Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Male bonding is a frightening thing

A lot has happened over this past weekend (well, this Monday wasn't technically part of the weekend, but next Monday is Labor Day, so why not get in on the celebration early?) ... the attorney general resigned, Michael Vick pleaded guilty, the Rural Virginia Pit Bulls (my fantasy football team) were assembled through the draft, the Phlorida Phils (my fantasy baseball team) plummeted to fifth place, I celebrated my 28th birthday, Colleen made a MySpace page ... I think that's all. That's all, isn't it? Well, that's not all, but the rest came while I was drunk on Everclear, so I shouldn't really go into it.

All of this news deserves a great deal of coverage, which is why I'm glad I'm a blogger, and not a journalist, and can instead deviate into a personal but intriguing story about the only time I ever saw my favorite NBA team play in their home arena. (Believe it or not, but for a kid from a working-class background who's never lived within 1,000 miles of Detroit, trips to the Palace of Auburn Hills can be pretty rare.)

My memory was jogged by an e-mail I got from my sister about a preseason game between the Sixers and Knicks that's taking place Oct. 8 in Columbia, S.C., where she lives. I was trying to explain to her that an exhibition game between the bottom two teams in the worst division in the league isn't exactly a marquee attraction, when I realized going to the game would mean I would share an arena with Knicks coach Isiah Thomas for only the second time. Isiah was the heart and soul of the Pistons back-to-back championship teams in 1989 and 1990, when I became a fan and started following sports closely for the first time. Say what you will about Isiah, and there's plenty to say, but there's something about the star player of your childhood team that will make you have a soft spot for him the rest of your life. Case-in-point the affection countless baby-boomer New Yorkers have for alcoholic anti-hero Mickey Mantle.

When I was 14, my uncle K.C. took me to see the Pistons at the Palace for the first, and to date only, time. I still remember being taken aback the multi-colored cushiony upholstery of the seats we had behind one of the baskets. I didn't know that even 20 or 30 rows up like we were, you still got an upholstered seat.

But there was another piece of fabric that stood out even more. Isiah's mustard-colored blazer is forever burned into my memory, perhaps because the brightness of the color has forever been burned into my corneas. It was his final season, and though he was only 32, injuries were taking their toll. He missed 26 games that year, and one of them was that Dec. 30, 1993 matchup with the Sacramento Kings. But it didn't matter. Just being the presence of my childhood basketball idol, even though he wasn't playing, even though his career was winding down, even though I had begun to outgrow childhood idolatry, was enough to make the trip worthwhile.

Without Isiah, the Pistons, 8-18 and losers of five straight coming into the game that night, trotted out a maudlin group against the even more dreadful Kings (7-19). Led by Wayman Tisdale and Lionel Simmons (left), who each had 12 rebounds, Sacramento dominated the low block and got far more easy opportunities than Detroit, which went 0-for-9 from 3-point range and got only five points from Joe Dumars and a 6-for-17 shooting performance from rookie Lindsey Hunter (who, all these years later, was with the Pistons again last season. Still clanking it up.) The Kings won 97-91, and the Pistons didn't win again until Jan. 21 at Miami, a victory that ended a season-long 14-game losing streak and the only win in a 21-game stretch. The Pistons lost 13 more at the end of the season to finish 20-62, the second-worst record in franchise history.

I remember my uncle and I were approached by a distraught inner-city fan while we were on our way out of the arena. He lamented the Pistons' reliance on a perimeter attack. My uncle said nothing, but I sympathized with him. "It's all they can do," I said. "They're built to get it done from the outside, and when they don't, they'll lose." The guy nodded and went on his way, and my uncle and I were off to the car.

So maybe my sister and I will run into a down-on-his- luck fan at the game this October who wonders why the Knicks didn't get the ball to University of South Carolina alum Renaldo Balkman. And I'll explain that Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry prefer not to kick it out to 3-point shooters all that often. And that a point guard who could distribute the ball properly who was instead on the bench in a suit was the reason I came anyway.

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