Remembering the Pistons’ improbable 2004 NBA title

The Pistons had fought their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs but everyone thought the Lakers were a bridge too far.

On the afternoon of June 15, 2004, I was getting ready for work, and I heard the neighborhood kids playing basketball. They had been out there 100 times over the years, shooting at a rickety old basket that they could roll into place.

Like kids for decades, they were all picking their favorite players. Over the years, the favorites had moved from Michael Jordan to Grant Hill to Kobe Bryant and Shaq, but on this day there was a definite pattern.

"I’m Chauncey!"

"I’m Rasheed!"

"I’m Rip"

Two kids had a brief discussion about which one got to be Ben Wallace, and finally decided they both could. Ben Wallace! In what world could Ben Wallace’s game — all defense and rebounding — inspire kids on a Pontiac playground?

The answer, of course, was the world where the Pistons were up 3-1 on the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, with Game 5 set for that evening. The entire city was hoping for a championship party that night. 

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The Pistons had fought their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs — remember Tayshaun Prince’s block and Chauncey’s halfcourt buzzer-beater to set up the triple-OT game with New Jersey? — but everyone thought the Lakers were a bridge too far.

They had four Hall-of-Famers in the starting lineup, with Gary Payton and Karl Malone being brought in to help Phil Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant lock up another title. If this had been a Western, Jerry Buss was the evil cattle baron who is trying to take over the town by hiring the hottest guns in the West, while Bill Davidson was the town elder who was trying to fight them off with a rag-tag group of townfolk.

That’s what the Pistons were — a bunch of castoffs. Billups had been a flop as a top pick in Boston and had bounced around the league. Hamilton was run out of Washington, while Portland finally tired of Rasheed’s technicals and endless distractions. Ben Wallace hadn’t been drafted, had flopped in a tryout for the Celtics — they wanted to make him into a guard — and had given to the Pistons as salary-cap ballast in the Grant Hill trade.

Even Larry Brown was a coaching drifter, bouncing around the pro and college ranks without ever putting down roots in any location.

When the Pistons won Game 1 in Los Angeles and dominated much of Game 2, people were a little surprised, but Bryant’s huge 3-pointer at the end of regulation and easy overtime win had everyone thinking that the Lakers were about to roll.

The teams came back to Detroit, and the Pistons blew the Lakers off the floor in Game 3. It was a 20-point victory in which the Lakers scored a franchise-low 68 points, and the wheels were starting to come off the superteam. Game 4 was tied going into the fourth quarter, but Hamilton and Rasheed started hitting everything they looked at, setting up a chance to win it all in Game 5.

Still, as I made the mile-long drive from my apartment to the Palace, I wasn’t sure. The Lakers were loaded with Hall of Famers, and coached by the man who was supposed to be the best of all time. If they could win this game, they would have the momentum going back to Los Angeles.

I had greatly overestimated the Lakers, and massively underestimated the Pistons. Malone sat out Game 5, and the game was a rout. Ben Wallace had 18 points and 22 rebounds, Hamilton had 21, Prince held Bryant to 7-of-21 shooting and Jackson did what he always did best when one of his star-laden teams was in trouble — he sat there and planned the book he was going to write.

It was 82-59 after three quarters, and the Palace was partying. The scoreboard panned to the Shock players — they were in the process of defending their 2003 title — and Cheryl Ford was good-naturedly booed for wearing a Lakers shirt. No one could really blame her — she was cheering for her dad, just like Malone had been there to see her win the championship months earlier.

But there was a sign in the crowd that summed it all up — it had pictures of Malone and Ford with the caption "Dear Dad: It’s OK, you can always try on my ring! Love, Cheryl."

The Pistons finished off the victory with ease, although Darko Miliic managed to break his hand while trying to run out the clock. The celebration was on, with every starter talking about the home they had finally found in Detroit.

There was a parade downtown, and a rally at the Palace. My wife and 9-year-old daughter attended the ceremony at the arena, with my daughter making a sign that said "Congrats Pistons!" surrounded by the numbers of all the players.

"Mom, what number is Darko?"

"He’s 31."

"OK. I’m going to use my gray crayon for him. He’s not very good."

Out of the mouths of babes.

A year later, Rasheed left Robert Horry open in Game 5, and the Pistons never matched the Bad Boys with a second title. Joe Dumars decided to start rebuilding the roster by trading Billups for Allen Iverson, and things have never been the same.

Maybe Stan Van Gundy, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe will be the building blocks for the next great Pistons contenders or maybe the team still has a few lean years ahead.

But ten years ago today, the Pistons were on the top of the basketball world.

And those kids? They were back the next day, and they were the champions.