeer. "At the beginning, everybody was playing out of their minds to beat us, because of who we are. But now the dog days have set in, those teams have slacked off, and we're doing the same things we always do. Our system is working."
And what a system it is. "A lot of teams look at their rosters and say, 'We're as good as Detroit,' " says coach Chuck Daly. "But we're mature, we have a work ethic, great leadership, and the team polices itself internally. Plus, I think the guys like each other."
Still, no Piston is averaging 20 points a game. Journeyman power forward James Edwards is 34; Laimbeer, the league's most reviled player, rises barely to tippy-toe on his jumper; shooting guard Joe Dumars, who is listed at 6'3", is really closer to 6'1"; and hyperactive forward Dennis (Worm) Rodman is so clearly unfamiliar with such basketball basics as the 10-foot jump shot that he qualifies as Detroit's visitor from another planet. But when all five Pistons are pumping, they are a sight to behold. Offensively they go to whoever is hot, whether it's Edwards in the paint, Dumars in the corner, Laimbeer from way out, Isiah from anywhere, or either of those two scoring machines, Vinnie Johnson or Mark Aguirre, off the bench. And defensively, they are like a five-headed monster, led by the quivering Worm.
"We hang our hat on defense," says Daly. "It's the simplest equation, since you're not going to shoot well every night. You don't have to be 'on' to play defense."
Daly will start to outline the basics of the Detroit defensive scheme—positioning off the ball, reacting to rotation, boxing out, rebounding, preventing second shots—and it all sounds routine. But the Pistons spend much of their practice time working on the subtleties of team defense, sometimes without even a ball present. They know how to play the edges, how to give themselves up individually for the betterment of the team. Before each game, Daly hands out detailed written responses to every play an opposing team runs. "Our defense has to do with the way we run our offense, too," he says. "You can't just give up the ball. We could get into a very long conversation about it."
Or we could just watch Rodman as he plants his legs far apart, spreads his arms, stares into the soul of his man and envelops him. "He is a unique player," understates Daly of Rodman, a 6'8" first-time All-Star who was 5'9" as a high school senior and worked as a janitor before playing hoops at that noted basketball power, Southeastern Oklahoma State. "He is nonoffensive," says Daly. "How many points does he average? Who cares [8.7 for those who do]? He scores by happenstance. But I don't know if there's ever been an athlete who plays with his enthusiasm for other things."
Those other things include rebounding, with an emphasis on the offensive boards (4.0 per game), running the floor on the break and eating up the other team's toughest scorer. "Before, I played at defense," says the notoriously offensive-minded Aguirre, who came to Detroit in a trade for Adrian Dantley on Feb. 15, 1989. "Now I get mad when my man scores—because I'll have come in for Rodman, and he'll have held the guy scoreless."
Also helping out as a defensive over-achiever is that 6'11" Arsenio Hall-look-alike, John Salley. With his long arms, Salley is adept at altering opponents' shots and has swatted away a team-high 117 this season. Of course, Dumars, the nonflashy, self-described "mild-mannered man," applies himself like syrup to anyone who is too small for Worm to suffocate. Against the 76ers, he pressured gunner Hersey Hawkins into 0-for-4 shooting and two points before Hawkins fouled out, trying to stay with Dumars, who collected 34 himself.
"You know what the thing about this team is?" asks Aguirre, still something of a new kid with an outsider's perspective. "When the game is on the line, there are no egos. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
But aren't these still the Bad Boys, the nasty brawlers who, as Laimbeer puts it, "gangstered" last year's NBA crown? Or are these the good boys, now that Baddest Boy Rick Mahorn has ended up in Philadelphia, a victim of the expansion draft and trades? Or might they end up as just the busboys, humbled as the Los Angeles Lakers run to their third NBA title in four years?
"It's funny, because I really don't know what people around the country think of us," says Thomas. "And the reason is that five years ago we sat down, 12 guys, and said, 'Let's get out of this with a championship.' Ever since, we've more or less been in a cave."
The 76er game looked as though it could have been fought quite nicely in a cave. Intensity flew from the players like sparks from a downed power line. Ten technical fouls were called, and 76er forward Charles Barkley performed a one-man act of taunting, swearing and pelvis-grinding to keep the 79th consecutive sellout crowd at The Palace at a fever pitch.
