Pistons’ last title was crowning achievement for those who saw it up close

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

It's 8 a.m. on Tuesday, June 15, 2004.

Longtime Detroit Pistons trainer Mike Abdenour pulls onto 3 Championship Drive in Auburn Hills and heads to the team’s practice facility. He didn’t sleep well the night before — too much “anxiety.” That feeling quickly goes away after he steps into the building.

Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown and his players celebrate their win in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

In its place, a new emotion: confidence. “Pick a number between 1 and 25 and that’s how much we’re going to win by tonight,” he recalls thinking.

The Pistons’ margin of victory in a 100-87, title-clinching win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, 15 years ago Saturday, would wind up in the dead center of Abdenour’s prediction. He hopes, in hindsight, it doesn’t sound “too gluttonous.”

But to be fair, everyone else in the facility felt it that morning, too.

“There’s a palpable buzz knowing that everybody’s on an amped-up level that you rarely see,” Abdenour said. “You know that you’re about to go and do something that is rare air.”

And why shouldn’t they have felt that way? The Pistons were one win from the dismantling of a Lakers team, with four future Hall of Famers, looking to crown themselves as NBA champions for the fourth time in five years.

These were still the Lakers, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in their prime. And while a 3-1 lead might have seemed insurmountable given the way Detroit had stymied its opponent to that point, the Lakers could reclaim home-court advantage with a win in Game 5.

Through the eyes of those involved in the “Going to Work” Pistons’ Game 5 win, The Detroit News looks back on the excitement that preceded the clock reaching zero.

Pregame buildup

In the Metro Detroit area, volatile nerves irritated peace of mind for pretty much everybody who wouldn’t actually put on the Pistons uniform that night.

Pistons head coach Larry Brown: “I’m not really good at games. I always am a little nervous about maybe we didn’t prepare our team for something that might come up in a game, so I generally dread games until they start. Once they start, you become competitive and you really understand what’s happening, but prior to a game, the anxiety has always been difficult for me.”

Play-by-play broadcaster George Blaha: “My ears were still ringing from Game 4, but again, I felt like, ‘Hey man, you better step up to the plate, because this is going to be a championship night.’ Everybody feels a little pressure. You want to make sure that you don’t swing and miss.”

Abdenour: “The anticipation, knowing that deep in the recess of our heart, soul, mind, that we were finishing the Lakers off, knowing that driving into work was surreal. That’s the anxiety and stress level and anticipation level of what’s going on.”

Still, confidence was in heavy supply.

Chauncey Billups and teammates celebrate their 100-87 win over the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA championship.

Blaha: “I was expecting a Pistons championship. I was expecting them to win it in Game 5, as surprising as it would seem before the series began.”

Abdenour: “As the afternoon rolled into the evening, there was still no doubt in my mind. … They knew they were ready to play. At 10 o’clock in the morning, we were ready to play. At 6 a.m., we were ready to play.”

Brown: “I remember my family and I, we were in downtown Birmingham, and when you’ve got three home games, I’m walking around with my family during that time. You see all these cars with Pistons fans, Pistons flags, people stopping my family on the street, wishing us luck. It just seemed to kind of build up.”

Abdenour: “Folks were literally tailgating in June in The Palace parking lot. Whether it was barbeques, Nerf balls, throwing footballs around, you name it. There was a buzz in The Palace parking lot way before. You want to talk about Jurassic Park right now? Jurassic Park pales in comparison to what was going on in our parking lot in 2004.”

Blaha: “My favorite sign ever, and I’m sure it was there before Game 5 when the Lakers bus rolled in, was a big sign with a caricature of Ben (Wallace) on one side and Rasheed (Wallace) on the other. All it said was, ‘Welcome to WallaceVille.’ That’ll make your blood curl a little bit if you’re walking into that type of atmosphere and playing against those kind of guys. I don’t care who you are.”

