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Even for vagabond Brown, motoring out of Detroit is one strange ride


THE MAN has taken a few too many basketballs to the temple. Surely that explains it. Larry Brown, who is widely regarded as the premier coach in the NBA, has orchestrated one of the most unnecessary and implausible breakups in modern league history. He is leaping off the assembly line, gunning the engine, divorcing the Detroit Pistons after two wildly fulfilling seasons.

He wins one title and almost wins two. He wins over minds, if not always hearts, and yet it isn't enough. He wants more. He wants out.

Poor Larry.

Life is so unfair.

Coaching the Pistons is such a lousy job, isn't it?

The Detroit franchise is directed by one of the NBA's most respected owners (Bill Davidson) and one of its most quietly efficient general managers (Joe Dumars). The home court is a Palace, fan enthusiasm at fever pitch, and the roster dominated by a unique collection of players who abandoned individual agendas for the uncommon and collective good. These same players - Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton - took one look at the legendary Larry upon his arrival two seasons ago and realized the benefits outweighed the baggage.

Brown, 64, is the mercenary with the amazing portfolio. Every team he touches turns into a winner. He guided UCLA into the NCAA championship game in 1980, led Kansas to the NCAA title in 1988, became the only coach to prod the Los Angeles Clippers into the playoffs for consecutive seasons (1992-93), coaxed the Philadelphia 76ers into the Finals in 2001, the Pistons into the championship round in 2005, after toppling Shaq, Kobe and Phil the year before.

But he wants more? The Pistons still have plenty to offer. This is a squad predicated on defense, a unit built to last, an annual contender that responded eagerly to Brown's relentless pursuit of perfection. Billups developed into an elite point guard, Ben Wallace became more dominant, Hamilton more consistent, Rasheed Wallace surprisingly focused.

It's true. 'Sheed may be a bit loco, but there isn't a Yoko in the bunch.

No, had the nomadic Brown curbed his enthusiasm for the next address, these Pistons could have stayed together for another chart-topping album or two.

It was so good.

It was too good.

But that's Larry for you. He loves 'em and leaves 'em, possesses all the staying power of a two-night stand. And the most ludicrous element in this entire debacle is this: He liked this team immensely. In contrast to his earlier stops, where he feuded with Danny Manning, Reggie Miller, Allen Iverson, or as recently as the 2004 Athens Olympics, with Stephon Marbury, his Pistons endured and overcame. Excluding Darko Milicic, all of them thrived.

Assuming Brown steps into the Knicks vacancy and the New York tabloids start spreading the ink on the back pages, the scenery will hardly resemble a Cezanne landscape. More like a mosaic of a mudbath.

So how did this all happen so quickly? This was a short layover even for Brown. His health concerns certainly appeared legitimate, at least until this Knicks chatter gained momentum; the medical report continues to change by the hour. His wife's desire to live in Philadelphia, New York or Los Angeles is thought to be a significant factor. And intentionally or otherwise, his inability to keep his lips zipped enraged Davidson and angered several of his players.

First, it was Brown, telling the New York Post last January that the Knicks' position was his "dream job." Then it was Brown, in the heat of the playoffs, musing about the Los Angeles Lakers' vacancy and directing his agent to pursue a front office position with Cleveland.

Cleveland. New York. Some city yet to be determined. Brown will coach again. He is the best and the brightest, if also the most maddening. But what he leaves behind is this: an admirable Pistons club that withstood his daily dramas, his health absences, the early-season brawl with the Indiana Pacers, and came within 48 minutes of a second consecutive championship.

Most coaches salivate for such opportunities.

But Brown isn't like most of them. Remember, he travels with his own playbook.

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