Though Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Larry Brown and Phil Jackson are the key figures in the NBA Finals that the Detroit Pistons can win with a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, perhaps no one has had more peripheral impact on the series than retired superstar Michael Jordan.

He helped Jackson earn six of his nine championship rings when they led the Chicago Bulls to two sequences of three consecutive title runs in the 1990s. In that stretch, the Bulls knocked off Gary Payton's Seattle SuperSonics in 1996 and Karl Malone's Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998. Both Payton and Malone, hoping to land an evasive title, signed free agent contracts with the Lakers last summer.

Jordan also is tied to Brown, who could win his first NBA championship in 32 years of coaching, through the unbreakable University of North Carolina bond. Then there's the Pistons' president of basketball operations, Joe Dumars, who was matched up against Jordan when Detroit squashed the Bulls' championship bids in the late 1980s then finally succumbed to Chicago when it began its championship reign in 1991.

Jordan, who as a player-president of basketball operations with the Washington Wizards traded Hamilton to the Pistons, in essence for Jerry Stackhouse -- a move that led Hamilton, once bitter about the deal, to say he would now tell Jordan thanks. Jordan joked that Dumars got some payback with that trade.

No matter which way the series ends, "I can't lose," Jordan said in a phone interview Monday. "I want Phil to win. Phil is the mainstay and he's a great coach. He's been through a tough year, trying to keep that team together. But that Carolina connection, I love Larry Brown. He's deserved to win a championship for years and he's finally in the position to do it, so I want him to win it. I also want Rip [Hamilton] to win and Joe Dumars to win it, too. I can't lose."

Jordan has strong feelings about those involved in this series but foremost he wanted to explain his rationale for trading Hamilton, his teammate in 2001-02.

Hamilton, Jordan said, wanted a contract extension, for around $8 million per year.

"It became a money issue," said Jordan, who ran the front office from January 2000 to September 2001 before playing for two seasons. "I took it to [Wizards owner] Abe Pollin and all the people involved and nobody felt comfortable about paying what he was asking. We told him that and he suggested we explore trades. We looked at the flip side of getting value back and figured if we trade this guy, we'd get value from Stackhouse, him being a mature player, a hop and skip from being an all-star player. Stackhouse had an opt-out in his contract and if he did, we were very flexible in the free agent department."

So flexible, they would have had enough room to try to lure Bryant or Minnesota's Kevin Garnett, Jordan said. But Pollin fired Jordan last spring and added two years onto Stackhouse's contract.

Hamilton, meantime, has emerged as a rising star in these finals, averaging 21.5 points. Being traded from Washington, which drafted him out of Connecticut in 1999, "was kind of tough because when they tell you that you're the franchise player and then all of a sudden they mess around and trade you, it's crazy," Hamilton said yesterday. "I just try to come out every night, play hard, just to prove to everybody that I can play at this level."

Jordan said he figured Hamilton would develop and that the Pistons, loaded with depth, defenders and having Brown as the coach, were a perfect fit for Hamilton. As for Brown, Jordan said, "He's finally got the right pieces to fit his coaching style." He went on.

"It's strictly defense with Larry, always has been," Jordan said. "He always had defense, but not enough offense. He's got the best of both worlds now." The same wasn't said for Jackson.

"He was dealt some tough cards," Jordan said. "A deck with Kobe being who he was, in terms of what he has to deal with personally [sexual assault charges]. You've got Gary, who's never really been in a structured system, Karl, who's only been in a structured system, and Shaq being the focal point. All those guys are adjusting to things, you've got egos to maneuver around and with that comes headaches because some players won't accept their roles.

"In Chicago, we were so good because players had to accept roles. The strongest personality was the one there the longest -- me -- then Scottie [Pippen]. Everybody else who came in had to fall in line. You had people who understood what their roles were. Scottie and I never battled about who was number one and who was number two. It made coaching so much easier and it made the system sellable. Now you've got four guys with the Lakers, with one guy willing to sacrifice everything to get a ring, another guy willing to sacrifice but also be an integral part and the other two who have been there for a while fighting over who's the number one option. That's tough.

"Phil's done a heck of a job to get this team where they are but now when you need sacrifice from everybody . . .

"Another thing that comes into play, is when you do something more than once, you lose some of that hunger to do it again. Those guys are trying to do something for the fourth time. That is so hard. I lived through that. You've got to keep reinventing challenges so you can maintain that hunger.

"If you don't, there's a team more hungry than you. They're going and getting those loose balls and making sure that every possession is important. With the Lakers, from what I've seen, every possession isn't important. They think they can turn it on and turn it off. That doesn't work and they've come up against that hungry team."

Malone Off the Hook

Karl Malone will not be charged in a confrontation with a fan who said the Lakers' forward poked him in the face before Game 3 of the NBA Finals in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Oakland County (Mich.) Prosecutor David Gorcyca said Monday that Malone did put a finger on Happy Asker's cheek, but it wasn't enough to warrant prosecution.

-- From News Services

"I want Phil [Jackson] to win," Michael Jordan said. But "I love Larry Brown." Richard Hamilton, now a bona fide NBA star with Detroit, played Tonto to Michael Jordan's Lone Ranger with the Wizards in 2002.