Less than two miles south of The Palace, anticipation of a third NBA title spurred a communal gathering at Hoops Sports & Spirits, a staple of pre- and postgame Pistons hubbub since its opening in 1990 until the team’s return to Detroit in 2017.

Hoops owner Mike Allen: “People were just fired up, they were ecstatic. The energy level was way up there. It was a lot of fun. High intensity, good times."

Hoops bartender Katheryn Mitchell: “We had people wrapped around our building trying to come in to watch the game. Our establishment only holds like 200 people, but we had speakers and stuff outside, so everybody can gather around and listen to the game and watch the game. When they won, we were part of that, too. The energy was just fantastic. It was just like a sparkle of fireworks that came up in our community.”

The Palace factor

Regardless of the outcome, Game 5 would be Detroit’s last at The Palace that season.

A defeat would not only mean extending the series, it would also mean losing home-court advantage. However, nobody on the Pistons roster concerned themselves with that prospect — even after leaving the Staples Center after Bryant drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer in regulation en route to a 99-91 overtime victory for the Lakers in Game 2.

Brown: “At the time, the format was 2-3-2, which is not an easy format. There was a timeout late (in Game 2). I told them I thought we should have fouled Shaq, because we knew Kobe was going to shoot a 3. And we didn’t do it, and I apologized to the team. But they told me we weren’t coming back to L.A.”

A Pistons fan wearing a Ben Wallace-like afro wig watches Game 5 between the Pistons and Lakers at The Palace.

Blaha: “Rip Hamilton told me that despite the loss in Game 2, he said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to go back to Los Angeles. In front of our home crowd? Are you kidding me? We’re not going to lose any games. Not with those people behind us in Detroit. We won’t lose.’”

Tayshaun Prince, Pistons forward: “The energy of the crowd first and foremost was high-powered throughout each game of the playoffs. You can imagine it throughout the Indiana Pacers series, when we returned for Game 3 after winning Game 2 in Indy, with that last play with Reggie Miller. You can imagine how the atmosphere was in that game.”

Brown: “The energy in The Palace, from the day I walked into that place until the day I left, was incredible. I mean, I think when you look at basketball fans, and the city of Detroit is a basketball town, even though they love the Lions, and they love the Wings and they love the Tigers. But when you look at high school, college basketball, there’s a basketball culture in that city that’s pretty remarkable.”

Blaha: “One of the things that drove them was that great home crowd at The Palace. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a building that loud. And the place was built massively so that the ceiling absorbed sound for concerts. Having said all that, that was the loudest building I’ve ever been in.”

Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski: “I remember during that season, and Larry Brown talked about it quite a bit, the bench and the atmosphere in the stands was like a college basketball atmosphere all year long.”

Abdenour: “That was a wild animal as far as emotion of people in the building. They knew what was at stake, they knew who we were playing, they knew it was going to be a great night.”

‘Play the right way’

The Lakers sped up their pace on offense in Game 5 and jumped out to a 14-7 lead — and then the Pistons simply stopped missing shots. They finished the first half shooting 60 percent from the field and took a 10-point lead into the locker room.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries to score during the first quarter of Game 5.

Wojnowski: “You sort of thought the series was over at 3-1. You didn’t know: Did the Lakers have a little something? And I just remember how quickly the Pistons snapped their will.”

In what Abdenour calls his favorite “in the huddle moment” of his career, Brown delivered a halftime speech that set the Pistons up for an explosive second half.

Abdenour: “I don’t remember too much of the actual verbiage of the speech. I just remember the emotion involved with it.”

Brown: “I really don’t know what I said, but I generally say what I feel in my heart.”

Abdenour: “It was like, ‘You don’t get many opportunities to do this. You’ve got 24 more minutes to set your place at that championship table, and just go ahead and play the way you’ve been doing it.’”

Brown: “If I told them I thought we were 24 minutes away from winning a championship, I probably believed it.”   

