AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – The NBA finals were, of course, over.
The Los Angeles Lakers had quit a couple quarters, if not a couple games ago. All that remained for the Detroit Pistons was to ride out the final minutes with a twenty-something point lead and watch The Palace get primed for a Detroit party that won't stop.
But there was Larry Brown, deep into the fourth quarter of his dreams, tie still in a tight knot, suit still buttoned, calling plays no one could hear, no one would follow.
With his long-awaited NBA title finally in the bag, the coach couldn't stop coaching, couldn't stop teaching, couldn't stop demanding.
"LB showed America how basketball should be played," Pistons guard Richard Hamilton said.
There can no greater praise for Brown. And there can be no more appropriate epilogue to these NBA finals, in which the unheralded, underdog Pistons put on a clinic to humble and humiliate the Hall of Fame Lakers in five games.
Brown, already in the Hall of Fame, already universally respected, became the first coach to win both an NBA and NCAA title by putting his fingerprints all over this championship.
Naturally, he took none of the credit.
"You know," he said as softly as ever, "it's about players."
After the game Brown thanked about a 1,000 people. His first comments were about Rick Carlisle, the coach he replaced here. Then he talked about his old team in Philadelphia. Then the players the Pistons traded away in February to get Rasheed Wallace. He eventually got to his current roster and wound up getting through the entire Detroit organization. At least those employees whose names he knew.
Later, in The Palace's back hallways, Brown shook waitresses' hands and slapped security guards on the back. He even hugged Al Michaels.
Thirty two seasons, 63 years, eight pro franchises, two college campuses and nothing changes. Brown still is the basketball purist he was growing up in Long Beach, N.Y. in the 1950s watching Red Holzman run practice with the New York Knicks. He still is the perfectionist he was playing for Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina.
He still is the underdog who, until coming to Detroit last summer, never had inherited a winning NBA team yet posted better than .500 seasons in 28 of his 32 years (including a stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, for heavens sake).
He still is the guy who, before the game, on the biggest night of his career, sat in his small office and worried about his guys playing the game the right way.
"I told them before the game, 'It would be great statement if we [won] because we do play the right way and we are truly a team,'" Brown said. "This sport is about playing the right way and showing kids you can be a team and be successful."
In the end, after all the close calls and all the franchise-hopping and all the rebuilding jobs, there couldn't have been a better way for Larry Brown to finally collect his championship. He didn't win it with a collection of future Hall of Famers. This wasn't the work of one individual super talent – finals MVP Chauncey Billups has never even been an All-Star.
But facing long odds against the Lakers, Brown's Pistons never feared, never doubted, never panicked. Las Vegas made them 8-1 underdogs. Brown made them feel like the favorites. Then they went out and defended, rebounded, passed and played together. They ripped out whatever heart the luxury Lakers had in them and stomped it.
This was the ultimate triumph of team.
"Since this is toward the end of it for me," said Brown, who at 63 is the oldest man to ever win an NBA title, "the way we did it against such a quality coach and a quality team, it's a pretty incredible feeling."
It hardly looked like Brown was feeling incredible. In the aftermath of Game 5 he was calm and composed as if it were a preseason game.
Maybe it hadn't sunk in yet. Maybe he was too afraid to act like a jerk as a winner after all those years of coming up short. Maybe it just isn't in him to crack a celebratory smile.
"I think it just hasn't hit him yet," laughed Billups. "He's probably ready to practice in the morning for three hours."
If he could, you know he would.
"I remember Chuck Daly told me something one day," said Brown, beginning the story like a teacher sharing some great wisdom, talking in a way that makes everyone lean forward and pay attention. "'When you finally do win one, you won't appreciate it until you're driving down the highway one day and you'll get a big grin on your face.'
"I'm sure I'm going to have it now," he said. "I'm sure."
- Larry Brown
- NBA finals