Cities share series of hoop moments
DETROIT - Feeling smug about your Boston sports teams? Come to Michigan, where this weekend the locals are playing host to the NBA Eastern Conference finals and the Stanley Cup finals. The Tigers are off to a rough start, but still hoping to return to the World Series for the second time in three years. Michigan even has a couple of pretty good college programs - as long as you don't mention Appalachian State.
The Celtics play the Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills tonight in Game 3. It's shaping up as a pretty good series and it's not the first time the cities' basketball teams provided some moments for the ages. Remember Larry Bird stealing that pass from Isiah Thomas? How 'bout Robert Parish flooring Bill Laimbeer with a flurry of punches? And then there was the day that Isiah and Dennis Rodman said Bird got tons of atten tion only because he was white.
Boston and Detroit are eternally linked in this North American sports universe. Both own Original Six status in the National Hockey League. Both were charter members of baseball's upstart American League in 1901. Both played most of the 20th century in lush green ballyards that opened on the same day in 1912. Both play in states once governed by a guy named Romney.
Ted Williams loved Detroit. Tiger Stadium (then Briggs Stadium) was a lefthanded hitter's dream ballpark and Teddy Ballgame enjoyed his favorite career moment when he hit a game-winning homer in the 1941 All-Star Game in Detroit. Ted's "red seat" homer at Fenway? Against the Detroit Tigers.
The Red Sox and Tigers engaged in a couple of pennant races during the Age of Yaz. In 1967, the Sox and Tigers were two of the four participants in the greatest pennant race of all time - a year when four teams were separated by a percentage point late in the season. The "Impossible Dream" Red Sox won the pennant on the final day of the season, but had to wait for the second game of a Tigers doubleheader before pouring champagne. The Sox' first flag since 1946 wasn't official until Boston players - huddling around a clubhouse radio - heard Ernie Harwell's call of Dick McAuliffe grounding into a double play to end Detroit's season.
Five years later, the Sox went to Detroit needing two wins in the final three games to return to the postseason. Alas, Luis Aparicio fell down rounding third base, Boston lost the first two games of the series, and Billy Martin's Tigers went to the playoffs.
The Bruins and Red Wings have engaged in seven playoff series since 1927, with the Bruins winning four.
There's virtually no football rivalry between Boston and Detroit. Michigan gave Boston Tom Brady. Bill Belichick's dad played for the Lions, but can anyone remember anything that ever happened in a game between the Patriots and Lions? Didn't think so. For the record, the Patriots are 5-4 in games played against the NFL's perennial doormats.
Celtics-Pistons is completely different. Celtics-Pistons has delivered the goods.
For the record, it must be noted that Bill Russell's graying champions beat the Dave Bing-Dave DeBusschere Pistons in six games en route to banner No. 10 in 1968, but not even de facto commissioner Bob Ryan can remember anything about that series. The Boston-Detroit basketball rivalry didn't get going until 1984-85, when the then-young Pistons started to flex their muscles with the wildly talented Thomas and the annoying, flopping Laimbeer.
Here's how much Bird hated Laimbeer: Each year, at midseason, when the All-Star reserves were announced, Bird's first question was, "Did Laimbeer make it?" The reason for the question? "I hate being on his team," said Larry. "We have a practice day and we get on the bus and he says, 'Good morning, Larry,' and I have to say, '[expletive] you, Bill.' "
It wasn't just the players on the court. K.C. Jones had no use for Pistons coach Chuck Daly and offered to duke it out with Dapper Chuck during one playoff duel in '85. Appropriately, it happened when the Pistons were hosting games downtown at the Joe Louis Arena.
But most of the iconic moments of this rivalry took place at the Pontiac Silverdome and the Old Garden.
The Celtics-Pistons 1987 seven-game conference finals stand as the one against which all others are measured. The Celtics had won three championships in six seasons, but they were getting old and the Pistons were ready to take over the Eastern Conference. The Bad Boys would vault past the Celtics in 1988, then win back-to-back championships in 1989 and '90, but in 1987 the Celtics weren't ready to yield.
With Kevin McHale playing on a broken foot, the Celtics won the first two at home, then got blown out in Games 3 and 4 at the Silverdome (Bird always called the Silverdome a "gym" even though it was capable of seating 61,983 for a basketball game). Bird and Laimbeer were ejected for fighting in Game 3, and it was in Game 5 at the Garden that Parish unleashed his fusillade of fists.
But Game 5 is best known for The Steal.
"People talk about Havlicek stealing the ball," recalls Danny Ainge. "Larry's steal against Detroit was bigger. It won the series."
You've seen the footage. Lazy lob by Thomas . . . Bird intercepts . . . DJ cuts to the hoop . . . A loss turns into a win . . . Johnny Most goes into his dog-whistle voice.
Parish was suspended for Game 6 and the Celtics lost, but it didn't matter. Game 7 was at the Garden and there was no way the Celtics could lose. Boston got one of those "only the Celtics" breaks when Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson cracked heads and Dantley wound up in the hospital.
If was after that game that a bitter Isiah said of Bird, "If he was black, he'd be just another guy."
Who would have guessed that 21 years later, Isiah's dumb remark wouldn't even register on top-10 lists of his worst moments?
After the infamous spring of 1987, the Pistons sent the Celtics home in '88, '89, and '91. Pierce and Antoine Walker helped beat the Pistons in five in 2002, but no one remembers that one, either.
This is different. The Boston-Detroit rivalry is back. Years from now, you won't have to look it up to remember Celtics-Pistons in 2008.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.