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Jack McCallum
June 21, 2004
Demonstrating how to beat a high-priced, high-maintenance glamour team, Detroit's band of castoffs pulled together to take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals
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June 21, 2004

A New Way To Win

Demonstrating how to beat a high-priced, high-maintenance glamour team, Detroit's band of castoffs pulled together to take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals

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An hour before Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Sunday at The Palace of Auburn Hills, power forward Rasheed Wallace walked briskly through the Detroit Pistons' locker room, discouraging conversation by rapping loudly to a song that pounded through his headphones. One line he bellowed sounded something like, I hate y'all now, which was either a lyric or an espousal of his world view. � But after an 88-80 victory that gave Detroit a shocking 3-1 series lead over the Los Angeles Lakers, Wallace, who had 26 points and 13 rebounds, emerged from a postgame shower with a towel wrapped around his midsection and a green toothbrush stuck in his mouth. He arm-bumped Bob Ritchie, a.k.a. Kid Rock, who was turning the locker room toxic with a stogie, and high-fived his way past a group of Pistons progeny screaming, "Sheed!" He may have even smiled.

This is Wallace's world these days. He can still be angry and discourteous at times. And he still gets too overheated on the court, as he did on Sunday in the fourth quarter when he whipped off his white headband and tossed it into the seats, a gesture ignored by the normally Sheed-conscious refs. But in his ninth NBA season Wallace is at last playing deep into June, he is beloved in the Motor City, and he is practicing solid dental hygiene.

Wallace is a major part of a fascinating Detroit team that was a win away from seizing the franchise's first rings since the infamous Bad Boys went back-to-back in 1989 and '90. With Game 5 scheduled at The Palace on Tuesday, the Pistons were also on the verge of bringing to a crashing halt the star-crossed run of L.A.'s darlings of dysfunction, as well as presenting a new paradigm for NBA success: Get a bunch of medium-priced players for the same money as two maximum-contract superstars.

The Lakers, who needed a victory in Game 4 to recover from an 88-68 nightmare last Thursday, got a monster game from Shaquille O'Neal (36 points, 20 rebounds) but a Muenster game from Kobe Bryant (box, page 53). They went into Tuesday needing to achieve the unprecedented feat of winning Games 5, 6 and 7, which would keep the title in the Western Conference, where most pundits thought it would rest when the season—and even this series—began.

But that was before the Pistons began hitting on all cylinders, drawing motivation from their underdog status, relishing their outsiders' role in this battle of Hollywood versus Deadwood. Detroit is a tough, throwback team that functions as "a committee of 12," as backup center Elden Campbell puts it. Starting center Ben Wallace is a shot swatter with a stevedore's arms and electrified hair. Off guard Richard Hamilton is a devastating streak shooter (31 points in Game 3) even though he eyes the basket through slits in a windshield—the odd-looking protective mask he wears to protect his nose, which he broke twice this season. Point guard Chauncey Billups conducts the team with the confidence of a Magic Johnson even though he's a hoops gypsy who has been on six teams in seven years. Rasheed's favored term of address is not dude or dog but the more retro cats, as in, "Cats go at you when you're hobbled," or, "Cats in the media never show us no respect."

Among the Pistons' favorite on-the-road pastimes are shooting pool and bowling. They sometimes show up en masse at a pool hall, as they did at Jillians in Indianapolis during the Eastern Conference finals, resembling an unlikely marriage of The Color of Money and West Side Story. Campbell and Ben Wallace are the best stickmen. Rasheed is the top kegler; the night before Game 4 he even participated in a bowling party hosted by Perry Farrell, the Pistons' beat writer for the Detroit Free Press.

Indeed, the designated role of Detroit in this series, win or lose, was to present a stark contrast its A-list opponents, who don't do bowling parties. The Lakers have been a riveting team this season but a hard one to embrace—even for those who bleed purple-and-gold. Speaking in his hometown of East Lansing, Mich., the day before Game 4, vice president and part owner Magic Johnson criticized L.A. "for not competing," something that could never be said about the Pistons. "We've got dog-faced gremlins getting down on all fours ready to scrap," says Rasheed, a cat of multiple metaphors. No one from the Lakers would describe his team as dog-faced, though it often appeared dog-tired in the fourth quarters of the Finals' first four games, during which Detroit had a combined 103-79 edge.

It wasn't too long ago, though, that Rasheed Wallace was a ref-baiter who played with all the joy of a man undergoing a splenectomy. But like most of his teammates, he is also an unselfish player who came to the Pistons with something to prove. Everyone in coach Larry Brown's nine-deep rotation was rejected somewhere else—"So we play with a chip on our shoulder" says Billups—with the exception of small forward Tayshaun Prince, who takes umbrage at being picked 23rd in the 2002 draft. "There is no hidden agenda here except to be on a winner," says the 6'9" Ben Wallace, an undrafted onetime nobody who played in Washington and Orlando before going to Motown in 2000-01. "We've all been through too much to have it any other way."

Detroit general manager Joe Dumars calls his locker room "the most functional in the NBA." On a team of leaders Ben Wallace and Billups emerge as first among equals, the former by rock-solid example and quiet speech ("We'll be all right," Big Ben lullabied to his mates after an agonizing 99-91 overtime loss in Game 2), the latter through his gunslinger's confidence. Alone among the Pistons, Billups played each of the first four games with a flinty-eyed assurance, rarely losing the ball (only 10 turnovers) against the intense pressure of Bryant and Derek Fisher, while deftly using picks to can jumpers (a team-high 22.8 points per game). "We've made an All-Star out of Chauncey Billups," Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson said last Saturday in what sounded like a slight.

But, see, Billups thinks of himself as an All-Star, even though he's never made an All-Star team. "Chauncey was the third pick in the [1997] draft," says Dumars, "and that sticks with a guy. He's always thought of himself as good enough to have been the third pick, and now he's getting the chance to prove it." Still, his teammates ride him. "Attention, media," third-string point guard Mike James said before Game 4, after Billups politely rejected interview requests, " Chauncey Billups will not be talking. He needs to conserve his energy."

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