In the play that he will always be remembered for in Detroit, Tayshaun Prince did the unimaginable, soaring from one side of the court toward the other side of the backboard to swat away a layup that would have tied a critical playoff game.
In Motown it’s known simply as “The Block.”
It was such an unlikely play that the opponent – the talented and hard-nosed Indiana Pacers – were shocked into disbelief. Reggie Miller, the man who had an easy layup in his sights that would have knotted the game with less than 15 seconds left in Indiana’s Conseco Fieldhouse, emerged from the play with a look of “WTF?”
WTF, indeed. But the play will live forever as a part of Pistons lore and Detroit sports history.
Prince was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, ending his 10 1/2 year career as a Piston. He was the final member of the 2004 NBA Champions. The final part of the core that went to six straight conference finals who was still wearing the red-white-and-blue and running the hardwood for “Deeeeeetroit Baaaaaasketball.”
Shuttled out of town in years past have been Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton, and Chauncey Billups, the other four starters on that 2004 title team. Prince, the gangly, quiet swingman built like a #2 pencil, has remained, as if his impossibly long arms would never let go of Detroit. But ultimately he’s worth more now as veteran trade bait than he is playing on a young Pistons team rebuilding around fresh-faced adolescents Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, and Andre Drummond.
It’s worth remembering that “The Block” really was one of those rare plays that deserves to be heralded as a pivotal turning point in what might have otherwise been a disappointing season for Detroit. It had been a roller coaster year, with the Pistons stumbling out to a 16-13 record by December. Then, after a eight losses in nine games in February their record stood at 34-24. They were going to be playoff team, but they had the look of a low seed, the type of team easily brushed aside by stronger, more consistent teams in the Eastern Conference. But then, they reeled of 20 wins in 23 games and roared into the playoffs, where as the #3 seed they manhandled the Milwaukee Bucks in five games in round one. In the Conference Semis, they came back from a 3-2 hole and won on the road against the Nets in New Jersey before clamping down on their opponent in Game Seven, winning 90-69 to force a showdown with #1 seed Indiana.
The Pacers beat the Pistons at their own game in Game One, slowing the pace while rebounding and playing tenacious in-your-mug defense. It was after that game, in which his team scored just 74 points and was outplayed on the boards, that coach Larry Brown admitted his team would need a spark.
“We need to make big plays, to make stops and steal the momentum here in Indiana,” Brown said.
Who would make the big play in Game Two? The guy named “Big Shot” who handled the ball and seemed to never be rattled? The fiery gunslinger Rasheed who was fond of lofting the ball from almost anywhere on the court? Hamilton, who weaved his way through screens like a starved mouse working his way through a maze for a sliver of cheese? Or maybe Big Ben, the enforcer down low with arms like Paul Bunyan?
No, it would be Tayshaun, in just his second season in the NBA and still sporting peach fuzz on his long, thin face. Everything about Prince was lanky – his head, his neck, his legs – but most noticeably his arms, which gave him an astounding reach of 7 feet, 2 inches, even though he stood 6’9″.
After Prince stuffed Miller’s layup to keep the Pistons ahead by two with the game clock dwindling, he landed several rows deep into the crowd behind the basket. It took several seconds for Prince to extricate his spindly limbs from the fans, who must have been wondering how Prince was able to run up and down the court on those toothpicks. As the video of the play shows (shared below here), the ensuing free throws inced the game. The Pistons won 72-67 and evened the series. After “The Block” they would win seven of nine games to capture their third NBA title and first in 14 seasons.
In his decade-plus in Detroit, Prince was far more than just “the guy who blocked the shot”. Just a week or so after “The Block”, in fact, Prince blanketed Kobe Bryant so efficiently that the Lakers star scored just 11 points in Game Three.
“I’ve never played against anyone that long before,” Kobe said.
Tayshaun still has some basketball left in him and he still has those incredibly long arms, which he’ll wave about in Memphis now. But, that play in Indiana in ’04 will forever be remembered by Detroit fans.