Brown, Pistons in ugly mess
There's plenty of blame to go around, but situation makes all look bad.
By Bob Wojnowski / The Detroit News
Stop the nonsense. Everybody. Just stop it. The feel-good Pistons are in danger of becoming the ugly, ruthless Pistons, and Larry Brown is in danger of reconfirming the worst suspicions about him. And both sides are shrugging and acting as if they're powerless to stop it.
The Pistons' coaching drama has become a sad, sordid tale of ego and mistrust and false tales and fake smiles and whispered accusations. The Pistons can act as if it's all Brown's fault, that he wants to leave, and some in the media can gleefully paint it that way. But I'm sorry: If Brown has a track record (goodness, he sure does), the Pistons are developing a nasty one of their own.
Two years ago, they fired one of the best young coaches in the NBA, Rick Carlisle, under murky circumstances.
Now Brown, a Hall of Famer who helped lead the Pistons to back-to-back Finals and came within a few minutes of back-to-back titles, could be removed.
While Joe Dumars waits for Brown to tell him when he can return to coaching, after Brown underwent a procedure on his bladder last week, Brown wonders if the Pistons and owner Bill Davidson really want him or are just pretending that they do.
It's a ridiculous stare-down with no deadline set, although the Pistons have had their replacement, Flip Saunders, hovering for months, as if they planned for this all along.
It's an unseemly mess for what we've considered one of the classiest franchises in sports. Someone has to exhibit leadership here, and it's on the Pistons to do so. I can't believe Davidson is excited about losing, arguably, the best coach in the NBA. I also can't believe he's happy that some in his organization are spreading ugly stories, tainting Brown.
The latest, from Sports Illustrated's online edition, is a sleazy stretch from an "unimpeachable source within the Pistons," suggesting that in Game 7 of the Finals, Brown couldn't fully motivate his players because "when they looked in his eyes they saw someone halfway out the door."
Cripes. With all due respect, what does that garbage mean? And how can anyone irresponsibly ignore the bottom line here? If Brown took the Pistons to Game 7 of the Finals even though he supposedly no longer could motivate his players, geez, he must be a better coach than we imagined.
Brown has heard the stories. Speaking from his vacation home in the Hamptons in New York, he sounds slightly wounded but at least publicly willing to put it aside and return to the Pistons.
"I'm planning to be there on October 3 (the opening of training camp)," Brown, 64, said. "My dilemma is, I can't tell them 100 percent I'll be ready because the doctors don't know and I don't know. But if the Pistons can't wait, let me know, don't put this stuff out there. I mean, what would you do if you were me?"
I told him I'd give the Pistons a fair estimate on when he believed he'd be healthy enough to coach. I also told him, if he really wanted to stay in Detroit, maybe he should try harder to communicate with the Pistons, set up a meeting with Davidson, do what it takes to reconcile.
Then I asked him this: If you were Dumars and the Pistons, not knowing when you'll be back, what would you do?
Brown thought for a second, then answered.
"If I was them, and they really valued me to be their coach, I'd say, 'Take as long as you can to get well and we'll figure it out.' That's what they'd do if it was a player. That's what other teams have done for coaches with health or personal issues -- Jerry Sloan at Utah, Rudy Tomjanovich at Houston, Don Nelson at Dallas. This is not a made-up thing. I have a health problem."
He does, and somehow, that gets downplayed. He also has a credibility problem that gets played up, and that's damaging him right now. But while some have giddily portrayed Brown as this Lone Liar, it's important to note there's enough insincerity on both sides -- yes, both sides -- to fuel an entire political campaign.
Is the relationship between the Pistons and Brown irreparable? If the stubbornness festers much longer, it could be. Dumars doesn't want to comment, other than to say he'd welcome Brown back, and the only issue is one of timing, trying to balance Brown's health needs with the team's coaching needs.
Fair enough. It has been difficult at times to tell if Brown really wants to be back, although he showed plenty by enduring incredible discomfort all season. And his passion did crackle during the playoffs. Before that, his mixed messages could have been a reaction to the Pistons' mixed messages (or vice versa).
No matter what you hear in the Pistons' public posturing, signs have been splattered in numerous media outlets that they want to move on, that Davidson is upset, for reasons that aren't completely clear, or fair.
They're sick of Brown's drama and distractions? Hmm. So, after wringing the good out of him, reaching two Finals, they're unwilling to put up with the total quirky package, the one they knew they were getting when they hired him? They're miffed he talked to Cleveland? Yes, the timing by Brown and the Cavs' ownership during the playoffs was phenomenally poor. But remember, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has a friendly business relationship with the Pistons, and this was a fallback management position because of Brown's health. And in case anyone missed it, Brown didn't take the Cleveland job immediately after the season, as many predicted.
They're miffed he mentioned New York was his "dream job"? Are the Pistons, who have won three titles since the Knicks won their last, so insecure they can't stomach their coach waxing nostalgic about his hometown team? Please.
Brown's wife, Shelly, denied emphatically the other day that Larry was interested in coaching the Knicks next season. She said he wants to coach here. He said he wants to coach here.
But Isiah Thomas is keeping the New York position open as long as he can, and yes, if the Pistons fire Brown, you can bet he'd explore the Knicks job, when he's healthy.
That's not the point, although many think it is. It's not whether Brown will go to Cleveland or New York or wherever. He'll always be coveted somewhere. It's this: Why was there a breakdown between a great coach and a great organization after just two years (far shorter than the normal Brown timetable), making a change possible?
"I have no idea what's going on, but you're not hearing anything bad from me," Brown said. "Mr. D (Davidson) knows what I'm about. I love the man. I haven't shortchanged anybody. ... I don't want to step down because I don't want to coach anywhere but Detroit, and I'm not ready to retire. I love my team, and I think the players really care for me."
Saunders still on hold
Brown missed 17 games during the season after hip surgery and a bladder procedure. The Pistons floundered each time, and management appeared to push Brown to return.
If the drama affected the players, every team should be so affected. If the Pistons are arrogant enough to think they can plug in Saunders and keep rolling, they'd better be careful. And Saunders had better look closely at the dynamics of this job -- great team to coach, shaky management support.
By the way, Saunders does have $5.5 million coming from Minnesota this season, so if the Pistons are looking for a contingency plan while waiting for Brown, couldn't Saunders wait, without losing any money?
Some shriek this is all about the money, about the $18 million-$20 million owed Brown in the remaining three years of his contract. The suggestion is, he's trying to get fired to collect the dough, but I'm not buying that. I do believe the money matters to Davidson, who understandably is reluctant to pay off Brown then see him coach in, say, New York.
No, this is more about ego and pride and arrogance, on both sides. It's hard to believe Brown is so wounded, so dug in, he'll get fired, or force a buyout, from the best job he's ever had.
But everyone knows his reputation of wanderlust, so no one should be shocked. More alarming, just two years after dismissing one successful coach in a strange way, the Pistons might be in the same ugly spot, prepared to do it again.
That's exactly the direction this is headed, unless someone is smart enough and strong enough to step in and stop it.
You can reach Bob Wojnowski at email@example.com.