During the NBA off-season, we adapted Pistons Mailbag to Mailbag Memories. We talked about basketball history – Pistons, NBA, college, international – and more general basketball questions.
We reserve the right to edit your question for the sake of brevity or clarity.
Langlois: Probably have to narrow it down to three candidates: Dave Bing (1966-67), Isiah Thomas (1981-82) and Grant Hill (1994-95).
Bing was Rookie of Year and Hill shared the award. Isiah didn’t win it, but he certainly had a strong case in the year when it went to Buck Williams. Bing averaged 20 points, 4.1 assists and 4.5 rebounds and the Pistons improved from 22 to 30 wins. Isiah averaged 17.0 points and 7.8 assists and the Pistons went from 21 to 39 wins. Hill averaged 19.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists as the Pistons improved from 20 to 28 wins.
Some fans might wonder about Bob Lanier, who surely ranks as one of the greatest Pistons ever. Lanier had a fine rookie season, averaging 15.6 points and 8.1 rebounds. But he was coming off a serious knee injury suffered in the 1970 NCAA tournament and the Pistons limited him to 25 minutes a game, though Lanier did manage to play all 82 games. (Isiah, in fact, missed 10 games of his rookie season.)
Other Pistons have made the All-Rookie team, including Joe Dumars and Dave DeBusschere. If you were to consider another player for this question, it probably would have to be Kelly Tripucka. Tripucka, drafted 12th by Jack McCloskey in the same draft that netted Isiah for the Pistons, by some measures had a better first season than Thomas. He averaged 21.6 points and 5.4 rebounds and shot .496 from the field. He also played 37.5 minutes a game, about four more than Scotty Robertson played Isiah.
For overall impact, though, in what he meant for the product and what he did to elevate the franchise, I think you’d have to go with Isiah’s rookie season as the most significant in Pistons history.
Langlois: Nope, different Dee Brown, Jeremy. The Dee Brown who is a member of Lawrence Frank’s coaching staff played in college at Jacksonville and was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1991, playing 12 years in the NBA.
Actually, the Dee Brown to whom you are referring never played for the Pistons in the NBA Summer League. He initially agreed to sign with the Pistons to play for them in 2008, but the Pistons later agreed to let Brown out of his commitment to them when Washington offered him guaranteed money to go to Summer League on its roster.
That Dee Brown is currently playing in Serie A in Italy, the top league in that country, as a starter for Banca Tercas Teramo. He played at Illinois and later briefly played in the NBA for both Washington and Phoenix.
Langlois: Staff sizes can and do vary across the league. This will be the largest staff the Pistons have employed. Lawrence Frank’s staff will be larger than John Kuester’s, for example, by two assistant coaches.
Last year’s staff consisted of Brian Hill, Darrell Walker, Pat Sullivan and Steve Hetzel in addition to advance scout Bill Pope and video coordinator Ryan Winters. Frank’s staff includes Hill, John Loyer, Roy Rogers, Dee Brown, Charles Klask and Hetzel.
There are a few reasons why staffs continue to get bigger. When Chuck Daly started with the Pistons, he had just one assistant coach, Dick Harter, and the Pistons weren’t in the minority. Even when the Bad Boys won their back-to-back NBA titles, Daly had only two assistants, which was the norm at the time.
But roster sizes have grown from 12 to 15 in that time, many players now come to the NBA with little college or international experience and need more individual coaching, and existing technology now makes videotape of every NBA game readily available – which, in turn, means teams are compelled to scout every game via videotape in detail or risk ceding the information war to the opposition. Another part of an assistant coach’s duties in today’s basketball is to chart an increasing number of statistical categories.
Langlois: The NBA once had a rule that allowed teams to sign players who played in college within 50 miles of the NBA team’s arena. They called it a “territorial” draft pick. If a team was interested in exercising territorial rights to player, it would forfeit its first-round draft pick and in turn be granted the rights to that player.
The Pistons invoked their right to make a territorial pick twice in their history, first on DeBusschere in 1962 and then on Bill Buntin in 1965. That was the last season in which the rule was in effect. The Pistons almost certainly would have used it again had it still existed in 1966 to take Buntin’s Michigan teammate, Cazzie Russell. The Pistons had the No. 2 pick in that draft after losing a coin flip with the New York Knicks, who took Russell. The Pistons “settled” for Dave Bing, who went on to have a significantly better NBA career.
The rule was instituted to generate fan interest, allowing NBA teams to capitalize on the popularity of a locally produced college star. The Cincinnati Royals were granted University of Cincinnati star Oscar Robertson as a territorial pick and later Jerry Lucas, even though Ohio State was far outside of the 50-mile radius. The most curious territorial pick was Wilt Chamberlain, who played at Kansas, being granted to the Philadelphia Warriors, who would later move to San Francisco. Warriors management successfully argued that because Chamberlain had grown up in Philadelphia – and because no NBA team played in Kansas – that they should be awarded territorial rights to Chamberlain.
The idea of granting territorial rights wasn’t unique to the NBA. The NHL used to have a similar rule, which explains how the Montreal Canadiens always had so many French Canadian stars on their roster from Quebec. The USFL granted territorial rights to its franchises, as well.
Langlois: Isiah might have thought or hoped so, at least, in the weeks before the draft. The Bulls picked No. 6, but they went into the draft holding the No. 4 pick, though that wasn’t originally their own pick, either. Only on the day before the draft, when it was clear to everyone that Isiah wasn’t getting out of the top three, did Chicago swap picks with Atlanta. The Hawks moved up two spots, essentially in exchange for the right to swap picks the following year, in order to take Al Wood, a smooth shooting guard with a North Carolina pedigree who also happened to be a Georgia native.
Chicago wound up drafting Orlando Woolridge, who years later would become a Piston. After Jack McCloskey picked Isiah at No. 2, New Jersey selected Buck Williams – the only other player in the draft that McCloskey even remotely considered taking – with the No. 3 pick. Then Wood, then Danny Vranes of Utah went to Seattle, then Woolridge.
The Bulls were coming off a 45-win season under Jerry Sloan and had a decent nucleus in place with veteran Artis Gilmore anchoring the middle, Reggie Theus as the scoring leader and solid forwards in vet Larry Kenon and young David Greenwood. Ricky Sobers was a competent point guard, but there’s little doubt the Bulls had to be pining for a shot at Isiah on at least a few levels. First, he would have been an ideal fit from a personnel standpoint. Second, he would have meant an enormous box-office boost, not only because he’d been a high school phenom in the city, but even more because of what he’d accomplished in two years at Indiana – and Chicago is at the heart of Big Ten country – capped by the 1981 national title.
Langlois: Nobody really knows, Jerry. The rules for the next NBA draft, whenever it might occur, will be dictated by the terms of the next collective bargaining agreement. If the age limit doesn’t change, then the current freshmen would be eligible to be in the draft.
There have been various media reports that suggest there was discussion about changing the age limit to 20 or to dictate that American draft-eligible candidates must be two years removed from their high school graduating class. In the case of players who go to prep school for a year after their high school class has graduated, they were eligible to declare for the NBA draft under terms of the expired CBA.
But, you’re right, if the rules don’t change, then the games on ESPN the other night included many lottery candidates, which explains why so many NBA front-office executives were in the stands at Madison Square Garden for the Kentucky-Kansas and Michigan State-Duke doubleheader.
Langlois: You’re referring to the 1966 Texas Western team, coached by Don Haskins, that beat the all-white Kentucky starting five coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp. It is widely believed that event accelerated the integration of the SEC. Kentucky’s first black basketball player became 7-footer Tom Payne in 1969. (In fairness, Kentucky started recruiting black players even before playing Texas Western, but young black athletes, understandably so, were leery of what they expected to be a hostile environment.)
