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Clyde Drexler perfectly explains why Isiah Thomas’ Dream Team snub still resonates

I’ll have a few posts up this weekend about “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever,” Jack McCallum’s new book. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for review.

Jack McCallum’s “Dream Team”:

So why does he think Isiah wasn’t on the team?

“I don’t think Jordan wanted to play with Isiah,” Drexler answers. “Two championships in a row, always an All-Star. And Isiah can’t make it?

“I didn’t like that. It’s not the players’ choice. It’s who’s supposed to be there. If you don’t like me, I don’t give a fuck. We’re competitors. You’re not supposed to like me. But when one player has the ability to leave another player off, we’ve lost control of the system.

“The one thing in sports that’s been important to me is integrity. If someone is good, no matter what, I am never going to say he’s not. If you’re good, you’re good.

Sports are not a perfect meritocracy, but at least in appearance – and maybe even reality – they come closer than any other area of our society. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, rich or poor. If you’re better than your opponent, you’ll have a chance to prove it. At least, that’s the idea.

Maybe Isiah Thomas was better than John Stockton in 1992. Maybe he wasn’t. More than I believe Stockton deserved to make the team ahead of Isiah, I believe it’s debatable.

But that debate never occurred because Michael Jordan didn’t want to play with Thomas.

Somebody had to be the best player left off the Dream Team, and that was Thomas. Alone, that doesn’t warrant outrage and controversy that has lasted two decades and will burn much longer.

But because it wasn’t a fair fight, our sense of right and wrong, especially in the realm of sports, feels violated. Drexler’s explanation is on point.

Isiah’s snub wasn’t that he didn’t make the Dream Team. His snub was that he didn’t have a fair chance.

Isiah Thomas didn’t blame John Stockton for Dream Team snub

I’ll have a few posts up this weekend about “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever,” Jack McCallum’s new book. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for review.

When his Dream Team controversy resurfaced this year, Isiah Thomas took the high road when discussing his exclusion from the squad. He did the same thing 20 years ago, too. Jack McCallum’s “Dream Team”:

Perhaps because Stockton was so sensitive to the Isiah issue, and because he also respected him as a player, Stockton never said anything remotely negative about Thomas. (Then again, Mostly Silent John never said that much anyway. And Thomas, for his part, never hung Stockton out to dry. There is no doubt that Isiah considered himself the superior player, but he never denigrated the Jazz point guard, and after the Dream Team business had finished, Isiah placed a phone call to Jack and Dan’s Bar and Grill in Spokane and asked to speak to the owner.

“I just want to let you know, Mr. Stockton,” Isiah said to John’s father, Jack, “that anything I had to say about the Dram Team had nothing to do with your son. he’s a great player.”

Neither Stockton nor his father ever forgot that call.

Pistons’ Pete Skorich provided view into ‘The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw’

I’ll have a few posts up this weekend about “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever,” Jack McCallum’s new book. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for review.

In “Dream Team,” Jack McCallum provides a lengthy rundown of what he dubbed “The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw,” a pre-Olympic scrimmage between the American players:

By breakfast this morning Daly had decided that his team had better beat itself up a little bit. The Dream Team had scrimmaged several times before this fateful day, a couple of the games ending in a diplomatic tie as Daly refused to allow overtime. He normally tried to divvy up the teams by conference, but on this day Drexler was nursing a minor injury and Stockton was still recovering from a fractured right fibula he had suffered in the Olympic qualifying tournament.

So with two fewer Western players than Eastern players, and only two true guards (Magic and Jordan), Daly went with Magic, Barkley, Robinson, Chris Mullin and Laettner on the Blue Team against Jordan, Malone, Ewing, Pippen and Bird on the White.

Whatever the result, there would be few to bear witness. The gym was all but locked down. The media were allowed in for only the last part of practice. Officials from USA Basketball even kicked out the NBA PR people and videographers from NBA Entertainment.

Play by play, McCallum analyzes the scrimmage. So how did he get the details?

