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PistonPowered Book Club: ‘Playing for Keeps’ by David Halberstam


I had originally planned on doing these book club posts every other Friday, but we’re going to change things up and start doing them every Saturday. The reasons? First, there’s less going on on the weekends news-wise, so theoretically, more time to discuss a book. But more interestingly, a couple guest bloggers have come forward and asked if they could participate (and if others would like to pitch me ideas, feel free to e-mail patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com), starting with today’s guest host, J.M. Poulard of the TrueHoop Network’s Golden State Warriors blog, Warriors World. You can e-mail J.M. at JM.Poulard(at)Warriorsworld(dot)net. And if you’re on Twitter and not following him @ShyneIV already, you’re missing out. He’s one of the best hoops Tweeters out there. Below is his take on Halberstam’s ‘Playing for Keeps’ from a Pistons perspective. Next Friday, we’ll discuss Terry Pluto’s book ‘Loose Balls.’ — Patrick

The old adage has always been that it takes talent to win in professional basketball. Go back through time and look at any championship team and you will find an amazing amount of talent on that squad. But talent alone does not win in the NBA. Indeed, if such were the case, the 2000 Portland Trail Blazers and 2002 Sacramento Kings would be the proud owners of championship rings.

It takes talent yes, but also equally important is willpower. Often times, a group with a bunch of talented players can want to win, but not do enough to get there.

Going all the way might mean imposing your style of play on your opponent or simply completely taking another team out of what they wish to accomplish.

Hence, when we look at past NBA champions, we see talented teams; but also we see extremely mentally tough teams.

If there is one team that exemplifies these traits best, it has to be the Bad Boys Pistons.

In his book Playing For Keeps, David Halebrstam states: “The singular strength of the Pistons, their mental toughness and their sense of purpose made them the most difficult opponent of all for a team on the ascent. The Pistons had an unerring ability to hone in on the weaknesses, physical or psychological, of their opponents.”

Pistons players were smart, tough and focused on winning. Their identity came directly from Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer.

Chuck Daly demanded that his players practice and play hard in order to earn playing time. Furthermore, he would coach a tough team that had fierce practices. Thus, when they played against other teams, they typically had an easier time against them because few teams could match their physicality as well as their intensity, especially in the frontcourt.

Detroit boasted a frontline of Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Dennis Rodman. For those unfamiliar with these players, one could argue that they are some of the toughest players the league has ever seen. Consequently, they often won games before the tip off, as coaches and players would try to alert officials to expect hard hits prior to the start of games.

The Pistons were the equivalent of the Horsemen in the WCW (wrestling posse that bullied and intimidated other wrestlers in World Championship Wrestling), and Bill Laimbeer was clearly Ric Flair.

Flair spent most of his wrestling career it seems as the World Heavyweight Champion in the WCW; and he retained his title by any means necessary. Using brass knuckles and throwing powder in the face of his opponents were par for the course for him; and consequently the fans despised him.

Laimbeer played the exact same role in the NBA that Flair played in wrestling. Other players regarded him as the league’s premier cheap-shot artist given his willingness to hit players when they were caught in vulnerable positions. The end result was that the Pistons center often got players to lose their cool and play out of focus.

The combination of an imposing physical defense with an extremely tough minded team meant that more often than not the Bad Boys would come out on top.

This explains why former Pistons PR man Matt Dobek once said that the Bad Boys led the league in five-point blowouts: late in games, when officials typically wanted players to decide games, they would allow for much more pushing, grabbing and hitting to occur. Hence, if the Pistons got up by a mere five points late in the game, it was almost impossible for teams to come back.

Between the physical level of play and the taunting of Pistons players, opposing teams almost always unraveled.

The toughest hurdle that Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had to clear was not the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics; it was the Detroit Pistons.

And for all of those who have romanticized the Airness’ career, let’s not forget that the last team to ever beat Michael at full strength in the playoffs was none other than the 1989-1990 Detroit Pistons.

Not only did they defeat Michael’s Bulls, but they nearly broke him.

After Game 7 of 1990 the Eastern Conference Finals, Michael Jordan, much like Isiah Thomas before him (against the Celtics), openly wondered if he would ever be victorious against his nemesis.

What made things particularly hard for Jordan was the way the Pistons attacked him psychologically. The Jordan Rules, the media called it.

Chuck Daly built a defense that challenged the Bulls star both physically and mentally. Every time he would get the ball, the Pistons defense would dare him to take it to the rack and absorb the punishment that came along with it.

For all of his gifts as a basketball player, Michael had an ego that matched his immense basketball skills. Consequently, the Pistons preyed on Jordan’s mind state, knowing he would take the team out of their offense and continually attack a tough defense in an attempt to beat them all by himself.

In doing so, Jordan would get his numbers, but would fail to elevate the level of play of his teammates. So it was no surprise when Chicago players wilted under pressure against Detroit, because that had been the plan all along.

MJ maximized his efforts but ultimately his team came up short in the process. Much like he would eventually do to other teams in the future, the Pistons had cut out his heart and left it exposed to the rest of the basketball world.

At the conclusion of the game, Jack McCloskey (the Pistons’ general manager at the time) spotted Michael Jordan in the parking lot and went over to talk to him. Halberstam shares part of their conversation: “Mr. McCloskey, are we ever going to get past the Pistons? Are we ever going to win?”

The general manager’s answer did not matter as much as the question itself. As Jordan boarded the team bus and wept in the back, it was clear that the man had been defeated and that Detroit was in his head. The three consecutive playoff exits at the hands of the Pistons left him vulnerable in a way we would never see again.

In a roundabout way, Michael Jordan as well as his teammates can thank the Bad Boys for his six championship rings. The physical and psychological abuse that those teams put on MJ’s Bulls eventually hardened them and made them nearly unbeatable.

Although Playing For Keeps is the story of Michael Jordan’s rise to the top, it shows us that the most important battles of Michael’s career happened with Detroit.

The 1989-1990 Detroit Pistons were the last team to defeat Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen after they had enjoyed a full training camp together.

And the Bad Boys accomplished that given their talent, but also because of their ability to stretch out the limits of willpower.