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.