A single cameraman, Pete Skorich, who was Chuck Daly’s guy with the Pistons, recorded the day. It was a closed universe, a secret little world, when ten of the best basketball players in the world began going at each other.

Isiah Thomas’ intelligence underrated, but Larry Bird was probably smarter

I’ll have a few posts up this weekend about “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever,” Jack McCallum’s new book. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for review.

My opinion that John Stockton deserved to make the Dream Team ahead of Isiah Thomas has nothing to do with either player’s intelligence. Both rank among the smartest players of all-time, though most would probably give the edge to Stockton.

That’s unfortunate.

It’s certainly justifiable to give the advantage in intelligence to either player. They’re close. But I suspect Stockton would garner more support because he’s white and Thomas is black. Race certainly appeared to be a factor when Jack McCallum conducted a poll for Sports Illustrated during the 1991-92 season:

Coaches and general managers were asked a difficult question in this week’s poll: Who is the league’s smartest player? In an extremely close race Larry Bird of the Celtics collected 10 votes and Jazz point guard John Stockton got 8.5. (Rocket coach Don Chaney split his ballot between Stockton and point guard Isiah Thomas of the Pistons.) Forward Chris Mullin of the Warriors and guard Jeff Hornacek of the Suns got two votes each, Thomas got 1.5, and Cav point guard Mark Price got one.

In “Dream Team,” McCallum elaborates on the fact that four white players led the voting:

Racist? I can’t say that. But I never saw any evidence that Thomas was not as smart a player as, say, Stockton, and that’s a compliment to both of them. One caveat: several GMs and coaches say that they would’ve voted for Magic, an African-American, had he been active during the season. But then, I never saw any evidence that Thomas was not as smart a player as Magic, either.

The most conclusive case that I can offer that Bird may stand alone at the top of the list of heady players comes from former Pistons player Laimbeer. Laimbeer does not like Bird and the feeling is mutual. But not long ago Laimbeer told me: Let’s face it, it would be hard to find a smarter player than Bird.”

Thomas has a legitimate grievance about falling behind Stockton in the poll, but if Bill Laimbeer said Bird was the smartest player, Bird was probably the smartest player.

Michael Jordan’s Nike-Reebok stunt overshadowed Chuck Daly’s proud moment during 1992 medal ceremony

I’ll have a few posts up this weekend about “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever,” Jack McCallum’s new book. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for review.

Nike-man Michael Jordan draping an American flag over his Reebok logo was the defining moment of the Dream Team’s gold-medal ceremony, but lost in the stunt was a nice moment for Chuck Daly. McCallum’s “Dream Team”:

Several of the Dreamers beckoned for Daly and his assistants to join them on the podium. They had grown quite close to the staff over the weeks together and had universal respect for Daly. They loved his staccato speech, his sweat-only-the-big-stuff philosophy, his command of the game, and his habit of occasionally touching up his hair and smoothing his collar ever so subtly, even in the heat of the game. “Every time I went out on the floor,” Malone said years later, “I’d look back and there would be Coach Daly doing all this . . .” Malone mimicked a man grooming. “Everything had to be perfect.”

True to fashion, Daly and his assistants demurred, players-first guys to the end. From the press area, I wanted to scream: Chuck, get up there! You’ll be coaching the New Jersey Nets soon! Enjoy this! But he was enjoying it, as Wilkens later made clear. “Chuck grabbed my arm and just held on, and I looked over and there was a tear coming out of Chuck’s eye. That said it all for me.”

Isiah Thomas’ Dream Team exclusion due to Michael Jordan, timing

I’ll have a few posts up this weekend about “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever,” Jack McCallum’s new book. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for review.

Why didn’t Isiah Thomas make the Dream Team? Jack McCallum and Bill Laimbeer, relayed by McCallum, had two different answers.

