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Against Houston early last week, Rodman blocked a layup by Akeem Olajuwon with a second left to force an overtime that eventually produced another Piston victory. After the block, right there on the floor, Rodman cried. Tears of joy came down his cheeks.
"People say, 'Why don't you get him under control?' " says Daly. "Why? Do we need more 'cool'? The league is full of cool. But how many people are consumed by the game like Dennis?"
Thomas ponders his excitable teammate. As a nine-time All Star, Thomas knows the value of fervor. "The game is really simple to Rodman," he says. "He's not bogged down by the complexities of it. He never learned there are things that you can't do. He comes to practice after a night game and just starts dunking. I look at Joe and say, 'Do you think he knows he's supposed to be stiff?' And Joe says, 'No, he doesn't have a clue.' "
More than anyone on the team, Thomas has thought about the complexities of this sport, about egos and relationships and sacrifice and pain. In 1985 he averaged 21.2 points and 13.8 assists a game but gave up some of that—his figures were 18.7 and 9.6 at week's end—because he had to, for the team's success. "Basketball's a funny game," he says, with his big, Magic-kissing grin spreading over his face. "That fire is what you'll miss when you're done playing. You'll never find it again. And I'm not even going to look for it."
So the quest is right now. "I asked Isiah before the season what his greatest asset was," says Daly, who hasn't had a losing campaign in seven years at Detroit. "He said, 'Leadership.' And all I said was 'Lead!' "
Thomas has, and as he says now of the Pistons' chances of repeating as champs. "We're good enough to win. Whether we'll be lucky enough—that's another story."
Maybe it's the same story. After the game against the 76ers, somebody asked Laimbeer if it had been fun. "It wasn't fun," he replied. "It was scary." Did that mean the Pistons couldn't sustain that kind of effort the rest of the way?
Laimbeer smiled like somebody with a secret. He said, "We can play like that longer than anybody else."