AUBURN HILLS, MICH. No matter if you think Larry Brown ran out on the Pistons or got fired or left because of a medical condition that now is suddenly the Knicks' very interesting problem, there was something fundamentally sad about Friday night's game at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
The sad part came when Brown talked an hour and a half before tipoff about his sense of "dread."
There will be arguments forever around here about just how much he meant to the 2004 Pistons.
But there is no denying that he did guide them to a championship. It was his crowning achievement as an NBA coach, in a distinguished Hall of Fame career. It gave him the rarest daily double in basketball circles: the only coach to win an NCAA title and also pose with the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
But he couldn't even enjoy what should have been his night in the spotlight.
"I just want to get this over with," he said.
When the boos came during introductions, they were loud, but perhaps not as venomous as the kind awaiting Ron Artest. What the moment proved is that fans here do remember Brown's contribution to the 2004 team, but will always think that the Pistons could have won back-to-back titles if Brown had not decided to plan his getaway long before Game 7 in San Antonio. Of course, he's mostly to blame.
But what other coach who has won a title - in any sport - went back to the city where he enjoyed a season of sheer glory and actually expressed such gloom and doom? Anyone? Ever? The look on Brown's face was as if he was awaiting a date with the executioner. He got heckled on occasion. Yet, it never got close to what Pat Riley faced when he returned to the Garden.
When it was over with another Knicks' loss, 106-98, Brown was entertaining old friends in the cramped visitors' locker room. At one point, Greg Kelser, the old Piston, dropped in to shake hands.
"I'm hangin' in there," Brown said.
He managed a smile. Nearby, Antonio Davis finished dressing. If anyone knows how Brown had to feel about the entire night, it was Davis, who goes all the way back to Brown's days in Indiana.
"I don't think he liked coming here for this," Davis said. "I don't think he liked all the cameras and the questions and all the stuff surrounding the game. I'm sure he didn't. I think he feels relieved now that it's over and he can just go back to coaching basketball games."
For how long, though? Brown raised the issue himself on the eve of his return by saying that there's no guarantee he can coach the whole season because of his unresolved bladder condition. So what shaped up as the longest three hours in Brown's life were very small potatoes, in the big scheme of things. If he has to miss time to address his health, then the rebuilding that he has been entrusted with is not going to go forward. Ask the Pistons if not having Brown on the sidelines is the same as having him coaching their team. Without him for 17 games last season, they were 9-8.
If the Knicks have to sub Herb Williams for Brown, sorry, but it's not going to be the same as having the genuine item. There is no substitute.
Clearly, Brown doesn't know what's in store for him. But the way he looked returning to Auburn Hills, it can't be nearly as painful as what he had to endure Friday night.