BROWN VS. PISTONS: A GAME OF CHICKEN

For weeks, Larry Brown has said he’ll go to the Mayo Clinic, spend three days, then let the Pistons know if he can coach.

Those three days are up today. But if you’re expecting a yes or no, forget it. For one thing, this is the Mayo Clinic, not Lourdes.

For another, this is Larry Brown, where the answer is rarely yes or no, but more like “Well, if these guys want me, and if these guys don’t …”

For my money, Brown is gone. I’m willing to say it. In fact, I just did. But no one else will. Because what we have here, folks, is a big game of chicken. Larry knows it. The Pistons know it. Flip Saunders and Nate McMillan know it. Isiah Thomas and the Knicks know it. Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers know it.

And none of them can afford to be honest about it.

Let’s start with Larry. Maybe he really does want to coach the Pistons again. But he knows his act is wearing thin. He always has loved the New York job, and there’s more money there than anywhere in the league. And this Cleveland thing is still out there, where he can be a consultant and fly to work. Not bad, huh?

But if he comes out and says, “I want the Knicks,” or “I want Cleveland,” he looks like a hypocrite, because he’s been saying “Detroit” for so long. Plus, if he quits, the Pistons don’t owe him any money. So what’s his best alternative?

Get fired.

But he can’t fire himself.

A version of moneyball

What he can do is delay news about his health. He can say, “Well, the doctors want more tests, and it might take weeks, maybe months. I understand if the Pistons can’t wait …”

Voila! The Pistons ultimately have to make the move – they can’t wait forever – and if they fire Larry, they are on the line for the remaining $18 million of his salary.

Oh, if only our lives worked like this!

Now, let’s consider the Pistons. Maybe they really want to say, “We’re tired of Brown’s shenanigans. We want to hire Flip Saunders.” They do that, they owe Larry his money – even if he takes another job – as long as that job is lower paying. With the Knicks, it’s moot, since that job would pay more.

But if Larry takes a spot in Cleveland – as a “consultant” let’s say, at $1 million a year – then the Pistons have to make up the difference. Larry gets paid like a full-time coach, and lives like a part-time consultant.

Not to mention, if the Pistons ax Brown, they incur the wrath of fans who say, “Hey, Larry won you one NBA title and almost won another. Why are you treating him so badly?”

So their tongues are tied. They have to wait for Larry to make a move. The chicken game continues.

Are we having fun yet?

Finding the exit strategy

Now consider Saunders and McMillan. Maybe they really want to coach Detroit. They can’t go public with that. They look like vultures. But they can’t wait forever. There’s only one chair and two bodies, three if you count Brown. They can call Joe Dumars and ask about the odds – it’s not tampering since they’re free agents – but Joe can only guess because he has to wait on Larry’s move.

Meanwhile, there’s the Knicks and the Cavs. New York can’t publicly court Larry. Without permission, it’s tampering. Plus, the Knicks set themselves up for owing the Pistons compensation. New York’s best case scenario is if the Pistons fire Brown, and then he’s free to join them.

Cleveland, meanwhile, has hired a GM, Danny Ferry, making it seem that Brown is no longer in the plans. But wouldn’t the Cavs love to have him as a consultant – especially if Detroit is paying him at the same time?

So, where does this leave matters? Where else? The lawyers. In the end, there likely will be some sort of arrangement made, legal and financial, and Larry will move on, and some party will pay him, maybe two parties, and he will put his spin on it and the Pistons will put their spin on it and the players will say, “We’ll be all right.”

And the basketball season finally can go on summer vacation.

But it won’t be today. There’ll be no white smoke from the Mayo Clinic chimney. This is big money. This is big-time coaching. And this is Larry Brown.

The only thing certain about that combination is that it’s sticky and complicated and no one really speaks the truth.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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