Dear Larry Brown,
I owe you an apology. I've written repeatedly that no team coached by you would ever win an NBA championship, and now your Detroit Pistons have gone and won one. Congratulations, you've proved me wrong, and in most decisive fashion.
Somewhere in the third quarter of Tuesday night's 100-87 Game 5 win, maybe after Chauncey Billups' breakaway three-point play, the refs should have just waved their arms and called a TKO. It was that dominating a performance, the best of the four victories. The Lakers were stepping in post holes, answering phones that weren't ringing. The mere 13-point margin at the end was a result of garbage time. This was a colossal blowout.
History will remember this series as a huge upset. I've already seen it called the greatest upset in NBA Finals history, a claim I don't have the historical grounding to dispute, but it appeared in a British newspaper, so take it for what it's worth. But it's a bum rap, Larry. Your Pistons were the better team here. They were not only hungrier and deeper, they were better prepared, and that's on you.
The fact that oddsmakers and chatterers, and typists like me, failed to assess the situation properly -- and didn't know the vital Karl Malone would get hurt in Game 2, which robbed the Lakers of even the most desperate hope -- doesn't somehow make your Pistons' victory some kind of fluke. We were the ones out of our depth, not you guys.
So I apologize. I'm sorry. I underestimated you.
But let me say this: I don't think I underestimated your achievements prior to this year. What I underestimated was your ability to adapt, to change, to take a different approach.
For most of your career, you've been the reclamation guy, moving from town to town, taking on lousy teams and making them better, then moving on again before that team had a chance to either go to the next level or return to lousiness. It's a great way to earn a reputation as a supergenius -- assuming one is a good coach in the first place, of which there's no dispute in your case.
Not only does the team invariably improve, but it does so thanks to your flamboyant coaching gambits. Look! He's got five guards in the game! Look, they're in the box-and-one! "Brown Plays Every Card in Deck," read an admiring Philadelphia Inquirer headline after Game 3 of the 2001 Finals -- which your 76ers had lost to the Lakers.
You had become the Gene Mauch of basketball, widely acknowledged as a strategic genius and with nary a title to your name. (I know about the NCAA crown at Kansas. Minor leagues.) Funny how creative non-winning gets so much more respect than multiple championships. People often say Phil Jackson has won so many times because he's had so many years with a pair of transcendent players, even though, oddly, not one of those superstars he's coached to nine titles has ever won a championship for another coach.
But you changed your ways when you went to Detroit, Larry, you really did. The Pistons were the best team you ever took over, the first time you've ever taken the reins of a team with a winning record. Your charge this time wasn't to make the club respectable but to win a championship. You did it, and you did it in a way I didn't think we'd ever see you do anything: quietly.
Oh, you still yelled a lot. I don't mean that. What I mean is this series was refreshingly devoid of spectacular coaching gambits. You put the long-armed Tayshaun Prince on Kobe Bryant, which worked beautifully, but I think most coaches would have given that a try. And that was about it. The rest of the coaching job you did was mostly done before the Finals started.
You created an atmosphere in which the players on your roster could work together and get the most out of their talents. That's how championships are won. Not once did you put five guards or three power forwards on the floor or have your center play the point. It was a spectacularly unspectacular performance, one that, looking at the first three decades of your coaching career, I did not think you were capable of.
I was wrong about that. I apologize.
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Detroit? Riots? Perish the thought! [PERMALINK]
A few sensitive Michiganders wrote in after I joked Tuesday that given Detroit's status as a world leader in post-victory rioting, Detroit police should encourage marijuana use to calm the crowds, in imitation of a policy used by the Lisbon, Portugal, authorities to keep English soccer fans from getting too rowdy at Euro 2004 this week.
Since the 1984 rioting that followed the Tigers World Series victory, they uniformly informed me, the Pistons had won two championships and the Red Wings three without any civil disturbance. Detroit had turned over a new leaf since '84, and I owed the now peaceful city an apology for branding it a world leader in championship rioting.
Jimmy Kimmel had a show pulled off the air by ABC last week and was forced to apologize for a similar joke about Detroit -- not as funny, but he doesn't have this column's team of writers.
But I don't have to placate an angry Detroit affiliate, so no apology here.
The 1984 riots alone qualified Detroit as a world leader. And just because Detroit's defenders seem to have forgotten the deadliest post-championship celebration of them all, which followed the Pistons' victory in 1990, that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Seven people were killed and hundreds injured. If that's peaceful, I'd hate to see a riot.
The celebration in Detroit Tuesday night was reported to be as orderly as it was jubilant. There couldn't have been better news.
Previous column: Marijuana! Stat!
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