A look at the least important things in life

The Sad Saga of Tayshaun Prince

If you’ve paid much attention to anything going on in the world over the past four years or so, you’ve probably noticed it’s a profoundly unhappy time to live in Detroit. Between the economic crisis, the auto bust, racial tensions and crime (the last two aren’t exactly recent developments, but still), it’s a profoundly displeasurable time to live and work in the Motor City.

Curiously, this unhappiness has crossed over into the area’s professional sports franchises. While the Detroit Lions have long been an NFL laughingstock, they managed to bottom out in 2008 with just the second winless season in NFL history. While there is hope for the future (Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, Matthew Stafford, whomever they draft 13th overall this year), this is a franchise that has ONE play-off win since 1957…and that was in 1991. 1991! Twenty-three of the 32 teams in the league have been to the Super Bowl since then!

Bad news, Detroit sports fans: the Lion’s are your most promising group right now.

(Relax. Take a breath. Remember: Johnson and Stafford are one of the best young duo’s in the league. We can get through this.)

If you think spring is going to get you back in the winning mood, the Tigers are on the hook for 20 million dollars to a guy who’s going to spend spring training in a 30-day rehab center (Miguel Cabrera) and struggled to a .500 record when that same guy got his act together and hit better than anyone not named Albert Pujols for the entire 2010 season. I don’t know about you, but I’d sooner bet on peace in Libya than that Miggy goes for .328-38-126 again when he’s detoxing.

“Come on now”, I can hear you say, “What about our hockey team? The Wings are in second place in the West right now and won two Stanley Cups in the past decade!” Well…I don’t count hockey. Not for another two years at least. Any league that loses a significant part of its season (in the NHL’s case, all of it in 2004-05) can’t be taken seriously for at least eight years. Except baseball, which needed a magical home run chase now shrouded in a steroid scandal that has threatened to become more damning than anything that happened during the 1994 strike, but that’s besides the point.

Even the NBA, which I love, needed eight years, Lebron James, a Kobe-Shaq feud, an All-Star Game in Las Vegas and a ref scandal that proved what we knew all along (that the refs were incompetent and needed to be upgraded) before I made a full leap back into the fold.

So, angry Detroiters might ask, why am I rehashing all these bitterly unhappy memories about the Detroit sports scene? Am I trying to spark a riot? Do I hate Detroit? No and no.

It leads me to a much larger question:

What’s happening to the Detroit Pistons and Tayshaun Prince???

I’ve followed Tayshaun since he was a stringbean freshman at Kentucky. All arms and legs, the kid was a three-point shooting machine who could play lockdown defense on the opposing team’s best perimeter player and still score 18-20 per game. As a Kentucky fan in the pre-Cal years, Tayshaun was probably my favorite ‘Cat since Tony Delk (and just saying that makes me feel ridiculously old).

When Tayshaun was drafted by the Pistons, I was tickled (that he was on a veteran, intriguing team that I enjoyed following), then disappointed (when Rick Carlisle stupidly buried him so Corliss Williamson and Cliff Robinson could play more), then vindicated (when Carlisle panicked against the Magic and switched his rotation, inserting Prince and inadvertently sparking the team to a Conference Finals run). Things continued to improve after Carlisle was sent packing, Larry Brown opened up the offense and Prince and Pistons used the best defense the NBA has seen in years to topple the Lakers in one of the more one-sided whippings in recent Finals history.

That was Tayshaun’s second season, when he earned a place in NBA and Piston lore for a block on Kobe Bryant that set the tone for the entire series, with the implicit message being: We’re not scared of you, or Shaq, or Phil’s Zen, or the triangle. We’re going to punch you in the mouth and watch you bleed. You don’t want any of this. That the Pistons were THAT dominant against two of the top-10 NBA players in the last 15 years (even if they hated each other by then) without a go-to guy or much of an offense goes back to the spark and fire of a veteran bunch (Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace) that didn’t take crap from anyone. In a beyond-terrible East, it was assumed the Pistons would own the conference for the rest of the decade.

And that was the peak. The Pistons have slowly slid back to the pack ever since. Some lowlights: trading Billups for a past-being-washed up Allen Iverson; the Darko experiment playing out exactly as everyone assumed it would; The Brawl at the Palace between the Pacers; the Flip Saunders era; Austin Daye and Greg Monroe in back-to-back years; 94 million for Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon; and the bizarre Rip Hamilton saga, which isn’t getting nearly enough attention (apparently, the Piston’s keep finding teams that will absorb his mammoth contract, only he keeps squashing the deal even though he hates his coach and the franchise).

GM Joe Dumars isn’t entirely at fault here (lots of people thought Billups was washed up, and it’s not like he threw a cup at Ron Artest) but I will never understand why anyone would trade for Iverson (has to have it his way, butts heads with authority) without a strong coach in place, pay that kind of money for fringe starters and draft Darko ahead of Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade…in fact, if we did the draft again, there’s no way Darko’s drafted higher than 20th. None. Not even by Chad Ford.

Everything finally (I think) bottomed out Friday, when a group led by Tracy McGrady and Hamilton staged a boycott of current head coach John Kuester’s shoot-around, with Kuester getting ejected from that night’s game and the camera’s catching McGrady and teammates laughing as their disgraced coach headed for the exit.

(Side note: McGrady used to be my favorite player in the league, a guy who could score, defend and do it all with the same look on his face my friend Landon gets when the clicker isn’t working. Now? I want him out of the league as fast as possible. If T-Mac, Vince Carter and Sasha Vujacic left the league right now, I really believe the NBA would be 5 percent better. I can’t believe I used to buy that guy’s shoes.)

Prince wasn’t shown laughing, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t; I sort of guffawed myself when I saw Kuester awkwardly trying to get tossed. The man is clearly one of the five worst head coaches of the past 10 years, highlighted by his bizarre inability to get along with any of his key players. But Prince used to be different. This was a happy-go-lucky kid who seemed to be thrilled to play basketball, get a check, shutdown the top scorers in the league and fade into the background.

Now he’s 30, his back aches, his coach is a nut, and he’s following headcases like McGrady, Hamilton and Chris Wilcox in this mess of a season for the Pistons. Never a vocal leader, now it appears he’s a mute follower.

It’s not worth it for a player of Prince’s caliber to be wasted on a team like this; for his sake I hope the Pistons trade him. As a basketball fan, I want to see him be a contributor for a contender again. But mostly, I want him to get out of this sad, unhappy mess that is Detroit. As unfair as it is to Motor City folks, count Tayshaun among a growing number of careers that have come to a crossroads in Detroit, and I hope he does like everyone else: Leaves.

(Sorry Detroit. You seem like a nice city, but it’s definitely me, not you, this time.)

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