They paraded another poor sap onto the lectern to be given his death sentence as the new head coach of the Detroit Pistons the other day.
There was Joe Dumars, team president, leading the march, and the way these things have gone over the years, you half expected to see Joe reading from a Bible in Latin, his head bowed.
The scene that unfolded on Wednesday was the seventh one presided over by Dumars since 2000.
It goes like this: Dumars leads his doomed coaching choice onto the lectern, says a few words tinged with hope and confidence that the man seated to his left is “the one.” Doomed coach speaks of work ethic and tradition and fends off questions about his past failures or mercurial history. The proceedings end with Dumars, the coach’s future executioner, shaking hands and smiling with his eventual victim as the cameras snap away.
Dumars was a rookie executive in 2000 when he fired Alvin Gentry and made assistant George Irvine the head man, much to Irvine’s chagrin.
Irvine was an old ABA guy who had more than one stint as coach of the Indiana Pacers, occasionally functioning as their GM, too. He lasted a little more than a year with the Pistons as head coach, given the ziggy after a 32-50 season.
Next, Dumars turned to Rick Carlisle, a smart young coach with a perpetual poker face. Carlisle delivered two 50-win seasons and a conference finals appearance before owner Bill Davidson asked Dumars to relieve Carlisle of his duties. Carlisle was rude to some Palace employees, the story goes.
Enter Larry Brown, with his suitcase covered in stickers, like in one of those cheap paintings you see at the airport. Brown coached for two seasons, winning a championship and taking the San Antonio Spurs to seven games in the NBA Finals the year after that.
But Larry was all about Larry and again Davidson told Dumars to render a ziggy.
Next up, Flip Saunders, rumpled and lugging the baggage of being an underachiever in the playoffs. Kind of like a basketball version of hockey’s Bryan Murray, when the Red Wings hired him in 1990.
Flip debuted with a fantabulous 64-18 season and coached three seasons in Detroit before it was evident that Saunders’ reputation as a playoff lightweight was confirmed.
Then it was Michael Curry’s turn to trudge up to the lectern, in 2008. Curry was a former Piston who’d spent one measly year as an assistant before Dumars took leave of his senses and tabbed him as head coach.
Not content with that kind of pressure—Curry was hired after the Pistons made six straight appearances in the conference finals—Dumars heaped more on by trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson a week into the season.
Curry lasted one season.
Was it really two years ago when John Kuester was smiling and happily answering questions from the gathered media, excited and giddy about his first head coaching opportunity?
Kuester was an offensive genius of sorts, we were told. He was an assistant to Brown during the 2004 championship season, and Kuester supposedly made LeBron James what he is today while an assistant in Cleveland.
It was all talk.
The new Pistons coach, actually, is someone who the players should look up to—even though the only way they can do that is if they’re lying down.
Lawrence Frank is the latest future casualty, but if he goes down it won’t be without a fight. You see, Frank has spent his entire basketball life scratching, clawing and willing himself to succeed.
Frank is a short man in a tall man’s game, which can be OK if you’re a point guard but if you’re a coach, do you know how much basketball you have to know and how much character you have to have to get dudes a foot-and-a-half taller than you to even glance down at you, let alone listen to you?
Frank’s story has probably been pitched a few times during lunch at Spago in Beverly Hills to smirking, skeptical movie producers.
“So here’s the concept,” the pitch man says. “Short guy longs to be a basketball coach but can’t even make his high school team. Undaunted, he pursues his dream even though he can stand underneath real players to shelter himself from a rainstorm.”
Movie producer gives a lazy stare over his martini.
The pitch man continues.
“The short guy, who’s wanted to be a basketball coach since he was 13—yes, I said 13—enrolls in Indiana University simply so he can be a student assistant to the legendary Bobby Knight.”
By this time, the movie producer is two steps from his limo.
Yet this is Frank’s story, and every bit of it that you’ve read so far is true.
After Indiana, Frank latched on with the old Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995 as an advance scout. He was all of 25 years old and accused of being the Doogie Howser of the NBA for his sleight stature and creamy white baby face.
In 2004, Frank was an assistant with the New Jersey Nets before being thrust into the head coaching seat when Byron Scott was fired. Frank was 33. The Nets won the first 13 games that Frank coached for them.
But Frank also lost the last 16 games he coached for the Nets, some five years later. Ask Rod Marinelli what 0-16 does to a man’s coaching career.
The Nets fired Frank after his 0-16 start to the 2009-10 season. (“I deserved to be fired,” Frank said, “but I didn’t let it define me.”)
After a season as an assistant to Doc Rivers in Boston, Lawrence Frank is back in the hot seat, where so many coaches aspire to be, even if it means signing your own walking papers, as former Pistons coach Earl Lloyd once said.
“There are only five NBA franchises that have won three titles,” Frank said on Wednesday, showing off his basketball historian chops. “This (Detroit) is one of those places. It’s an honor to be here.”
You know what else is an honor? To die in battle.
Welcome to Detroit, Lawrence. We’re the Arlington National Cemetery for basketball coaches—and Joe Dumars has just read you your last rites.
Yet somehow, I don’t think you’re going to let that stop you. You worked for Bob Knight, for God’s sakes.