He chose pinstripes, a New York thing, with a stiff white collar and a charcoal tie, and the moment he came onto the floor there were boos and photographers and more boos and more photographers. He strode to center court like a presidential debater and shook a firm hand with Flip Saunders, the man who replaced him, then retreated to his new bench on the visitors’ side.
And when his name was called during introductions -“Welcome back to the Palace Larry Brown”- the boos really rained down and only Isiah Thomas stood beside him, his arm around the old coach’s shoulder, smiling impishly, whispering something in his ear.
For a minute Friday at the Palace, that looked to be all there was to this reunion night, Isiah and Larry, two men who won titles in this town, two men expelled from the Garden of Eden, embracing against the ugly reaction of a crowd.
But in the end, this wasn’t between a coach and a city. It wasn’t between a coach and the media. It was only between a coach and his former players. In his heart, that was the hug Larry Brown was looking for.
And just before the opening tap, he got it – first from Rasheed Wallace, who jogged over and threw his arms around Brown. And then Chauncey Billups, who danced over. Brown stood up, and the two – who had battled fiercely in Brown’s two seasons in Detroit – cemented their hello in a squeeze.
And then Tayshaun Prince, just ahead of Ben Wallace, just ahead of Richard Hamilton. They each took Brown around. And suddenly it was a team thing, the best starting five in basketball, acknowledging the man who had helped make them so.
If Larry Brown would take nothing else home from this night, he would take that.
The owner and his former coach
What he would not take was anything from the owner of this team, the white-haired man in the navy windbreaker, 83-year-old Bill Davidson, who shuffled into the building long after the game had begun.
“Terrible traffic,” he would later explain. Davidson was thus absent for all the drama, and that, one supposes, was the way he preferred it. Davidson likes quiet almost as much as he likes winning. But remember that for Larry and Isiah, the force behind their exiles was not newspaper columnists, angry fans or anybody wearing a uniform; it was Davidson, this savvy, wealthy, intensely private man who has owned the team for 31 years.
Davidson once loved Isiah – which meant Isiah had a future here. But once they had a falling out, Isiah no longer did. Brown once was embraced by Davidson, too. But once they had their falling out – and it was a real falling out – Brown was no longer welcome.
“I’d like to,” Brown said before the game, when asked if he had run into Davidson, “but it might be kind of hard.”
Also, a tad ingenuous. Let’s be honest. Brown took $7 million of Davidson’s money to leave for a Knicks job he really wanted anyhow. He got a quick jackpot from Davidson’s impatience with his shenanigans. To suddenly portray himself as a guy who wants to say “no hard feelings” is pretty gutsy, unless he wants to return some money.
“It’s done,” Davidson said at halftime. He shrugged. “It is what it is. It’s over with.”
And soon it was.
A winning record and a losing record
Oh, the Knicks made a game of it in the first half. The crowd was languid, the Pistons seemed sleepy, and New York dished and rebounded the way a Brown team does when it listens, and it was tied at 59 at halftime.
But Detroit flipped the defense switch, holding New York to eight points in the third quarter and held off a late charge to celebrate its 12th victory against two losses. Brown, at his new, richer job, fell to 5-10.
“They’re a special group,” Brown said after the 106-98 defeat.
Did the boos bother him?
“Ah, no, I don’t care,” he said. “Once you read some of the stuff that’s been out there
“I dreaded this game.”
Still, there’s a lesson here for Brown. It came from his new boss, Thomas, who once fell so far from grace with this team, you didn’t know if he’d ever set foot in the Palace again.
But time heals. The rift between Thomas and Davidson finally has softened. And Friday, as they unveiled Isiah’s No. 11 on the court, the crowd stood and cheered, and Davidson, at his seat, clapped along, and Thomas, usually loquacious, stammered, “I love you. Thank you, thank you, thank you and thank you.”
Who knows? Maybe, someday, there’ll be a moment like that for Larry Brown.
We should all live so long.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” at 2 p.m. today at Borders Books in Arborland in Ann Arbor.