The loading dock area where the players come out was still mobbed with people, nearly an hour after the game. They thumped ThunderStix and screamed at a glimpse of their heroes. Ben Wallace hid inside his SUV, talking on the phone, waiting for the crowd to clear. Tayshaun Prince tried to stay out of sight, against the wall, but someone spotted him and began screaming, “Tayshaun! Tayshaun!” and soon a hundred people were screaming it, too. Rip Hamilton emerged through the door and blinked, as if he’d awoken to find a marching band in his bedroom.
Larry Brown was long gone. He had exited much earlier, with his wife and his children, quietly, as if leaving a recital. You might have thought Brown, who has waited longer than anyone else in these NBA Finals for a championship ring, would be tempted to stick around, milk the moment, soak in the hysteria of his third victory in this series, only one more for the crown.
But those who know Brown best will tell you in his heart he is a teacher. And a teacher goes home when the class is over — satisfied, if he’s lucky, that the students absorbed what he was saying.
What can Brown do for you? That’s the tag line of a popular commercial, but it could be the mantra of Larry Brown’s professional life. He has hammered his NBA shoe leather in New Jersey, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Indiana, Denver and Los Angeles, but only in Detroit has he come this close to delivering the golden slipper. He arrived last summer as a 62-year-old man with a suitcase and a hotel room. He still doesn’t have his family with him full time. In fact, Brown likely will have an NBA championship in Detroit before he actually moves into a house here. How’s that for focusing on the task at hand?
“Are you worried,” a foreign reporter asked him Sunday night, “that your team will read about how no team has come back from a 3-1 deficit and get overconfident?”
Brown chuckled. “I like it better this way than the other way,” he said. “I’ve been in that other locker room.”
There’s a Yiddish word called “tzuris,” which, like many words in that language, sounds a lot like what it is, a tongue cluck, trouble, headache, anxiety. “Such tzuris!” a Jewish grandmother will say. Larry Brown, who is Jewish, invoked the word the other night in his locker room. He had been talking about his Detroit players, how lucky he felt, how they didn’t complain about his coaching moves, even when it meant they had to sit. He gave that familiar shrug and he lifted his eyebrows and said, in that croaky voice, “We haven’t had, you know what they call it, tzuris? . . .”
So there’s your formula for an NBA crown.
From Daly to Irvine to Brown
Chuck Daly, now 73, was in the Palace seats Sunday night, looking dapper, as usual, his hair neatly coiffed. He is the last coach to lead this franchise to a championship. There have been quite a few failed attempts since.
There was Ron Rothstein, who was judged to have screamed too much, and Don Chaney, who was judged to have screamed too little. There was Doug Collins, who again screamed too much, same for Alvin Gentry. There was George Irvine, a temporary bridge, and then Rick Carlisle, an up-and-coming coach for what by then had become an up-and-coming team, mostly because there was no place to go but up.
Carlisle would prove to be a Moses of sorts, taking his group to the edge of the Promised Land but allowed, in the end, only to watch from afar. Brown, a coaching Methuselah, was hired to close the deal.
“You know, when I look at our roster and I see no Michael Curry, no Chucky Atkins, no Cliff Robinson, that bothers me,” Brown says, “because they helped build the foundation for what’s here.
“But this group . . .” He shakes his head in admiration. “I’ve never had a group of kids work harder together.”
That may be because they were mostly in sync when Brown arrived. And they were certainly hungry. Unlike his other stops, where Brown had to saw the sandbox and haul in the sand, here he only had to build the castle. Joe Dumars, the president of basketball operations, handed him a group of nearly developed lions, and added a stallion to the mix midway through the season. Rasheed Wallace gave Brown the final piece of his opus.
From then on, it was all about his conducting.
But make no mistake: Brown has swung the baton. If you think all it takes is talent, why aren’t the Lakers up, 3-1? In fact, should the Pistons win it all tonight, it will be the first time in recent NBA memory that no superstar will be credited for leading a team to glory, no Michael Jordan, no Shaq or Kobe, no Tim Duncan, no Hakeem Olajuwon. It really is, you’ll pardon the cliche, a team effort. And in such a case, the coach must get his due.