“It would have been very interesting to see if this happened the way it went if the team was picked back in 1989 or 1990, when the Pistons were the king of the league and Isiah was the king of the backcourt,” McCallum recalled Laimbeer saying. “OK, what we would we have done then? How much would the committee have been able to not select Isiah?”

“To me, it’s the most complicated thing in the world, although it’s the most simple,” McCallum said. “And that was, in my opinion, Michael Jordan did not want to play with Isiah Thomas. He let that be known obliquely, implicitly or just said it.”

I think they’re both right.

Personally, I thought John Stockton deserved to make the team over Isiah, though admittedly, it’s debatable. But that’s the point. If Isiah were a lock based on ability in 1991, maybe Jordan couldn’t have kept him off the team. But because Thomas and Stockton were at least close to a tossup, Jordan could exert his influence and wedge Thomas out.

If the team were selected in 1990 for the FIBA World Championship in Argentina, as Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus imagined, Isiah might have made it. At that point, Isiah was clearly better than Stockton. Jordan broke a near tie in 1992. That doesn’t mean he could have kept a clearly better off the team in 1990.

Of course, many don’t see Stockton and Thomas as near equals at the time of selection.

“I thought Isiah Thomas deserved to be on the team,” McCallum said.

And he sort of wrote that in 1991:

Stockton, who has led the NBA four straight years in assists, is a brilliant quarterback, but he simply does not belong on the Olympic team ahead of Thomas.

But McCallum, when picking his Dream Team before the actual squad was selected, chose neither Thomas nor Stockton. McCallum actually chose Joe Dumars for his team. Where was the outrage on behalf of Dumars?

But the decision was perceived to come down to Stockton and Thomas, and in the absence of consensus about those two’s on-court level in 1991/1992, Michael Jordan got to cast the deciding vote.

“That is politics. There’s no question about it,” McCallum said. “But it’s the kind of pragmatic decision and politics that is made all the time.”

Jack McCallum: Greg Monroe’s agent didn’t keep him off U.S. Select Team

I’ll have a few posts up this weekend about “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever,” Jack McCallum’s new book. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for review.

“Dream Team” is a fantastic book that’s more than a compellingly detailed history of the Dream Team, which it also is. What sets the book apart – for better or worse, but mostly better – is Jack McCallum’s first-person accounts of the experience, his experience. McCallum was with the Dream Team at nearly every step, and while it would be impossible to get the truth of the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball, I’ll happily settle for McCallum’s truth. He establishes himself as knowledgeable and fair, and mort importantly, presents his biases for the reader to judge.

Above all, my biggest judgment of McCallum: He gets it. A veteran Sports Illustrated writer, McCallum consistently demonstrates his knowledge of professional basketball’s off-court politics and the on-court tactics.

So, even though McCallum wasn’t specifically reporting on this year’s Olympics, when he spoke to the TrueHoop Network about his book, I wanted his opinion on the idea that Greg Monroe was left off the U.S. Select Team because David Falk is his agent.

“If that committee thought that they needed Greg Monroe, they wouldn’t have cared who his agent was,” McCallum said. “He would be on the team.”

Without specific knowledge of Falk’s importance, I agree with McCallum. The select team is a scout team, and he players chosen ahead of Monroe possess certain skills that he doesn’t. There’s a plausible explanation for Monroe being left off that has nothing to whom his agent is.

Besides, does Falk really ruffle anyone’s feathers any more, to the point the selectors would take decades-old grievances out on Monroe?

“My sense is he probably would not have that currency right now,” McCallum said of Falk.

PistonPowered Book Club: ‘When March Went Mad’ by Seth Davis

The NBA’s interest in making sure basketball prospects spend at least some time in college has been a constant subject of debate since the league instituted a minimum age to enter the league. That age restriction gets sillier every year considering some of the league’s biggest current stars — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Amar’e Stoudemire — skipped college and went straight to the league. Even a crop of next-tier type players like Josh Smith, Jermaine O’Neal, Tyson Chandler, Kendrick Perkins, Monta Ellis and others made the transition from high school to successful pro. Sure, there were busts along the way, but isn’t that the case with college stars as well? When the NBA had so much success drawing from the high school ranks and finding players who became competent rotation players or better, why was it necessary to try and funnel players into going to college?

