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 3½ 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."
Meanwhile Barnes, a 24.1-point scorer with St. Louis, was giving everybody something quite different to think about. The problem with Barnes was that in 1972 he had conked a friend over the head with a tire iron and received a suspended sentence and three years' probation from a Providence, R.I. judge. So one of his first moves in Detroit (after showing up with a broken ankle) was to try to get a .38 past the metal detector at the airport. For violating probation, he was hit with a one-year jail sentence, which the Pistons managed to delay until after the end of the season.
Brown tried to put a stop to the whining on Christmas Day when he slapped a $1,000 fine on Porter for not sitting next to him on the bench. "All I ask," says Brown, "is for the guy to sit next to me so if I have something to say to him I don't have to walk all the way down the bench." Five days later in Denver, of all places, Money argued with Brown on the floor, and at halftime they really went at it. Brown fined Money and made him stay in the locker room the entire second half. Back in Detroit Porter leaned over the press table and told Curt Sylvester of the Free Press, "Write this: I want out. He is not man enough to say that the problem is him and me—well, I am. Nothing is going to get solved here. He treats me bad." Two weeks later, in Washington, Porter was fined again after nearly coming to blows with Brown.
"They're not angry at me," Brown keeps saying. "Any coach would have the problem. You got Kevin Porter, who comes here to replace the most popular guy ever to play in Detroit. Porter gets hurt and has to prove himself all over again. You got Money, 22 years old, third year in the league. He knows he's a starter. Chris Ford is playing the best ball of his life, and Simpson is an Ail-Star. Everybody's all over me, because I'm the easiest one to get. Listen, I'm a jerk before I even walk out on the court, so what do I have to lose? I'm paid to win and I think it's better to have everyone talking than to have it all boiling up inside. At least we're loose. Believe me, there's a method to my madness."
"Yeah," says Money, downplaying the turmoil. "We may gripe on the sidelines but we perform on the court. What's wrong with that? That's human. The Oakland A's won the World Series that way. We can say what we want. Herb's a liberal guy. He may not like what we say, but he lets us say it."
A week after the Washington incident, Brown, Porter and Porter's lawyer attended a peacemaking Sunday brunch at the home of the general manager. "Most of the players have no-cut multi-year contracts," Feldman said. "Why they can't be happy in winning whether they make a contribution or not is beyond me."
When the Pistons were fighting at Christmas time, Feldman was on a two-week vacation in the Virgin Islands. At the brunch "The Mighty Oz," as some of his employees call him, told Porter he would not be traded, told Brown he would not be fired—this year at least—and declared at a press conference the next day that the Brown-Porter feud was over. A hard point to prove, since Porter did not attend.
A couple of days later, however, after sitting at the end of the bench during the entire second half in a win over Cleveland, Porter said in the locker room for the 300th time, "I got to get out of here. I don't even enjoy putting on the uniform anymore." In another corner, Money was cursing out the officials, Ford was stone-faced, Simpson sullen.
Lanier looked around and said, "Look at you dudes. All mad. What good is that going to do you to be getting mad all the time? I ain't getting mad. When that stuff starts happening I walk away."
Suddenly Barnes shattered the tension, filling his most important role on the team while he waits to get more playing time. "Of course you ain't mad," he yelled at Lanier. "This is your team! I never get mad when it's my team. At St. Louis I never got mad, except about my money."
Already the room was laughing, except for Kevin Porter.
"Nobody's going to see the real News on this team, 'cause I ain't designated to score 30," Barnes went on. "I'm better than any forward on this team. I got two broken legs, I'm still better. News didn't come here to sit on wood. I got to get my 30. My fans be demanding it."
"See," said Lanier. "Another dude getting mad."
In the back, Howard Porter—"Geezer," the team's self-appointed psychologist—considered the scene. "Everything is reflective of individual personalities," he said, stroking his beard. "There are no mysteries here."
For once, Porter sits next to Brown on the bench, though they don't have much to say to each other.
Lanier has tried hard to rise above the turmoil.