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One conventional bit of wisdom about pro basketball has it that to be successful a team must get along with its coach—at least a little. The coach needn't be loved or cherished or even liked very much, but some kind of mutual respect is considered essential. Otherwise the team goes down the drain, and the coach with it. That's what the book says.
Except that the Detroit Pistons don't buy it. From the beginning of the season they have been publicly tearing themselves apart while winning a surprising number of games. This is a team that is trying desperately to keep its $2.1 million forward, Marvin (News) Barnes, out of jail, its superstar center. Bob Lanier, from going home, and its four talented guards—Kevin Porter, Chris Ford, Eric Money and Ralph Simpson—from hotwiring Coach Herb Brown's Datsun. Nonetheless, after beating Portland and splitting with Washington last week, the Pistons raised their record to 34-25, fifth best in the NBA, and narrowed Denver's division lead to 3� games.
Admitted that Lanier is having his best season and that the starting forwards—M. L. Carr, last season's runner-up to David Thompson as ABA Rookie of the Year, and Howard Porter, whose idea of defense is to score twice as many points as his man—are about to be joined full time by Barnes, who says, "News ain't going to jail till he does something memorable." It may be true that the Pistons have more talent than any other team. But just listen to them.
Money replies to a suggestion from Brown during a crucial time-out while the Pistons are beating Cleveland at home by screaming, "Hey, if you don't like what I'm doing don't put me out there." Whereupon Lanier, the team captain, gets up and walks away. Brown calls after him pleadingly, "Bob. Bob. Come back, Bob. Please." At Washington, Ford is about to take a jumper when he hears Brown shout at him, "Chris, don't shoot!" He runs by the bench and shouts at the coach, "Don't you ever yell at me during play!" Kevin Porter is removed from a game, and, as usual, trots angrily past Brown heading for the last seat on the bench. Finding it occupied, Porter sits down in the middle. At a time-out the rest of the Pistons get up and huddle around Brown. Porter moves quickly to the vacated end seat and resumes his pout from there. In a game against San Antonio, Barnes shows up at halftime, full of painkillers after having four teeth extracted ("Dentist said, 'Marvin, was you eating rocks?' ") and is ordered into uniform by the team doctor and General Manager Oscar Feldman. Barnes does not want to dress. "Fans be yelling 'News! News!' " he says. "I don't want to disappoint 'em." Sides form quickly—the doctor and general manager vs. Lanier and Ford—and an argument rages that can be heard outside the closed locker-room door. If the Pistons were a TV mini-series, they would make Roots seem like Ding Dong School.
The stars of this gamy melodrama are undeniably Kevin Porter and Brown, each of whom started the season feeling he had something heavy to prove about himself. Porter came to Detroit last season, replacing the immensely popular Dave Bing, and in the 19th game wiped out a knee and the rest of his year. Brown became head coach at midseason, replacing the immensely popular Ray Scott. Under him, the Pistons won 10 of their last 13 and made the playoffs, where they nearly toppled Golden State.
Hurrah for Brown? No. His coaching style—he screams a lot, jumps off the bench and is notably free with criticism—was not what the Pistons were used to after the taciturn Scott. And they resented it, partly because they did not feel Brown had the credentials to be coaching them—most recently two years at C.W. Post College on Long Island and 30 games with the Israel Sabras in the late great European Professional Basketball League. Brown's brash and scratchy Noo Yawk accent didn't help either. "I just don't like the way he sounds when he's criticizing me," says Lanier. "What he's saying may be right, but sometimes I just can't listen."
From the beginning Brown was acutely aware of the players' antipathy to him, and his struggle to prove himself this season (his contract is for one year, though he asked for three) was not made easier when the league put Denver into the same division with Detroit. The first-place Nuggets are coached by Herb's highly successful younger brother Larry.
"People think we hate each other," says Herb. "That is absolutely untrue. But there's nobody I'd rather beat." In two meetings so far, each brother has won on his home court. The heat of Brown's passion is not lost on the Pistons, one of whom commented while watching Denver play on television that Larry was about the sharpest-dressed dude in the league. "Yeah," said Herb. "But he lost."
Brown's troubles began in earnest in training camp when all four of his guards showed up expecting to start. Porter began the psychodrama by cursing at Brown in the locker room and then denouncing him to the press when Brown did not start him. When Money was injured, Porter started, and quieted down. Then Money, healthy again, began complaining when he didn't start. Complaints became de rigueur in the Piston camp. Even the mild-mannered Simpson asked to be traded, claiming that he waived his no-trade clause only after the Pistons promised he would start.
Brown's instinct was to involve Lanier as a peacemaker and go-between, but Lanier soon tired of the role and began making Cowensian noises of his own. "This stuffs ridiculous," he said. "It never should have been allowed to get started in the first place. If it gets to where I can't deal with it, I'm going to have to leave the game for awhile."