Herbie Brown, when he first came to town in the mid-1970s, was a frenetic, nervous man with wide, plaintive eyes, long curly hair, and a mission.
He arrived in Detroit in 1975 as the new assistant to Pistons coach Ray Scott, who performed the task for two years without any help.
But Ray, one of the finest men you’ll ever meet, did a favor for a fellow coach and long story short, hired Brown to be Ray’s assistant.
That favor would come back to bite Scott in the you-know-where.
“I guess I didn’t see it coming like some others did,” Ray once told me.
You might know Herbie Brown by way of his more famous coaching little brother, Larry.
So Herbie comes to Detroit, joining Ray Scott, and before long it’s obvious to some of the sportswriters in town, like the Detroit News’ Jerry Green, that Herbie is gunning for Ray’s job, the “it” that Scott says he didn’t see coming.
Ray told me of a meeting he had along the Detroit Riverfront with Green, in a car near Cobo Arena, in which Jerry tried to warn Ray of Herbie’s intentions.
In January, 1976, Ray was fired, the Pistons tumbling from first place toward oblivion in the latter part of December and early January.
Herbie Brown’s mission was accomplished; he was the new Pistons coach.
For better or for worse.
The Pistons actually played hard for Brown initially, using a late-season run to squeak into the playoffs. Then they upset the Milwaukee Bucks in a best-of-three series before taking the defending champion Golden State Warriors to six games.
The following season, Brown was still frenetic and manic and he still wore shoes with no socks and open-collared leisure suits. He looked like a reject from Studio 54, coaching the Pistons in Cobo Arena and throughout the arenas of the day.
One day in practice, according to Green in his book “The Detroit Pistons: Capturing a Remarkable Era,” Brown was overseeing a ball movement drill and noticed one of the Pistons being checked in a mismatch by point guard Kevin Porter.
Porter was an angry, simmering player who scowled a lot and distrusted coaches. He and Brown were very similar people, which was part of their problem.
Brown saw the mismatch and implored the bigger player to shoot.
“You got a midget on you! Shoot the ball! You got a midget on you!”
Kevin Porter didn’t like being called a midget by the disco-dressing Herbie Brown.
That was part of the tenuous, stormy relationship between coach and point guard, which at times nearly turned physical in its confrontations.
Brown would sit Porter during games and not call on him for chunks of minutes at a time. Porter would glare and scowl. Herbie would finally call for Porter and it was even money whether Kevin would actually acquiesce and enter the game.
This went on for most of the 1976-77 season, a year in which the Pistons managed to win 44 games despite several key players (like Bob Lanier) holding Herbie Brown in complete disdain.
Herbie was eventually fired in December, 1977.
Herbie Brown rubbed his players raw, like a cheese grater. He yelled a lot, which even back then wasn’t the best way to get through to NBA players, even before they made salaries that would make a lot of corporate magnates blush.
Unlike Herbie Brown, Chuck Daly got it.
Chuck, the Pistons coach from 1983-92, knew his place. He knew that NBA players weren’t seventh graders who needed to be taught basketball and scolded. Rather, they were, in Chuck’s own words, 12 different corporations who responded to diplomacy and empowerment, even if the latter was disingenuous.
Chuck Daly’s brilliance was that he made it seem like the players were in charge more than he was. He let them police themselves, realizing that if you have tough-minded leaders like Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer on your roster, you might as well have them work for you rather than against you.
Once, during the 1985-86 season, the Pistons in a terrible slump, rumors were abound that Daly was to be fired—soon, any day now.
But Thomas went to bat for his coach. He encouraged GM Jack McCloskey to give Daly some more time.
A couple years later, the Pistons were in the NBA Finals. The next two after that, they won them.
Daly would end up as the greatest coach in franchise history, not that any of us saw it coming when he was hired from obscurity in 1983.
I can’t help but think of the cautionary tales of Herbie Brown and Chuck Daly as I watch John Kuester wallow in his tenure as the coach of today’s bratty Pistons.
No one seems to have Kuester’s back, as Isiah and Laimbeer did for Daly, back in the day. Rather, the coach appears to be surrounded by a lot of Kevin Porters.
As I write this, the Pistons have played 12 games. It seems like 112. The drama that has occurred so far is enough to keep a soap opera writer on retainer.
Guard Rodney Stuckey, who started yapping in training camp about being tired of not yapping enough previously, has already spent a game tethered to the bench as punishment for not leaving a prior game upon Kuester’s request.
Forward Tayshaun Prince has already verbally sparred with Kuester via the press, then cut out the middle man and sparred with him face-to-face during a game at Golden State last Monday. The coach had to be restrained during that delightful encounter.
The Pistons cannot compete with the league’s elite. There was a sorry blowout loss at home to the Celtics, which was one of the worst efforts I’d ever seen from a Pistons team.
Then the ultimate indictment came on Wednesday night.
The Pistons entertained the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, and they did so in every sense of the word. The Pistons laid down for the Lakers. They all but brought out appetizers and cocktails before serving them a main course of an easy win.
Afterward, Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who’s been at this NBA coaching thing for over 20 years now, delivered the worst zinger of the year.
“It looked like some of their guys weren’t playing very hard,” Jackson said.
They ought to put that on the 2010-11 Pistons’ epitaph.
It was the worst, cruelest blow. Jackson’s words, coming from a spoiled victor, ought to embarrass the Pistons to no end.
But you want to know the worst part?
Jackson’s charge won’t embarrass this group of petulant Pistons one iota.
John Kuester is no Chuck Daly, but he’s no Herbie Brown, either.
Still, Kuester is likely to suffer the same fate as Brown, eventually.
That’s usually what happens in the NBA, when you can’t get all the corporations that Daly spoke of to play ball—literally and figuratively.