Greg Eno

Jackson’s Pistons start their championship path much like Isiah’s did

In Basketball on April 26, 2016 at 8:47 pm

The two basketball heavyweights went toe to toe in the choking heat and humidity of Detroit’s aptly-named Joe Louis Arena.

They traded punches all night in this, the deciding game of a first round, best-of-five series, played in a hockey arena because the makeshift basketball gym in Pontiac was booked—probably for a tractor pull or some such monstrosity.

Slug! A post up move, a dribble and a dunk.

Slug! A pull-up jumper from 20 feet—swish!

Back and forth they went.

The heavyweights weren’t the teams involved—the New York Knicks and the Detroit Pistons.

They were the two stars—Bernard King of the Knickerbockers and Isiah Thomas of the Pistons.

The year was 1984 and the Pistons were making their first foray into the NBA playoffs in seven years.

A well-coiffed coach named Chuck Daly was in his first season at the Pistons’ helm. Isiah was three years into what would be a Hall of Fame career. Daly was destined for Springfield, too.

Bernard King was a wily NBA veteran small forward who was absolutely killing the Pistons in the series, averaging over 40 points per game.

In the deciding Game 5, Isiah and the Pistons tried like mad to quell King, who was again making mincemeat of Kelly Tripucka, Earl Cureton and whomever else Daly put in there to defend Bernard.

But Isiah wasn’t going to let King eliminate his team without a fight.

In the final 90 seconds of regulation, Isiah shimmied, shook and shot his way into NBA immortality. Possessed, Thomas scored 16 points in those 90 seconds, literally forcing overtime single-handedly.

King, of course, went ballistic, scoring 44 points on the night.

But in the end, the Pistons’ first post-season action since 1977 went awry, as Isiah fouled out (35 points) and King and the Knicks triumphed in overtime, 127-123, ousting the Pistons for the summer.

It was a bitter, angry defeat, but all it did was steel Isiah and the Pistons for playoffs to come.

More playoff heartbreak would follow, but five years after that epic battle inside Joe Louis Arena in 1984, Isiah hoisted the NBA Championship Trophy in the locker room at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, CA.

Last Sunday, another Pistons point guard found himself in quite a bout, though this one was perhaps more lightweight versus heavyweight—for now.

Reggie Jackson, the sweat gushing from his pores, had the basketball and a chance for some mini-immortality around these parts.

He jacked up a three-point shot that, had it gone down, would have defeated LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love—three heavyweights—in a playoff game, giving the Pistons their first post-season win since 2008.

And it would have snapped the Pistons’ 11-game playoff losing streak against the Cleveland Cavaliers, to boot.

But Jackson’s shot wouldn’t drop, and Cleveland escaped with a 100-98 victory, completing a four-game sweep of the first-round series.

In the aftermath of the loss, Jackson, speaking to the media, seemed at times inconsolable.

The Pistons had fought gamely and as far as sweeps go, this one was highly competitive. The Pistons weren’t outclassed—they were out-experienced.

Jackson was especially irritated at the notion that his young team must wait for its time, which wasn’t this spring.

“It pisses you off,” Jackson said. “To hear it’s not your time and not your moment … it kind of seems like it’s not made for you necessarily to win, so you have to find a way to run through the wall, find a way to get over the hump.”

A day later, as the Pistons cleaned out their lockers, Jackson sounded more like Isiah, circa the mid-1980s. He was asked about the next step for his basketball team.

“Finals. That’s what I set each year. I want to win the title, so I’m sure the team does, as well.”

OK then!

They were much the same words that Isiah Thomas would speak in his soft but laser-focused voice, when the Pistons were making a steady, gradual rise through the NBA.

In Isiah’s world, the Pistons were simply destined to win a world championship. The only question was when.

It wasn’t in 1987, when a horribly ill-timed bad pass—ironically by Thomas himself—helped torpedo the Pistons against the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the Final Four.

It wasn’t in 1988, when a ticky-tack, ghost foul called against Bill Laimbeer on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar helped crush the Pistons’ dream in the waning seconds of Game 6 of the Finals.

But in 1989 and 1990, Thomas and the Pistons made up for the playoff heartbreak of years past with back-to-back world championships.

Playoff heartbreak that began on a hot April night inside Joe Louis Arena.

You can dare to draw some comparisons between the Reggie Jackson Pistons of 2016 and the Isiah Thomas Pistons of the mid-1980s because both teams wandered back into the playoffs after an extended absence.

Both rosters contained a young core that figure to be together for several years to come.

And both teams had their heart ripped out in the final game of the year.

With any luck, we’ll look back at last Sunday as the baptism of Jackson’s Pistons and the April where the foundation of a championship-caliber team was built, albeit on the slab of discontent.

Maybe Jackson should give Isiah a call this summer. It can’t hurt.

Sometimes maddening Pistons can exorcise some demons against Wizards

In Basketball on April 8, 2016 at 6:54 pm

While that other winter sports team in town tries to keep a certain streak alive, the Pistons are trying to kill one.

