Bill Laimbeer walked through the bowels of the Pontiac Silverdome, toting a long duffel bag. He had a glimmer in his eye.
The curious reporters couldn’t help but notice the piece of luggage as the Pistons’ lumbering center strode by.
What’s in the bag?
“You’ll see,” Laimbeer said, smirking.
It was the afternoon prior to that evening’s Game 6 of the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons, long tormented in the playoffs by the Boston Celtics, had the leprechauns and the mystique of the parquet floor and of Red Auerbach’s cigar in a choke hold, leading the series 3-2 after a thrilling win in Game 5 at the Boston Garden.
The Pistons, beaten by the Celtics in the playoffs in 1985 and 1987—the latter of which was a gut-wrenching, awful defeat (“Bird stole the ball!”)—were on the precipice of going to their first-ever NBA Finals.
But first they had to dispatch their playoff demons, aka the Celtics.
What Bill Laimbeer toted into the Silverdome in a zippered duffel bag contained a key piece to what amounted to a pre-game pep talk.
The Pistons beat back the Celtics that night, and at the final horn the crowd streamed onto the floor as if their team had just won the whole shebang. The thrill of vanquishing the Celtics was on par, at least, with the excitement of the Pistons being in the NBA Finals.
Later it was revealed what Laimbeer had carried into the Pistons’ locker room.
It was a sickle, and it represented that the Pistons needed to cut the head off the snake if they wanted to advance to the Finals.
The Celtics were the Pistons’ snake. And even though Bird, McHale, Parish et al were down in the series and twitching, Laimbeer knew that to truly rid themselves of the Celtics, the Pistons had to cut off the head of the snake. No giving the snake life. No Game 7 on the parquet floor.
The Pistons’ snake was the Boston Celtics, just as the Pistons became the Chicago Bulls’ snake from 1988-90.
The NBA has always been a league of the haves vs. the have-nots, and a league of cutting the heads off snakes.
The same five or six teams have won all the championships since 1960, it seems. And when they weren’t winning, they were the runners up.
The snake for the Indiana Pacers is the Miami Heat.
Three years in a row, the Heat have eliminated the Pacers in the playoffs, the last two in the conference final. The Pacers must be wondering if they’ll ever get past the Heat, just as the Pistons wondered the same about the Celtics, and the Bulls did about the Pistons.
The Finals match-up this year is a rematch—the Heat vs. the San Antonio Spurs. It is a typical NBA scenario; meaning, we have a sequel.
The sequel thing is more familiar in the NBA than in any other professional team sport played in the States.
From 1958-1969 the Celtics won the championship 10 out of 11 years, and there were some sequels—usually involving the Philadelphia 76ers or the Los Angeles Lakers.
In 1978 and ’79, the Washington Bullets and Seattle SuperSonics clashed in the Finals, each team winning once.
In the 1980s, the Celtics and the Lakers went at it almost every year in the Finals, each team taking turns winning the ring.
The Pistons and the Lakers had back-to-back Finals matchups in 1988 and 1989, and it was another split.
In the 1990s, the NBA was dominated by the Chicago Bulls, who won six championships in eight years.
And who can forget the Pistons playing for two straight championships in 2004-05?
There hasn’t been a lot of spreading the wealth in professional basketball.
Before the 2013-14 season began, I pegged the league’s Final Four, but I’m not taking any bows. It was hardly unpredictable.
I figured that the Heat and the Pacers would duke it out in the East, and the Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder would do battle in the West final. That was back in October.
The playoffs were slightly less rote than in recent years, but come Memorial Day, the four usual suspects made up the last quartet standing.
The NBA isn’t the NHL. Who had the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals before this season’s first puck was dropped?
There is rarely an interloper in the NBA Finals. Cinderella isn’t welcome.
The championship contending teams drag themselves through the rigors of an 82-game season and the playoffs, always with one goal and one goal only in mind: to play for the world title, nothing less.
Remember when the Pistons’ Bad Boys’ seasons would start in April? Same thing with the 2003-08 Pistons teams that appeared in six straight conference finals and two straight NBA Finals.
If you like your pro sports leagues predictable and full of sequels and repeat appearances, then the NBA is your delight. If you like Finals teams seemingly picked at random, then the NHL is your cup of tea.
Tim Duncan of the Spurs knows all about playing in the NBA Finals. This rematch with the Heat marks Duncan’s sixth Finals appearance. So far he and the Spurs are 4-1 in June.
“It’s unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had (to Miami) last year,” Duncan said after the Spurs dumped the Thunder in Game 6 on Saturday night. “But we’re back here. We’re excited about it. We’ve got four more to win. We’ll do it this time.
“We’re happy it’s the Heat again. We’ve got that bad taste in our mouths still.”
Spurs-Heat II. In a league that loves sequels and repeat champions, could it have been any other way?