Thursday, June 17, 2004

Bill Russell Knows Why the Detroit Pistons Won the NBA Championship / The "Good Guys"

One of the all-time great NBA stars, Bill Russell, wrote an article which was printed in the Detroit News on 15 June 2004 (p. 9A). It was written before the series was over, but it explains why the Pistons prevailed over the mighty Lakers. I shall cite his piece at length. It is entitled, "Defense remains art that wins championships":

. . . nothing compares to the subtle beauty of a winner taking away the other team’s game. Defense is an action, not a reaction. Great defense attacks an opponent’s offense versus reacting to it.

When I was playing for them, the Boston Celtics won an unprecedented 11 championships in 13 seasons, from 1956 to 1969, by embracing a team strategy that I call “team ego.” Team ego recognizes the collective alignment of everyone’s individual talents for the benefit of the team.

Team defense wins games. Team defense — that is, the coordinated efforts of five individuals — wins championships. From high school to the NBA, I played 21 years of organized basketball and won 18 championships, including the record 11 NBA titles, by focusing on our being the better defensive team.

How does one team become the better defensive team? The most successful defensive teams understand one critical reality: All players have patterns of play. Wilt Chamberlain was bigger, stronger and faster than almost any center to play the game. When his team was on offense, Wilt, like every other player, had one particular place he liked to start his offensive pattern from. By simply “nudging” Wilt a few inches (any more would have tipped him off to what I was doing) from that starting spot, I quietly took Wilt out of his comfort zone of play.

Great defensive teams study the offensive patterns of every team and every player they play against. Great defensive teams understand the predictability of their opponents’ offensive patterns.

All great offensive players are predictable . . . in team defense, the core operating principle is to reduce efficiency. Our game plan never varied — we could let our opponent’s star offensive player score 35 points, but if we could take away Jerry West, Oscar Robertson or Walt Frazier’s preferred shot and cause him to miss three, four, five or six shots, we believed we could convert those misses into Celtic points.

. . . Defense is about breaking your opponent’s offensive patterns, breaking their concentration and subtly modifying their offensive schemes. Blocking shots, stealing passes and causing turnovers all distract concentration. Team defense is as much a psychological strategy as it is a tactical weapon. In the end, an offense feeds off its defense. And effective offenses begin with effective defenses.

Our Celtic style of play is timeless and will always be relevant. I see a number of players and teams in the NBA who understand the subtle art and science of defense. Ben Wallace of the Pistons comes to mind. Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers clearly earned the Defensive Player of the Year award. And while both Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Bryant are known for their scoring ability, they also are among the best players in shutting down their opponent.

It is no mystery why the Lakers, Timberwolves, Pistons and Pacers were all within sight of the Finals. Four of the five players named to the All-NBA Defensive First Team made it to the Conference Finals — Wallace, Bryant, Artest and Garnett.

. . . I don’t know who will win tonight in Game 5 or if it will be the Lakers or Pistons who emerge as the 2004 champions. But I do know how the eventual champion will arrive at the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Since the Celtics transformed basketball, defense wins championships.


This is why the Pistons won, in terms of sports analysis. But having immensely enjoyed the entire playoffs and now the celebrations and seeing the NBA trophy back in the Motor City (which gets more than its share of bum raps and slanders in the national media, but is certainly no worse than any major American city (they all have their problems) and much better in many respects), I would like to take a moment to reflect upon how exceedingly impressive this group of athletes are -- not as basketball players (that's obvious to all now) but as people. Over and over again, the night they won we heard them humbly thanking God and their teammates and having exactly the right attitude that ought to be the result of sports success. The last Pistons champions were nicknamed "the Bad Boys." I think this team should be known as "the good guys."

Their remarkable attitudes and posture of humility and thankfulness were even more striking in the parade and rally at the Palace today (I saw both on TV). Again and again they thanked God. And I believe that they sincerely meant it. I can tell when people are faking that. The players spoke of how wonderful it was to be on this team because the guys really loved each other and played together, unselfishly. They even extended the spirit of "family" to the complete Pistons organization, and to all the fans.

They were obviously deeply touched by the affection of the fans (far beyond the usual expected cliches of appreciation), and the feeling was mutual. At the parade, many of the players were throwing out t-shirts to the fans, and signing autographs for hundreds of admirers. All the announcers on TV who were at the events -- to a person -- talked about how moving and emotional they were. It was truly a beautiful thing.

This was much more than about sports. It was about the team concept, sharing, not seeking individual glory, but corporate accomplishment, about decency in the attempt to attain excellence in whatever field, about knowing where you came from, and how you got where you are. It was about appreciation all around. The Pistons reflect, I believe, the strong (no doubt Christian) character of Joe Dumars (the man who defended Michael Jordan as well as anyone), who built this team from scratch, after Grant Hill left, just four years ago, and it looked like it would be a very long haul to become a contender again. This group of extraordinary athletes (again, not only as basketball players but as human beings) was built up with people who had moved all around; some with 5, 6, 7 teams.

Chauncey Billups was on four teams in as many years. Joe Dumars and the Pistons organization believed in him, and the result was the MVP award for the Finals. Ben Wallace was on several teams, but only came into his own here. He is one of most popular athletes of all time in any sport in Detroit, and that's saying something. Rasheed Wallace had been with one team, but got a bum rap on many levels. He was warmly welcomed in Detroit. It's the same story with many of the guys on this team. They played together; they played unselfishly. As coach Larry Brown always says, they "play the way the game is supposed to be played": passing the ball, getting the best shot, relentless defense, aggressive and unselfish play, not going for individual glory, and enjoying it and having fun in the process. Getting to number one is even more rewarding and fulfilling if you have done it the right way. Their accomplishment is something everyone can be proud of (most of all, themselves).

The Pistons organization is simply a class act all around. The franchise was voted the fourth best sports organization in all of sports by some important magazine recently. This shows that they are doing something right; it's not merely hometown blinders and empty talk. They have provided a wonderful role model for those in all sports this year. Sports competition is often a metaphor for life itself, and its struggles and disappointments, hopes and perseverance. At its best (done the right way in the right spirit), I believe it greatly reflects the Christian life. Many of the higher virtues are cultivated by being a good athlete and a team member. I've rarely seen it exemplified in a group of teammates more so than with the 2004 World Champion Detroit Pistons.

Nice guys don't finish last after all. What a delightful occurrence! Let them fully enjoy their attainment. They richly earned it, and thoroughly deserve it. And let us reflect upon the fine example of human behavior set, whether we're from Detroit (as I am), or anywhere else.

Here's to "the Good Guys": the World Champion Detroit Pistons of 2003-2004.

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