Chapter 8: The Myth of the Right Way, June 15, 2004 (Overview)
On the eve of the 2004 NBA Finals pitting the Los Angeles Lakers against the Detroit Pistons, few in the media or in Las Vegas had any doubts about the outcome of the upcoming series. Odds makers had the Lakers as ten point favorites to win the first game and, for the series as a whole, listed Los Angeles as $6.00 favorites (meaning a six dollar bet on LA would net you just one dollar if they won) and Detroit as $8.00 underdogs (so that a one dollar bet on Detroit would get you eight if they won). The Lakers, after all, had the better regular season record in the more challenging Western Conference and so had the home court advantage in the playoffs. But that, really, was the least of it. The Lakers had won three consecutive titles from 2000-2002 and had only narrowly missed a chance at a fourth in 2003. In addition to superstar coach Phil Jackson, they featured the game’s top big man in Shaquille O’Neal and its top perimeter scorer in Kobe Bryant, each of whom had that very season been selected for the All-NBA First Team. Moreover, the Lakers had added two veteran superstars: forward Karl Malone (number two on the NBA’s All-Time career scorer’s list) and point guard Gary Payton (a multiple all-star and defensive stalwart who was fourth on the league’s All-Time career steals list).
The Pistons, meanwhile, had finished second in their own division during the regular season and had struggled to even make it to the Finals. Their only all-star was the undrafted Ben Wallace who, though an excellent rebounder and defender, was deficient offensively and, at a mere 6’-9”, undersized for an NBA center, especially one about to face the enormous, athletic O’Neal. The rest of the Pistons’ roster, including the other starters, included players who were either young and unproven (Tayshaun Prince, Richard Hamilton), journeymen who had fallen short of early expectations (Chauncey Billups), or—like Rasheed Wallace, who joined the team with twenty games remaining in the regular season— considered problematic. As television broadcaster Al Michaels observed, “the Lakers had Hall of Fame players, while the Pistons used players nobody wanted.”
Yet, despite the odds and the collective wisdom of the basketball world, less than ten days later, on June 15th, the Pistons won the NBA title. And it wasn’t really even close. They won the best of seven series four games to one, by an average margin of victory of nine points per game. Indeed, the Lakers had to go to overtime to eke out their only victory, on their home court in game two, and thus narrowly avoid being swept. How had this team of castoffs so easily dispatched a star-studded roster of proven winners led by one of the most successful coaches of all time? The papers the next day told the story. The New York Times headline described the win as “striking a blow for the right way” and Pistons’ Coach Larry Brown himself confirmed, “This sport is about players playing the right way.”[ii] The phrase “playing the right way” became a kind of banner and a myth advanced by its adherents ostensibly to describe a set of effective tactical choices but carrying as well a set of moralizing, often racialized, connotations. In time, this myth of the right way would become a key cultural vehicle for a reaction against the perceived insurgency of blackness.