It was one of those moments that New Yorkers, with their keen appreciation for the grand symbolic gesture, may someday look back on with the same dewy sentimentality until now reserved for the glory years of the Knicks, when they won championships in 1970 and '73. The current Knicks were clinging to a one-point lead Sunday with 8:12 left in the third period of the deciding game of their first-round playoff series with the Detroit Pistons, when guard Gerald Wilkins, who had just traveled and committed a foul, was removed from the game.
As Wilkins strode angrily to the bench, he heard some scattered booing from the Madison Square Garden crowd. Wilkins responded by raising both arms, extending his middle fingers and, in a semaphoric flourish that scholars will be debating about for years, stuck out both of his thumbs. "That was for Rodney King," Wilkins insisted unconvincingly in the locker room later. "That was for the verdict. It wasn't right what they did to Rodney, and it definitely wasn't right what they did to me. The crowd was against me." But Wilkins won the crowd back. He returned later in the same period and scored nine points in just under five minutes to propel the Knicks to a 94-87 victory that sent the Pistons home after the first round for the first time since 1986.
Until Wilkins's salute, the Pistons had been considered the NBA's reigning Bad Boys—though they were anything but that this season—winning NBA championships in 1989 and '90 and making it to five consecutive Eastern Conference finals with a mixture of mayhem and malignant genius. For Detroit the loss to the Knicks represented a passing of the torch that had inflamed their bitter playoff rivalries with the Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. Sunday's loss may also have put in motion the final dismantling of the team, starting with the departure of coach Chuck Daly, whose resignation was considered such a foregone conclusion in the Detroit locker room that many of the players were already referring to him in the past tense. "All the success we've achieved has been under his leadership," said point guard Isiah Thomas, who scored Detroit's final 19 points when the rest of the offense vanished. "Whoever comes in, they can never replace Chuck in our hearts."
The Pistons' breakup will not be mourned much. On Friday one unnamed Eastern Conference general manager offered a gleeful valedictory to The Detroit Free Press. "They've been hated more than any team ever in this league," he said. "Losing in the first round should be the final blow. They'll tear that team apart and start afresh."
A fresh set of legs might have helped center Bill Laimbeer defend against Knick center Patrick Ewing on Sunday. After Ewing suffered through a 5-for-20 shooting night in Detroit's 89-88 victory in Game 2, New York coach Pat Riley grumbled that his center needed to "keep his head under the basket" and stop shooting so many of the fall-away 14-footers that have become his signature. On Sunday, Ewing had 31 points and 19 rebounds and made Laimbeer seem uncharacteristically docile.
Of late, Laimbeer's assaults have been verbal as well as physical. One of his verbal-mugging victims was the Pistons' general manager, Jack McCloskey. Rumors that Daly was about to resign to take another NBA coaching job or a front-office position swirled around the team all spring. "We have a coach who was made a lame duck, so it is very difficult for him to supply direction," Laimbeer said just last month. "It finally got to the point where I realized the general manager was not looking out for those people who got the team to where they are."
With that little morale-booster fresh in mind, the Pistons simply collapsed in Game 1 on April 24, losing 109-75, and then evened the series two days later with that 89-88 victory. But as the play grew rougher, a curious thing happened: Some of the curl went out of the Pistons' lip. When push came to thug, they wanted no part of the Knicks' physical game.
Call it the start of the Knicks' gory years. "They were just a more physical team than we were," Thomas said. "Their bodies were bigger than ours." The body that may have come up biggest for the Knicks was forward Xavier McDaniel's. The X-Man brought his shaved head and obsidian eyes from Phoenix in an off-season trade, but he seemed to have left his game behind. He averaged only 13.7 points a game during the regular season, but he averaged 19.2 points against the Pistons and controlled the boards during crucial stretches. "I don't know what happened during the regular season," Riley said last week. "In this series, X is playing like the player we thought we traded for."
The Pistons did finish ahead of the Knicks in technical fouls 7-6, but New York won the all-important flagrant-foul category 3-0. "The Knicks may have changed the level of who's the most physical team," said New York forward Anthony Mason after Game 3 on April 28 produced four technicals and one flagrant foul in the first four minutes.
"This series established that they are a big, giant, monstrous, physical basketball team," gushed Laimbeer. The Bad Boys are dead. Watch your backs.
New York won the third game 90-87 in overtime. Thomas, who had won so many games for Detroit on last-second shots, had been unable to elude Mark Jackson long enough with the score tied at the end of regulation to get up anything more plausible than a 25-foot hook shot. There have been plant closings in Detroit that were easier to watch. Just as Thomas's stutter-step once could not be held back, now it was time that seemed to be rushing irrepressibly ahead. He turned 31 two days later, and he went into the final game averaging just 9.8 points.
"Don't go making me old," Thomas instructed reporters after Game 3, insisting that his skills hadn't declined but that the disappearance of the Pistons' frontcourt offense was allowing the Knicks to double-team him every time he crossed mid-court. "The difference now is we used to have people down there that other teams respected," Thomas said. "They weren't going to run at me or Joe [Dumars], or leave James Edwards open on the post or Mark Aguirre or [Rick] Mahorn."
Unlike Edwards and Mahorn, Aguirre was actually still with the Pistons for this series, although not necessarily so you would have noticed. When McCloskey brought in much-traveled forward Orlando Woolridge during the off-season and gave him a two-year contract worth $4.8 million, Aguirre went into a season-long sulk, besting all previous NBA records for sulking by several minutes.
The Knicks could have closed out the series at Detroit on Friday, but just as soon as they opened a 31-21 lead in the second period, they seemed uncertain what to do with it. "We could have put a stake in their heart and killed them," McDaniel said, once again magically capturing the spirit of the thing. But they didn't do it, and Dumars immediately led Detroit on a 28-4 run that stood up for an 86-82 victory.
The first half of Game 5 wasn't a defensive struggle, it was just a struggle, with both teams shooting 33%. "Every single play, there was somebody on your back, somebody pushing you, shoving you," Jackson said. But when Detroit pulled to within two, 74-72, with eight minutes to play, Ewing triggered a 9-1 run with two baskets from point-blank range and a blocked shot, rendering Thomas's sudden resurgence meaningless. Detroit scored just 84.8 points a game for the series, the fewest points by an NBA team in a five-game playoff series since the inception of the shot clock in 1954.
The Pistons had indelibly reinforced their Bad Boy image last year when most of the regulars walked off the floor before the end of their conference-final loss to Chicago without shaking hands. Last week Thomas predicted the way his team would go out. "I don't think you'll see this group crying and hugging each other as it leaves the floor," he said. At least they didn't give each other the finger.