It’s not too much to say that the Pistons, tonight, are playing their most anticipated game in nearly a decade.

The big games for this basketball franchise used to be played in May and June, with regularity. Memorial Days around here were filled with outdoor barbecues, beer and a Pistons (or Red Wings) playoff game on the tube. That was a long time ago.

But these days, the Red Wings play their biggest games in February and March, which has been their wont in recent years as they make their annual, frantic push to keep their “we made the playoffs again!” streak going.

And the Pistons?

Tonight, they’ll host the Washington Wizards at the Palace and the Pistons will be in the playoffs—no ifs, and or buts—if they can defeat the Wiz.

No getting in through the back door. No needing help from other teams.

Win, and they’re in—for the first time since 2009.

But that 2008-09 Pistons team—coached by neophyte Michael Curry and reeling all season from the November trade of Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson—was one of those token playoff teams that the NBA needs to merely fill out the opening round schedule. The Pistons were drummed out in four straight games by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Palace hasn’t hosted this big of a night since the 2008 NBA playoffs, which was the last time the Pistons were truly relevant in the league.

And it’s the 80th game of the regular season tonight, which shows you how far this franchise has fallen since the glory days of six straight Eastern Conference finals appearances (2003-08).

But this season has seen two numbers from those days being raised to the rafters (Billups and Ben Wallace) and a playoff team in the making as president/coach Stan Van Gundy finishes Year Two of his deconstruction and rebuilding job.

Under Van Gundy’s direction, the Pistons are on the verge of being a playoff team for the first time since 2009

 

It’s been an interesting though sometimes maddening season, if you follow the Pistons.

They have shown a confounding tendency to beat the good teams—sometimes on the road—while losing to the dregs of the league. They play stellar defense one night and look like pylons the next. The coach can’t heap enough praise on them one moment, then is tearing into his team’s effort in another few blinks of the eye.

It’s a team that beat the Golden State Warriors on the night Wallace’s no. 3 was retired, and just a few nights later was being lit up by its coach for dogging it.

The Pistons, at 42-37, possess the appropriate won/lost record for a your garden variety Jekyll and Hyde group of cagers.

Tonight, a win over the Wizards puts this sometimes perplexing, Dirty Dozen into the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

The Pistons have already clinched their first winning record since 2007-08. It wasn’t all that long ago when the Pistons were a 5-23 laughing stock, in Van Gundy’s first year as the boss.

So the Palace ought to be rocking tonight, and with good reason. I’m not here to throw cold water on the Pistons making the playoffs, which they are actually on the verge of doing in a year where, for a change, every Eastern Conference team in the tournament might have a .500 or better record.

And, frankly, this year’s Pistons might also be a token playoff team, likely no better than the no. 7 seed in a league that sees first round upsets more infrequently than we see leap years.

But they probably will win a game or two in the first round, whether they play Cleveland or Toronto, the two probable opponents that await them.

It will be a big night tonight. Maybe even the owner will show up.

The Pistons’ magic number to make the playoffs is one with three games to play. But who wants to qualify because another team lost?

Beat the Wizards and punch your post-season ticket.

It will be loud and festive at the Palace tonight, but it will only be a sampling of what the crowds will be like in Games 3 and 4 of the first round.

The fans in this town have never been much for NBA basketball if their team isn’t relevant, but give them a winner and they’ll show up—and be noisy.

Detroit is a front-runners basketball town, but it is what it is. Someone has to be fourth in a four sports burg. There really is no shame in that if you’re the Pistons.

The playoffs beckon for the Pistons. Van Gundy has had to overplay his starters in order to qualify, and that won’t help in the post-season, but you do what you have to do if you want to give your young team a taste of spring basketball.

The Pistons will likely be out of the tourney in about 10 days or so, but making the playoffs for the first time in seven years is a big deal—especially when in just about every one of those playoff-less seasons, the Pistons were essentially mathematically eliminated by Christmas.

It will be fascinating to see how the Pistons go about their business tonight against the Wizards. For so many of the players on the roster, this is the biggest game they’ve played in their NBA careers. Heck, Van Gundy said that about last week’s game in Chicago, which the Pistons scrapped and won with the Bulls breathing down their necks in the playoff chase.

It hasn’t been this big in the regular season for the Pistons in a long, long time.

Spring basketball is just around the corner—and the Pistons can go out there and grab a playoff spot, without any help, if they beat Washington.

It’s a start.

LaRoche’s ‘principles’ are rooted in selfishness and entitlement

In Baseball on March 24, 2016 at 3:31 pm

Drake LaRoche should be with kids his own age.

His love for baseball should be channeled into playing the game with other 14 year-olds.

He should be commiserating with other young teens. He should be forging bonds with his fellow youth, which could prove invaluable for the rest of his life.

He doesn’t need to be with grown men—25 millionaires—on a daily basis. And he certainly shouldn’t be hanging around their inner sanctum ad nauseam.

Drake LaRoche’s dad has—actually, had—a really cool job: he was a big league baseball player.