SEC schools for years had been ceding great football and basketball players to other conferences, which allowed Michigan State football, for one example, to thrive with players like Bubba Smith and George Webster recruited from south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Kentucky, in fact, became the first integrated SEC football program, in 1967, a little more than one year after Haskins’ Texas Western team shocked Kentucky. That Texas Western team has a Detroit connection, too: Bobby Joe Hill, the team’s point guard, was recruited out of Detroit.
The NBA’s first all-black starting five was a good one – K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Willie Naulls, Bill Russell and Satch Sanders of the Boston Celtics. That’s the unit Red Auerbach put on the floor for a Dec. 26, 1964 game. The team won that day and would go on to win the next 14 straight, ultimately winning the 1964-65 NBA championship. All but Naulls are in the Hall of Fame. That it was Boston that cleared that barrier wasn’t lost on those who recalled the Red Sox became the last Major League Baseball franchise to integrate when Pumpsie Green – 12 years after Jackie Robinson became baseball’s first black player – debuted in 1959.
Langlois: Bob Cousy would be the hands-down choice from the 1950s. I’ve only seen black and white clips of Cousy, but he appeared ahead of his time for his creativity as a playmaker.
Oscar Robertson would be the choice for the ’60s. I don’t know that I would necessarily pigeon-hole Robertson as a point guard, but he certainly served in that capacity a good portion of his time. I only recall Robertson later in his career, when he played with Milwaukee, and the Bucks would often play Robertson as more of a point forward with Lucius Allen and Jon McGlocklin as the guards.
For the ’70s, Walt Frazier of the Knicks would be the likeliest choice as the top point guard. Until they joined forces in New York, Earl Monroe might have been Frazier’s nearest challenger. They were virtually interchangeable in perhaps the NBA’s greatest backcourt of all-time, with the Isiah Thomas-Joe Dumars combo the other strong contender.
John Stockton was likely the top point guard of the ’90s, racking up mind-boggling assist totals and taking the simple pick-and-roll play to another level.
I don’t know that you could argue that Isiah was a better player than Oscar Robertson, who until Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan came along was a staple of everybody’s all-time NBA team. And Frazier remains a mythic figure in New York for his role in leading the Knicks to two NBA titles – the two most recent the Knicks have won, 38 and 41 years ago – and for his flamboyant aura. But if you take Magic out of the equation – because he was and remains so unlike anyone who’s ever played the position – Isiah has a strong case to make as the best of the rest at point guard.
Langlois: USA Basketball is the organization that picked the team. Because the NBA had agreed to make its players available for the first time, the league had tremendous influence on the makeup of the roster. They understood the marketing phenomenon the Dream Team would become. Why that meant Isiah wasn’t included remains unclear.
There is, of course, the longstanding suspicion that Michael Jordan made his participation contingent on Isiah’s exclusion. The animosity between the two, by legend, at least, dates to the 1985 All-Star game when Isiah was said to have led a movement to “freeze out” Jordan by not passing him the ball, allegedly to register dissatisfaction with how much media attention Jordan was receiving.
But in the 2009 book “When the Game Was Ours,” a look at the impact Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had on the NBA, Magic says, “Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics. Nobody on that team wanted to play with him. Michael didn’t want to play with him. Scottie (Pippen) wanted no part of him. Bird wasn’t pushing for him. Karl Malone didn’t want him. Who was saying, ‘We need this guy?’ Nobody.”
There’s no reason to doubt that Magic, at least, believes what he said – that it wasn’t merely Jordan who didn’t want Isiah to be a part of that team, but several players. Magic and Isiah, remember, had had a falling out by the time that team was put together in the fall of 1991. Chuck Daly, who was lined up to coach the team, and Jack McCloskey went to bat for Isiah. But McCloskey, to this day, believes strongly that there was a significant anti-Pistons sentiment in high NBA circles. It was ludicrous to exclude Isiah Thomas from the 1992 Dream Team on merit, but the team was so far superior to its competition that they could afford to leave him off the roster.
Langlois: You have to be thinking about Raymond McCoy, Marcus. He joined Isiah on the 1979 McDonald’s All-American team and was, indeed, considered by many to be the better player at the time.
Isiah considered Indiana and DePaul and eventually was won over by Bobby Knight. McCoy wound up at DePaul, but not before first playing for one year at the University of San Francisco, which at the time was a very hot program, recruiting such major talents as Bill Cartwright, Winford Boynes, James Hardy and Quintin Dailey. A series of scandals that came to a head with a Dailey assault of a female student and revelations he was paid for a no-show job led to school administration shutting down the program in 1981 for four years.
McCoy was never more than a role player in college. By the time USF was closing down its program, Isiah had already led Indiana to a national title and been chosen No. 2 by the Pistons. But the mere fact McCoy made that 1979 McDonald’s All-American team speaks volumes, for that might have been the best class ever. Among others, it included the likes of James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins, Ralph Sampson, Clark Kellogg, Sam Bowie, Antoine Carr, Byron Scott and John Paxson.
Langlois: Yeah, there have been a few that I can recall right off the top of my head. Anthony Pendleton of Flint Northwestern was a terrific guard with size and shooting range, a precocious star on the same team that produced Glen Rice and Jeff Grayer (plus a pretty fair football player, Andre Rison; yeah, Flint had some athletes in the ’80s) and many thought Pendleton would turn out to be the best of the bunch. He went to Iowa to play for George Raveling, followed Raveling to Southern Cal and flunked out, then finished his career playing for an NAIA school in Seattle.
Terrence Roberson of Saginaw Buena Vista had breathtaking athletic ability – he looked like a young Dominique Wilkins – and he was highly recruited from a young age. Roberson went to Fresno State to play for Jerry Tarkanian and had a very solid four-year career there, but went undrafted. He did play three games for the Charlotte Hornets, so that wasn’t a complete swing and miss.
But the one that most surprised me was Kelvin Torbert, also of Flint Northwestern. Torbert not only didn’t make the NBA, he really was no more than a complementary player at Michigan State. When I first saw him as a high school junior, Torbert was a dominant force. He had a powerful upper body and scored at will by getting into the lane, creating space with his power and tremendous leaping ability, then would knock down mid-range jumpers effortlessly. I talked to a lot of people about Torbert – people who command tremendous respect – and I was hardly alone in my estimation of Torbert as a future pro. One prominent college basketball coach told me Torbert was the best high school player in the country – after his sophomore year of high school. In Torbert’s defense, he did suffer an ankle injury that one MSU insider I know said robbed him of some of his explosiveness.
Langlois: That’s a great question, Phil. The NBA had 12-player rosters back then, not the 15 possible today. Even if the Lakers had taken up McCloskey on his second offer – he started by saying any four players, then upped it to six – both teams would have had to scramble.
The Lakers would have had to cut five players (if they had agreed to a six-player bounty, or 11 if they’d have accepted the whole roster), and I suspect McCloskey would have snapped up some or all of them to help fill his roster. So Magic would have been playing with some familiar faces, at least.
It’s worth wondering what might have happened to the Pistons. Would they have matched the two titles they wound up winning on McCloskey’s watch? Would they have become a contender any sooner than they did? It’s safe to guess that the 1979-80 Pistons would have been a very weak team, even with Magic on the roster. McCloskey’s proposal was made in December and the team was on its way to its worst season in history, 16-66.
But the Pistons didn’t even have their own No. 1 pick for the 1980 draft, so they couldn’t have reaped any of the benefits of getting beat up until the 1981 draft. As it was, they wound up with the No. 2 pick in that draft and chose Isiah Thomas. I think if they’d have gotten Magic in December 1979, McCloskey would have cobbled a respectable team around him in the ensuing months leading to the 1981 trade deadline, so it’s unlikely the Pistons would have had a top-five draft pick that year.
