The lasting memories of the 2004 season include Chauncey Billups holding the Finals MVP trophy as the catalyst of coach Larry Brown’s Pistons, famous for “playing the right way” and etching their places forever in Detroit sports lore.
But it wasn’t a match made in heaven right away.
“I’m notoriously hard on point guards,” Brown recently told The Detroit News. “But I hope I was fair. It’s about the point guard being an extension of the coaching staff.
“My idea of point guard play for Chauncey is different than he played in the past. With us, he had to make unbelievable sacrifices and it was difficult at first.”
The tough times and, mostly, the good times will be chopped up this weekend as the 2004 team will reunite in Detroit. The 15-year anniversary of the organization’s third title will be celebrated Sunday during the team’s 4 p.m. game against Charlotte.
Billups recently said on ESPN’s The Russillo Show podcast that the most difficult coach he ever played for was the same one that brought him to the top.
“I lost a lot of sleep playing for Larry,” Billups said. “At the end of the day, once I really got to know him, I would jump off a bridge for Larry Brown. I love him. He cared, he taught me so much.
“But there was a lot of tough love there with him trying to mold me.”
Brown was a point guard at North Carolina, playing for Dean Smith’s first team in 1961-62. He credits Smith for coining his famous “play the right way” mantra and coached under the late legend.
Brown was an All-Star in the first three of his five-season career in the ABA, winning a championship in 1969 with the Oakland Oaks.
Billups famously bounced around the NBA after being drafted third by Boston in 1997, playing for four teams in his first five seasons before landing in Detroit with a six-year deal in free agency.
In Billups’ first season with the Pistons, he played under coach Rick Carlisle, as the team won 50 games for the second consecutive season and reached the Eastern Conference finals.
After Carlisle was fired and Joe Dumars hired Brown that summer, the commitment to defense continued as well as the hands-on coaching of a deliberate offense.
But there were stark differences.
“The biggest defense is in practice,” Billups said on the podcast. “Rick was very detailed: Get right in and get out of there. Get off your legs.
“With Larry, it was like, it was training camp all year. Larry loved practice; he would rather practice than play games.”
He also had a distaste for 3-point shots, a bread and butter for Billups in Denver, Minnesota and his first season in Detroit.
The guard recalled a game early in 2004 where he played the starring role in a dramatic road win.
“Dude, I had like 29, 10 assists, nine rebounds, two turnovers and almost like hit the shot to win the game, and we’re celebrating running through the tunnel, I look back and Larry is like shaking his head in disgust,” Billups said. “I’m like ‘What the hell?’ So I go back there and I’m like, ‘LB, you all right? What’s up?’
“The dude looks me in my eyes, disgusted, and says, ‘You have no idea how to play this position for me.’ Literally. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I had the best game, I thought I was amazing. He sat there and told me that and I said, this (expletive) ain’t going to work.”
Richard Hamilton was a key counselor in the Billups-Brown relationship, serving as the reason no easy solution was available, according to Chauncey, and the one who reconciled tense early conversations, according to Brown.
“Once I got to the bottom of it, he just never coached nobody like me,” Billups said. “I mean, Mark Jackson, Eric Snow… (With Allen Iverson) he had a scoring point guard, he moved him to the 2. I wasn’t going to the 2, we had Rip.”
Added Brown: “I remember bringing in Rip and Chauncey for a meeting about how I wanted to play, and Rip accepted it more than Chauncey. I told Rip to talk to him, and Rip said he’ll take care of it.”
The players even took to practice — famously unlike Iverson did for Brown in Philadelphia — partly because the love Rasheed Wallace showed for his UNC counterpart in Brown.
“'Sheed bowed down to Larry like he was Dean Smith,” Billups said. “We had willing participants and that’s the reason why our thing worked.
“We would get a lot out of (practice). We got to a point where we competed hard in practice and the games were easy for us.”
Added Brown: “From then on, the team took off. It was so much was because of the sacrifices our team made to grow and get better.”
The rest was history, as the Pistons would take down Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers for the title.
Brown said a memory that stands out from the run is after the Finals game the Pistons lost, he apologized to the players while boarding the plane back to Detroit for not being more adamant the team fouled O’Neal before Bryant hit the game-tying 3-pointer to send Game 2 to overtime.
“They all looked at me and said, not so nicely, ‘Get my… whatever… back to the back of the plane, we’re not coming back to L.A.,’” Brown said. “That was typical of that team.”
Brown said he enjoyed being back for jersey retirement ceremonies for Ben Wallace and Richard Hamilton, although he missed when Billups’ No. 1 was raised to the rafters at The Palace, as he was coaching SMU at the time. Brown still lives in Dallas and said this weekend will be his first visit to Little Caesars Arena.
“It’s pretty neat thing to get together, especially at my age,” said Brown, 78. “The opportunity to get around those guys, it’s special for me. It was a big part of my life and I appreciate it more every day.
“I remember Cobo (Arena), and I always thought, even when I there: When you talk about the Detroit Pistons, they should play downtown.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.