On my way to the game Saturday night, I knew it would be a special evening. I just didn't know how special it would be.
The fact that the it was Ben Wallace's retirement made it special enough. We could've been playing the Sixers and the retirement alone would have warranted a sell-out crowd. But the Pistons were playing the Golden State Warriors. The reigning world champions. The greatest show on hardwood. Steph Curry and local Michigan native Draymond Green. And as I pulled into The Palace parking lot, almost an hour before tip-off, and saw it damn near full, I started to realize that the night was going to be bigger than I thought.
The minute I walked into the building, there was a buzz. There were hoards of vintage Ben Wallace jerseys on display, even a few good fake afros too. There were more Golden State fans than I had expected, forgetting that Steph Curry has cornered the market of 13U basketball fans. Bizarrely, I even saw crews of Raptors fans that I was tempted to call security on.
As I settled into my seat to watch warmups, I got more and more nervous. This was a true sell out. The stage in the upper bowl was gone because the seats were full. And I couldn't help but fear that the Pistons would get blown out of the gym on Ben Wallace night. It was a combination of Golden State being, well, Golden State, the champs, Draymond's homecoming, and their loss earlier this week. It felt like this was an opportunity for them to silence a fired-up Palace and remind everyone of their NBA dominance.
Then my eye caught the floor seats at center court, the Gores seats, and I saw Sheed. I shouted to my Dad "SHEED'S HERE! SHEED'S HERE!" like I had just seen Santa Clause. I am a 27-year-old adult male, let me remind you.
And then I saw Tayshaun, and Rip, and Billups. And oh my god the starters are all here for Ben. Oh my god, is that Larry Brown too? Wait, Memo Okur is here? And he looks like a Turkish mobster? Mike James and Lindsey Hunter? The best defensive backcourt combo in post-season history (irrational thought)?!?
I'm going to keep it 100 with you DBB, I got choked up.
From middle school through high school, these were my heroes. These were the players I imitated in my driveway, and the guys I built dynasties around in NBA2K. I watched them night in and night out as I grew up, and they were special. Nobody outside of Detroit dubbed them as superstars, but they were great and they were ours. And they loved playing here. And there they were, sitting next to each other laughing, joking around with one another back in the Palace. It was like running into an old best friend after decades away from each other and picking up where you left off. I had forgotten what watching those teams and seeing those guys felt like.
Right then I knew that there would be no blowout. Not in front of these guys. (And yes, I immediately then took Pistons +7 1/2.)
As the Pistons jumped out to an 18-8 lead, it was dreamlike. People were turning to each other in their rows with the same, "Is this really happening?" look. And Luke Walton waved his first white flag timeout.
The jumbotron cut to Ben Wallace, and the crowd went nuts. He smiled, waved politely, and then - as if he sensed the moment - he stood and waved to every section of the crowd. We all stood, and erupted with the biggest "Thank you" applause you can imagine. Ben was tearing up at the reaction, clearly overwhelmed by the love in the arena. And the game was different from that point on.
Sure, the Warriors came back and had a three-point lead at one point. But from watching the way the Pistons played after that ovation, you knew this game was going to be different. Every shot was aggressive. Every switch on defense was seamless. Every attempted block was like a nod to the man sitting courtside. The crowd fed into it with every bucket as the Pistons regained the lead and then some. The only way I can describe the evening as a whole is hysteria.
Every player showed up in their own way. Reggie with a masterful orchestration of the offense, finding his balance of feed vs. attack. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was in a scoring duel with Curry at one point and held his own. Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova were beautifully patient within the offense and hit big shots when we needed them. Drummond secured yet another double-double with 14 pts and 21 boards, especially fitting given the night. Aron Baynes continues to win our hearts over these past couple weeks. Stanley Johnson continues to look like an emerging threat, and Steve Blake came up huge after Jennings exited the game with a jammed ankle.
I know I am supposed to break down the game in a more hyper-focused way. But I can't for last night. It would be like asking someone to describe a sunset. You would only sound silly trying to do so.
The crowd still knew that if any team could rally from 15-plus back in short time, it was the Warriors, so no one left early. It wasn't until Tolliver threw down a baseline tomahawk that people knew it was safe to run and try to beat the traffic. As we poured out into the parking lot, the elation was palpable. Numerous high fives, jumping hip bumps, and cheers were had. It was a feeling I hadn't seen at the Palace since those Ben Wallace days.
I'm sitting at my computer as I type this, some 17 hours later, still smiling ear-to-ear. Watching highlights as if to remind myself that it wasn't a hallucination. This was the best win of the Pistons' season, and no matter what happens this season, a night I'm sure all Pistons fans will not soon forget.