There’s not much question the Lakers made the right call, regardless. The Pistons’ top players at the time of McCloskey’s proposal were an aging Bob Lanier – who would have had a very difficult time fitting in next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – and Bob McAdoo, whose best days were also behind him. Then there were some nice role players – Terry Tyler, John Long, a young Greg Kelser, Phil Hubbard and Eric Money foremost. But there was no combination of four, six or a dozen players on that roster that would have meant as much to the Lakers as Magic Johnson did – and if that wasn’t glaringly obvious in December 1979, it sure was no later than a few months later when Magic carried the Lakers to the 1980 NBA title.
Langlois: I saw a whole lot more of Webber than Johnson as high school players, John. I only saw Magic play once in high school – the state championship game in 1977, his senior year, when he led Lansing Everett past Birmingham Brother Rice in overtime after Kevin Smith tied the game with a half-court shot at the buzzer.
A few years back, Mike Stone, the Detroit radio personality, compiled and co-authored “The Great Book of Detroit Sports Lists” with Art Regner and asked me to name the top 10 Michigan high school basketball players. I went with Magic at No. 1 and Webber at No. 3 – I put Detroit Pershing’s Spencer Haywood No. 2, though I never saw him play in high school, relying on the testimony of those who did and the immediate dominance he had as a collegian and with the U.S. Olympic team – but freely admit that you could juggle that list any way you choose, sort of like comparing Wayne Gretzky to Gordie Howie to Bobby Orr.
I’ll say this much: I never seen a high school player and immediately thought, “certain future NBA player,” with more conviction than when I saw Webber, and I saw Webber before he played a game as a freshman at Country Day. His body was different then – he was more sinewy in a James Worthy kind of way than the player with the thick, muscled upper body he became for much of his NBA career, but his massive, soft hands and his explosive power stood out then as always.
As I recall Magic as a high school player, I’d never seen anyone – and still haven’t – who so clearly controlled every moment, from running layup lines before the game to orchestrating the offense to his commanding presence in timeout huddles. You could see stardom in Magic Johnson in everything he did. And having said all of that, I wasn’t 100 percent convinced when I first saw him that he would be an NBA superstar, simply because as a young player he had such an awkward and erratic jump shot.
Langlois: Great question, Curt. I wish we had an answer. I can understand Orlando’s thinking. Penny Hardaway was an exceptional player coming out of college. If injuries hadn’t overwhelmed him, I think the odds are better than 50-50 he would have put a Hall of Fame career together. And when you throw in the fact that Golden State offered three No. 1 picks to entice Orlando into a Webber-Hardaway deal, it made a ton of sense for the Magic to pull the trigger.
But, wow, Webber and O’Neal together would have been devastating. Neither player represented an outside scoring threat, of course, but with the right coaching staff to make use of Webber’s high-post passing skills, a high-low scheme would have worked. And Orlando had some pretty good perimeter players already on board, too, with Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott. With O’Neal commanding double teams, Webber’s ability as an offensive rebounder would have been a huge weapon.
If I owned Golden State back then, on the other hand, I would have been outraged that my basketball people wasted three No. 1 picks to get Webber and one year later turned around and dumped him to Washington.
Langlois: No. Draft choices are treated like players who are under NBA contract, even though none of them were signed in the week between the draft and the expiration of the former collective bargaining agreement.
Players with NBA contracts who would normally be eligible for the D-League – those with less than two years of NBA experience – also will be unavailable to D-League affiliate teams during the duration of the lockout.
The D-League season, however, will proceed regardless of the status of NBA labor negotiations. Undrafted players, such as Michigan State’s Durrell Summers, who was selected in Thursday’s draft, plus former NBA players no longer under contract, such as Jamaal Tinsley, who was the No. 1 pick of the Los Angeles Defenders, will fill D-League rosters.
Langlois: The 1960 Olympic team had four Hall of Famers, Carrie – Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy.
Some of the other notable players on that team were ex-Piston Terry Dischinger, one of five players on the team who scored in double figures, Bob Boozer, Darrall Imhoff and Adrian Smith. In running up an 8-0 record, the 1960 Olympians outscored opponents by an average score of 101.9-59.5.
Lucas and Robertson, who had been college stars at rivals Ohio State and Cincinnati, were the two leading scorers, followed by West. Lucas – who had yet to play a varsity game at Ohio State, since he was coming off his freshman season in the days they weren’t eligible for varsity play – scored 25 points in both the semifinals and finals, wins over Italy and Brazil. Lucas and Robertson would later become teammates for the Cincinnati Royals, who are today’s Sacramento Kings.
Langlois: As always, it was a 12-man team – that’s per Olympic rules. Because professionals – which really meant NBA players – were not allowed to compete in the Olympics, the selection process for USA Basketball was controlled by the top college coaches. Bobby Knight was coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and the tryouts were held on campus in Bloomington.
Back then, there was a significant element of political patronage, or the basketball equivalent of it, involved in selecting the team. Because college coaches valued upperclass experience so much – anyone old enough to remember longtime Marquette coach Al McGuire, who subsequently preached his gospel as the lead commentator for NBC telecasts when it had Final Four rights and aired games throughout the season, will recall McGuire’s caste system that funneled responsibility to seniors – the makeup of Olympic teams at that time was heavily juniors and seniors.
And almost all of the players were coached in college by heavy hitters in the coaching profession or those with a strong connection to Knight. There were five seniors on the team (those who had completed four years of college) and five juniors (three years of college). The two exceptions were Wayman Tisdale (sophomore) and Steve Alford (freshman), Tisdale an exceptional scorer and Alford a Knight prodigy at Indiana.
The only player who didn’t play at a major college was Cal State-Fullerton senior guard Leon Wood, now an NBA referee. But here’s a quote I found on Wood during his senior season from Pete Newell – one of the giants of the coaching profession, a former Olympic coach who no doubt still held sway, and revered by Knight: “He’s one of the top guards in college today, if not the top guard. Leon handles the ball on the break as well as any guard I’ve seen in quite a while. There’s no one even close to him in the last few years.”
Among the players who played either at college powers or for coaches with long tenure and significant power were Jeff Turner of Vanderbilt (coaching icon C.M. Newton), Alvin Robertson and Joe Klein of Arkansas (Eddie Sutton), Chris Mullin of St. John’s (Lou Carnesecca), Michael Jordan of North Carolina (Dean Smith), Vern Fleming of Georgia (Hugh Durham) and Patrick Ewing of Georgetown (John Thompson). Beyond Wood, the only real outlier there – someone who didn’t play either at a basketball power or for a significant coaching figure – was Jon Koncak, a 7-footer who played at SMU. The catch? His coach was Dave Bliss, a former Knight assistant coach.
The team won gold easily, regardless, in large measure because of the Soviet bloc boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games in retribution for the United States-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. But there’s no question a very good team would have been improved by replacing Turner with Barkley, Koncak with Malone, Alford with Stockton and Wood with Dumars. That Olympic team, in fact, would have featured seven future Hall of Famers and be remembered with the 1960 team (Jerry West, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson, et al) as perhaps the best ever this side of the 1992 Dream Team.
Langlois: It sure was. Shortly after the Lions announced they were moving to Pontiac for the 1975 season, Pontiac city officials – astounded that they were actually able to woo the Lions out of Detroit – floated the notion of luring the Red Wings, as well. The Norris family owned the Wings at the time and they were eager to abandon Olympia Stadium, partly to play in a bigger arena. Another factor, though, was the perception of Detroit at the time – remember, this was still less than 10 years after the 1967 riots – and the reality of the deteriorating neighborhood surrounding Olympia.
