Reggie Miller streaked ahead, the entire Pistons franchise left in the dust behind him.
The Pistons were on the verge of falling behind 2-0 in the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, the same round in which they were swept the year before. Detroit hadn’t won a game at that level of the playoffs since the Bad Boys.
Between, the Pistons suffered a series missteps – encapsulated in one word: teal — and, though this latest group showed promise, it appeared the Pistons weren’t ready for this stage. As Miller rose for his layup, the inevitable disappointment began to sink in.
But the youngest player on the court was coming after Miller.
And in the nine years since, Tayshaun Prince has kept coming.
Fighting from the start
Players who spend four years in college – even ones with the most incredible opening to a game I’ve ever season – are judged with a certain skepticism. Scouts dissect these players’ games, searching for flaws to explain why they didn’t turn pro earlier. After all, anyone who’s any good leaves college before his senior year.
That’s the stigma Prince faced entering the 2002 NBA Draft, as projections for his landing spot varied greatly. Of course, Prince didn’t hide, as many prospects do. He kept coming.
Prince worked out for the Suns. Then the Lakers. Then the Warriors, Rockets, Knicks, Bulls, Pacers, Pistons, Grizzlies, Hornets, Kings, Hawks, Wizards, Clippers, Lakers (again), Trail Blazers, Raptors and Spurs. All in all, Prince did workouts for 17 (!) teams.
Eleven years later, he will repeat one leg of that workout journey. Prince was traded from Detroit to Memphis on Wednesday, ending the longest run of a player with only the Pistons since Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.
Legacy of endurance
When Prince played just 42 games during his rookie year, he kept coming. We know that because only players who continued to prepare as if they’re going to play a major role can step in cold, down 3-1 in a playoff series, and contain Tracy McGrady.
When other players needed a game off, Prince kept coming. He’s the only active player with six consecutive 82-game seasons. Yes, a 6-foot-9, 215-pound beanstalk is one of the NBA’s most durable players.
And when it appeared the Pistons had outgrown him, Prince kept coming. The Pistons brought in coaches who weren’t as smart as Prince, diminished the roles of his friends and lost more games than they won. That never sat well with Prince, and he often voiced that displeasure, but he remained the team’s only constant presence.
More than anything else, Prince’s legacy in Detroit will be that he endured.
He went from promising youngster to stodgy veteran, from fourth option to first option, from beloved to bemoaned. And through it all, he kept coming.
Prince went after Miller with the same resolve he’s gone after everything else before and after, and of course, we know the result: The Block, a million “Cheryl would have dunked” jokes and a Pistons championship. The play is the defining moment of Prince’s career, but more than just what happened between the lines, The Block reveals two major points about Prince.
1. A small army of Pistons players, coaches and other personnel went to retrieve Prince after he tumbled into the crowd. Prince was never a real vocal leader in Detroit, first because older teammates filled the role and then because the position didn’t fit his personality. But that didn’t mean he didn’t command respect.
2. Prince’s block came in the original Guaransheed game. Rasheed Wallace shot 1-for-7 with three turnovers and five fouls in a Game 1 loss, and afterward, he gave a classic interview:
"They will not win Game 2, and you heard that from me," ‘Sheed announced Saturday night after watching Foster share the hero mantle with Reggie Miller in the Pacers’ 78-74 triumph.
"Put it front page, back page, middle of the page," ‘Sheed continued, making you wonder what he plans to say if the Pacers do win.
"They will not win Game 2."
‘Sheed then receded into Both Teams Played Hard mode, repeating the same answer to the next few questions he allowed, no matter what the questions were: "They will not win Game 2."
And, as a signoff: "They will not win Game 2."
Many took Wallace’s comments as his way of self-motivation, but if that were the case, he didn’t back them up. The Pistons led Game 2 by six points with 75 seconds left, and Wallace missed shots on consecutive possessions – dropping him to 4-for-19 from the field – as Miller scored four straight points. Detroit, especially once Miller received that outlet pass, was on the verge of self-destructing.
Maybe Prince would have blocked that shot even if Sheed hadn’t made his guarantee. We’ll never know. But we do know Prince would fight for his teammates and they would follow him anywhere.
For 11 years, Prince spilled blood for this franchise. Sometimes, it made mess, but it always showed his pride. Prince’s tenure with the Pistons, especially the beginning and end, hasn’t always been smooth. The rough beginning led to a legendary rookie playoff run, in which Prince became the first player to score more post-season points than regular-season points. We don’t know where the rough end will lead, except out of Detroit.
Prince is finally going, but never forget that he kept coming.