By Jason Whitlock
Special to Page 2

SAN ANTONIO – Here, at the NBA Finals, Larry Brown garners about as much respect from members of the media as Darko Milicic, the youngster driving the wedge between Brown and the Pistons organization.

Yes, it's true. Darko, the 7-foot teenager Joe Dumars fell in love with before the 2003 draft, will go down in history as the boy who cost Detroit three potential Hall of Famers – Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Larry Brown.

Larry Brown
The Pistons should give Brown some time off to fix his health issues and then bring him back.

Here, at the NBA Finals, my peers in the media are reluctant to draw the obvious connection. Brown has the Pistons on the brink of a second straight championship, and no one thinks it's odd that Dumars and Pistons owner Bill Davidson aren't willing to do everything within their power to retain the game's greatest mind and keep this budding dynasty together. No one thinks the Pistons were foolish for granting the Cavs permission to talk to Brown.

It's easier to just assume, given Brown's history of constant movement, that Larry Brown would much rather be president of the Cavaliers or Isiah Thomas' $10-million-a-year savior in New York. To assume that Larry really wants to be president of the Cavs is downright silly. He's a coach. The flirtation with Dan Gilbert is nothing more than an emergency health plan and, more important, a push for additional leverage.

Leverage with whom is the only question.

Here, at the NBA Finals, it seems quite plausible that Brown wanted the leverage to use in his Dumars wrestling match, a scrum that revolves around the little-used, constantly confused and butt-of-joke-abused Milicic.

Darko, the new millennium Sam Bowie, is the lone blemish on Dumars' otherwise spotless résumé as an NBA executive. Dumars wants the blemish removed, and he wants it erased immediately – Dumars wants Darko on the court. Brown, who loathes young players, is standing in the way of popping the Darko pimple. Brown, therefore, must be squeezed, popped and eradicated too.

To that end, Dumars, his front-office henchmen and media puppets have systematically used Brown's history of moves, visible insecurities and high-maintenance tendencies as handy tools to paint Larry, first, as an impediment to this year's championship, and now, in obvious desperation after the Pistons dug out from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits, as a stumbling block in a potential threepeat.

I realize Brown hasn't been the most loyal coach, so he makes it difficult for an organization to show him loyalty. But sports, particularly professional sports, are all about results. Brown's results should buy him loyalty. The Pistons are not going to find a better coach.

You follow?

Brown has been getting creamed by the Detroit media all season. When he was slow to come back from midseason hip surgery, rumors swirled that the Pistons wanted to replace him.

"I actually heard I was going to be fired," Brown told me.

A column in the Detroit Free Press that dealt with the Cleveland affair called Brown "a liar" and never even attempted to back up the allegation. When it looked as though the Pistons were going to lose to the Heat, members of the media claimed that Brown's "negotiations" with the Cavaliers caused the Detroit players to tune him out. When the Pistons fell behind 0-2 in the Finals largely because Ben Wallace was a no-show, Sports Illustrated reported that a "source" within the Pistons organization said Ben-zilla's play was affected by the Brown distraction.

Now that the Pistons have forced a Game 7 with an absolutely incredible four-game run that featured the two most efficient performances in Finals history – a four-turnover rout in Game 4 and a five-turnover performance in Game 6 – the spin doctors are left to predict next-season doom when dissing Brown.

Is there one piece of evidence that the Pistons are tuning out Brown? No. To the contrary, never have the Pistons seemed more in tune with their head coach, the former ABA point guard who is an NBA point guard's best friend and worst nightmare.

Chauncey Billups is the MVP of this series regardless of which team wins tonight. Billups is the reason there's a Game 7. He's the reason the Pistons have a shot at being regarded as great. Billups is a direct reflection of Brown. And Billups' 39-minute, zero-turnover performance Tuesday night says all you need to know about Brown's ability to reach, motivate and guide his team.

We're witnessing the most brilliant coaching effort in the history of the league. The Pistons should've folded after Game 5. Rasheed Wallace choked. His defensive blunder robbed Detroit of a third straight victory and control of the Finals. No one would've been surprised had the Pistons shown up at the SBC Center and been trounced by 25 points. No way you are supposed to recover from the kind of dagger Big Shot Rob tossed. Thanks to Brown's handling of Wallace's brain lock – Brown took the blame – the Pistons yanked the dagger from Wallace's chest and handed it back to 'Sheed in the final minutes of Game 6. 'Sheed spanked the Spurs with it.

Right now, Dumars and Davidson should be exhausting every avenue to retain Brown. Even if you think Brown has already made up his mind to leave, you make every attempt to keep him. You take Brown at his word. He says that if his health will allow, his goal is to coach the Pistons next season. Why not do everything to make that goal a reality? Why not tell Brown you'll give him six months to straighten out his health issues and he can return to the bench in January?

Make Brown an offer he can't refuse.

I bet Isiah Thomas will do it to get Brown, and I bet the Knicks will pay him Phil Jackson-type money. Brown is worth it. He's worth all the headaches. He's no different from Roger Clemens or Michael Jordan or John Elway or Halle Berry. You don't quibble over crumbs.

You bend the rules because Brown delivers. You bend the rules because Brown has performed at a level that has exceeded already-lofty expectations, and he's done it under unusual circumstances.

Think about it. Brown has undergone hip surgery, and he's currently dealing with a painful bladder problem that will send him to the Mayo Clinic. If Brown were an athlete playing through pain and injury, the media would build him into a superhero. Someone might go as far as to suggest that Brown's health problems could be a complication of working nonstop for two straight years. Remember, Brown went from NBA champion to Olympic head coach last summer. He served his country and baby-sat our millionaire brat-letes in Athens.

Given Brown's performance, his health concerns and Detroit's success, you'd think a bright media member or two might leave Dumars' hip pocket and question why the Pistons aren't smothering Brown with the kind of love and support the Rockets gave Rudy T when he fought bladder cancer or the Mavericks gave Don Nelson when he battled prostate cancer. Rudy and Don left their jobs and returned.

I realize Brown hasn't been the most loyal coach, so he makes it difficult for an organization to show him loyalty. But sports, particularly professional sports, are all about results. Brown's results should buy him loyalty. The Pistons are not going to find a better coach.

Dumars should sit down with Brown over the weekend, raise his salary from $6 million to $8 million, promise him five to six months to get healthy and elicit a promise from Brown to play Milicic next season. If Brown turns down that offer, then at least Dumars and Davidson will know they did everything possible to win a championship in 2006.

Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for The Kansas City Star. His newspaper is celebrating his 10 years as a columnist with the publishing of Jason's first book, "Love Him, Hate Him: 10 Years of Sports, Passion and Kansas City." It's a collection of Jason's most memorable, thought-provoking and funny columns over the past decade. You can purchase the book at TheKansasCityStore.com. Jason can be reached by e-mail at ballstate68@aol.com.



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