By Alan Paul
There are not too many things I miss living in China (people are a different story). Near the top of the list, however, are courtside seats, pen or laptop in hand, at NBA Games. Luckily, I get to squeeze in a few games every year on my winter visits and last Thursday I ventured to the Palace of Auburn Hills for the pacers/Pistons game, my only opportunity to take in a live game this year.
I was living in Ann Arbor in 1996 when I started writing for Slam, so the vast majority of the first NBA games I attended as a member of the press were at the Palace and being there feels like going home. I arrived early and chatted with a bunch of people, including Clark Kellogg, who broadcasts the Pacers games. I did a feature on him as a player last year and he gave me bi thanks for helping him with his kids.
“My son saw that from a friend at school before I even had it at home,” he said. “He was really impressed to see the old man in Slam.” The guy is on TV talking hoops nationwide most nights of the week, but his son only perked up when he saw him in Slam. Word!
For an upcoming story I am doing, I also chatted with Pistons assistant coaches (and former NBA All Stars) Dave Cowens and Terry Porter. But the highlight may have been meeting Rasheed Wallace’s mother. I spoke to her on the phone for a story I did on him years ago. Sheed was, of course, hard to talk to but I somehow tracked down Mrs. Wallace at her home in Philly. She was, I believe, a nurse in a Philly hospital for years and was as straight shooting as her son was not. I need to find the story, but she said something like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with that boy” and was really a pleasure to speak with.
I reminded her of that last night and she remembered the whole thing. She looks a hell of a lot like him and stands at least 6-1. When I mentioned the similarity, she said, “I look a lot better than him, though, right?”
“Of course, Mrs. Wallace.”
I’m happy to say that thus far the Pistons season has been pretty well playing out as I predicted in my season preview. The core is looking great and the bench is much improved and clearly energizing the starters, who are all playing 3-5 minutes less per game than in past years. Flip Saunders is going to his reserves early and often and getting great results. The team has been playing at peak efficiency, with an easy, offensive grace which now accompanies their same old lockdown D.
“Even with Boston, I think Detroit is the team to beat in the East,” Kellogg, told me before the game. “The second half of their New Jersey game was beautiful, man, just a textbook offensive performance, always making the extra pass, perfect movement, no selfishness… it was really fun to watch.”
It was more of the same at the Palace. Billups and Rip were both fantastic all night. Rip ended up with a tidy 23 points on 10-17 shooting, plus 9 assists and only one turnover, 4 steals and three boards.
The bench also played well and logged big minutes. Billups was the only starter to crack 30 minutes, playing 33. “Those reduced minutes are going to make a hell of a difference come playoff time,” said Kellogg. “Those guys are going to have fresh legs.”
When the Pistons had a remarkable 40-point fourth quarter, blowing a close game into a rout, players on the floor included rookies Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo, Jarvis Hayes (10 points in his first five minutes), Jason Maxiell (rejected a Jermaine O’Neal shot within minutes of checking in). It’s a long way from the little production they have gotten the last few years, which led the starting five to wear down towards the end of the season and, I thought, coast too often.
By the fourth quarter, the bench was completely emptied, with even last men Amir Johnson, and Walter Herrmann getting some burn. The latter made his Pistons debut, active for the first time since being traded and scored his first bucket on a nifty baseline drive and reverse.
“That was as good as it gets,” Billups said after the game. “When we get it going like that, we are as good a team as there is out there.”
“That was one of his better all-around games,” Saunders said. “We tell Rip, when he’s as active as he was on defense and he’s in a mode to take whatever they give him, he’s much more efficient. That seems to fuel everything for him.”
After the game, everyone was rushing to get dressed and head out into the snowy night. The team was scheduled for a 11 pm flight to Indianapolis for the second of this odd same-teams home and home back to back. Herman looked sharp in his travel clothes and then he pulled on a knee length distressed leather, fur lined and collared coat. Players took turns commenting and laughing as they emerged from the shower, and strolled past Herrmann’s locker
Amir Johnson’s eyes grew wide at the sight.
“Now you know who is gansta? Really gangsta,” Herrmann said in heavily accented English.
“Is that a lady’s coat?” Johnson asked, brushing by. Tayshaun Prince just pointed and laughed.
One final note: my seat at the game was directly behind Pistons radio announcer and former Bad Boy personified Rick Mahorn. It is the perfect place to be. Every player checking in to the game does so directly in front of him and the whole process is high comedy.
Before the game, Sheed gave Mahorn the finger, subtly but surely Rip tossed a wrapper in his face and Billups gave him a pound. Throughout the game, the interactions continued. It was an added bonus that I really didn’t need.