[Picture of projector]

Laramie Movie Scope:
No surprise here

Detroit Pistons championship is no surprise

[Strip of film rule]
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
[Strip of film rule]

June 24, 2004 -- The championship recently won by the NBA's Detroit Pistons has been called the greatest upset win in NBA history. It was something that few people outside of Detroit predicted. I'm one of the few who did predict it (and I have witnesses). The reason I thought Detroit would win the title is because I had seen them play and knew they had one of the best defenses in NBA history, and that their offense was good enough to provide the winning margin against all but the very best defenses. The only surprise was, I thought Detroit would be playing San Antonio for the title, not the Lakers. I was also surprised the Lakers did manage to win one game against Detroit in the finals. Defense is what wins championships in any sport. Defense is what won the NFL title for the Chicago Bears in 1985, and it is what won the title for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002 (I was one of the few who correctly predicted that outcome as well) and the Baltimore Ravens in 2001. I'm not a betting man, but if I was, I would have bet big on the 2002 Super Bowl.

Why were so many so-called experts so completely wrong about the Detroit Pistons? I think it is due to something you could call “The Michael Jordan Syndrome.” After MJ's incredibly successful run with the Chicago Bulls, the idea came to be commonly accepted that a team had to possess a “superstar” player in order to win a championship. The concept of teamwork, team defense in particular, came to be devalued. Sportswriters began to worship at the altar of the superstar athlete. The superstar cult had been around for a long time before MJ, of course, there was Dr. J., Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Elvin Hayes and many other great stars of the past, but it was MJ, perhaps the greatest of them all, who best embodied the superstar. MJ had the ability to make the big play at the right time. He seemed to be able to make whatever play it took to win, either offensively or defensively, and he had an indominatable will to win.

What the worshipers of the superstar cult forgot over the years was that MJ not only could hit the last second shot, but he was a gifted defensive player as well. He and Scottie Pippin, formed a formidable defensive tandem. Their coach, Phil Jackson (one of the greatest coaches of all time, a fact which is also overlooked by Jordan worshipers), was as skilled at teaching defense as he was teaching the triple post offense. Those Jordan-led Bulls teams were absolutely stifling on defense. The most dominant team in NBA history, the Boston Celtics (eight championships in a row and 11 in 13 years from the mid 1950s to late 1960s), was centered around defense, too. At center was the 6-10 Bill Russell (who scored 30 points and grabbed 40 rebounds in one memorable game seven championship victory over the Lakers). He was agile for a big man, had incredible stamina and was the smartest, most skilled, most relentless defensive center ever to play the game. The Celtics also had a great defensive guard in K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders was a great defensive forward.

The center for the 2004 champion Pistons, Ben Wallace, reminds me a lot of Bill Russell. He is a relentless, skilled, smart, defender and rebounder. He's even smaller than Russell at 6-8, but he has similar defensive instincts and stamina. Also, like Russell, he can run the floor. He also has great instincts for rebounding, like Russell before him. Like all great rebounders, he's tireless, and he always seems to know where to position himself to have the best chance to grab any rebound. Time and again in the final game of the series (he grabbed 22 boards) he out-hustled Shaquille O'Neal and every other Laker to rebounds and loose balls. The other Pistons also out-hustled the Lakers on both ends of the floor. Wallace is also exceptionally good at stealing the ball for a center. Ben Wallace was the most valuable player of the finals. He did not get the MVP award because he did not score a lot of points (the voters, suffering from “Michael Jordan Syndrome,” reward points, not rebounding or defense in the MVP voting), but Wallace is the heart and soul of this great Pistons team. Another key to victory was Tayshawn Prince's great defense against superstar Laker Kobe Bryant.

There are a lot of similarities between the 2004 Pistons team and the 1950s through 1960s Celtics teams. Neither had a dominating offensive center and they played great team defense and unselfish offense. Larry Brown (a Hall of Fame calibre coach), the winning Pistons' coach, put it simply, play team defense, share the ball on offense, and have fun. That philosophy was shared by both the Pistons and Celtics (well, maybe not the fun part). There have been other teams like the 2004 Pistons, too, the Pistons teams of 1988-1989 which won two championships were similar. Neither had a dominating center (Bill Lambeer), and the team's “superstar” (Isiah Thomas), while being a great player, was not really a dominant player like MJ, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or Dr. J. That vintage Pistons team won with defense, rebounding and hard-nosed play. Another similar team was the 1978 Seattle Supersonics, who also won the title without a real superstar or dominant center (the Sonic's center, Jack Sikma, while being a good scorer, was not a dominating presence in the middle).

