The Innocent Climb
Pistons lose to Heat on a night dedicated to hailing Bad Boys glory
Ron Rothstein was the man at Chuck Daly’s side for the two seasons that ended more agonizingly than any since Fred Zollner moved the Pistons north from Fort Wayne 57 years ago.
Rothstein was there in 1987 when the Pistons lost at Boston on a sweltering afternoon in late May in a Game 7 and there a year later when they lost on a fine Sunday at the Fabulous Forum in a Game 6 where the corks were all put popped on the champagne cooling in their locker room as Bill Laimbeer was whistled for a crime he never committed.
“To this day, I still say I experienced more emotional highs and lows in those two years than maybe in the rest of my career combined,” Rothstein said Friday night when the guys he coached more than a quarter-century ago congregated in the building they christened with the franchise’s first NBA title. “It was just incredible. We just had so many, like, out-of-body experiences.”
Understand, Ron Rothstein – an assistant coach with Miami for the last 10 years and an NBA lifer – has been to four NBA Finals and lost count of how many conference finals he’s experienced, eight or nine.
But nothing has quite resembled the drama, the intensity or the vitriol of those series all those years ago.
He felt a karma of sorts when the Heat won last year’s Finals, snatching victory in Game 6 thanks to a miracle Ray Allen shot with San Antonio all but being fitted for rings. It was 1988 in reverse for him, when he saw the Pistons lose thanks to a turned ankle by Thomas and the horrendous foul call on Laimbeer.
"It’s just disheartening that we had a really good crowd out there and we really couldn’t compete better than we did."- Josh Smith on the loss
Full game quotes
Good health and good fortune are the bridesmaids of every NBA champion.
“In the NBA, you need a couple of things to win a championship,” he said. “You need talent, of course, and then you need to be healthy and you need luck. And I’ve been on both ends.”
Rothstein almost didn’t take the Miami job when the Heat, an expansion team, targeted him for the success the Pistons had with him those two formative years before their championships. At one point, he said no. Then he thought better of it, encouraged by voices he trusted that it was the right move for a guy who spent 19 years coaching high school basketball in New York before coming to the NBA in 1983.
He watched from afar and rooted for the Pistons.
“I don’t think I ever doubted our resolve,” he said of the Bad Boys. “You could be brutally honest with them. They could handle it. That was a key.”
Rothstein is too smart to get into public debates about the merits of the Bad Boys vs. other champions, including his Heat, gunning for a three-peat. But he’ll say this much: The competition was never stiffer or the rivalries more intense than they were in the late ’80s with the Pistons, Celtics, Lakers and Bulls four of the greatest heavyweights to ever play.
All of the principles from those days except Dennis Rodman – running a basketball clinic in Argentina he’d committed to long ago – were at The Palace and introduced to rousing halftime ovations by George Blaha.
“What a night this is,” he said before introducing Trader Jack McCloskey, whose Navy toughness still resonates even as he walks with the aid of a cane, and Chuck Daly’s daughter, Cydney, who teared up between the first and second quarters when a moving video tribute to her father was shown to the sellout crowd. “They were the toughest team of all time.”
As for the current Pistons, their Friday performance won’t be recalled as an appropriate tribute to the Bad Boys. Against a badly depleted Miami team – missing Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Greg Oden – they won 110-78 with LeBron James recording a triple-double despite taking the fourth quarter off.
It was the six minutes he and Chris Bosh sat to start the second quarter that might have been the game’s critical stretch, though. The unit Erik Spoelstra put out played the Pistons to a draw, protecting the five-point lead Miami took out of the first quarter, and when James and Bosh returned Miami outscored the Pistons 15-5 over the rest of the half to lead by 15 at the break.
“The game went from a 1-, 2-point game to a 6-point game and then a 15-point game at the half and you can’t do that against a quality team like this,” John Loyer said. “Then not to come out with any energy and play the way we’re capable of in the second half if just kind of mind-boggling to me, because we haven’t done that. I told our guys for whatever games I’ve coached, we’ve laid it on the line. Tonight, we didn’t lay it on the line and to me, that’s embarrassing.”
The Pistons still believe in their future, anchored by 20-year-old center Andre Drummond. The present offers them little comfort, but the full house on hand Friday came to honor their past. There was a guy over on Miami’s bench who had a little something to do with it.
And for all the heartbreak he endured, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Pat Riley came up with a great phrase for it,” he said. “He called it ‘the innocent climb.’ We were in the innocent climb. When I left I felt in my heart that was a championship team coming back. Those guys were determined.”
All they needed was good health. And just a little luck – or, at least, the absence of the bad luck that kept Ron Rothstein from getting a ring before he left just ahead of the greatest success the Pistons have ever known. The Bad Boys, they were pretty damn good.