The wait is over for the Detroit Pistons, although some would argue that it's just begun.
The Pistons, after coming close in 1987 and even closer in 1988, swept the Lakers in the NBA Finals last June to win their first league championship.
The Pistons were the NBA's premier team last season, posting a league-best 63-19 record and going 15-2 through the playoffs. In addition to the Lakers, the Pistons also swept Boston and Milwaukee in the playoffs; they overcame Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls 4-2.
That is why NBA observers are wondering if the wait isn't just beginning for the Pistons--the wait to see whether the Pistons can dominate the 1990s the way the Lakers dominated the past decade.
"There's a lot of room for improvement," All-Star guard Isiah Thomas said. "We have a lot of talented people. We have more talent than we've ever had before. The question is how we're going to utilize that talent."
A combination of talent and depth has carried the Pistons to the top of the NBA heap. If they hope to stay there, it appears they will copy a page from their sporting neighbors, the Detroit Tigers, who were one of the best teams in baseball for most of the past decade.
The Tigers, eschewing youth, looked for veteran players every time they needed help, and the Pistons have done the same thing. Two years ago they brought in James Edwards and last season they traded for Mark Aguirre.
This past summer, after losing chief bully Rick Mahorn in the expansion draft, the Pistons signed David Greenwood and Scott Hastings, two proven bangers.
"I've gotten into my fair share of scraps," Hastings said. "Hubie Brown once told me that if another player thinks you're a punk and can push you around, you're through in this league. I don't look for fights, but I'm ready to go after someone if they're looking for it."
During a game at Boston once, Hastings picked up Greg Kite, dumped him onto the floor, stepped on him and walked off the court, not waiting for the officials to throw him out.
"The Bad Boys are gone," Thomas said. "We'll never get that special group of people together again. This is a new team, a different team."
Right. And maybe a better one. Where last year's team used a nine-man rotation, the new version of the Pistons may go with a 10-man rotation.
"On paper, we're the same ballclub," Pistons coach Chuck Daly said. "But we don't know where they're going to be coming from mentally."
Daly again will start Laimbeer, Aguirre, Thomas and Joe Dumars, who won the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award. John Salley will replace Mahorn in the starting five.
Aguirre slimmed down over the summer and it already has paid off. Last season, Aguirre couldn't keep up with Dennis Rodman's frenzied defensive harassment in practice. In camp this season, Aguirre has been able to get the best of Rodman a few times.
"His quickness has improved, but it's his strength that gets you," Rodman said. "Once he gets set, it's hard to move him out."
After the Pistons obtained Aguirre in the trade that sent Adrian Dantley to Dallas, the Pistons compiled a 45-8 record, including the playoffs.
"One of our biggest concerns will be getting Mark involved in the offense early," Daly said.
Waiting on the bench, Daly will still have Edwards, Rodman and Vinnie Johnson, plus Greenwood and Hastings. He also will have 7-foot-1 William Bedford, who hasn't played an NBA game since admitting to a substance-abuse problem and then seeking treatment.
The 12th man is expected to be Michigan rookie Mark Hughes or perhaps one of several young guards in camp.
Johnson, whose hot shooting hand frequently ignites the Pistons offense, has missed all of the exhibition games so far with a cracked rib, suffered the second day of practice. This is a team that practices as hard as it plays.
"I've never been in a training camp where the pace was this physical," said Greenwood, who had a sore hamstring.
"Nothing comes easy here," Hastings said. "That's the way it's taught here right from the start, and you better be ready."
The reason for the toughness, of course, is defense--the key to the Pistons success.
During their championship run last season, the Pistons held opponents to 92.9 points per game in the playoffs, the lowest average for an NBA champion since the league adopted the 24-second clock in 1954. The Pistons kept opponents under 100 points in 15 of 17 postseason games.
"Defense is what won it for us," Daly said. "We believe in defense very strongly. The whole team does.
"But whether it'll win us another title remains to be seen. We're not champions anymore. We're just defending champs now. You don't know how people will react to that kind of success."
And the talk of a dynasty?
"You never know how people will react year to year," Daly said. "We'll just have to wait and see."
The wait has just begun.