When March Went Mad by Seth Davis is a good historical starting point for why the NBA would have a vested interest in seeing kids spend at least some time in college. Of the players listed above, I would say that only James came into the league as an established star. The problem with drafting high school players is that, except in rare cases like James’, most fans have seen very little of that high school player. The upside of drafting college players, as shown in Davis’ book, is that with the audience the NCAA has, players can potentially come into the league as established off-court stars, generating buzz and interest in the NBA as a result of college success. Davis chronicles the lead-up to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team meeting Larry Bird’s Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA Championship game, looking at not only the massive coverage and interest in the game itself, but the divergent paths Johnson and Bird took to becoming major stars.

Some have argued over the years that Johnson and Bird entering the NBA saved the struggling league. They were charismatic, proven winners in an era when some of the league’s marquee names — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, for example — were aging. The NBA had image problems as a result of rampant drug abuse in the 1970s. Ratings were up and down. On the strength of their title runs, Johnson came into the league as a rookie and led the Lakers to a championship. Just one year later, Bird entered the league and vaulted the Celtics back into title contention. Neither team had to spend much time on player development. Neither player needed coaching on how to deal with big media coverage. The expensive work of narrative-building had been taken care when both guys were in college and the NBA reaped the rewards immediately. Even if this generation’s high school-to-NBA players have even greater career accomplishments than Magic or Bird, it took time in each player’s case to get to even an All-Star level, let alone elite status as one of the top players in the game. It took time for fans nationally to connect with them. Even if players like Bryant or James had spent just one year in college, its likely both would’ve helped big-name college teams (Bryant has said in the past that he likely would’ve played at Duke, James has said he probably would’ve committed to Ohio State) to NCAA tournament success, success that would’ve led to greater exposure for the individual players and greater benefits to the NBA when they entered the draft as more famous commodities.

The other interesting theme throughout Davis’ book is the divergent paths Johnson and Bird took to superstardom. Johnson was the guy who loved the spotlight, who the media couldn’t help but cover because his game was so flashy and noticeable and his personality off the court was so big that it drew them in. Bird, on the other hand, was insanely talented and extremely reclusive and uncomfortable with the spotlight. He obviously grew more comfortable with this as he became a pro, but he didn’t deal well with the pressure of playing at his state’s flagship basketball program, Indiana University, which is why he went to Indiana State. Whereas the media was drawn to Johnson naturally, it was almost as if they worked really hard to cultivate the narratives and mythology about Bird.

Anyway, there’s not any kind of Pistons connection to the book, but I loved reading it not only because the Bird-Magic NCAA title game is one of the best moments in college basketball history, but because it’s full of great information on Johnson’s high school career at Lansing Everett. Anyone who has followed some of the state’s powerhouse high school programs over the years will certainly appreciate some of the names Davis caught up with and talked to in the book.

Next up: Forty Minutes of Hell by Rus Bradburd


PistonPowered Book Club: ‘The Last Shot’ by Darcy Frey

PistonPowered reader Jacob Tucker provides this week’s Book Club post. If you’d like to contribute, e-mail patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com.

For many boys who grow up on Coney Island in southern Brooklyn the possibility of going to college, choosing their own career path, and finding success is remote. In neglected neighborhoods where the majority of the population lives in 20 story public housing projects, there is but one glimmer of hope for some: basketball.

In The Last Shot, Darcy Frey gives his firsthand account of following four players from Abraham Lincoln High School (alma mater of current NBA players Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson) for close to a year beginning in the spring of 1991. Frey closely chronicles the lives of seniors Tchaka Shipp, Corey Johnson and Darryl Flicking (named Russell Thomas in the book for legal reasons), as well as an up-and-coming freshman named Stephon Marbury.

