AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – In 2004, the Phoenix Suns traded Stephon Marbury to the New York Knicks. One of the valuable things they got in return wasn't Antonio McDyess. Oh, they got McDyess, his bum knee and his plunging production, but the Suns didn't want that and McDyess knew it.
He was nothing more than an "expiring contract." He was a one-time franchise caliber star whose big-money deal was about to go off the books, freeing cap space for the Suns to get better players. The former No. 2 pick in the draft, former All-Star, former 21-and-12 guy was now an accounting trick; valued not for showing up but for soon leaving.
McDyess called his agent, Andy Miller, and told him to tell the Suns to put him out of his misery.
"Tell them to cut me," McDyess said.
Miller wouldn't do it. It wasn't going to end like this, he told McDyess. Somehow, somewhere, there would be better days.
Four years later, a reinvented McDyess, 33, on a team full of reinvented guys, came up biggest in the biggest game of the season. He poured in 21 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, his finest game in years, to lead the Detroit Pistons to a 94-75, Eastern Conference finals-squaring victory over the Boston Celtics. Game 5 is Wednesday in Boston.
McDyess was ferocious early, setting the tone for the Pistons that they would not sleepwalk through this one, like they did in Game 3. He scored eight points in the first three minutes, staking Detroit to a 10-0 lead they never relinquished.
"Biggest game of the season for us … he delivered," Chauncey Billups said.
It was a game that reminded us why McDyess was once a bright star in the NBA and illustrated why the Pistons fight hardest when their plight seems most dire.
No matter how bad it gets – such as Saturday's humiliating blowout loss to Boston – it's been worse for a team full of castoffs who've found better days here, all together. You can doubt your chances down 2-1 to the Celtics, but you doubt them more when you're an expiring contact.
McDyess isn't the star here, even on a team mostly devoid of them. He's the fifth starter, a glue guy who works the weak side of the defense and isn't someone anyone usually pays attention to – "(defenders) leave me, for some reason," he smiled.
"They're better players than me," he said of his teammates without a hint of disappointment.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. No Piston was selected higher in the draft than McDyess as the No. 2 choice overall in 1995. He was a freak of nature athlete out of little Quitman, Miss., and the University of Alabama, a can't-miss, prototype power forward.
And he didn't miss, despite trades and signings that bounced him around the league. But he eventually tore his left patella tendon and was never the same again. For many players, the move from budding superstar to limited role player would send them to retirement. McDyess was no different. He thought about quitting after his third surgery. He demanded it until Miller convinced him to play out the season in Phoenix.
Then came the call from Detroit, where the Pistons had just won the NBA championship thanks, in part, to general manager Joe Dumars' ability to recast players other teams had soured on. McDyess jumped at the chance, figuring he had made enough money and enjoyed enough stardom. He was willing to be a bench player on a title team.
"Joe gave me an opportunity," he said. "You know, I was a heck of a player early in my career, but injuries forbid me (from doing) the things I normally could do now. When I'm playing, I just play. I don't worry about who's the man."
This has been about winning and nothing else. Detroit reached Game 7 of the Finals in 2005, his first season, before falling to San Antonio. Since then the Pistons slipped in consecutive Eastern Conference finals, their personality becoming a team that too often casually lets chances slip away.
"We're so unpredictable we're predictable," lamented Billups.
Saturday's listless loss was the last straw for McDyess. Unlike the rest of the core here, he doesn't have a championship ring. Unlike the other role players, he isn't young.
"I'm almost at the end of the road," he said. "You only have so many opportunities. They're limited, especially for me.
"Having excuses is not an option."
McDyess is a soft-spoken Southerner, commonly hailed as one of the nicest guys in the league. He was raised by a single mother who worked at a school cafeteria. McDyess, known for his strict discipline, isn't much for conflict or speaking out of turn and has been known to get emotional over disappointing anyone.
He has a role in Detroit and it isn't to be the vocal leader. But after Saturday's debacle, he showed up at the team practice facility in a bad mood. When after a film session everyone started shrugging off the lack of intensity and promised everything would be OK, McDyess had heard enough.
" 'Dyess said, 'Hey, we've been talking that everything is all right,' " said coach Flip Saunders. "We've got to make it happen. We can't talk about it; we've got to make it happen.' I've never seen him with the emotion he has."
He took all of it out on the Celtics in one of the most inspired performances of the playoffs. On a night when Billups' hamstring was still bothering him, Tayshaun Prince's shot wasn't falling and the Celtics were proving resilient, McDyess kept coming up big.
"He's our best player in this series," Billups said.
Monday his leadership reminded the Pistons they're about grit and fight first, the once-doubted with something to prove.
For all the talk about Boston's veterans laying it all on the line for that coveted championship, none of them have come back as far as McDyess. None of them laid in their third post-op and concluded it was over. None of them have been an "expiring contract." None of them once begged to get cut.
None of them wanted it more Monday night. And none of them got it.