Adam LaRoche retired last week from the Chicago White Sox, walking away from $13 million in the process and leaving his teammates in the lurch, because the team frowned on his son, Drake, spending as much time around the team as the youngster had been doing, which was basically everyday.

I’m not anti-kid. Let’s get that straight. And I’m certainly not anti-dad.

My folks divorced when I was, oddly enough, 14, so I know how much a boy needs a dad at that tender age.

But as much as I loved my dad, I didn’t want to go to work with him and I didn’t want to spend every waking hour with him.

Of course, my dad was a computer programmer, not a big league baseball player. He didn’t play for the Tigers and he didn’t go to work with Norm Cash, Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan.

Would that have been cool, if he did? Absolutely!

And I would have been thrilled to occasionally step foot in the clubhouse, and to put on a Tigers uniform and shag flies and maybe even take some batting practice.

But it would have gotten old if I could do that everyday.

Plus, my dad would never have entertained the idea of me hanging around with grown men twice my age whose colorful language and habits could very well be off-putting for an adolescent boy.

I spent my time with the kids in the neighborhood. Some of those kids are still friends of mine, and I’m now 52 years old.

Adam LaRoche isn’t being a good dad. He shouldn’t be aggrandized for standing on principle and walking away from $13 million.

He’s showing Drake that if you don’t like the rules, or if they change, then all you need to do is take your bat and ball and go home.

LaRoche is a multi-millionaire, I’m guessing, so maybe he feels he can afford, financially, to not earn his $13 million salary this year.

But what if he was one of the blue collar stiffs earning $15 an hour who fill the ballpark to watch him play? I doubt any of those dads could walk away from their job because their employer changed a rule in the workplace.

And what about young Drake? Now he has the burden of knowing that, indirectly and through no fault of his own, he cost his family $13 million.

What kind of a thing is that to place on a 14 year-old boy?

Adam LaRoche is being selfish. He left his team in the middle of spring training, when it’s very difficult to find a suitable replacement.

Of course, the way LaRoche hit last year (.207 BA with 133 strikeouts in 429 at-bats), you don’t need to be a cynic to theorize that his bat won’t be missed all that much.

But the fact is that the White Sox were counting on LaRoche to bounce back and he was certainly big in their plans for 2016. He wasn’t slotted in as a bench guy.

Now he’s gone—walking away under the guise of standing on principle.

The White Sox share some blame, too.

ApparAdam and Drake LaRocheently LaRoche had Drake tugging at his pant leg in Washington as well, so when the White Sox signed Adam LaRoche away from the Nationals a year ago November, it wasn’t like they didn’t know of the “thick as thieves” relationship between father and son. In fact, LaRoche had a clause written into his White Sox contract that addressed the presence of his son around the team and its facilities.

I don’t know what the clause specified—there seems to be some dispute over that—but somehow I doubt White Sox management thought it would be a 24/7 thing with Drake LaRoche.

So White Sox GM Ken Williams, undoubtedly acting on the behest of owner Jerry Reinsdorf, asked Adam LaRoche to “dial it back” with the presence of Drake around team facilities.

There was seemingly no give and take and apparently no attempt to find a happy median, because LaRoche retired, at age 36. It’s odd that it would come to that, when this seems like a situation that screams for compromise.

Some of LaRoche’s teammates, notably lefty ace Chris Sale, came to the defense of their now-retired first baseman. Fine. That’s expected, but do you really think that every White Sox player was on board with Drake LaRoche hanging around everyday?

And do you think that Williams asked Adam LaRoche to re-think the omnipresence of his son, without players confiding in the GM privately that the arrangement made them feel uncomfortable?

What teammate is going to publicly complain? They’d be vilified, which is ironic, because they’d also be right to voice concern. But the being right part would be initially drowned out by the knee jerk reaction and portrayal of the complainer as anti-family. That’s guaranteed.

It should be noted that Adam LaRoche himself is the son of a big league player—pitcher Dave LaRoche, who played 14 years in the majors.

But Adam LaRoche was born in November 1979, and Dave LaRoche’s big league career ended in 1983, when Adam was just three years old—not enough time for Adam to be old enough to even appreciate what his dad did for a living, let alone be exposed to it everyday of his life.

Maybe it’s Adam LaRoche’s feeling of “missing out” on the coolness of his dad being a big leaguer that drove him to involve Drake so heavily with first the Nationals, and then the White Sox.

Regardless, Williams and the White Sox certainly have the prerogative to establish guidelines for the presence of sons (and daughters) of their players around team facilities.

I don’t want to hear sad stories about how professional athletes don’t ever get to see their kids.

Yes, there’s a lot of travel involved, and a baseball season essentially starts in February and could last into early-November. I get it.

But what about home stands? And a bulk of the season takes place in the summer, when the kids aren’t even in school. And you still get almost all of November, all of December and all of January to spend time with the offspring.

Oh, and Drake LaRoche is home-schooled, which is another column altogether.

It’s not standing on principle if you don’t engage in dialogue to find common ground and a compromise.

It’s selfishness and entitlement, plain and simple.

And those are two terrible things to teach a child.

 

 

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