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Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Updated: June 21, 10:51 PM ET
Ralph, you'd have enjoyed this

By Alan Grant
Special to Page 2

EDITOR'S NOTE: A year ago during the NBA Finals, Page 2 lost one of its own, Ralph Wiley. As you can see, he's still deeply missed.

Dub,

As Game 4 approaches, I find myself thinking about you. It was about this time last year that you left us. But it's more than Game 4 of the series. This series and these two teams really bring you to mind.

Manu Ginobili
If only Ralph could have watched Mr. Ginobili's coming-out party.

San Antonio is a team that, in terms of discipline, fundamental skill and innate desire, might be unmatched. The Spurs are intensely focused, yet cleverly understated at times. I think it's a team you would appreciate.

And Detroit is energetic, fiery, and plays with a sense of pride befitting the city it represents. The Pistons have guys who knock you down and tick you off. I think you would appreciate them, too.

I want to tell you more about the series, but there are so many things happening, I don't think I can concentrate on just the basketball court. But I'll try.

The Spurs didn't just win the first two games of the series – they toyed with the Pistons. I was thinking the joke was on us – and by "us" I mean American basketball fans. A foreign exchange team had set up shop in George Bush's Texas and was putting a very fine point on the fact that the highest level of basketball in America is indeed on loan.

Classic Wiley
A new book, "Classic Wiley: A Lifetime of Punches, Players, Punks & Prophets," will be available in book stores early next week. The book features a collection of Ralph Wiley's Sports Illustrated features, ESPN.com columns and excerpts from his books and screenplays. You can order the book now from Amazon.com.

The Spurs' heart and soul is Manu Ginobili, that swashbuckling Argentinean who goes to the rim like a kickoff returner hitting a crease in the wedge. In fact, Ginobili and his South American mates won the gold medal in last summer's Olympics. America's team came in third, but I don't think anyone really liked them, anyway.

By the way, last year – and I know you saw it coming – the Pistons beat the Lakers in five. Afterward, Phil Jackson quit. And Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat – Pat Riley had only to part with Caron Butler, Lamar Odom and Brian Grant.

As for the Lakers, everyone blamed Shaq's departure on Kobe. But last I heard, Jerry Buss was writing the checks. And just this week it was announced he'd be writing them for Phil again. But things are different now. Rumor has it that Kobe has been watching tapes of "The White Shadow." The first time around, Kobe hadn't familiarized himself with the '70s television show. He wasn't aware that guys like Ken Reeves – well-intentioned former players from the hippie era – are sent here to rescue the wayward black youth. But now that Kobe has been schooled on the adventures of Coolidge, Thorpe, Gomez and Salami, things should run smoothly in L.A. I'll keep you posted on that one.

But back to the Spurs. Ginobili's backcourt mate, Tony Parker, is an interesting cat. Sometimes I think the court is too small for that guy. In Game 2, just when Detroit closed to within a few points, Parker went the distance, sliced in between two defenders, and scooped it in. And whenever Parker does such things, he does them with a little smirk on his face.

I think that's because he's having the last laugh. I suspect Parker has taken all the tough guy humor about weak little Frenchmen and turned it upside-down to make a statement. Parker's girlfriend is this woman named Eva Longoria, who just happens to be one of the stars of this show called "Desperate Housewives." It's the most popular show on the air, where we watch an array of young studs ... mmm, interact with the pleasantly slutty wives of rich, unattentive jerks. Any way you slice it, it's adultery, but it's still better than reality TV.

Game 3 changed everything. Rip Hamilton figured out Bruce Bowen actually can't guard him, Ginobili got hurt, and Detroit played like it did last year. This weekend, the Pistons had no offense. But in Game 3, their half-court offense had a sense of urgency. On several occasions, they had putbacks after missed shots. Before that, Detroit's most demonstrative display of offensive rebounding came courtesy of a Rasheed Wallace putback in Game 2. When he followed a Tayshaun Prince miss with a thunderous dunk, it just proved it even more – 'Sheed may be too selfless on offense.

Ben Wallace and Tim Duncan
Ben Wallace is the heart and soul of the Pistons.
But Game 3 was about Ben Wallace. From a purely intimidating standpoint, Wallace reminds me of Michael Graham. Remember the bouncer on John Thompson's lone championship team at Georgetown? That was a few years before Detroit's original version of the Bad Boys. It was a time when venturing into the paint meant leaving with a butt-kicking. Ben Wallace reminds me of Graham, only with quicker feet, softer hands and a more complete game.

Oh, and one more thing about reality television.

Mike Tyson got beat up again – this time by some stiff named Kevin McBride. But after the fight, Tyson had a moment of clarity. It was like he suddenly realized that for the past 15 years, his life has been the boxing equivalent of "The Truman Show." And after a particularly troubling scene, he also realized that he no longer had the desire to perform for an audience – pay-per-view or otherwise.

Speaking of pay-per-view – I just saw a movie that I would have loved to discuss with you. It's called "Crash." It's about race relations in Los Angeles, and was directed by this guy named Paul Haggis. It's about how all these different people – black, white, Persian and Mexican – are thrown together in Southern California and forced to grapple with one another's humanity – and their own, I guess. Haggis covers a lot of ground in such a short time, and no one character is fully developed. But Haggis' effort is what I think you might call "sterling."

Anyway, Terrence Dashon Howard plays a black TV producer named Cameron. The movie's seminal scene (and I suppose that depends on whose tortured perspective resonates most with you) is when Cameron is carjacked by a young black man named Anthony, played by the rapper Ludacris. During the 'jacking a scuffle ensues. Cameron takes Anthony's gun, and both men end up being pursued by the police. With the help of one enlightened white cop, Cameron manages to hold the police at bay. Afterward, Cameron returns the gun to Anthony, along with a steely admonition: "You embarrass me. You embarrass yourself."

The most powerful aspect of the exchange was that Cameron didn't keep Anthony's gun. It is, after all, Anthony's gun, and he's free to shoot whomever he wants with it. But Cameron lets him make his own decision. He gives Anthony his dignity while somehow maintaining his own. And he pulls this off under the glare of a bunch of trigger-happy deputies who might or might not be "just doing their jobs." Either way, they're looking for any reason to shoot. But as I watched that scene – the old lion privately shepherding the young lion – I couldn't help but think of you.

OK, that's it for now. I'm off to watch Game 4.

Alan

Alan Grant is a former NFL defensive back and the author of "Return to Glory: Inside Tyrone Willingham's Amazing First Season at Notre Dame."