Thad: A Champion Worth Cheering For

It's not that often that you see something truly special achieved in contemporary professional sports, not that often these days that a championship team comes along that gives even neutral fans reason to admire, even get excited about what they are seeing.

Serious Carolina basketball fans have had reason all year to be a bit partial to the 2004-05 Detroit Pistons, as Larry Brown – the traveling evangelist for the Dean Smith way of playing basketball – set up shop in southeast Michigan, accompanied by three other members of the Carolina coaching fraternity (NBA wing).

But even as recently as three weeks ago, as the Pistons and Indiana Pacers slugged out a competitive, intense, but undeniably ugly conference final, this Detroit team had done little to persuade neutral observers that they were in the process of doing something special. Bob Ryan, the legendary Boston Globe columnist who has a holier-than-the-Pope streak when it comes to basketball purism, wrote that Brown had "come to despise offense."

But by the end of Detroit's five game dismantling of the Los Angeles Lakers, there was little doubt that the Pistons' victory was not just a unique personal triumph for Brown, but as Brown also claimed, a "good thing for our game." It turned out that the Pistons' defense really was that good. And it turned out that given a little breathing space, Brown's team really could execute on offense (scoring on 25 of 33 possessions in one first half stretch of Game 5). Late in the series, the Pistons were even getting easy buckets off the break, making Detroit – gasp – a fun team to watch.

Most of all, to invoke the mantra taught by Coach Smith that Brown lives and breathes by, the Pistons exemplified what it means to play hard, play smart, and play together. A team without a dominant star that makes a habit of getting most of the 50-50 loose balls, that dominates on the glass, that moves the ball judiciously on offense, and that never gets flustered – one might be talking about the 1993 North Carolina Tar Heels, or about the new NBA champions.

Brown naturally will be delighted to have finally won an NBA title, but one suspects he'll be even happier with the message Detroit's victory sent: that a well-crafted, well-coached team of solid players can stick it to a top-heavy team of superstars, and that teamwork and team chemistry still count for something. Brown, the Olympic team coach this summer, took the U.S.'s dismal failure in the 2002 World Championships as a call to arms, and has consistently urged the coaching community to take responsibility for re-instilling the core fundamentals of the game as well as the virtues of team play to the next generation of players. (That's why every other sentence Brown utters these days includes the phrase "the right way.")

Indeed, at his Hall of Fame induction in September 2002, Brown pledged he would do everything in his power to promote that message in the years to come. Winning the NBA title, and in the way his team won it, is a pretty impressive way to follow through on that pledge. The only difficult part is that now Brown (as well as Roy Williams and the other U.S. assistants) will be under enormous pressure to do it again at the Olympics in Athens, with a national team lineup that every week looks less like the Lakers and more like the Pistons. (Perhaps it's better that way.)

But for now, this is a pretty sweet moment, both for a certain ethos about basketball and for five of Chapel Hill's favorite sons: Brown, now the reigning elder statesman of American basketball; Rasheed Wallace, the enormously gifted player who got to show off his unselfishness and basketball intelligence in Detroit, and perhaps in the process change some opinions about him; John Kuester, the soul of the 1977 Tar Heels who's seen the lowest depths of the coaching life and now gets to take in its greatest high; Dave Hanners, who now adds an NBA title to six Final Four appearances as an assistant coach in Chapel Hill; and Wallace's former teammate Pat Sullivan, a key ingredient in that 1993 Carolina team who's earning his way into the NBA coaching ranks from the bottom up. (The reason you didn't see Sullivan on the bench on TV is that he spends the games tracking opponents' play calls on his computer in the locker room, helping Brown anticipate future moves.)

There's no doubt Dean Smith indeed had a huge smile on his face Tuesday night (and that he didn't get to bed until getting a chance to talk to the coach of the world champs). So too did any basketball fan (Lakers diehards aside) who still finds meaning in the idea of playing the game "the right way," or who can appreciate a superbly coached basketball team when he sees it.


Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net.


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