Abdenour: “He ended it by saying, ‘Play the right way.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”

Detroit dug in its heels and threw one knockout punch after another, jumping out to an 82-59 lead by third quarter’s end, the numerical value of each Pistons basket seemingly receiving a multiplier via waves of pandemonium from The Palace crowd. 

Blaha: “Sometime early in the second half it became obvious the Pistons were going to dominate the Lakers in this Game 5, and the crowd never got bored with it. The crowd, frankly, in my opinion, got louder the more they dominated, even though the game was not in doubt. They knew that it was going to be a celebration.”

Wojnowski: “They basically had it clinched the whole fourth quarter. They were up by 20-whatever and won by 13. The thundersticks were introduced and the noise was I think possibly as loud, in an arena, as I’ve ever been in. I mean, paralleled only by what? When the Red Wings won their Cup in ’97?”

Abdenour: “It was a collective, continuous — almost like a junkie, addiction-type of satisfaction that you got just watching the whole thing play out.”

The Detroit Pistons Ben Wallace  celebrates after scoring in the second half against the Los Angeles Lakers in  Game 5.

Leading the emotional charge was, of course, Ben Wallace. He finished with 18 points and 22 rebounds, put-back dunks and ferocious blocks serving as the dessert course of a ruthless feasting on the Lakers.

Prince: “Other people wouldn’t say that a guy like Ben Wallace wasn’t a superstar type of talent, but he was. He did it in so many different ways, and we followed his lead.”

Brown: “I think anytime they introduced Ben, it was a show of appreciation, because of who he was, the character of Ben, and how hard he played. … Ben, that was the best defensive player in the league, and he’d probably tell you that Rasheed was the best defensive player on our team.”

Blaha: “I remember him getting better and better as the series went along. I think when you stand in there against the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, you show great courage — and believe me, Ben Wallace has great courage and confidence. I’m so glad that Joe Dumars brought him to Detroit and he had the opportunity to blossom here under Rick Carlisle and under Larry Brown, to show what kind of tremendous player he was, and how you can impact a game like a superstar even when you’re not a scorer.”

Ethan Daniel Davidson, son of late Pistons owner Bill Davidson: “That guy was so incredibly strong, like no player I’ve ever seen. And definitely the greatest center, for his size, in the history of the game. That’s a thing you’ll never see again.”

Moment of glory

If there was ever a statistic that exhibited the principle difference between Detroit and Los Angeles it came in Game 5: The Lakers had the top individual scorer in every quarter and the game (Bryant, with 24), but were still outscored as a team in every frame except the fourth, which they entered trailing by 23.

Meanwhile, every Pistons starter finished in double figures. Hamilton had a team-high 21, Prince 17 and 10 rebounds, Chauncey Billups, later named Finals MVP, had 14 and six assists, and Rasheed Wallace added 11.

Prince: “It truly didn’t matter who got the credit. We went out and played the game the right way. Each and every guy did whatever it took to win. We had All-Stars, we had big-time players on our team.”

Ben Wallace raises the NBA championship trophy during the team's  parade in Detroit on June 17, 2004.

Brown: “From day one, the second I met Ben, the second I met Rip, the second I met Tayshaun, all those guys, they didn’t have a selfish bone in their body. Our whole thing was to try to guard like crazy, try to rebound the ball, and try to create great shots. You only do it if you have an unselfish group of guys who are willing to do that.”

Abdenour: “You had Chauncey just doing what he did best: lead. You had Rip doing what he did best: score and defend. You had Tayshaun doing what he did best: defend and rebound. You had Ben cleaning up everything. And then the man who was the straw that stirred the drink, Rasheed, he was like, ‘You need me to do it? I’ll take care of it’ type of thing.”

Blaha: “Those guys were attached. And it wasn’t just the starters, it was the entire rotation and really the entire team. The starting group was all attached. What that happens, it’s hard to beat a team like that.”