Shipp is the most physically gifted and perhaps the most “privileged” of the group. As the book begins he has just been invited to the Nike camp – an invitation-only summer camp designed to showcase the nation’s top high school players to college coaches. Johnson has no dearth of talent but his interests are wide and include poetry and fashion as he writes one-liners about as often as he dunks.

Flicking is a student of the game, ceaselessly practicing his fundamentals in unwavering heat. He also has the highest GPA on the team and always keeps vocabulary flash cards nearby in preparation for the SAT.

Frey’s first observation of the 14-year-old Marbury goes like this:

Caught somewhere between puberty and superstardom, he walks around with his sneakers untied, the ends of his belt drooping suggestively from his pants, and half a Snickers bar extruding from his mouth…..Dribbling by himself in a corner of the court, Stephon has raised a ball with one hand directly over his head and threaded it through his legs. From back to front. Without interrupting his dribble. Now he’s doing it with two balls!

Through the experiences of these four players, Frey addresses such topics as the social decline of Coney Island, the mixed messages players receive from corporate sponsors, the shady recruiting tactics of big-time college coaches, the NCAA’s Proposition 48, and other obstacles that stand in the way of that ever elusive hope of “making it.” To be clear, “making it” does not necessarily mean playing in the NBA. Flicking wants to become a nurse. Johnson wants to become a writer. But each player knows that the vehicle to get him where he wants to go is basketball.

Frey paints Coney Island as a desolate community where drugs and violence rule the day. The once proud Lincoln High that boasts such alumni as Joseph Heller and Arthur Miller has succumbed to gang wars and frequent student arrests. Despite the efforts of some dedicated faculty members, socioeconomic conditions have put academics down the priority list. As one local freelance coach notes, “Lincoln didn’t make Coney Island. Coney Island made Lincoln.”

When Shipp attends the Nike summer camp, Frey goes with him. The players are constantly told by Nike staff members that when it comes to basketball, “just go out there and have fun.” Moments later every aspect of a player’s game is analyzed by the top college coaches in the nation. Frey notes that from where they are sitting the coaches can’t even see the scoreboard during team scrimmages, putting the onus on individual play. The players notice this as one remarks, “…you got to be a ball hog at this camp…” and another says, “I’m…shooting every time I touch the ball.” With scholarship money on the line, these players’ futures are dependent on just ‘going out there and having fun.’

Frey witnesses a myriad of recruiting practices by Division I coaches. He hears Jim Boehiem’s constant reassurance as the Syracuse coach steadily backpedals because of recent NCAA allegations of improper benefits. He notes Rollie Massimino’s emphasis on being a family and doing everything together. Within the year Massimino would move three thousand miles away leaving Villanova for UNLV. Frey is entertained by Rick Barnes’ magic card tricks, three cups and a disappearing ball, and the old quarter behind the player’s ear. Barnes tells Shipp that he is the only player they’re recruiting at his position before listing two more and then saying, “…that’s it.” As Barnes gets up to conclude the recruiting meeting he drops his deck of cards revealing a two of spades stamped on every trick card. Rod Baker tells Flicking that they need another guard and he was the first person they thought of. His end of the conversation with Flicking is as follows:

Frankly, I think you could be a pioneer at Cal-Irvine, an impact player, a franchise player. A year from now, when you’re a freshman and we’re playing for a conference championship, it won’t take a brain surgeon to figure out it was [Darryl Flicking] who got us there. And five years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if people are saying, “Remember when [Darryl Flicking] came in and completely changed the fortunes of Cal-Irvine?”

As soon as Flicking makes up his mind to sign with Cal-Irvine, Baker calls the Lincoln coach to say he’s no longer interested because a guard he thought was leaving decided to come back.