The game featured the return of the 6'8½", 255-pound Mahorn to his bully den, and before the game, Piston owner Bill Davidson presented Mahorn with his 1989 championship ring to a nice ovation. Mahorn waved to the crowd, kissed a little girl and then turned into the sneering, nasty muscleman of old. In the first quarter, Mahorn rattled Laimbeer with a left elbow to the chin. Laimbeer would foul out after playing a total of just 16 minutes, and it remained for Salley and an ill-tempered Edwards (26 points, nine rebounds, numerous glowers and pushes and at least one elbow to Barkley's mouth) to keep the 76ers' front line in check.
But mostly it was the confrontation between Barkley and Rodman—the shaved-headed madman against the human python—that got the fans' attention. Rodman finished with 13 rebounds and six points while Barkley had 26 points and 14 rebounds, but their grappling made some World Wrestling Federation promotions look tame. Afterward, Barkley said, "They're a scrappy bunch of guys. They know they're going to play us in the Eastern Conference finals." Then, touching a pushed-in left front tooth in a bloody mouth, he said, "Hey, where's that dentist?"
But at the end it came down to the little smiling guy once again. With Detroit trailing by four points with just 5.5 seconds left in regulation time, Thomas banked in a three-point shot, then stole Philly's inbounds pass and dished off to Dumars for a layup. Barkley made a free throw, the game went into overtime, and Thomas's hounding defense prevented guard Scott Brooks from getting off a shot at the end of OT The victory was Detroit's 17th in 18 games.
So the question is whether the Pistons are better than they were last year. They have a lot of stats that say yes. They are 25-5 when holding the opponent to fewer than 100 points. They are 16-1 when Dumars scores 24 or more points. They are 31-5 when leading at halftime, 24-2 when shooting 50% or better, 14-1 since Aguirre began coming off the bench instead of starting. Essentially, if the sun comes up, they do well.
But the major changes that have occurred since the start of the season are the replacement of Salley as a starter—he wasn't scoring enough—by Edwards, and the replacement of Aguirre, after a back injury, by Rodman. Edwards is a forceful big man with a soft touch, and Rodman is, well, a spark plug. "I don't like starting," Worm says earnestly. "I'm a role player."
Against Houston early last week, Rodman blocked a layup by Akeem Olajuwon with a second left to force an overtime that eventually produced another Piston victory. After the block, right there on the floor, Rodman cried. Tears of joy came down his cheeks.
"People say, 'Why don't you get him under control?' " says Daly. "Why? Do we need more 'cool'? The league is full of cool. But how many people are consumed by the game like Dennis?"
Thomas ponders his excitable teammate. As a nine-time All Star, Thomas knows the value of fervor. "The game is really simple to Rodman," he says. "He's not bogged down by the complexities of it. He never learned there are things that you can't do. He comes to practice after a night game and just starts dunking. I look at Joe and say, 'Do you think he knows he's supposed to be stiff?' And Joe says, 'No, he doesn't have a clue.' "
More than anyone on the team, Thomas has thought about the complexities of this sport, about egos and relationships and sacrifice and pain. In 1985 he averaged 21.2 points and 13.8 assists a game but gave up some of that—his figures were 18.7 and 9.6 at week's end—because he had to, for the team's success. "Basketball's a funny game," he says, with his big, Magic-kissing grin spreading over his face. "That fire is what you'll miss when you're done playing. You'll never find it again. And I'm not even going to look for it."
So the quest is right now. "I asked Isiah before the season what his greatest asset was," says Daly, who hasn't had a losing campaign in seven years at Detroit. "He said, 'Leadership.' And all I said was 'Lead!' "
Thomas has, and as he says now of the Pistons' chances of repeating as champs. "We're good enough to win. Whether we'll be lucky enough—that's another story."
Maybe it's the same story. After the game against the 76ers, somebody asked Laimbeer if it had been fun. "It wasn't fun," he replied. "It was scary." Did that mean the Pistons couldn't sustain that kind of effort the rest of the way?
Laimbeer smiled like somebody with a secret. He said, "We can play like that longer than anybody else."