Detroit continued to keep the Lakers at arm’s length as time wound down in the fourth.

Brown: “With about five or six minutes left we were way up. I remember telling (assistant coach) Mike Woodson — and everybody on our bench was kind of celebrating. I remember telling Mike, ‘You think we got a chance to win this thing?’ Mike laughed, and said, ‘Coach, they haven’t scored 20 points in a quarter in seven quarters, so I think we’re in good shape.’ I told him, ‘Be quiet. We haven’t won yet.’”

Fianlly, with a 21-point lead with 2:56 remaining, Brown gave his starters their moment in the sun, pulling them off the floor to standing ovations.

Prince: “Walking off that court and listening to the crowd after Game 5, me and the starters, was one of those situations where everything that we’d set in stone during training camp and throughout the year, the hard work had paid off, when we got subbed out of that game.”

Brown: “As a coach, that was always something I tried to do, was have each guy get recognized when you take him out. I think you always hope as a coach to allow a player that’s meant so much to your team, and is such an amazing teammate, to give the fans an opportunity to show appreciation.”

Blaha: “Larry Brown drives players. If you don’t want to be coached, you don’t want to play for Larry Brown. All those guys, I’m sure, felt like, ‘Wow, when’s he ever going to lighten up on me?’ But when push came to shove, and the championship was won, he made sure that those guys who put in all that work and had allowed themselves to be coached, each one was able to take a standing ovation.”

Brown: “When you end up winning, you look down on the other bench and realize what an incredible season the Lakers had. So, you’re thrilled for your team, but deep down, you have an appreciation for the team you were lucky enough to compete against.”

‘A win for our city’

Fifteen years later, the 2004 Pistons team remains one of Detroit’s most beloved championship teams.

Prince: “Back in 2004 — and I tell people this all the time — the style of play that we played throughout our run from 2003 to 2008, making six straight conference finals, is … I really think is one of the reasons they changed the game. … You can still play with toughness, you can still compete at a high level, you just have to adjust to the rules. But I can guarantee you that nobody would be holding people under 70 points in this current system.”

Brown: “We just had a tremendously deep team with really, really good, unselfish guys. And to be honest with you, if we could have kept Corliss (Williamson), if we could have kept Mike James, Mehmet Okur, we might have won five or six championships, in my heart. … People might think I’m crazy, but I’m confident that if that group stayed together, they’d be talking about something that was truly, truly special forever.”

Members of the Pistons' 2004 championship team in 2016, from left, Coach Larry Brown, Tayshaun Prince, Richard Hamilton, Mehmet Okur, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Lindsey Hunter.

Blaha: “We didn’t think anybody else was going to come along to be as loved as the “Bad Boys.” If these guys weren’t, they were very, very close. And for their time as champs, early in this century, I don’t think any team captured the imagination and the spirit of Detroit the way the ‘Going to Work’ group did.”

Wojnowski: “It’s thoroughly and justly romanticized, because I won’t say it came out of nowhere, but it sort of did … the fact that it was so unexpected. I mean, you can’t win without a superstar, and allegedly they didn’t have a superstar. … I remember at the end of it saying, ‘We’ll never see anything like that again.’”

Davidson: “(My father) was the kind of owner that, he always there with, whatever team it was, he was there with them. That was important to him. … He never had a cell phone, so I had to call him at home the next day. He was like, ‘Oh, yeah. We did it.’ He was the Pistons’ biggest fan, for sure.”

Mitchell: “We needed that in our community at that time.”

Blaha: “Everyone in Detroit, whether you’re a fan, whether you work for the team, whether you just like basketball, it had to feel like this was a win for our city and our state. It should never be forgotten.”

Brown: “Chuck (Daly) always told me, ‘Larry, you’ll never appreciate winning the championship right after it happens. But someday you’ll start to remember how the situation was and how lucky you were to be a part of it.’ He was right. That’s happened a lot.”