The idea was to build an arena for the Red Wings near the Silverdome, at the intersection of Interstate 75 and M-59, in a project they were calling Olympia II. It might have all been a ploy by the Norris family to prompt Detroit city leaders to action, knowing that with the sting of losing the Lions so fresh they were likely to get very favorable terms to stay in Detroit. That’s essentially what happened. With the threat of a move to Pontiac looming, the Norris family got Detroit to better the terms being offered for a move to Pontiac. The Wings moved into Joe Louis Arena in December 1980.
It was the Pistons who made the move, leaving Cobo Arena to play at the Silverdome in 1978 – that was also the season that Bill Davidson hired Dick Vitale to run and coach the Pistons. Detroit tried to get the Pistons to agree to share JLA with the Red Wings, but the Norris family would have had control of the arena. And Pistons owner Bill Davidson told me a few years before his 2009 death that safety concerns in Detroit – Mr. D’s two children were both young at the time and a security guard who patrolled his section of Cobo suffered a brutal beating one night after a game – had convinced him he wanted to move the team to Oakland County.
Langlois: Let’s start with what I didn’t like. I don’t think the Teal Era horsepower uniforms were great, but I don’t think they were the worst Pistons unis ever, either. That would have to be the ones they wore in the early ’80s, the grayish uniforms that looked even worse as the game wore on and they became perspiration soaked. They looked like somebody’s junior varsity hand-me-downs from the ’50s.
I think the most underrated look was the uniforms just before that, with the lightning bolt effect under the “Pistons” across the chest. But my favorite older unis were the mid ’70s version, which featured the stripes that went not only down the side of the shorts but across the bottom hem, as well.
The classic road blues, though, remain my favorite. Also fond of the alternate reds.
Langlois: Surprise, more than anything. I’d heard rumblings around the team for several weeks some unrest over Dantley dominating the ball too much and worry that the offense wasn’t operating the way it should be.
But the Pistons still seemed like the clear class of the East. By that point, they were in the mode of winning it all or the season would be a failure – in other words, they were already very much a team that knew how to marshal its reserves for May and June when they would have to be at their best.
So even if they weren’t blowing the doors off of opponents every night out, they were still winning more than twice as often as they were losing. I thought trading their leading scorer was a risk and probably an unnecessary one. But I also had enough respect for Jack McCloskey to know that he would only have taken what I deemed a risk – and he saw as no risk at all, but in fact viewed as a necessity – if he didn’t have compelling information unknown to the rest of us.
What I found remarkable in talking to him more than 20 years after the fact is that he never really discovered what was at the root of the obvious divide that had occurred in the Pistons’ locker room. The fact he became convinced that one existed and saw no way to remedy the situation, though, was all the evidence he needed to make a trade that caught so many around the NBA off guard.
Langlois: Bob Lanier and Dave Bing are in a virtual tie for No. 1 Pam, with Lanier checking in at 22.7 points per game and Bing at 22.6 points a game. While it’s true that teams generally played at a faster pace back then and scored more points, it’s remarkable that two players who played the majority of their games as Pistons with the other in the lineup rank 1-2 in career scoring.
That speaks to a few other things beyond the pace of play in that era: How good those two players were and how little the Pistons were able to put around them, which explains why Bing and Lanier as teammates experienced so little postseason success. In the terrific 1974 playoff series with Chicago, for instance, when the Bulls prevailed in seven games in the first round, the Pistons had the two best players on the court in Bing and Lanier, but the Bulls had the next four best – Chet Walker, Bob Love, Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan.
The next two on the list were also teammates, though they didn’t overlap all that long. Jerry Stackhouse is No. 3 (22.1) and Grant Hill No. 4 (21.6). Then comes Kelly Tripucka (21.6), Bailey Howell (21.1), Adrian Dantley (20.3), Isiah Thomas (19.2), George Yardley (19.1) and Rip Hamilton (18.4).
Langlois: That’s a tricky issue, James. I know there are many who were connected to the Pistons in that era who still firmly believe that the league resented their success. You have to recall the times. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird led the NBA from some very dark days – it bears repeating that when Magic scored 42 points and grabbed 15 boards to lead the Lakers to the 1980 title in a Game 6 win, CBS showed that game at 11:30 p.m. on tape delay – to what many consider the best decade in league history.
And Michael Jordan was a marketing phenomenon waiting to carry the league to even greater heights – but he needed the legitimacy that only an NBA title (better yet, multiple titles) could confer.
The Pistons not only ended the dynasties of both the Celtics and Lakers – neither Bird nor Magic would ever win another title after being eliminated from the playoffs by the Pistons (1988 for the Celtics, 1989 for the Lakers) – but they kept Jordan from getting to the NBA Finals three years running (1988-90).
Here’s a story that was told to me that illustrates the cold shoulder the Pistons felt they got from the NBA. At the first league meeting held following the NBA Finals every season, it was customary at the time for two large cardboard cutouts of NBA stars to adorn the host hotel lobby. The cutouts would be of NBA stars, but in preceding years the stars were always from the NBA title team. After the Pistons won the 1989 title, they showed up for league meetings to find cardboard cutouts of Bird and Johnson – not one image of the Pistons.
When a Pistons official mentioned that to an NBA representative, he got a sneering response: “Who’d you expect us to use? Laimbeer and Mahorn?”
McCloskey was the architect of the Bad Boys – an image the NBA first promoted, then ran from – and, I can only speculate, the Hall of Fame is reluctant to recognize him for that achievement.
On merit alone, McCloskey is a slam-dunk choice. He never had the benefit of a 7-foot Hall of Famer and a superstar of Magic-Bird-Jordan lineage never fell into his lap. He was granted just one premier draft choice – the No. 2 pick in 1981, Isiah Thomas – and still drafted a whopping three Hall of Famers in a five-year span (Isiah, Joe Dumars in 1985, Dennis Rodman in ’86). And he made a series of terrific trades (Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer, Adrian Dantley, James Edwards) that were clear wins for his team.
Even though there is no official connection between the NBA and the Hall of Fame, and the basketball Hall has the most mysterious nomination and election process of any major Hall of Fame, it’s fair to assume that if there is significant sentiment for or against a Hall candidate from a number of influential NBA figures, the candidacy will be duly affected.
Langlois: Nope. One of the stipulations of the 1989 expansion draft, Kerry, was that a player selected by one of the expansion teams could not be traded back to the original team for one full year after the draft.
What some teams would do, though, was work out a deal with the expansion teams to send them a future draft pick if they would take a certain player over another player on their roster they didn’t want to lose. McCloskey couldn’t get the Timberwolves to agree to select someone other than Mahorn. Minnesota management was insistent in dealings with McCloskey that it wasn’t interested in Mahorn for his trade value but instead for the toughness and championship pedigree he would bring.
It didn’t work out for them, though, because Mahorn refused to report. The Timberwolves wound up trading him to Philadelphia and getting a pretty fair bounty in return: a No. 1 pick and two second-round picks.
Langlois: I don’t know that the job category exists in any form any more, Ken, so comparing enforcers is probably a little easier than, for instance, comparing centers or point guards across generations.
Certainly Mahorn would show up on any top-10 list of all-time NBA enforcers because of his central role in the Bad Boys’ persona, which became a key ingredient in their arsenal as they built through the phases of title contention.
Maurice Lucas was not only a highly respected tough guy, but also a very accomplished scorer and rebounder. Lucas played a critical role in helping Portland win the 1977 NBA title, his first year in the league after being taken in the ABA dispersal draft.
