He was there for the Pistons’ two NBA championships, and he knew as much about those teams as anyone.

He was there for the Pistons’ slide into mediocrity, and it broke his heart, because he knew why it happened.

He was there for the start of the Pistons’ rebirth — Grant Hill, Allan Houston — and he taught them, tutored them, cajoled them.

Now the Pistons are booting him out.

Never mind that no one will “officially” admit the Pistons’ coaches are history, done like a burnt steak. Unless every Palace whisper is a lie — and have you ever noticed how many whispers are uttered in that building? — you can say good- bye to Don Chaney, K.C. Jones . . .

. . . and Brendan Malone.

Chaney, we will talk about when it happens. And Jones, a class guy, has been with the team only a year.

But Brendan Malone? He has been here since 1988. Given this team all he had. And I want to talk about him now — because nobody ever does.

He went to the Palace on Tuesday like a high school player forced to watch his final game from the bench. Nobody paid tribute. Nobody said thanks.

And that’s just wrong. Here is a guy who has coached at every level, high school, college, NBA, he has been the right- hand man to Hubie Brown, Rick Pitino, Chuck Daly, he has forgotten more basketball than many people in the game will ever know, and not once — not once! — has he received serious consideration for a head-coaching job.

Daly left, the Pistons imported Ron Rothstein over Malone.

Rothstein left, they promoted Chaney over Malone.

“I don’t know why,” he says. “I think some people think I’m too passive or not political. But none of those people really know me. They’ve never seen me as a head coach. I know what I can do. I know I can win.” Always the willing teacher

He is talking over a bowl of soup a few hours before the Pistons’ last game at the Palace this season. It is almost certainly Malone’s last game there, too. His contract is up. The paychecks stop next month. He says his wife gets the good- bye look now from people in the grocery stores. He worries about his teenage daughter, who has one year left in high school here. Malone, 52, has survived three coaching regimes with this franchise — and each time, he was asked to stay by the incoming coach.

The Pistons might want to know why.

Maybe it’s because he knows the game so thoroughly. When Daly needed the dope on the opposing team, when he needed to know who goes right, who goes left, or what play to expect after a time-out, he could count on Malone.

When Rothstein needed someone to “do the board” before the game, showing players whom they would guard, whom they could exploit, how they could best get their shots off, he turned to Malone.

When Chaney needed someone to eagle-eye the rookies, tell them how to arch their jumpers, how to box out, he had Malone.

“Coaching is about teaching, and I love to teach,” he says. “My life is the game. Like with Grant. I wanted to show him his potential, so I put together a tape of Michael Jordan’s career at different stages of development. Let him see how even a superstar improves.”

You know how some people just get a reputation, and you keep assuming it’s true, even though you have no evidence? I think that’s what happened with Malone. He came in under Daly, and he and Brendan Suhr were always thought of as “assistants” — never head men. The longer Malone played that role, the more people assumed it was true.

But as Malone points out, you can’t act like a head guy when you’re an assistant. “One time, with Chuck, I jumped off the bench to scream at a play
— and he jumped all over me, telling me to sit down.

“No head coach wants the assistant to overshadow him. I know that. I do the job I’m hired for. I believe in being a professional.”

He’s paying a price for it. Words of wisdom: Never stop learning

Look at other coaches around the NBA. Some came out of college (P.J. Carlesimo); some came out of retirement (Bill Fitch, Dick Motta); some had no head-coaching experience before this level (Alvin Gentry).

Malone has all the credentials — and many quiet endorsements. Ex-Pistons Dennis Rodman and Vinnie Johnson told Malone he should have been the coach. And those who remember his head-coaching days in college, say he was aggressive and demanding — unlike his reputation here.

Malone, too polite to bad-mouth anyone, only shrugs. He is one of those old gym rats from New York City, grew up on asphalt courts, played college ball there, won awards as the best high school coach in the city. He married his teenage sweetheart, who used to keep score for him on the outdoor games. He has 25 years in this business, has scouted, analyzed, advised and devised. He is a diamond, waiting for a polish.

And Detroit has most likely seen the last of him.

“You know, I once had the chance to sit next to Adolph Rupp,” he says. “He was retired, but he came to watch the NIT at Madison Square Garden. I said,
‘What are you doing, Coach?’ And he said, ‘I’m studying and I’m learning.’

“And he was in his 80s. That’s how I see this game. You never stop studying and learning.”

He gets up to go, not wanting to be late, even for a team that no longer wants him. That day with Rupp, he also asked another question: What’s it like to be out of coaching? The old man looked at him.

“It’s like losing a life.”

Brendan Malone deserves better. If there’s any justice, he’ll get it — here or somewhere else.

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