WHY THE PISTONS CUT BROWN LOOSE

Larry Brown is leaving town. Fired. Splitting. Cut loose. Let go. Bought out. Paid off. Came to an agreement. Pick your phrase. Who cares? Coaching in the NBA is about doors opening and closing. Words don’t matter. Hinges do.

Larry Brown is leaving town. It was as inevitable as a thunderstorm in the summertime. After one championship, one near-miss and three years left on his five-year contract, the Pistons are cutting the cord. That’s the What.

Now to the Who, When, Where and Why.

First the Who. That’s simple. Bill Davidson, the Pistons’ owner. Every few years I have to write this as if it’s news because the rich man with the white hair and the perpetual windbreaker does such a good job of staying under the radar, people forget he signs the checks. But this was, is and always will be his call.

And it should be, because it’s his money.

Sure, maybe Larry, deep down, wanted out of Detroit, but he’d never say so loudly, because it could have cost him $18 million.

And sure, maybe deep down, Joe Dumars was tired of Larry’s act. But know this: Dumars, the president of basketball operations, doesn’t hire and fire when the cost is $18 million. That’s the boss’ job. If Davidson wanted Brown to stay, there is nothing Dumars could have done to make him go – and vice versa.

I don’t say this as someone who knows and likes Dumars. I say this as someone who understands business and gets Bill Davidson. You don’t reach the billionaire club by relying on uncertain assets. A coach who has gone under the knife several times in the last year, a coach who can’t verbally commit to full-time attendance, a coach who is 64 years old and who openly flirts with other job opportunities – with or without permission – is not a reliable asset.

My guess is, Mr. D put the risk on one side, the cost on the other, then made his call.

His team. His money. His decision.

More pop psychology

Now to the When. The actual parting is still in the works. A buyout of some kind will be the likely conclusion. Let’s face it. Brown’s early departure was always headed to the lawyers’ desks; you don’t just kiss good-bye and grab a suitcase full of money.

But the real When probably began when Brown told the New York Post in January that coaching the Knicks was always his “dream job.” It worsened when Brown didn’t have his surgery over the All-Star break but instead did so a few weeks later, when the season had resumed, then took a long time getting back. There was tension over both incidents, in management as well as in the locker room. The whole Cleveland debacle didn’t help. And Brown’s inability to firmly commit to a healthy next year likely tipped the jar off the ledge.

But then, the When is not as important as the Why.

And on that you can read a million columns and get a million different points of view. Nearly every sports writer who deals with Larry Brown ends up playing armchair psychiatrist, because Larry’s words say one thing but his actions often say another.

For what it’s worth, here’s my pocket Sigmund Freud. Larry Brown is a good friend to his friends and endears himself to certain media types because those people can do for him the thing he most needs: tell him they love him. Tell him he’s great. Tell him over and over. Tell him like they mean it – because they do.

With management types – and with certain players – Larry has more difficulty, because those folks rarely love any coach all the time and they certainly don’t love him forever. So, inevitably, Brown wears out his welcome and he gets a bit antsy and he hears the siren call of someone else wooing him, telling him he’s wonderful, and he follows it. And he can. Because he’s a terrific coach, and he usually leaves the money on the table and doggone it, some people really do love him.

But others can’t take him. They can’t take his moods. They can’t take his endless need for reinforcement. Players respect Brown for his marvelous basketball knowledge, but, after a point, he can lose them. They see through his self-absorption. Some of them stop listening. The Pistons have a recent history of splitting with coaches before that affliction gets too serious. They did so again Monday.

And that, as far as this space is concerned, covers the Why.

Wish him the very best

Which leaves only the Where. As in “Where do the Pistons go next?” And “Where does Larry go next?”

To the former, I say: Flip Saunders.

To the latter, I say: If you’re a Detroiter, who cares?

Saunders will take over a great team, and we’ll find out if he’s a great coach. He doesn’t bring anywhere near Brown’s pedigree. He has no championship rings. But he’s solid and reliable and rightly or wrongly, Dumars, a former player, believes a great roster needs only a steady hand on the wheel, not a bejeweled one.

As for Larry, who knows? Much will depend on the terms of the buyout. If it prohibits him from doing certain jobs, he won’t do them. But if the cuffs are off, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cleveland, as a consultant, is a possibility, or the Knicks job he dreamed of as a kid. Or maybe even nothing for a year. Who knows? Who ever knows? As much as I like Larry and admire his coaching skill, I am very happy to announce that as of this moment, I am officially out of The Larry Brown Prediction Business.

But not before saying this: Brown deserves a thank-you. It is easy to let a man’s departure shade his tenure, but that would be unfair, for Brown brought the Pistons their first championship in 14 years. No one can deny he was a huge part of that. And despite all the histrionics during these recent playoffs, Brown took the 2004-05 team to the fourth quarter of the seventh game of the NBA Finals. And the Pistons didn’t lose that game because of bad coaching.

When Brown was hired, if you had asked his bosses if they’d take one championship and one near-championship – in the first two years – they would have swooned. Brown gave them that, more than he ever gave any other NBA team. It would be wrong to be ungrateful. It would be wrong to kick him on the way out.

Larry Brown is leaving town. It sounds like a nursery rhyme, it plays like a soap opera. In the end, all you can really say is that, time after time, Brown truly is like that summer thunderstorm. You know it’s coming. And you know it’s going.

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). To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

(SIDEBAR) HOW WE’LL REMEMBER BROWN

* Playing the right way.

* His rather scholarly look, with those glasses. His deadpan way of talking.

* How he kept saying this really would be his last job and we wanted to believe it, because how could he ever hope to find a better situation?

* All that Carolina Family stuff.

* His specialty, molding point guards like Chauncey Billups.

* How he nailed Darko Milicic to the bench.

* Same for LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony at the 2004 Olympics.

* His run-in with the Spanish Olympic coach for calling that late time-out at Athens.

* His compliments from the Pacers for calling that late time-out for Reggie Miller’s curtain call.

* Upsetting the Lakers in the ’04 NBA Finals.

* Upsetting the Pistons with all the rumors he was leaving during the ’05 playoffs (though we can’t say that’s why they lost to the Spurs).

— STEVE SCHRADER

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