Kermit Washington, who unfortunately always will be remembered as the man who nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich with a jarring punch, was an all-time tough guy. Charles Oakley was regarded as perhaps the toughest player of his generation. Buck Williams was another who was widely respected for his toughness. Mahorn’s old tag team buddy from Washington, Jeff Ruland, was no stranger to rough play. Kurt Rambis probably wasn’t really in their class, but he played on a Lakers team so skilled that his willingness to put opponents on the floor stood out. Marc Iavaroni played a similar role with the Dr. J Philadelphia 76ers.
Langlois: The first four are Hall of Famers, Jess – Isiah Thomas (18,822), Joe Dumars (16,401), Bob Lanier (15,488) and Dave Bing (15,235). Thomas and Dumars, of course, played their entire careers with the Pistons.
Lanier played 4½ more seasons with Milwaukee and finished with 19,248 points in his career. Bing played two with Washington and one with Boston, finishing with 18,327 points.
Bill Laimbeer checks in at No. 5 on the Pistons’ all-time scoring list at 12,665 points. He’d played 1½ seasons with Cleveland before Jack McCloskey acquired him in trade, so Laimbeer finished his NBA career with 13,790 points.
Langlois: Also a very enjoyable team, Roger, with four of the same starters – Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed. But the ’73 team had Earl Monroe in the starting backcourt with Frazier. Dick Barnett, who was 33 when the 1970 team won it all, was still around three years later, but he was more of a role player at the time, the second guard off the bench behind Dean Meminger.
The primary bench players in ’70 were Cazzie Russell, the former Michigan All-American who was the No. 1 pick in the 1966 draft, and the two players the Knicks would a year later trade to Baltimore for Monroe, Dave Stallworth and Mike Riordan. They were nice complementary players, but there was no doubt that Baltimore – which also received some amount of cash in the transaction – didn’t come close to getting equal value for a player as gifted as Monroe.
The primary bench players in 1973 were Jerry Lucas, at that point still a very effective player, Phil Jackson and Meminger.
The Knicks were starting to get a little long in the tooth by the time they won in 1973. Only Frazier (27), Monroe (28) and Bradley (29) were on the sunny side of 30 among their six Hall of Famers – and, in general, players didn’t last as long back then, even the greats often retiring in their very early 30s. In fact, Reed (30), DeBusschere (32) and Lucas (32) all would retire after only one more season following their 1973 world title.
But your point is well taken. The ’70 team, in fact, won three more regular-season games (60) than the ’73 team.
Langlois: Not openly, to my knowledge, at least. Actually, Tom Gores is already sitting at No. 28 on the seniority list for NBA owners. Since the closing of his purchase of the Pistons in early June from Karen Davidson, in addition to Philadelphia the Atlanta Hawks have been sold.
Atlanta’s sale was announced in August with California businessman Alex Meruelo purchasing the Hawks, pending NBA approval. He was known mostly as the founder of the West Coast pizza chain, La Pizza Loco, but Meruelo also has business interests in real estate, construction and television. In addition, he recently purchased a Nevada casino.
Joshua Harris, whose purchase of the 76ers gained NBA approval only Tuesday, is known as a leveraged buyout specialist.
The next team to sell, more than likely, will be the New Orleans Hornets. The NBA assumed ownership of the team when former owner’s George Shinn’s attempts to sell the franchise were unsuccessful.
In recent years, Seattle (now Oklahoma City), Charlotte, Golden State, Washington and New Jersey all have changed hands.
Langlois: Chuck Daly coached the Pistons for nine full seasons and 738 regular-season games – far and away the most in both categories, Rafe.
In fact, since the Pistons moved to Detroit in 1957, only three coaches besides Daly have coached three consecutive full seasons. Ray Scott is second to Daly in number of regular-season games coached (281), but Scott only coached the Pistons for two full seasons (1973-74, 1974-75). He replaced Earl Lloyd seven games into the 1972-73 season and was replaced 42 games into the 1975-76 season.
Besides Daly, Pistons coaches who have coached three full seasons with the franchise are Dick McGuire (280 games), Scotty Robertson and Flip Saunders (both 246). Daly coached another 113 playoff games – 12½ per season, indicative of the quality of those teams and, of course, a huge reason why he lasted nine years.
Frank’s track record is encouraging. He coached 466 regular-season games in New Jersey, which would make him comfortably No. 2 in Pistons history if he manages similar longevity in Detroit.
Langlois: The NBA was going through some pretty big changes in that era, Steve. In both seasons the Bad Boys won their titles, the league added two expansion teams. The NBA went from 23 teams to 25 in the 1988-89 season when Charlotte and Miami were added, then to 27 teams in 1989-90 with the addition of Minnesota and Orlando.
League membership changed almost annually in the early years of the NBA, then got more stable as it moved through the ’60s and into the ’70s. There were 18 NBA teams at the time of the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77 when New Jersey, San Antonio, Indiana and Denver bumped league membership to 22.
It went to 23 in 1980-81 when Dallas was granted an expansion franchise. Toronto and Vancouver (now Memphis) were added in 1995-96 to push the league to 29 teams. And it got to its present 30 in 2004-05 when Charlotte was again granted an expansion franchise to replace the Hornets, who moved to New Orleans in 2002-03.
Langlois: Briefly. Dantley’s junior season – his last, as he entered the 1976 NBA draft, was the sixth pick and was voted NBA Rookie of the Year with the old Buffalo Braves, who then moved to San Diego and became the Clippers – was Laimbeer’s freshman season at Notre Dame.
But Laimbeer only played in 10 games that year before he became academically ineligible – by his own admission, he spent more time shooting pool than shooting baskets or cracking the books – and had to attend a junior college to regain his eligibility for the following season.
The Irish went 23-6 that year behind Dantley, an All-American who was an incredible scorer, averaging 28.6 points – Dantley averaged 30.4 as a sophomore – and 10.1 rebounds a game.
That Irish season was also ended by a Michigan team in the NCAA tournament, though. (The 1979 team, as noted in Thursday’s Mailbag, lost to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the regional finals.) The Michigan Wolverines, led by Rickey Green and Phil Hubbard, beat the Irish 80-76 in a second-round game. Michigan would advance to the national championship that year, where it would lose for a third time to Big Ten champion Indiana. The Wolverines had a 6-foor-2 forward named Wayman Britt on that team – Britt actually played seven games with the Pistons in 1977-78 – who made Dantley work for all of his 31 points in Michigan’s win.
Langlois: For two seasons, yes, Tripucka and Laimbeer were teammates at Notre Dame. Laimbeer was recruited to South Bend by Digger Phelps for the 1975-76 season and Tripucka followed two years later, arriving as part of a ballyhooed freshman class that also included Orlando Woolridge and Tracy Jackson. Jackson, in fact, was a McDonald’s All-American in 1977, the first year McDonald’s sponsored the game.
In the six seasons from the time Laimbeer arrived at Notre Dame until the time Tripucka left in 1981, Notre Dame was remarkably consistent, winning between 22 and 24 games every season and losing between six and eight.
In Tripucka’s freshman season and Laimbeer’s junior year, Notre Dame made its only trip to the Final Four, where the Irish lost to Duke in the national semifinal. Kentucky went on to win the title.
The following season, Notre Dame lost in the regional final to Michigan State, which would go on to win the NCAA title behind Magic Johnson and Pistons draft choice Greg Kelser.
Six Notre Dame players from that team would play in the NBA. In addition to Tripucka and Laimbeer, they were Woolridge, Jackson, Bill Hanzlik and Bruce Flowers.
Langlois: He told me that it was simply a matter of the great respect he had for Bobby Knight at the time. He said he respected a lot of coaches, but Knight for him was clearly the one who stood out.
He wanted to know how to coach basketball – I don’t think he was going there to get tips on recruiting or dealing with the media or any of the peripheral matters that make up the entirety of being a college basketball coach at a national power, he just wanted to know how a master takes a 12-man team and a five-man unit and puts them in the best position to win basketball games.
