The Detroit Pistons had just finished practicing one day last week when a man in a white shirt open at the collar started walking uncertainly toward coach Chuck Daly. Daly examined the approaching specimen carefully—taking note of the inconsequential build, the receding hairline, the advancing years—and then immediately began sizing him up for a Piston uniform. He had point guard written all over him.
The defending, two-time world champions have had to take their guards where they could find them this season, and they have found them practically everywhere. There are intramural-league guards, old guards, older guards, school crossing guards, elite Republican Guards—and the Pistons might yet have to tap them all. Once the scourge of the NBA, Detroit's backcourt now includes one guard with a hole in his wrist, another with a hole in his shoe, and a 34-year-old Microwave with a hole in his game.
As it turned out, the man walking toward Daly at the Pistons' practice facility at Oakland University, not far from The Palace of Auburn Hills, only wanted the Detroit coach to write a message to his wife that said "Sometimes sports prayers arc answered" and then sign it. "Whenever you guys are behind by two or three points at the end of a game, she gets down and prays for the Pistons," the man explained. Daly started to scribble his name on a piece of paper, then stopped suddenly and looked at the fan with new eyes. "Just tell her to enjoy the games," Daly growled, "and get off her knees."
Daly has been trying to get the Pistons off their knees since they lost All-Star point guard Isiah Thomas at the end of January, and he was still hard at it on March 6 at The Palace, where Detroit had built a nine-point lead over the New York Knicks in the third quarter, only to fall behind by seven in the fourth. It was at that moment that Thomas attempted to inspire his teammates during a timeout by informing them, "You'll never win if you don't believe you can win."
The Pistons then came back and tied the game on a three-point basket by guard Joe Dumars with only 2.5 seconds remaining. Now all they needed was some of that smothering Piston D, and overtime would follow. The Knicks sent in long-distance threat Trent Tucker, who threw up a turning, falling-out-of-bounds jumper that grazed the backboard and caromed in just as time expired. Tucker wound up sitting in the lap of Detroit trainer Mike Abdenour, who says he whispered something particularly unpleasant in Tucker's ear, and the Pistons wound up with a 102-99 loss, their 23rd defeat of the season, equaling their total for all of last year.
This startling reversal of the Pistons' fortunes began on Jan. 29, when surgery was performed on Thomas's right wrist to fuse three bones he damaged in a game a year ago. During the Pistons' shoot-around several hours before the game against the Knicks, Thomas spent half an hour dribbling a ball in deft figure eights around his ankles and between his legs to strengthen his right hand, which was still in a cast. The cast will be removed next week, at which time there will be about a month left before the playoffs begin. Thomas's rehabilitation period is expected to last from six to eight weeks, so there is a real question as to whether he will be able to play at all in the postseason.
Ever since the operation, Thomas's injury has become the explanation of choice for virtually all of Detroit's problems, but the truth was never quite that tidy. The Pistons opened with a record of 13-2 in November, then lost seven of eight at the start of December. They were still healthy, but the erosion was already beginning to show.
Detroit rebounded with another 13-2 streak in January and won three of its four games after Thomas's operation, but since then the team has lost 10 of 16 games. "Isiah was an intimidating presence for us," says backup center John Salley, who was brought off the injured list—he had strained his back—last week. "Mentally, we would walk on the court and blow people away. Now we walk on the court and they take a breath of fresh air because he's not there."
Which, of course, is no reflection personally on Thomas, who is among the sweetest-smelling of all NBA players, a veritable pine-scented air freshener among point guards. The surest measure of how much Thomas means to the Pistons is not their record without him, but the fact that eight of the games they've played since his injury have gone down to the final seconds or to overtime, and that of those, Detroit has lost five. Even wounded—perhaps especially wounded—the swaggering Bad Boys of other years would have seized those opportunities by the throat.
"Anytime you have injuries when there are already problems, the problems are going to be magnified," says Dumars. "Our concentration hasn't been as keen as we're used to. Before all the injuries, maybe we could overcome those occasional lulls, but now the lulls have become paramount. Instead of 3-5, we should be 5-3 in games like that. It's frustrating, but you can't allow yourself to carry that kind of emotional baggage around or it begins to affect your game."