Thursday, June 9, 2005
Updated: June 21, 10:56 PM ET
NBA Finals reflection
By Scoop Jackson
Ever look in the mirror and see something that looks nothing like you? The identical simulacrum is not a clone, a replica or even an alter ego. Nothing about the image represents anything that you resemble. Yet without question, the reflection that is staring back at you, eyeing your eyes, is you.
Here's the script: They are one. The Pistons, the Spurs. The Champs vs. the ex-Champs. One in the same. Like Mary Kate and Ashley, and not even their physician could tell them apart. Both teams on a two-year course to find each other, to meet at this point.
Now, on the eve of what has been 730 days in the making, the two best teams in basketball are about to decide: Which one of them is being lied to by the mirror on the wall?
The history here is eerie, once studied. It makes the series we are about to witness bigger than just two more weeks of basketball.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was Pistons coach Larry Brown's best man at his wedding. Once, as a favor to his friend, Brown scheduled his Kansas team to play Popovich's D-III Pomona-Pitzer squad, and agreed to speak to Pop's team before the game only to wish them luck and tell them they were about to "get their [butts] kicked." And Dean Smith had them both at UNC (at different times).
Still, Pop, who's been Larry's greatest understudy, got his second ring before Brown got his first.
Rasheed Wallace and Tim Duncan began their battles years ago in the ACC 'Sheed a Heel, Duncan a Deacon (seems fitting, right?). In '97, it was called the Calm vs. the Storm. In 2005, the same dub. Like their teams, they are opposites, but so much the same, too. Both dominate. In different ways, but still the same.
They've been the bookend definitions of the range of greatness at the four spot. Tim at one end, 'Sheed at the other. Both have held the pound-for-pound title; both hold it now. In between, there has been Garnett, Webber, Nowitzki, J. O'Neal.
Now they face each other for something larger than an ACC tournament title.
In 2003, two players from different sides of the world would join each team and change them beyond their GM's beliefs. One came from Kentucky, the other from Argentina. A performance in the 2002 World Championships made one team believe (even though that team had acquired his draft rights three years prior); a 41-point performance in the NCAA tournament that same year made the other team believe.
They'd come to each team as role players off the bench, making their impacts in different, often unusual, and spectacular ways. Each year, their scoring averages have gone up. So have other stats rebounding, assists, steals, playing time as well as their importance. Each playoff game, their reps got larger. They played together on last year's sophomore squad during the All-Star weekend festivities.
Now, it is specifically because of Manu and Tayshaun that the Spurs and the Pistons are here.
Then there's Big Shot Bob against Mr. Big Shot.
Speaking of Robert Horry, he and Lindsey Hunter are the most important bench players in this series. They both bear the responsibility to lift their teams with the intangibles that no one in the starting five can provide. Their link? They won rings together. Laker days. Now they meet each other here.
Still think this wasn't meant to be?
Both teams play inside a system. Pop has one; L.B. has another. Each system has the same origin, the same lineage. If you listen to any player on either team, the first word out of his mouth is "defense."
Transition defense vs. half-court defense. Both got that. Yet both teams can put 115 on the books if necessary. (Game 2 against each other this season: 110-101 Detroit.)
Ball movement. Both do that. Each team has five players who can score in double figures in every game. Yet both can grind out wins scoring 80, too, if necessary. (Game 1: 80-77 San Antonio.)p>
Both teams are injury-free and have no excuses. Both, too, are unfortunately tagged with the most irritating cliché in professional sports: They play the game the right way .
And as different as their styles might look on the court, the Pistons and the Spurs play the same way, rely on the same philosophy and garner the same results.
What they each have that isn't fraternal
Fans in SBC, polite and loyal. Fans in the Palace, wild and loyal.
Both teams are tougher than they were a year ago. One team overachieved (beating Phoenix in five), while the other played better when its back was against the wall (beating Miami without home-court advantage in seven). One was built with trades and free agency, the other with original draft choices. One has a roster full of players whose previous teams didn't believe in them, while the other has a roster full of players who have been the belief of only one organization.
The Pistons have flipped uniforms four times in the last 10 years; the Spurs wear the same unis Gervin wore in the ABA.
The differences are drastic. Yet in the mirror, the Pistons and the Spurs only see one another.
Are you the best? Or am I?
That's the question they ask each other when they look in the mirror and see the other. Who is the best basketball team in existence?
Them? Or them?
It began with the Olympics. The destiny of these two teams' making it to this point, to meet each other, to look and see each other in the mirror, was shaped the minute the United States became the victim of God's plan to humble American basketball.
Roy Willams, an assistant in Athens, won the NCAA championship. Twisted karma. Now, L.B. and Pop, head coach and assistant, respectively, at the Olympics last summer, get the chance to find that same peace.
God knows that not being the best in the world is a heavy burden to carry here, especially when the coaches of the last two teams to win the world championships are considered partially responsible for the status of American basketball until 2008.
But this is about the best in the world. And who that is.
The San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons were meant to be here for reasons that are bigger than the fact that they are the two best teams in the NBA.
Their meeting is a part of the restoration needed for a coaching staff (and a country) to have a better summer in 2005 than they (and we) did last year.
Whoever wins this series will restore, somewhat, the sense of superiority of American basketball, without having to face the world to do it. Because once this is all over, two of the three coaches who got outcoached in Athens, whose team got outplayed in Greece 10 months ago, will have won the two biggest prizes in American basketball.
The one who wins the trophy lays claim to the title, "World Champions."
Only Ginobili might have a problem with that.
Lost in all of this is what they've been through. It's what all NBA teams with a Larry O'Brien trophy must endure.
It's called "the Process."
The Spurs and the Pistons are both products of the Process.
Miami and Phoenix can't say that. Maybe next year, they can.
To get an NBA title, a team must go through the process of losing and building in the playoffs. One free agent signing, one trade, and all of a sudden you challenge for the ring?
This isn't baseball. Or the NFL.
The Pistons and the Spurs are proof that winning an NBA title is the most difficult thing to do in professional team sports. There are no fluke champions in David Stern's league. There are no worst-to-first seasons. There are no Minnesota Twins or Florida Marlins. No Baltimore Ravens or Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And for this reason alone, you must watch, regardless of what talk radio and other media people say about these teams' "unsexiness" and this series' "boredom." You must watch. And appreciate.
To get an NBA chip, every team must go through the journey, the process. Every team, like the Pistons and the Spurs, must lose in the previous years. Lose and learn. Then come back, add a player or two, sign a coach. They must feel the pain of losing a season earlier than expected before they can come back the next year on a mission not even the Red Sox could comprehend.
This is what sports, not just basketball, is all about.
And this is why the next two weeks are so significant. Because in the last two years, these two teams have gone through the wire to prove to the world that they are the best. In 2003, San An proved it; the next year, Detroit showed and proved it.
Now they face each other to find out if what they see in the mirror is their own destiny looking back at them, or just the other team.
Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines and the author of "Sole Provider: 30 Years of NIKE Basketball," "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.