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NBA FINALS: DETROIT 100, LAKERS 87 | Bill Plaschke

Rout of Order / Pistons make it look easy as they win first championship in 14 years

In the End, Selfish Players Learn the Price of Fame

June 16, 2004|Bill Plaschke

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — The dream season was a scream season. The Fab Four was a raging bore. The ending was harrowing, humiliating and appropriate.

The team that was supposed to make basketball history indeed made basketball history Tuesday, doomed forever to symbolize all that is wrong with modern professional sports, a testament to the failure of excess and danger of ego.

Eleven months after assembling what was supposed to be the greatest team in NBA history, within a week of their professed destiny, the Lakers fell dramatically apart.

Piece by Hollywood piece. Bit by selfish bit. Their ingrained sense of entitlement dismantled by a more powerful sense of teamwork.

As if sent down by the sports gods to deliver a message, the Detroit Pistons crawled out from the shadows of hard work, away from the anonymity of defense, and into a spotlight that showed the Lakers everything they used to be.

A team that shares the ball. A team that shares the floor burns. A team that shares the glory.

An NBA champion.

The Pistons won the title Tuesday with an 100-87 victory in Game 5, winning the series in a landmark four-games-to-one upset that felt like a five-game sweep.

The roaring, rocking Palace offered a numbing farewell to an era.

The red, white and blue confetti blizzard fell from the sky like pieces of a dynasty.

"That's not the way you want to end this, that's for sure," said Rick Fox later in the cramped quiet of the Laker locker room.

His eyes were red from being one of the few Lakers to bother weeping. His legs probably sore from being the only Laker on the bench to consistently stand.

"A team always beats a group of individuals," said Fox. "We picked a poor time to be a group of individuals."

A fractured group that is about to separate even further.

The Pistons were still dancing on the court when Phil Jackson announced that the chances were "pretty slim" that he would return as Laker coach. He later said that if he didn't coach the Lakers, he wouldn't coach anywhere.

The next move belongs to the Laker front office, who, according to agent Todd Musberger, "have to say they want us back, and they have not said that yet."

The foolishness of not wanting basketball's best coach would be unmatched in team history.

Amid a cluster of threats issued in somber Palace hallways late Tuesday, Jackson's was only the beginning.

Kobe Bryant, who can opt out of his contract, also said he wasn't sure he would return.

"I don't know," he said. "You know, we have to wait till the summer to find that out."

Then there was Shaquille O'Neal, who cannot opt out of his contract, yet amazingly said he also was uncertain about his future, which means maybe he's preparing to force a trade.

"I'll always do what's best for me," he said.

Didn't they all?

Isn't that what caused one of the biggest failures in sports history in the first place?

For the record, the Laker euphoria in having the best team in the NBA lasted all of 24 hours.

On July 17 of last summer, Karl Malone and Gary Payton arrived in town for a joyous welcoming news conference.

On July 18, Bryant was charged with sexual assault.

One afternoon on the Staples Center suite level, Malone and Payton were laughing and hugging.

The next evening in the Staples Center basement, Bryant was crying and admitting adultery.

Things were never the same.

For all of Bryant's sensational returns from court dates, his case consistently tugged at the fabric of this team and distracted it from its journey.

The stresses changed Bryant, and his increasingly selfish behavior increasingly changed the team's attitude toward him.

Integrating two new veterans into a championship offense was hard enough, but doing it amid a constant noisy haze proved impossible.

Payton buckled under the constraints, blanched when he didn't get the ball from Bryant, and ultimately quit.

Malone just buckled, period, his aging knees finally giving out, causing him to miss 39 regular-season games that could have prepared this group for the playoffs.

They were able to survive against Houston on talent, against San Antonio on incredible fate, and against Minnesota on experience.

But the Pistons were different.

The Pistons hit them where they had not been hit, pushed them in ways they had never been pushed.

They tested O'Neal's stamina, and won, with O'Neal unable to dominate nightly against single coverage, finishing his last game with only 20 points and 10 missed free throws, his worst Finals since coming here.

"It's going to be a funny summer," said O'Neal. "Everyone's going to take care of their own business and do what's best for them."

Laker fans can only hope that, for O'Neal, besides contract stuff, this also includes conditioning.

The Pistons also pushed Bryant's buttons, challenging him to dribble the ball against two defenders, dribble down the lane into bouncing bodies. And here, the Pistons also won, as Bryant wound up shooting the Lakers out of one game, nearly out of another, and making only one-third of his shots on Tuesday.

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