In 1986 the NCAA instituted Proposition 48 which requires student-athletes to score a minimum of 700 on the SAT to obtain a Division I athletic scholarship. Frey is critical of Prop 48 and provides compelling arguments. He points out that the NCAA does not consider any other indications of scholastic potential besides the standardized tests. Educationally disadvantaged and poorly schooled players like the ones at Lincoln have much intellectual ground to cover to meet this minimum requirement. In his pursuit of this Flicking sits at the front of his classes, asks stimulating questions, and even goes to study hall during lunch time. Regardless, he struggles in his attempts to reach the 700 threshold throughout the book.

Frey encountered his share of challenges when writing The Last Shot. He was banned from recruiting visits to all Big East campuses by the NCAA. Flicking’s mother ordered her son not to speak to Frey at one point. He is denied several requests for an interview by Marbury’s father. Having already seen three of his sons fail to “make it” Don Marbury won’t speak unless he is compensated. In the face of these challenges, Frey writes a timeless book. At times triumphant and at times sobering, it’s a case study of the burdens of four high school basketball players in less than fortunate circumstances with the game as their only alleviation. At one point the brash and surprisingly astute Marbury utters, “Man, I’m tired of all this … somebody’s got to make it, somebody’s got to go all the way…”

The concern for these young men is palpable as their actions lead to continual speculation about their outcomes, vacillating from potential NBA star to Coney Island casualty.

On a personal level, The Last Shot shook my naïve perception. The first time I read this book I was young and did not yet realize that having the skills, talent, and tenacity to play basketball at the highest level was merely half the battle. As NBA fans (particularly those of us Pistons fans over the last three years) we often experience emotions of frustration even anger as we bemoan the shortcomings of the players we follow. This book gave me a fresh appreciation for the fact that these players have reached the point where they can even put on jersey and step out onto an NBA floor.  In 2004 Darcy Frey released an edition of The Last Shot with a new afterword, updating the lives of Tchaka Shipp, Corey Johnson, Darryl Flicking, and Stephon Marbury. I won’t give it away, but I will say that it is at the same time victorious and demoralizing.

Next up: When March Went Mad by Seth Davis


PistonPowered Book Club: ‘The City Game’ by Pete Axthelm

Bringing up the name Arron Afflalo on a Pistons site is asking for trouble nowadays. Afflalo, obviously, has blossomed into a reliable player in Denver and, more importantly, an inexpensive one after the Pistons dealt him (for a pick that has turned into Vernon Macklin … Vernon, you better be good or you’ll never hear the end of it) to clear room to fit bigger name acquisitions under the salary cap.

The problem with the trade wasn’t so much that Afflalo showed promise as a Piston that has been fulfilled elsewhere. Trading Afflalo represented a culture shift. Afflalo was young, hard-working and defensive-minded, all principles that Detroit’s best teams have been founded on. He was essentially replaced on the roster by Ben Gordon, who is expensive and a bad defensive player. Gordon was the flashier player, the bigger name coming off of a memorable playoff performance for Chicago that overshadowed the fact that his team, you know, actually lost the series he was supposedly so transcendant a player in.

When I do these book club posts, I’m always on the lookout for historical parallels between the current Pistons and past Pistons teams that are, I’m finding, mentioned for a variety of reasons in a lot of very famous basketball books. And I bring up the Afflalo situation because in Pete Axthelm’s The City Game, he mentions a Pistons trade in the 1960s that was very similar.

In 1968, the Pistons traded Dave DeBusschere, a solid, tough, defensive-minded player who also happened to be a local star prior to joining the Pistons (he was a standout high school player in Detroit and a great college player at the University of Detroit), to the New York Knicks for Walt Bellamy. Bellamy, a center, had superior numbers. He was flashy, he was a bigger name and he played what was at the time the league’s most glamorous position.

Listen to Axthelm describe DeBusschere’s impact on the Knicks:

DeBusschere is the kind of athlete who plays hard and looks it, during every second that he is on the court. Perspiration gushes off his face, his chest heaves as he races up and down the floor, his whole body strains and contorts as he elbows for position under the boards. There is no economy or subtlety in the style, no sense that it all comes easily. You watch DeBusschere and you understand what hard work pro basketball can be — and what a job the man is doing.

