LeBron James’ return to Cleveland evokes memories of Allan Houston’s return to the Palace of Auburn Hills with the New York Knicks in 1996

Allan Houston was once a rising star with the Pistons. Drafted by Detroit in 1993, Houston increased his production each of his three years with the Pistons. In the 1995-96 season, he averaged 19.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.

Then, he hit free agency.

Of course, everyone has their own version of events, but the animosity on both sides was intense.

The Pistons and Doug Collins leaked word that Houston had no interest in remaining in Detroit, even after Houston led the team to believe he wanted to stay.

In New York, after Houston signed a seven-year, $56 million contract with the Knicks, there was a different story. From Clifton Brown of The New York Times:

Houston could hardly contain his excitement. According to a league executive familiar with Houston’s negotiations, the Pistons made an alarmingly low offer to Houston on Thursday — $30 million over seven years. Five teams made offers to Houston — the Knicks, Indiana, Miami, Houston and Detroit. New York’s offer was the highest. Detroit’s offer was the lowest. This confirmed Houston’s suspicion that he was not Detroit’s No. 1 priority. The Pistons are expected to make a huge offer to Dikembe Mutombo, and they hoped that Houston would wait.

Detroit miscalculated and the Knicks took advantage.

By the time the season rolled around, everyone in Detroit had taken the Pistons’ side of the dispute (of course). Read this account from Mike Wise of The New York Times:

As much as Houston credits Collins with bettering him on the court — ”He made me a hungrier player, a more versatile player,” Houston said — several of his former coach’s tactics befuddled him. Collins, hard-nosed and driven, separated his squad into two teams shortly after training camp began last year: Competitors versus Noncompetitors. Houston and Hill were put on the noncompetitors’ team. Coached by his father at the University of Tennessee, Houston privately wondered why Collins needed to play mind games with grown men.

”He didn’t know what kind of players we were and what kind of people we were,” he said. ”So he wanted to make us certain types of players and people. Once he learned what we could do and how we could help this team, he backed off a little bit. We showed him. He found out.

If you’re an Allan Houston fan, Collins comes across as a controlling jerk. If you’re a Pistons fan, Houston sounds like a whiny baby. Sports fandom isn’t based on fairness and rationality. It’s based on loyalty and bias. In Detroit, that made Houston wrong and Collins right.

Grant Hill added fuel to the fire in the days before the Knicks played in Detroit. More from Wise:

Things like a rift between him and Hill; neither has spoken to the other since last season.

Hill disputed Houston’s assertion that he might have stayed in Detroit if Hill had called him during the summer. ”If me calling one time and having a conversation — and God knows what he wanted to talk about that would have made him stay — I would have rather he left,” Hill said in training camp. ”What would have gone on in the conversation? What would we have talked about? Doug? Our relationship? We had a fine relationship. We were not good friends.

”I’m glad he left. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the enemy now.”

Pistons fans saw it the same way. On Dec. 18, 1996, Houston returned to the Palace of Auburn Hills. He was booed profusely every time he touched the ball.

The Pistons won, 112-78. They moved to 19-4 and snapped the Knicks’ seven-game, dropping New York to 16-7. Detroit played extremely well in a game that featured two of the Eastern Conference’s best teams outside of Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

But, more importantly, Allan Houston had two points, five turnovers and four fouls. If he hadn’t faltered so spectacularly, we wouldn’t be remembering this game today. The win was nice in the context of the season. Houston’s struggles were spectacular in the context of the Pistons’ history.

The game was as sweet as could be against probably the most hated opponent on any night in Pistons history.*

Like everyone else outside of insufferable Heat and LeBron fans, I’m rooting for the Cavaliers to experience similar karmic justice tonight.

*When discussing this post with Patrick, he point out Grant Hill could have filled the role of biggest villain for a night in Pistons history.

His exit was much more similar to LeBron’s than
Houston’s was.

The Pistons had tried and failed for years to put a competitive team
around Hill. Hill had pretty much free reign to tell the organization
anything and they’d go out and try and do it. ("Let’s sign Christian
Laettner!") Like Cleveland, the Pistons largely failed to surround
him with any meaningful talent. Like Cleveland, Hill’s Pistons failed
in the playoffs (albeit, James dragged some Cavs teams further than
Hill). Like James, Hill’s free agency was a long-talked-about thing,
starting about two years before he actually became a free agent.

When Hill left, I was vengeful. I hated him. I couldn’t wait for his return.

Except that’s what I had to do – wait.

Hill didn’t play in Detroit until Jan. 14, 2005, more than four years after he signed with the Magic. By then, the Pistons had won a title and became one of the league’s premier teams. Because of Hill’s numerous injuries, even Pistons began to feel sorry for him. His return was relatively tame, all the anger diffused by circumstance.

So, that leaves Houston as No. 1.

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