The New Guy grabs a sub sandwich and takes a seat on the team bus. He talks while he eats, and a morsel of cheese lodges above his lip. He is wearing a plain black sweatshirt and plain black pants, an outfit that prompted him to ask a staff member: “Am I dressed OK?” But if it’s not OK, it is still who he is, nothing fancy, no complicated patterns, as basic as a sandwich and a bus ride downtown.
Tonight at the Palace, the New Guy, Flip Saunders, officially replaces the Old Guy, Larry Brown, and the question from Pistons fans will be: “What’s the difference?” Is it an upgrade or a downgrade? Who is this coach with a comedian’s first name and an athlete’s last name and a resumé that reads “one NBA team, no championship rings?”
Well, where do you begin? Larry Brown would begin with folksy tales of his hardscrabble New York childhood and the “amazing” influences in his life, from Dean Smith to Hank Iba to Red Holzman. And then he would go into the “amazing” players he had coached, from Allen Iverson to Reggie Miller to David Thompson. And then the “amazing” experiences of the Olympics and the NCAA championship and the NBA Finals. And just when you were overwhelmed by how “amazing” the man must be, he would drop a humility bomb and insist, aw, shucks, it’s nothing.
Saunders doesn’t do that. He doesn’t have a shtick. His voice might be foggy, but his answers are clear. If Larry Brown is a roomful of gaudy furniture, Flip Saunders is a finished basement and a beanbag chair.
“The one question I had coming to the Pistons was, if I say things to the players they don’t want to hear, will they say, Hey, we’ve won a championship and you haven’t?’ ” Saunders said Monday during a bus ride on a team visit to Children’s Hospital of Michigan. “But that hasn’t happened. Everything we’ve said, the players have been receptive to.”
“And what would you have done,” he was asked, “if they had answered, You haven’t won a championship and we have?’ “
“I’d say, You haven’t won one this year.’ “
Now, it is true, Saunders, the New Guy, won’t get you national headlines. This week, on its front page, USA Today screamed the question, “Can Larry Brown save the Knicks?”- even though the Knicks are a moribund franchise that has won nothing since the Willis Reed days. That’s Larry. He was recently a guest on David Letterman. He sat down with Charlie Rose. He is a traveling road show, with potions and testimonies and true believers swearing they were healed by his power. He is instant headline.
But Detroit has had enough headlines involving the coach. It wants headlines involving the team – and a title.
And Saunders? He just wants a home. A nice, calm, championship-caliber home.
“What I was looking for is to stay in one place – and it’s funny, you might not think it was here in Detroit because they’ve had two coaches in four years,” he said.
“But the reason I’m here more than anything is because of Joe (Dumars). Joe was very soft-spoken, but he can really get his point across. He doesn’t have to scream and yell at you. I wanted someone who was a very good communicator and is very open, and he is.
“And the other thing is, he lets you do your job. He doesn’t want you to think that there’s someone looking over your shoulder questioning. I was looking for that, too.”
“Besides that,” he added, “I wanted to win a championship.”
The New Guy continues eating his sandwich – a box of them is on the front seat – as the bus rolls down I-75. He answers questions about his childhood in Cleveland, his father, a custodian, his mother, a beautician. He remembers going to his mother’s shop -“Mary Kay’s Beauty Parlor”- and seeing the hair dryers lined up like space helmets. He remembers that his father’s car was stolen three times in the tough area where he worked, before he finally put in a device that would cut off the gas line after 400 yards, so at least the next time it was stolen he wouldn’t have to look far for it.
Saunders, 50, talks fondly about his family and its discipline, and it’s pretty obvious he is not on some lifetime quest for loving approval, the way Larry Brown has seemingly been since his salesman father died when Brown was 6 years old. Brown has wandered the basketball world looking for assurances, verbal hugs and pats on the back from management. When he didn’t get enough – and it was never enough – he got restless and moved on, as he eventually got restless and moved on from Detroit.
Saunders is the opposite. He worked one NBA city before this one – Minneapolis, where he was the Timberwolves’ general manager and then coach for nearly 10 years, and he likely would have stayed there if he hadn’t been let go.
Where Brown seeks the noise of drama, Saunders enjoys the quiet of consistency. His father was in the Marines, and he talks about being raised with military discipline but civil discourse.
“I don’t think I can ever remember my father raising his voice,” he said. “We knew what was expected of us. And you didn’t go over that line.”
Which is the way he likes to coach. No hysterics. No deep mood swings. Saunders has been called a players’ coach (a phrase that now, like “rock ‘n’ roll,” encompasses too many types to tell you anything). Saunders defines a players’ coach as “not a coach who’s soft on his players, but a coach who wants to know who his players are. I want to know if a guy has twins, or if he owns a car dealership. My players are human beings. Sometimes if they’re not performing on the court, there’s something going on off the court that’s bothering them.”
