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Much ado about an all-or-nothing Game 7


SAN ANTONIO - The best NBA coach of this generation did not just re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, has not written a best-selling diary and is not tied for the most championships in the history of American pro sports. He has fewer pro championships than the coach he faces in tonight's seventh and deciding game of the NBA Finals. He doesn't even speak for himself in an often-aired credit card commercial that promotes his team.

Anyone with eyes and a brain should know that Larry Brown is the gold standard of the profession, more so than, respectively, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Mike Krzyzewski. Thankfully, neither Jackson nor Popovich would hesitate to acknowledge Brown's greatness. (Unless there's proof otherwise, let's assume Coach K would agree, too.) The Basketball Hall of Fame felt perfectly comfortable enshrining him in 2002 without his having won an NBA title to go with his NCAA title.

Yet Brown likely won't get his real due unless - or until - his Detroit Pistons beat the San Antonio Spurs and his friend and colleague Popovich, and win him his second straight NBA title. And if that happens, the praise might follow him out the door; as has been the case his whole coaching life, he might be moving on to another basketball job, either in or out of coaching, depending on his season-long health problems.

Brown's career mode of operation has been as unique as his ability; he succeeds everywhere but never stays anywhere for long. So it figures that the team he's coaching now is unique among NBA champions, and would be unique among repeat champs; none other has been constructed from so many of other teams' castoffs, and none had so few unquestioned top-echelon individual players.

These Pistons clearly are the perfect team for him, and he's the perfect coach for them. The success of that combination has separated Brown from the coaching pack.

"I think the culture in that locker room would allow any coach that cares about the game, and just cares about coaching, to just step in and be comfortable," Brown said yesterday. "These guys allow me to coach, and that's all I ever want to do. They have allowed me to do that. So that's why I feel like, for me, this is the perfect situation."

A logical and illogical thought for someone who always seems to eventually decide that there's a better situation for him - even now. That specter raised its head early in the Eastern Conference finals, when word spread that he was planning to leave Detroit to become the Cleveland Cavaliers' president. It was a convenient excuse for the Pistons falling behind the Miami Heat early in that series. It became irrelevant when they rallied and won Game 7 of the series in Miami.

Also rendered irrelevant by season's end: the worst fan-player brawl in this country's history, in the Pistons' arena last November. The scar left on the NBA and its defending champ is being healed by the character the Pistons have displayed throughout these playoffs, right up to tonight's final game.

Teams and coaches are rarely that tough-minded, but Brown and the Pistons display a level of toughness that's hard to match, much less defeat. The latest to learn that are the Spurs, who should have finished off this series long ago but who now are being openly doubted, and also apparently are doubting themselves a little.

Brown routinely deflects credit to the players, and they deserve it. Chauncey Billups, to name one, has for the past two postseasons changed minds all over America about his ability, leadership and winning qualities. He might be the quintessential Piston of Brown's tenure, veteran of four teams in five seasons before finding this home - and he's a near-ideal fit for Brown's mind-set.

"I think he's more passionate about this game than anybody I've ever been around - player, coach, fan, anything," Billups said of Brown. "I've learned so much personally from him about this game, about my game, that it's priceless, really, what I learn from him. I don't anticipate it being over for him, but if it is, it's going to be a dark day in the NBA."

Any coach who can steer the likes of Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace to the heights they've scaled would be sorely missed. Wallace, in return, salutes Brown with the nickname "Pound for Pound," a play on the coach's initials but also a tribute to his standing among coaches.

It took resurrections at six previous NBA addresses over 20 seasons for Brown to reach this point, to blend his love for, as he incessantly puts it, "playing the right way," with a team with talent and heart and brains worthy of him. One more win gives him the ultimate reward for a second straight year.

And win or lose, he might walk away to try to do it again someplace else. Except this time, he'll have the hardware he has always deserved.

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