Frank remains fiercely loyal to Knight. He was there a few years ago when Knight went into the Hall of Fame at West Point and then attended the last Yankees game played at the old Yankee Stadium with Knight and his son.
He’s told me that as much as he respected Knight and was in awe of him as a teenager, his appreciation for what Knight taught him about becoming a coach continues to evolve.
“With coach, obviously you have great respect and appreciation while you’re there, but as you gain more experience and knowledge, you recognize his genius that much more.”
Langlois: The idea that the Pistons ignore statistical analysis is a canard, Brian. They might not have an in-house specialist yet solely dedicated to crunching numbers, but the Pistons certainly make use of numbers not captured by conventional box scores that they deem relevant.
Scott Perry, Pistons vice president, spent a year in the front office of Seattle working as the No. 2 to general manager Sam Presti, acknowledged as one of the leading proponents of statistical analysis. Perry has seen firsthand how a front office held up as an NBA pioneer in utilization of advanced statistics operates. I’ve talked to him at length about it. He believes outsiders have a skewed perspective of the weight those front offices assign to numbers crunching. The decision to draft Kevin Durant, for instance, had little to do with what the numbers told Presti and Perry about him and more what their eyes and instincts indicated.
That doesn’t mean Perry doesn’t believe in the value of numbers. He does. So does Joe Dumars. Around the office, his staff kids him that Joe D is addicted to Synergy, the video system which is all about breaking down individual players’ tendencies, hot spots, strengths and weaknesses.
I had a discussion last spring with another member of the front office staff, talking about a particular college prospect in advance of the draft. I asked if the player compared favorably to a few recent products of the same school who had gone on to a surprising level of success in the NBA. He broke out a long list of statistics that showed why he didn’t think that player would follow a similar path.
Lawrence Frank’s staff will include an assistant coach this season who has vast experience in using all manner of statistics to evaluate both the Pistons and their opponents. I’ve talked to him. What he told me essentially is what I’ve heard repeatedly from people in the NBA who believe in the value of statistical analysis: It’s a tool, to be used the way scouting reports and strength coaches and individual workouts are used. It can buttress what you already believe or it can cause you to rethink long-held impressions if statistical evidence counters intuition. It’s greatest value often can be showing a player to convince him that what you’ve already told him is supported by numbers.
But I don’t know that anyone believes numbers always trump all other evidence, simply because the formulas used to concoct those numbers are inexact tools. In a team game, an infinitely complex series of factors greatly complicate, if not overwhelm, any attempt to devise a formula that reduces an individual’s worth to a simple number just yet.
The Pistons’ front office is known around the league for holding its cards especially close to the vest. They don’t openly share the way they do business as some organizations do, willingly or otherwise. So the misconception that the Pistons ignore statistical analysis has flowered unchecked. It simply isn’t the case.
Langlois: One big one: They can’t have any contact with current NBA players, Al. You probably noticed in that story that the Pistons had to recruit an Oakland University assistant coach – former Western Michigan player Saddi Washington – for Hetzel to use as the subject of his individual workout when he was auditioning for his job on Lawrence Frank’s staff.
During the course of a normal summer, an NBA team might have one or two or even more assistant coaches always available for players who might want to work out at the team’s training facility. Some NBA players attend workout facilities scattered across the country. Among the more well-known are Joe Abunassar’s facility in Las Vegas, Tim Grover’s in Chicago and the IMG facility in Florida.
But many players – younger players, especially – choose to work out under the direction of their team’s staff. That has not been allowed to happen this summer.
So Frank’s staff has taken the opportunity to make sure everyone is on the same page with Frank’s playbook and familiar with his terminology. The staff has been spending a few hours every afternoon on the court, taping their sessions, as they simulate a multitude of scenarios so that all members of the staff can visualize the concepts Frank will put into practice when the season starts.
Langlois: The draft is governed by the collective bargaining agreement, Master. That’s what the NBA and the Players Association are in the process of negotiating. The previous CBA expired at midnight on June 30. If next June rolls around and there is not a CBA in place, there would be no draft.
When the NHL missed the entire 2004-05 season, the league held the 2005 draft after reaching a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement. In that draft, they did not merely use the 2003-04 standings to determine draft order. They went with a three-tiered lottery system that gave every team a chance at the No. 1 pick.
Anything and everything would be possible should the NBA go down the same path – from using the 2010-11 standings and holding a new lottery with the same odds given to the 14 non-playoff teams to a weighted lottery system for all 30 teams to a lottery that gives all teams an equal shot at No. 1.
Langlois: Chuck Daly had a difficult time finding someone who was the right fit, Randall. John Salley, in his rookie season, was the starter for the first two games that season. But the Pistons lost both games and Salley went scoreless, going 0 for 7.
So Sidney Green, also acquired that summer via trade with Chicago, started the next 69. Near the end of the regular season, with the Pistons not getting the consistent jump shooting they expected from Green, Daly turned to Kurt Nimphius. Jack McCloskey had just acquired Nimphius a few weeks before the February trade deadline, sending both his first- and second-round picks in 1987 to the Clippers. Nimphius was long and athletic and had a decent shooting touch, but he didn’t bring the kind of grit that the Pistons really felt they needed at that spot.
So after five games with Nimphius in the starting lineup and Green basically having fallen out of the rotation, Daly went with Mahorn as the starter and used Salley as the primary backup.
All four guys pretty much ran the gamut that year – from starter to out of the rotation. But by the time the playoff run was over, Mahorn’s value was evident. He was entrenched as the starter and only back trouble that flared the following season would keep him out of the lineup.
Langlois: That’s Scott Hastings, Jan, and that picture has to be from the 1990-91 season, the second of two years Hastings spent with the Pistons after Jack McCloskey signed him as a free agent coming off the 1989 NBA championship season.
The other players that I can identify in the picture are Lance Blanks, to Hastings’ right, who was a rookie that season and is currently general manager of the Phoenix Suns; and William Bedford, who is No. 00. The fourth player is blocked out by Daly, but judging by his size it must be either James Edwards, Tree Rollins or John Salley.
Hastings was signed by the Pistons more because of his character than anything they hoped to get from him as a player. He’d been in the league seven years at the time McCloskey signed him and had never averaged more than 5.1 points per game – which he did in 1988-89 with the expansion Miami Heat, when he got far more playing time than he ever had a chance to get with the Pistons.
Salley told me earlier this year that Hastings, despite his choirboy looks at the time, was one of the toughest, craziest players he came across in all his time in the NBA. When the Pistons played Atlanta a few years before Hastings joined them, Hastings challenged the entire Pistons team – the Bad Boys, with Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Dennis Rodman among them – to a fight one night. More than anything, that was what McCloskey figured he was getting – one more tough veteran to make practices competitive and further cement the Pistons’ reputation as the toughest team in the NBA.
Hastings was also a match for Salley as a locker-room wit. He finished his career with Denver, and he remains the TV analyst for Nuggets games.
Langlois: Money. The Nets were cash poor and they simply couldn’t afford him – or so they believed. In hindsight, they should have paid him whatever it would have taken. The Nets have forever been New York’s red-headed orphan, ceding favorite status in the Big Apple to the Knicks – in fact, moving to New Jersey to try to cultivate a fan base there before only recently deciding to move back into the city, to Brooklyn. Having Dr. J in their lineup when they moved to the NBA would have gone a long way toward giving the Nets credibility with the city’s hard-boiled basketball fans.
When talks broke down between the Nets and Erving, they shopped him around to see how much he would bring. Philadelphia, which the previous season had signed George McInnis, who in his fourth ABA season had averaged nearly 30 points per game, offered the Nets $3 million for Erving and got the deal done on the eve of the 1976 season opener.