The 1973 Celtics won the title with a front line measuring 6-7, 6-8 and 6-5. The Celtics beat a Milwaukee Bucks team featuring one of the most dominating big men ever to play the game, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (an all-star 19 times, NBA MVP six times and he played on six NBA championship teams). At 7 feet, two inches tall, he was unstoppable on offense, especially against the much shorter Boston players. Boston won using devastating full-court defensive pressure, causing turnovers which led to easy baskets. The press also served to keep the ball away from Jabbar. Perhaps the biggest upset in NBA history was by the 1974 Golden State Warriors, who also lacked a dominant big man. Their starting center was 6-9 Clifford Ray. The Warriors won primarily with defense by Ray and such other forgotten defensive-minded players as Derrick Dickey, Charles Dudley, George Johnson and Bill Bridges. The Warriors did have a legitimate superstar in Rick Barry, but it was defense, as much as Barry's superb outside shooting that beat the heavily favored Washington Bullets led by Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes (“The Big E”), Kevin Porter, Wes Unseld and Phil Chenier. One of the keys to the win was great defense by the slender Jamaal Wilkes against Hayes.

NBA Hall of Fame coach and basketball analyst Dr. Jack Ramsey recently said the Detroit Pistons 2004 championship was unprecedented because the team had no superstar and no dominant center. I disagree with that assessment on several levels. It is unusual for a team without a dominant center or other superstar to win an NBA championship, but it does happen once in a while. Perhaps part of the problem is that because of the Michael Jordan Syndrome, people tend to think of dominant players as primarily offensive players. Bill Russell and Ben Wallace, for instance, are dominant players, even without being dominant on the offensive end of the floor (although Russell was a solid scorer). They certainly dominated from the standpoint of defense and rebounding. Teams that play good team defense, rebound well and share the ball on offense are not as glamorous as a team dominated by offensive superstars. Perhaps they are easily forgotten by many people, but I have not forgotten the tireless full-court pressure defense of the Celtics when they beat the Bucks, or the windmill-like defense of Derrick Dickey of the Warriors. Defense is hard work and it isn't glamorous, but defense has won more championships than great shooting has. It is bad enough to forget that fact, but it is unforgivable to ignore it.

A good example of the Michael Jordan syndrome came up a few years ago when I got into an argument with a sports writer over the Los Angeles Lakers acquisition of Rick Fox from the Celtics. I remarked that Fox's salary, at $1 million was a bargain. After all, how many players in the NBA score 20 points a game and can play good defense as well? The sports writer's reply was that Michael Jordan was the only player in the NBA worth $1 million a year because he brought in enough fans to justify that kind of salary (you have to remember that Wyoming is an intensely anti-Union state). The sports writer went on to say that Rick Fox wasn't going to win a championship for the Lakers, and that the NBA would fall apart after Jordan retired and a lot of other similar nonsense (it turned out that Fox did, indeed, help the Lakers win three straight championships, and Fox, notably, sat out most of the series the Lakers lost to the Pistons in 2004, and the NBA is still here, and is setting new attendance records, too). The Michael Jordan Syndrome completely blinded some people to the fact that basketball is a team sport. No matter how great the players, you win and lose as a team.

The Detroit Pistons win in 2004 is good for the NBA, it is good for the sport of basketball and it is good for basketball coaches everywhere. It reminds everyone that you don't need a so-called superstar to win a championship. The Lakers had four superstars, including a dominant big man on their roster, and they still lost. The Pistons proved that you can win a title by playing great defense and sharing the ball on offense. The Pistons are a “blue collar” team that every working stiff can identify with. The way they beat the superstars from Hollywood is the stuff movies are made of. The win gives every hardwood role-player new hope. The Lakers proved you can lose the title if you don't hustle on defense, don't hustle after rebounds and loose balls, and if you've got selfish players who won't share the ball on offense. That lesson will be used by thousands of basketball coaches to try to put their prima donna players in the right frame of mind to play team basketball. Most people have forgotten that even the great Michael Jorden didn't win a championship until he learned to share the ball on offense, and until Scottie Pippin came along to help on defense. Even the great MJ had to learn lessons about the team nature of team basketball before he earned his first championship ring. Now, if these sports commentators (like the sportscaster in Denver who said before the series started that Detroit had no chance to win) would just learn the same lesson, maybe they'd be worth listening to.

[Strip of film rule]
Copyright © 2004 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
[Strip of film rule]
Back to the Laramie Movie Scope index.
[Rule made of Seventh Seal sillouettes]

Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)