The acquisition of DeBusschere made a good Knicks team into one of the most entertaining in league history. He was a perfect compliment to center Willis Reed, his intelligence and toughness rubbed off on his teammates and the Knicks of that era began to challenge teams with much more star power.

The trade of DeBusschere and the trade of Afflalo are just subtle reminders of how some of the things that contribute most to winning — toughness, defense, work ethic, intelligence — are often the first things cast aside in a quest for players with more flair or style. Bellamy only played 109 games in Detroit. He played for seven teams in 14 seasons, putting up good numbers in every place. He may have had more overall talent than DeBusschere, but the Knicks were a far better team with DeBusschere instead of Bellamy.

But that’s far from the only Pistons connection in Axthelm’s book. Former Michigan star Cazzie Russell was a source of criticism for fans and media in NY because the Knicks picked him ahead of Syracuse star Dave Bing, who went to the Pistons one pick later. Russell was a good NBA player, but not the star he was in college and Bing, as we know, went on to have a Hall of Fame career.

The biggest connection fans of the Pistons, particularly those who watched the three title teams closely, will make is simply the style of play. The Knicks were a suffocating defensive unit under Red Holzman. They had a collection of players — Walt Frazier, DeBusschere, Reed, Russell, Bill Bradley and Dick Barnett ( — all capable of controlling the game, but all selfless enough to let others take control if they had it going. Check out this quote in the book from Larry Merchant of the New York Post on Willis Reed and tell me that it doesn’t sound like it could describe an in-his-prime Ben Wallace or Dennis Rodman:

“Reed plays the game the way long-distance runners are supposed to run: dropping dead at the finish line. Whatever he has he gives.”

And parts of this description of the Frazier-Barnett (pre-Earl Monroe trade) backcourt could adequately describe the peaks of Isiah Thomas/Joe Dumars or Chauncey Billups/Rip Hamilton:

Frazier’s emergence as a star had a multiple effect on the team. Taking charge of the offense and setting fire to the defense, he brought out the best in his teammates. And nobody benefited more than the sleep-eyed, high-dribbling, awkward-shooting Dick Barnett. Dick had always had a deadly shooting eye; Frazier’s passes found him open so often that his shooting became a far more potent weapon. In his quiet, workmanlike way, Barnett also had been an outstanding defender; but Frazier’s flamboyant defensive style provided a perfect complement to his own steady guarding, and made more people aware of the job Barnett could do on his man. As each game passed, Frazier and Barnett seemed to develop a keener sense of one another — and Garden crowds developed a deeper love for them.

Axthelm doesn’t just chronicle the Knicks, however. His book is also covering a parallel basketball world on the NYC playgrounds, recounting legends like Connie Hawkins, Earl ‘The Goat’ Mannigault and many others. I’ve always been jealous of the overall NYC basketball scene, not because I think it’s superior to Detroit’s necessarily, just because the history is so intact. Detroit has playground and high school legends, guys who were pegged for greatness and got derailed, but we’ve generationally not done a very good job of re-telling and mythologizing those players the way New York has over the years.

On a more personal level, I particularly enjoyed Axthelm’s book because those late 1960s and early 1970s Knicks teams were my dad’s favorite teams ever (until the 1980s … remember, if you think being a Pistons fan is tough now, try rooting for this franchise in the pre-Isiah era). He told and re-told the story of watching an injured Willis Reed limp out of the locker room and play in game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals, which the Knicks won. His all-time favorite non-Pistons were Earl Monroe and DeBusschere. My dad was a teenager when that team was winning, so obviously, his stories over the years were a mix and match collection of his memories. This book filled in some of the blanks and made me appreciate that team even more than I already did.

Next up: The Last Shot by Darcy Frey.

Note: Next week, regular PistonPowered commenter Jacob Tucker will do the honors discussing Frey’s book. If you have a basketball book you’d like to pitch writing about as a guest post, feel free to send an e-mail to patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com. The more voices, the better.