It was McGinnis, not Erving, who actually led the 76ers in scoring that season – scoring 23 a game to Dr. J’s 21. After three seasons together that produced no championships – the 76ers led Portland 2-0 before losing four straight in the 1977 NBA Finals – Philly broke up the McGinnis-Erving duo, shipping McGinnis to Denver for defensive-minded forward Bobby Jones.
After adding Jones, Erving and Philadelphia would meet the Lakers three times in a four-year span starting in 1980 in the NBA Finals. The Lakers won the first two meetings, but the 76ers – after adding Moses Malone via trade – swept the Lakers to win the 1983 title.
Langlois: For all the instability at the ownership level, the ABA sure churned out a lot of great players and even some great coaches – Larry Brown, Doug Moe and Hubie Brown among the coaching alumni of the ABA.
The list of great players who cut their teeth in the ABA is amazing: Spencer Haywood, Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins, George McGinnis, David Thompson, Artis Gilmore, Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone and Dan Issel among them. I think some of the teams that won ABA titles would have fared very well in the NBA of the day, perhaps even challenging for titles of their own.
Erving has to be considered the greatest ABA player of all-time, especially if you take into account the hype he generated. There is a school of thought that Erving, in fact, was the reason the NBA felt compelled to seek a merger rather than merely wait out the ABA’s demise – it wanted to bring Erving under the tent while he was at the peak of his athletic prowess. Erving’s high-wire dunks were a powerful marketing tool that helped the ABA survive and generated huge amounts of publicity for the NBA when he landed with the Philadelphia 76ers after the merger.
Thompson could have been a star of the same magnitude if not for his well-chronicled issues with drug addiction. As an ABA rookie in 1975-76 – the league’s final season – Thompson averaged 26 points a game and came to pro basketball as a full-blown star off of carrying North Carolina State to the 1974 NCAA title by knocking off Bill Walton and the UCLA dynasty. It was a major coup for the ABA to sign Thompson away from the NBA, no doubt another incentive for the NBA to seek the merger.
Erving’s New York Nets beat Thompson’s Denver Nuggets in the ABA Finals that year. The NBA absorbed the Nets, Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers for the following season. It’s fair to wonder if Denver would have been deemed worthy of NBA membership without the gate attraction Thompson represented.
Langlois: Pretty good, but he really didn’t give anyone reason to believe he should be a first-round pick, Raymond. Laimbeer probably would admit he wouldn’t have won any awards for dedication to the sport, or discipline in other aspects of his personal life, back then. Though he obviously had the intellect to succeed in college, he flunked out of Notre Dame – basically, he spent more time on the golf course and in pool halls than classrooms – and had to go to a junior college and attend summer school at Notre Dame to regain eligibility.
But beyond his lack of focus, the Irish were loaded then. Eight players from Laimbeer’s time in South Bend would go on to spend some time in the NBA, including players like Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Woolridge and Bruce Flowers, who was the more highly regarded recruit out of Berkley, Mich.
Laimbeer always credited his wife, Chris, with helping him apply discipline to his life. They were married before Laimbeer embarked on his professional basketball career, spending one year in Italy before joining the Cavaliers in time for the 1980-81 season. Here’s a quote I found from a 1990 Sports Illustrated article on Laimbeer after the Pistons had won their second NBA title that provides some insight into Laimbeer’s psyche:
“I never looked on basketball as a career. I never had any driving ambition to play pro basketball. I knew I’d be a success at whatever I happened to choose. My ambition was only to have fun.”
Ultimately, I think Laimbeer was a born competitor who found in basketball the opportunity to compete on a grand stage, and that became intoxicating. That was his motivation to become the best basketball player he could be – not love of basketball, necessarily, but love of competition. But first he had to channel that competitiveness, and there was very little about his experience at Notre Dame that gave NBA scouts reason to believe he would do it well enough to make a significant impact in their league.
Langlois: Kelser’s knee problems curtailed his NBA career, so in hindsight it’s an easy call that Sidney Moncrief was the superior player and should have been the Pistons’ pick. Of course, it’s unlikely they would have been able to take him at No. 5 – the Bucks, picking right ahead of them, pretty much admitted after the fact that they would have taken Moncrief over Kelser even if Dick Vitale hadn’t paid them $50,000 to influence their pick.
After Kelser went to the Pistons, the next three picks were James Bailey out of Rutgers, a fairly athletic big man with limited offensive skills who lasted nine years as a rotation player; Vinnie Johnson, the player McCloskey would net via the Kelser trade; and Calvin Natt, who had a highly productive 11-year career as one of the most underrated players of his generation. Natt was a power forward trapped in a small forward’s body, but he played hard and averaged 17.7 points and 6.8 rebounds a game over his career – terrific numbers.
You can’t really knock the Hubbard pick at 15. Hubbard, in my view, would have been one of the greatest college players of all-time if he hadn’t suffered a devastating knee injury after his sophomore year while playing for Team USA. As a soph, Hubbard averaged 19.6 points and 13.0 rebounds and led Michigan to a No. 1 ranking before being upset in the NCAA tournament by UNC-Charlotte and Cedric Maxwell. His numbers sunk to 14.8 and 9.2 as a junior, post injury, but there were no great players on the board when Hubbard was picked. The next three to go were Jim Spanarkel, Lee Johnson and Reggie King.
The best players taken after Hubbard went 15th were project big men taken in the third (Bill Laimbeer, 65th overall), fourth (James Donaldson, 73rd) and fifth (Mark Eaton, 107th) rounds.
It was the 10th pick, Roy Hamilton, that really was the colossal reach for Vitale. Two picks later, Portland grabbed Dayton shooting guard Jim Paxson, who averaged 14.3 points over an 11-year career that saw him make two All-Star teams and average between 17.1 and 21.7 points over a five-year stretch in which he helped put Portland in the playoffs four times.
Langlois: Larry Brown only had two years in Detroit, but he’s the only other coach besides Daly to coach the team to an NBA title and came within a quarter of winning a second one. And while the 2004 Pistons were a talented group assembled by Joe Dumars, it’s unlikely they will ever boast three Hall of Fame players as the Daly Bad Boys eventually would in Dumars, Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman, not to mention a worthy candidate in Bill Laimbeer and a sixth man for the ages in Vinnie Johnson.
So Brown, despite the idiosyncrasies that cause his stays in almost every job he’s ever held to be short ones, has to rank a solid No. 2 on this list.
Rick Carlisle won 50 games with modest talent in each of his two seasons with the Pistons. He’d be in any conversation for No. 3 behind Daly and Brown. Carlisle, by the way, is one of only two Pistons coaches to have won the NBA Coach of the Year award. Amazingly enough, Daly and Brown didn’t win it. Daly never won the award, in fact. Brown won in 2001 with Philadelphia.
The other Pistons coach to win Coach of the Year was Ray Scott, who led the 1974 Pistons to a 52-win season, a franchise best at the time.
Seven Pistons coaches posted winning records during their time here. Flip Saunders, who also has to rank high on this list based on his record, is No. 1 in career winning percentage at .715, followed by Brown (.659), Daly (.633), Carlisle (.610), Doug Collins (.579, and another well-respected coach), Scott (.523) and Alvin Gentry (.503).
Langlois: You could make the case for a handful of drafts, including the 1996 draft and the 2003 draft that both include many players still active or recently retired and likely on their way to the Hall of Fame.
But it’s interesting that two of the best drafts in history came consecutively in the 1980s, the 1984 and ’85 drafts, each producing four Hall of Famers in the first round.
