No matter if you think Larry Brown ran out on the Pistons or got fired or left because of a medical condition that now is suddenly the Knicks' very interesting problem, there was something fundamentally sad about Friday night's game at the Palace of Auburn Hills in which Richard Hamilton scored a season-high 40 points to lead Detroit to a 106-98 win.
The sad part came when Brown talked an hour and a half before tipoff about his sense of "dread."
There will be arguments forever around here about just how much he meant to the 2004 Pistons. But there is no denying that he did guide them to a championship. It was his crowning achievement as an NBA coach, in a distinguished Hall of Fame career. It gave him the rarest daily double in basketball circles: the only coach to win an NCAA title and also pose with the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
But he couldn't even enjoy what should have been his night in the spotlight.
"I just want to get this over with," he said.
When the boos came during introductions, they were loud, but perhaps not as venomous as the kind awaiting Ron Artest. What the moment proved is that fans here do remember Brown's contribution to the 2004 team, but will always think that the Pistons could have won back-to-back titles if Brown had not decided to plan his getaway long before Game 7 in San Antonio. Of course, he's mostly to blame.
But what other coach who has won a title - in any sport - went back to the city where he enjoyed a season of sheer glory and actually expressed such gloom and doom? Anyone? Ever? The look on Brown's face was as if he was awaiting a date with the executioner. He got heckled on occasion. Yet, it never got close to what Pat Riley faced when he returned to the Garden. When it was over with another Knicks' loss, 106-98, Brown was entertaining old friends in the cramped visitors' locker room. At one point, Greg Kelser, the old Piston, dropped in to shake hands.
Brown managed a smile. Nearby, Antonio Davis finished dressing. If anyone knows how Brown had to feel about the entire night, it was Davis, who goes all the way back to Brown's days in Indiana.
"I don't think he liked coming here for this," Davis said. "I don't think he liked all the cameras and the questions and all the stuff surrounding the game...I think he feels relieved now that it's over and he can just go back to coaching basketball games."
For how long, though? Brown raised the issue himself on the eve of his return by saying that there's no guarantee he can coach the whole season because of his unresolved bladder condition. So what shaped up as the longest three hours in Brown's life was small potatoes, in the big scheme of things. If misses time to address his health, then the rebuilding that he has been entrusted withwill not go forward. Ask the Pistons if not having Brown on the sidelines is the same as having him coaching their team. Without him for 17 games last season, they were 9-8.
If the Knicks have to sub Herb Williams for Brown, sorry, but it's not going to be the same as having the genuine item. There is no substitute. Isiah Thomas would have been a good person to talk to about this issue, since he hired Brown and knew his problem. And, just our luck, Thomas was at The Palace on Friday night to see his name placed in posterity again, in a special section of flooring for Pistons legends. But Thomas wasn't talking, according to his spokesman. So it was left to Brown to try to explain why he still needs, what, surgery. "I don't know yet," he said. "They just want me to wait until after the season."
And why didn't he get it done before taking the team to Charleston, South Carolina, for training camp?
"No, when I came back from the Mayo Clinic, the doctors wanted me to rest," he said. "Then (Knicks director of player care) Lisa (Callahan) got on it after she heard from Mayo. And since then I've - nobody has had any definitive thing...And they asked me to wait. Because it might take awhile."
Clearly, Brown doesn't know what's in store. But the way he looked at Auburn Hills, it can't be as painful as what he had to endure Friday night.
In other NBA action: Milwaukee 105, Washington 102; Toronto 102, Atlanta 101; Chicago 106, Boston 102; Memphis 91, Orlando 69; Phoenix 102, Denver 97; New Orleans 88, Philadelphia 86; Indiana 98, Portland 78; Miami 98, Sacramento 87; Minnesota 113, LA Lakers 108; Seattle 115, Cleveland 108; Golden State 107, Charlotte 100.