The bus pulls into downtown Detroit. There has been nary a conversation from the players sitting in the seats behind. Everyone is chilling, eating, sleeping. They are going to a team function at a hospital that will take up much of the afternoon. No one complains. This is how Saunders figures it should be.
If Larry was dramatic, Flip is pragmatic. Both men were point guards in their youth. Both played college basketball at major programs (Brown at North Carolina, Saunders at Minnesota). But while Brown went on to star in the ABA, Saunders tried out for an NBA team, nearly made it, but was told by Bill Fitch, then the Cavaliers coach: “If you keep playing, it’s gonna be a fight every year to make a team. If I were you, I’d get into coaching.”
Flip took his advice. It made sense. No hard feelings about hanging up the sneakers.
“I had just gotten married,” he said, “and anyhow, I’d always considered myself more of a coaching type.”
He did a lot of time in the ABA, winning honors behind the bench there, and then he joined the Timberwolves, mostly because of his college roommate and teammate, Kevin McHale, who was the team’s vice president of operations. In short time, McHale put his buddy behind the bench.
That was 10 years ago.
This past February, McHale let him go, midseason, and took over coaching himself.
It seems to be the only scar Saunders wears publicly.
“It was kind of a shock,” he admitted. “We had gone through a bad stretch, we had a lot of injuries, but there was never really a discussion of what was wrong. I think when a friend hires you you’d think he’d sit down and say, Listen, this isn’t working.’ But there wasn’t any of that.’ “
The two friends – who used to play late-night board games together – didn’t talk, Saunders said, for 10 months.
“I was hurt,” he admitted.
If with Brown this was a pattern, with Saunders, it’s a one-time experience he never wants to repeat. Perhaps that’s why he waited through several coaching opportunities to make sure he was working for someone he could trust and respect. He thinks he has found that in Dumars and Detroit – along with, oh, yeah, a pretty good basketball team.
“When I decided to take the job, Joe called me up and said, One thing you’re gonna find out, our guys leave their egos at the door.’ I thought, Yeah.’ But he was right. Since I’ve gotten here, that’s been the biggest surprise. I mentioned that to Joe, and he said, But I told you that.’ I said, Yeah, Joe, but a lot of people say those things.’ “
Say what you mean, mean what you say. It is a simple human exchange, but one that had been missing from the coach-front office-media triangle during the last tumultuous months of the Larry Brown era.
Tonight, a new era begins, likely to be less dramatic, less newsy and probably less glamorous. Saunders, who will live in a rented place this season while his wife and kids stay in Minnesota, stands up when the bus stops and tugs on his black sweatshirt. Like any man living alone, he rolls his eyes at the box of sandwiches.
“I could eat for a month,” he said.
Let the calmness begin.
FLIP HIT 1: HE’S FLEXIBLE
Pistons coach Flip Saunders has installed his own version of the flex offense, one of several differences you’ll see in this season’s team.
The flex offense is a motion offense that is supposed to create lots of movement and free up shooters and post players. The guards initiate most of the offense from the center of the court and the elbows (the wings, for you non-basketball junkies). The flex offense involves simultaneous shuffle cuts and screens set down low.
Keys to executing flex
Setting solid and timely screens.
Tight curls off the screen.
Finishing in the low post.
Giving ball fakes before making a pass.
Saunders explains the intricacies of the flex offense and why he brought it to Detroit.
How can you tell a team is running the flex offense? In a lot of offenses, two players will be involved in a screen situation away from the ball – the player setting the screen and the player coming off the screen. In the flex, three players might be involved, with two setting a double screen. Once a player comes off the double screen to take a pass, one of the guys setting the pick sets a screen for the third player. “There’s a lot of pick-to-pick-type action. We’ve expanded that to incorporate a lot of pick-and-rolls and some other things.”
How many options can you run? “Our flex is kind of our quick-attack offense. We probably have about 13 options off of it.”
The bottom line: “It becomes a fun offense to run, and it should become a situation where you’re reading everything and you’re able to make scoring-type cuts. In the offense almost every cut should be a scoring-type of a cut.”
By Chris Silva
FLIP HIT 3: HOW HE STACKS UP WITH LARRY
Who Pistons coach Former Pistons coach
Age 50 65 NBA record 411-326 (.558) 987-741 (.571) NBA teams 2 8 College Minnesota North Carolina Family Son Ryan, Univ. of Brother Herb, Atlanta Hawks
Minnesota walk-on assistant Dislikes Laziness Darko Might have trouble With expectations With Isiah In Minnesota Coached there Went to Mayo Clinic Current health Good Miraculously recovered Playoffs problem Losing in first round Interviewing with other teams Famous quote “Darko is a surprise” “This is my last stop” Notable Real name is Philip United Van Lines customer of the millennium Philosophy Flex offense Play the right way Three-pointers Likes them Hates them