This Pistons season has been a constant echo of Brown yelling “defend, defend” and “rebound, rebound” and “share the ball, share the ball, share the ball.” (Nowhere in there do you hear “slam dunk” or “three-pointer,” because Brown is old enough to consider those things gimmicky, even if they are staples of the league.)
But by pulling back the reins when he has to (persuading Chauncey Billups to sacrifice points for playmaking) and by letting them loose when he needs to (encouraging Tayshaun Prince’s offense or Rasheed Wallace’s free-form personality), Brown has gotten his horses in a rhythm, a collective gallop to the finish.
“LB is what I call a player’s coach,” Rasheed said. “Pound-for-Pound, he’s cool.”
A low-key figure
If Brown should win the title tonight, he’d be the oldest NBA coach to do so. Yet despite that engaging fact, there are still those who do not like Brown. Philadelphia, for starters. No matter what you say about him, certain voices in that city insist he’s fraudulent, a con, he’ll burn you in the end.
All Detroit can say is he hasn’t shown that here. Brown may be the suitcase professor, another train always on his horizon, but he has gone out of his way to be respectful, he’s humble to a fault, and he certainly has put in the hours (drop by early mornings at the Pistons’ practice facility). If his patter is laced a bit with self-pity, self-doubt or self-effacement, well, first of all, what coach’s patter couldn’t use some improvement? And besides, wouldn’t you rather have a guy pay lip service to “the great kids” and “the great organization” rather than say, “I’m in charge. It’s all my doing”?
Maybe Philly is mad that he left, but that should be a compliment. There’s a reason the 76ers didn’t even make the playoffs this year, and the Pistons are one victory from their first title in 14 seasons.
Isn’t it obvious?
“Coach Brown doesn’t encourage us to go out and win a championship for him,” Ben Wallace said Sunday night. “He wants us to enjoy this but to realize what’s on the line. He says look at him. He’s been in this game for a number of years and never won it all, and he’s coached a lot of guys who have made it to this point and never got back.
“So yeah, it’d be a great feeling to be on the first team of his to win an NBA championship. For a guy who’s already a Hall of Fame coach, you know, that’s pretty special.”
What can Brown do for you?
One more victory
You look at Phil Jackson, who has nine championship rings as a coach, who got Karl Malone and Gary Payton for a price nobody else could, who has never failed in an NBA Finals but has never been to one without Jordan or Shaq — you look at him, and then you see Brown on the other end, shuffling Elden Campbell for Ben Wallace and Lindsey Hunter for Chauncey Billups and Darvin Ham for Corliss Williamson, and you can’t help but think, it’s a nice story, isn’t it?
For all the dips and ducks, for the early part of the season, when the Pistons were struggling to get accustomed to Brown’s system, for the early part of the playoffs, when the Pistons rose and fell emotionally, for the Game 7 they needed to fend off New Jersey, for the unexpectedly flat performance in Game 4 against Indiana, for the last 11 seconds of Game 2 in this series, when the Pistons didn’t foul and Kobe Bryant hit the shot that prevented what might have been a Detroit championship already — a moment that made Brown “suicidal” on the plane ride home — for all that, there is this: the old guy departing early Sunday night, his wife and kids in tow, leaving the raucous noise to the men who broke a sweat.
“I’m enjoying this so much, I can’t tell you,” he said a few days back. “My wife keeps telling me I’d better make sure I enjoy it, because you know how hard it is to get here. I think the team knows, too.”
He paused, then lifted his eyebrows. “Except maybe Darko and Memo. I try to tell them, ‘This is like the World Cup.’ “
Still teaching. What can Brown do for you? He has nearly done, in one season, all that Dumars, his boss, could ask, all that his owner, Bill Davidson, could ask, all that the fans in Detroit could ask, and, most important, all that the players on his roster could ask. The suitcase professor has helped instruct them how to win, and he is leading them through the “tzuris” to their — and his — graduation day.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org”