AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — At their best, the Detroit Pistons were three-time NBA finalists, two-time champions and all the time worthy of respect, if not flat-out fear. At their worst, which we've seen plenty of over the past week, they were classless thugs who behaved like anything but champions while being swept out of the NBA playoffs by the Chicago Bulls.
The Pistons were intent on making history and they did, but the wrong kind. Every recent champion, from the Trail Blazers to the Bullets to the SuperSonics to the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers passed the baton reluctantly but graciously. The Pistons changed all that Monday by walking off the court with 7.9 seconds left in Game 4, right past the winners' bench without offering congratulations or apologies for having gooned their way through the Eastern Conference finals.
Michael Jordan was stunned. He didn't expect Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Mark Aguirre -- sometimes tolerated, often despised by their NBA peers -- to show any shred of decency. But he and the Bulls thought Vinnie Johnson, Joe Dumars and some of the other Pistons would do the right thing.
Most didn't. Only Coach Chuck Daly, John Salley, James Edwards and Scott Hastings made an effort to be professional. Dumars reportedly shouted "Good luck" to his close friend Jordan. The most offensive Piston, not surprisingly, was Dennis Rodman, who during Game 4 pushed an already-falling Scottie Pippen head-first into the first row of chairs behind the basket. Can you get more cowardly than to push an airborne man into the stands?
Rodman never apologized, not even privately, to Pippen, but he did have plenty else to say.
"I'm not giving the Bulls any credit," he said. "All they did was complain the whole time: 'You're bad for basketball. You shouldn't even be here.' Michael Jordan's the top NBA star, why doesn't he buy the team? He has all the money. This team's worth about $200 million. Why doesn't he buy it and change the organization if he's that good?
"They still haven't proved anything. They've got to win about five or six championships before they're a great team. But they can go home now and rest in peace because the world is safe again. Life without the Pistons is safe."
Nearby, Aguirre let something very close to the truth slip from his lips. "Before today," he said, "I thought it took an awful lot to win a championship. I thought it was the hardest thing I'd ever done. But now, I realize that it takes more to admit defeat. That's harder."
The Pistons, even 24 hours later, couldn't admit defeat and certainly not to Jordan, who upstaged them in their own house. Jordan, sitting in The Palace Sunday, told the truth about the thuggish Pistons and they hated hearing it from the league's top star.
"You see two different styles with us and them," Jordan said. "The dirty play and the flagrant fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct, hopefully that will be eliminated from the game with them gone. We don't go out and try to hurt people and dirty up the game. You never lose respect for the champions. But I haven't agreed with the methods they've used. I think people are happy the game will get back to a clean game."
Thomas shot back: "People will look back at this team and say we were one of the greatest teams to play basketball. We were great champions. He should be classier than to talk like that."
As talented as they are, Rodman and Laimbeer will be treated as footnotes in NBA history. Thomas, however, is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, perhaps the best small guard ever and a bright, engaging conversationalist. His putdown of Larry Bird a few seasons back and now this barely civil behavior diminish his stature. Maybe over the summer, when he distances himself from Rodman and Laimbeer, Thomas will come to his senses and make amends, like he did after insulting Bird, his friend.
As is, though, he and most of his mates act as if their agenda held nothing more than playing straight-up basketball. Salley, who hugged Jordan and told him and the Bulls to keep playing like champions in the Finals, confessed to the premeditation of the whole ugly thing. "They took all the hits," Salley said. "We came out with intimidation, to see what would make them fight and do things that were stupid. They kept their composure. They've matured."
So, thankfully, we are rid of the Pistons. Through their five-straight trips to the conference finals, the Pistons were a stunningly resourceful, deeply committed team whose overly aggressive play usually could be overlooked by some fans.
They simply wore out, and there's no shame in that. Nine Pistons are 30 or older. A couple of veterans -- Edwards and Aguirre? -- will be moved to make way for youngbloods. "It's really hard to play the way we play for this long," Salley, 27, said of the Pistons' physical style of play. "I can attest to how tiresome it is, even with my young body."
Jordan gave the Pistons the "out" if they wanted to use it. "Every time you lose a game," he said, "teams gain confidence they can beat you even when you get your players back. That happened when Isiah went out" with a broken wrist. "You lose that champion's edge."
With that, even Thomas concurred. Standing at his dressing cubicle, eating grapes -- sour, we presume -- Thomas came to a most reasonable conclusion about his Pistons: "As a team, we maxed out."