One of Larry Brown's dearest friends once described him as "the vagabond genius of basketball coaching." It should come as no surprise that Brown appears ready to leave Detroit even though the Pistons are defending their championship in the Eastern Conference finals. This isn't new. In fact, it's pretty standard stuff for the vagabond genius. In 1983, on April 7, with six games left in the regular season and his New Jersey Nets cruising into the playoffs with a 47-29 record, Brown resigned. Bang, zoom, gone. Went to the University of Kansas -- where, by the way, he would lead the Jayhawks to an NCAA championship.
You want more? On Jan. 21, 1992, Brown was coaching the San Antonio Spurs, who were in no trouble at 21-17, good for second place in the division. Only 16 days later, Brown was coaching the Los Angeles Clippers, whom he led to the playoffs that season and the next. His resume is marked by brilliance and brevity. The Pistons knew when they hired Brown two years ago that he wasn't going to be around forever, and chances were he'd never see the beginning of a third season on the sideline in Detroit.
Everybody knows this about Larry Brown, his closest friends, his former players, his former employers, his peers, the people who run the NBA, coaches in France and Romania. Who could walk away from a UCLA team that went to the NCAA championship game in 1980? Only Larry Brown. Who could leave a team immediately after winning a championship at Kansas? Only Larry Brown. Who could begin to walk away from a team chasing a second consecutive NBA championship? Only Larry Brown. Only a man supremely confident yet obviously insecure could always say by taking on a new project, "I can do that," then make good on the promise and in quick time be ready for a new project.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that Brown is looking to leave. That's not necessarily so. He fulfilled contracts at Kansas and with the Philadelphia 76ers. But usually, people come looking for him. Abe Pollin's first choice two years ago following the Michael Jordan fiasco was Larry Brown. All four ABA teams that joined the NBA (Nets, Nuggets, Spurs, Pacers), he coached 'em all. That doesn't even include the Carolina Cougars. You can't really beat Coach Brown, not in college and not in the pros (okay, maybe in the Olympics), so you might as well get him to join you. Everybody calls Larry Brown, and new Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is the most recent guy with a team, a need and Brown's phone number. He's always recruitable.
Because we all know Brown is a short-term guy, there's no sense in being angry about him leaving. You think the Pistons wouldn't fire Rick Carlisle again if it meant winning one championship and chasing another under Brown? Of course they would. It's a no-brainer. The notion that the Detroit players somehow resent Brown and that this episode is a distraction in their pursuit of another championship is silly. Pros don't play for the Gipper. They play for themselves, and they're accustomed to all kinds of melodrama within the confines of a team. This Brown-to-Cleveland thing isn't even a head turner, much less a distraction when it comes to battling Miami.
Still, the timing is awfully strange. One of the things Brown still hasn't addressed as he kinda sorta semi denies the reports that he's going to run the Cavaliers next season is why he hasn't simply told Gilbert, "Wait." He should have instructed his attorney, Keith Glass, to tell Gilbert, "Call this number before the end of the playoffs and there will never be a conversation about the Cavaliers."
How difficult would it be to say that if you're Larry Brown and the other guy, desperate to make his franchise legit, wants you? Brown has all the leverage here, Gilbert has none. And if Gilbert insists on hiring a president or GM right now, then good riddance to the Cavaliers. When did that become such a great job? How many times, exactly, has LeBron James taken the Cavaliers to the playoffs so far? Right, none. And he could leave as a free agent in two years. Who needs whom in this scenario?
Brown has the perfect out already. He's 64 years old, turning 65 in September. He's had one health problem after another. Hip surgery back in the fall led to a bladder infection and a second surgery that has made him so uncomfortable he probably shouldn't be coaching. And he's coached year-round, including the Olympics last summer. It's time for him to take a break from coaching. He's earned it. He's the only coach ever to win titles in the NBA and the NCAA. He's the list, the whole list. Brown could have said, especially since the health issues are common knowledge, "I can't coach anymore. I want to run a team."
But by semi-denying any involvement with Cleveland, Brown has boxed himself in. If he takes this gig when the playoffs end, he'll look like a liar. And he'll look like he quit on his team, which is unforgivable for a man who talks so sincerely about "playing the right way." There's nothing right about negotiating with one club, a division rival no less, while trying to lead another club in the chase for a championship. Brown wouldn't tolerate that from a player. He could have dictated the terms of this courtship but didn't, if these reports turn out to be true.
This Dan Gilbert must be a persuasive sort. In NBA circles they're comparing him to Dan Snyder. It's not a favorable comparison. So far, Gilbert has fired a coach, Paul Silas, and that didn't work out. The Cavs, even with LeBron leading the way, missed the playoffs again. Gilbert seems to have a fascination, like that other Dan who lives here, with all things famous and powerful, whether or not the pieces fit or make any sense.
For instance, Brown is a great coach, a Hall of Fame coach. But he's notoriously impatient. He wants to trade half the team every week. He did that in Philly not very long ago. Anybody who has been around Brown for any length of time has heard him talk lovingly about a player for months and months, then turn after three bad performances and want to trade the same player.
But it's okay for a coach to have that temperament. A coach needs to win today. The primary club executive has to be concerned with the overall health of the club, which means acknowledging the existence of a tomorrow. Brown would have traded everybody on the U.S. Olympic team except Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Lamar Odom if he could have. Brown is the ultimate example of why a team needs a GM, somebody to rein in guys like Larry Brown. And that's okay. But as club president, Brown would have to be a completely different animal than he is now.
And there's one thing we all know about Brown, even his dear friend Tony Kornheiser who has known him for nearly 50 years and came up with the perfect phrase, "Vagabond genius of basketball coaching." It's not a nickname, it's an accurate description of his life so far . . . and it's difficult to imagine him changing.