By now, if you paid any attention at all to the WNBA playoffs, the phrase “from worst to first” is probably starting to wear on that frazzled part of your exposed last nerve. It was cute, in a ballsy sort of way, the first time around, but it’s time to move on.
But you know what? That wouldn’t be a bad motto for Detroit. Seriously.
From worst to first.
I love Detroit with a passion, so, believe me, I’m not saying this place we call home is the worst in the country. Still, if those of us who live here are honest with ourselves then we kinda have to know that Detroit isn’t the first location for most folks’ dream vacation. If they have family here then maybe.
Detroit is an acquired taste that not everyone acquires. Either you can hang or you can’t. Matter of fact, some of us take perverse pleasure in checking out who can hang and who gets kicked curbside. Remember that T-shirt that read, “I’m so bad I vacation in Detroit!”?
Detroit still carries the stigma of danger, even if we feel almost guilty to bring that up. Yes, the word is slowly seeping out that good things are happening here. Nevertheless, we’re hardly to the point where most outsiders can forget all that they’ve heard. Hell, you can still hear the negative sniping out in the suburbs, so you can just imagine what it’s like out-state and out of state.
From worst to first.
Former Detroit Piston Bill Laimbeer tossed out the phrase when he took control of the team last year at midseason. He was about the only person who believed it, and plenty of folks wrote him off as delirious. After all, the Shock had a record of 0-13 at the time.
Laimbeer didn’t much care, just like he didn’t seem to care that he was one of the most hated players in the NBA. But he wasn’t hated in Detroit. He might have been one of the dirtiest players to ever take a dive, but he was our dirtiest player, and he took those dives for us, man.
Laimbeer saw what needed to be done with the Shock. He recruited great players, made smart trades, then went to work building a team that was, in some very important ways, in his own image. No, the Shock ain’t dirty, but Lord knows they don’t understand the word “quit,” and they made it clear that they are willing to win by any means necessary.
Laimbeer didn’t just talk the talk; he lived his belief. Soon enough his team bought shares in that belief. Last week the true value of those shares became apparent.
A little belief can go a long way. A lot of belief can run through concrete walls without suffering a scratch. And, right about here it needs to be pointed out, this is truly a Detroit story. Laimbeer, himself a longtime resident of metro Detroit, was a major force on the championship Detroit Pistons back in the late ’80s and early ’90s when the Pistons were terrors and Laimbeer was pro basketball’s terrorist-in-chief.
About a year after he left the Pistons, Laimbeer and his father joined forces in 1994 to create Laimbeer Packaging, a box-making company that had plants in Detroit and Melvindale. The company eventually failed after seven years due to some rather serious financial problems and miscalculations, but Laimbeer Packaging is hardly the first company to flop. The point is that Laimbeer tried to build a company that would have provided tax dollars and jobs to the city and region. With his name — and the connections from a wealthy family — Laimbeer could easily have made a go of it just about anywhere in the suburbs, or even out of state, and left Detroit entirely out of the picture.
But Laimbeer stayed, and now coaches the Detroit Shock, which just won the WNBA title at the Palace in front of a record-breaking WNBA crowd of more than 22,000. Anyone who saw that game witnessed one of the most extraordinary championship basketball games since, man, I don’t know. I’m not a sports fanatic, so please don’t write me and cite stats of some other game in some other time. What lingers in my mind are those final fourth-quarter minutes, after the Shock’s lead had been cut from 11 points to a tie game. It looked as if they just might lose it. But with several foul shots and at least one remarkable three-point shot, these women rallied, then shouldered and scraped their way past the Sparks to regain the lead and snatch the championship, 83-78.
Frankly, I don’t give a damn about some “other” legendary game, wherever it happened. What I care about right now is what the Detroit Shock have done for this city. It’s obvious what the team has done for women’s sports, women’s basketball in particular, but I believe it will become increasingly apparent what the revitalized Shock will mean to a revitalized Detroit.
Hopefully the Detroit Lions will get it together this time around, hopefully the Pistons will make a decent showing, and just maybe the Red Wings will do great things once again. Maybe even the Tigers. …
From worst to first.
But meanwhile, the Shock are here and doing it right now. The Shock have delivered.
As corny as it might sound, the Shock delivered because they knew that they could. They won because they knew they deserved it. Laimbeer is a coach of a championship team because he said that he would be, and he wasn’t willing to settle for less — and neither was his team.
I believe the same kind of transformation can happen in this city. It will take the labors of those who don’t mind being called crazy — who rather enjoy it, actually — and it will take that same kind of leadership willing to make outlandish predictions and then dig in to sow the seeds for those predictions to come true.
First and foremost, the Detroit that we want must be a state of mind before it can become a state of reality.
And then maybe even a state of grace. …Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org