The inevitability of the Lions

Receiver Calvin Johnson is one of the reasons the Lions seem on the verge of success.

There was a sports yarn that made its way around Detroit in 1988, and which came to mind on the heels of the Lions’ loss to the New Orleans Saints in the NFL Playoffs.

It was one of those stories that circulate at bars and in workplace bull sessions; a tale that no one could claim they had heard first-hand, or even seemed to know anybody who had witnessed the encounter described. You know how those stories go — ‘a guy I knew heard it from a friend who claimed that he had a buddy who got it from a guy who overheard somebody talking about it with a bystander who was there.’ Or something.

The story involved former Tiger Kirk Gibson (this allegedly took place in ’88 remember, after Gibby left town to energize the Los Angeles Dodgers for a few memorable seasons) and an unnamed member of the 1988 Detroit Pistons. (Speaking of these kind of stories, it was pretty much true — to some minor degree at least — that Gibson was eventually run off the Tigers when he became a free agent back then because owner Tom Monaghan couldn’t stand having players who swore when they struck out or were called out on bang-bang plays at first. Batters cursing so loudly that the fans could hear them drove Tiger Tom crazy. We were lucky he didn’t fire everybody except Alan Trammell when he first took over in 1984. But I digress.)

Gibby was seated on a flight from LA back to Detroit — the story went — near a member of the Pistons shortly after our basketballers had lost the excruciating ‘88 NBA Finals to the Lakers. You’ll recall that the Pistons were up 3-games-to-2 on the coast in Game Six when a phantom foul was levied at Bill Laimbeer, allowing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to sink two late free throws to steal that game by one point and tie the series. With team leader Isiah Thomas barely able to walk due to injury, the Pistons then dropped Game Seven, 108-105, and Los Angeles thus stole the crown.

Anyway, the unidentified Piston — I don’t wanna embarrass the guy, so I won’t mention his name, (though I would if it had been Thomas because I worked with him once and came away with ample reason to despise him for the rest of my life) — apparently expressed to Gibson that yes, it was really disappointing to come THAT close to the NBA title and miss out at the end. But … you still had to take a lot of pride in coming that close, he said. So the Pistons had done well in taking the league champions all the way to the Game Seven limit.

And that, as you might imagine, didn‘t sit well with Gibby. He was said — as the story went — to have instructed the basketball player, and others within hearing distance on the airplane, about the absolute necessity of winning it all, taking your sport’s championship, when that goal was within your grasp. Such a concept, spoken with some vehemence, was one that Detroiters might expect to hear from the hard-driving Gibson, a local favorite and a winner at many levels. He apparently felt — at least as this alleged story went — that second place was as good as no place, that the opportunity may not present itself again, and that no pride should be taken in losing at the highest levels of sports competition. A team MUST win when the opportunity presents itself.

Which takes us to the Lions’ loss to the Saints. And my feeling that the Gibson yarn, while it makes for good listening and a provocative philosophy, should not be applied to the Lions’ loss.

The Honolulu Blueboys made a statement in their 2011 season, I feel, that should in no way be diminished by the outcome of that final contest.

Because the Lions, as of right now, look inevitable. And that, trust me, is the best way to look. Some examples:

The 1968 Detroit Tigers seemed inevitable all season. The club lost the pennant on the final day of the 1967 season, dropping the final game of a double-header at Tiger Stadium and handing the American League pennant to the Boston Red Sox. The pain — the game went down to Dick McAuliffe’s final and futile at-bat — burned for months, for years, decades perhaps. As well it should have. When the players reconvened in Lakeland the following spring, the Tigers WERE inevitable, and they exploded on Major League Baseball in ‘68 like no Tiger team had in decades.

The 1951 Detroit Lions went into the final game of their regular season needing one final win to qualify for the league championship game. The Lions had floundered nonstop since the mid 1930s, and within one season the influx of football legends-to-be like Bobby Layne, Doak Walker, and Les Bingaman made the team suddenly seem inevitable. Yet they were one season away, or more precisely, a little over one minute away … because that’s all that was left after Y.A. Tittle brought the 49ers back from the edge of defeat to deny the Lions the division championship. They lost the title by a half game; fullback Pat Harder said after the loss “We’ll be back next year to kick the (your obscenity here) out of somebody!” With that … they became inevitable and won three of the next six NFL World Championship crowns.

The 1949 Detroit Red Wings were manhandled in the Stanley Cup Finals by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who swept the Wings for their third straight title, despite the Detroiters having a 20-year old right winger who had scored eight goals against Montreal in a preliminary sweep of the Canadiens. The phenom winger — Gordon Howe — joined with Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel on The Production Line the following season, with the trio going 1-2-3 in NHL scoring. Joined by first-team All-Stars Red Kelly and Terry Sawchuk, the Wings were suddenly as inevitable as any hockey team ever had been. They won the Stanley Cup in 1950 on their way to four Cups through 1955.

In the spring of 1984, after the Tigers had won 92 games the previous season and finished second to the Baltimore Orioles, Sparky’s club was poised to pounce. Even in the last weeks of the ’83 season the Tigers looked like the best team in baseball, certainly the most talented with a “in their prime” core of Gibson, Trammell, Whitaker, Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon, Jack Morris, and Dan Petry. And what did they do? Win their first nine, 18 of their first 20, and 35 of their first 40. In the process they ran away from the rest of the league and fulfilled Sparky’s prophecy by capturing the World Series title.

Inevitability. It’s a terrific thing. I thought I sensed it, for the first time in a long while, Sunday night. Something historic seems afoot, and you can easily imagine the names Stafford, Johnson, and Suh taking their place in local legend and lore.

Kirk Gibson was right when he lectured that Piston back in 1988. To a degree, at least, because there certainly is no disgrace in the growing pains involved in coming of age. What the hell, ya gotta have a jumping-off point to GET from here to there. The Piston must have been paying attention. He and the other Bad Boys, jobbed in ’88, won the NBA Championship in 1989 and 1990.

And if you were around town in those days, you’ll surely remember the feeling they gave you. That aura that began to cling to the Pistons, as individuals and as a team, throughout 1987 and 1988. That excitement we were fortunate to share, at special times, with the Tigers, the Wings, and the Lions of other eras.

That wonderful feel, that awakening sense … of inevitability.