I think you’d have to give the 1984 draft a slightly higher grade based solely on star power. Hakeem Olajuwon went No. 1 that year and he is easily one of the 10 greatest big men ever, perhaps top five. Michael Jordan was the No. 3 pick that year and many consider him the greatest player ever. Charles Barkley was the No. 5 pick and his career was remarkable, marred only by the absence of an NBA title. And John Stockton, who also failed to win a title (largely because his Utah Jazz teams were stuck in the West behind the Lakers for many years and then had to go up against Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals in both 1997 and ’98), was the 16th pick.
The 1985 draft included two players taken in the teens who grew up in rural Louisiana who would go on to Hall of Fame careers. Karl Malone, out of Louisiana Tech, was drafted 13th, and Pistons president Joe Dumars was drafted 18th out of McNeese State by Jack McCloskey. The other first-round Hall of Famers from that draft class were Patrick Ewing, who went No. 1 overall, and Chris Mullin, the seventh pick.
Langlois: You’re probably thinking of 1987, Corey, when the Knicks approached McCloskey during the playoffs – the story broke as the Pistons were playing Boston in their epic seven-game Eastern Conference finals series – about becoming their general manager.
They offered him the job and threw a ton of money at him for that era. In fact, there was speculation that they were doubling the salary McCloskey earned with the Pistons, which was believed to be about $175,000 at the time. The Knicks were offering a multiyear deal that would have netted McCloskey about $2 million.
Here’s what McCloskey said when he decided to stay with the Pistons and credited his wife, Leslie, with convincing him of what he should do: “She felt very strongly about staying here. That was instrumental. We went through some horrible turmoil over this. But it came down to that we felt this was our area, our comfort zone. When it came time to pull the trigger, I just couldn’t do it.”
The next candidate in line appeared to be Dave Checketts, who was then the top executive of the Utah Jazz. But the job went instead to Al Bianchi, who was an assistant coach in Phoenix. Bianchi brought in Rick Pitino to be the head coach. Four years later, with the Knicks foundering after Pitino abruptly quit to return to college coaching, they brought in Checketts to run the organization. By then, the Pistons had won two NBA titles.
Langlois: I think any reasonable debate has to come down to the 1981 draft vs. the 1986 draft, Tariq. Jack McCloskey was in charge for both of them, netting Isiah Thomas with the second pick and Kelly Tripucka with the 12th in 1981, while landing John Salley with the 11th pick and Dennis Rodman with the 27th in 1986.
For value relative to the picks, you could make a pretty compelling case for the 1986 draft, especially within the context of the quality of each draft. The ’86 draft wound up producing very little in the way of NBA star quality – largely due to addiction issues and tragedy that befell top-10 picks – but McCloskey wound up drafting two players who were major contributions to two Pistons championships and one player, Rodman, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career.
But for overall impact to the franchise, I would have to go with 1981. By most measurable objectives – All-Star selections, All-NBA balloting, historical statistical rankings, etc. – Isiah Thomas is the greatest player in franchise history. He was certainly a game-changer for the Pistons from the second he pulled on their uniform. And he was the constant through the ’80s as the Pistons went from the 21-win team he joined to the team that ended both the Celtics and Lakers dynasties and held off the Chicago Bulls for three straight years.
But let’s not overlook Tripucka’s contributions, either. He averaged 20 points or better in four of his five seasons with the Pistons (never less than 19.1) with a high of 26.5 in 1982-83. Ironically enough, he didn’t make the All-Star team that season, but he did in both the previous and succeeding season. The competition at the forward spots in the East was brutal back then, too, with Julius Erving and Larry Bird in their primes, plus Marques Johnson in Milwaukee, Bernard King with the Knicks and Dominique Wilkins coming to Atlanta.
Tripucka wasn’t around when the Pistons started their five-year stretch of title runs in 1987, but the trade of Tripucka for Adrian Dantley – and, subsequently, the trade of Dantley for Mark Aguirre – was a critical step in the Pistons’ evolution. It was only the trade value that Tripucka had established through his first five seasons in the NBA that enabled the Pistons to land such quality players in subsequent deals, furthering the importance of that landmark 1981 draft.
Langlois: McCloskey traded those picks away, Kyle, as he attempted to add to a roster he knew was closing in on NBA titles. As shrewd as McCloskey proved to be in spotting talent via the draft, he also was willing to gamble that those future picks – which held less value once he’d built a 50-win team, because of where those picks would fall – wouldn’t help the quest for winning titles as much as a veteran might.
Neither player acquired for those two first-rounders wound up being of much value to the Pistons, however. In late January 1987, McCloskey sent his first- and second-rounder in that draft to the LA Clippers in exchange for an athletic big man, Kurt Nimphius. They gave him five starts at power forward, but by the time the playoffs rolled around Nimphius was out of the rotation.
After the season was over, McCloskey sent his 1987 No. 1 pick to Phoenix for William Bedford, who’d been the No. 6 pick in the 1986 draft – the star-crossed draft that featured players like Len Bias, Chris Washburn and Roy Tarpley – and had gotten caught up in a federal drug investigation, along with other Suns players, that caused Phoenix management to look to clean house.
Bedford was an enormously talented 7-footer who simply had too much personal baggage to overcome. After playing sparingly in 1987-88, Bedford missed the entire following season due to a drug suspension. After two more years where he remained a non-factor, the Pistons traded him on draft day 1992 to the Clippers, along with their first-round pick, Don MacLean, for Olden Polynice.
Jason (Algonac, Mich.): I believe Chuck Daly was in his 50s when the Pistons hired him to be their head coach. What took him so long to become an NBA head coach?
Langlois: Daly was 53 when he coached his first Pistons game – a 127-121 win over the Boston Celtics at the Silverdome – but the Pistons were his second NBA stop, Jason. But your point remains a valid one because Daly didn’t get his first NBA head coaching job until he was 50, midway through the 1980-81 season when Ted Stepien hired him as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Daly quickly came to find out it was an impossible situation. Famously, he never took an apartment in Cleveland, living for “93 days,” as he never forgot, in a Holiday Inn near the old Richfield Coliseum halfway between Cleveland and Akron where the Cavaliers then played.
Part of the reason Daly didn’t become an NBA head coach until he was 50 was the money involved in the game wasn’t that much different at the college and pro levels back then, and Daly’s roots were in college basketball. In fact, he spent eight years coaching high school basketball in Pennsylvania before becoming a Duke assistant coach in 1963. After six years on Duke’s bench, he became head coach at Boston College in 1969 for two seasons and then moved on to Penn, where he spent six seasons.
That’s when one of his dearest friends, then-76ers head coach Billy Cunningham, convinced him to become his assistant coach. That’s where Daly was when the Cleveland opening occurred. When Stepien fired him after Daly went 9-32 to finish the 1980-81 season (Daly had a three-year, $500,000 contract, which was pretty good in those days, and it was about that time when NBA coaches started pulling away from college counterparts in pay; now the top college coaches make on par with top NBA coaches), he went back to Philly and did some TV work the following season.
When Jack McCloskey decided to fire Scotty Robertson after the 1982-83 season, he went after Daly, who’d almost taken the job when McCloskey first offered it to him after the 1979-80 season. There was some talk that McCloskey didn’t offer enough money, though Daly maintained he turned down the job because his daughter, Cydney, was still in high school in Philadelphia at the time. In any case, Daly didn’t make as much with the Pistons, initially, as he did in Cleveland, signing for $125,000 a year in his first contract.
To be sure, Daly and McCloskey – who shared Penn roots – knocked heads every time Daly’s contract came up for negotiation. There was deep speculation, even as the Pistons were on the verge of winning their second straight title in 1990, that Daly would leave the Pistons following that season – his contract was up – to take a job as an analyst with NBC, which held the NBA contract at the time.
Caitlin (Rockford, Mich.): While I was reading your story on Bill Laimbeer, I was wondering why he retired in the middle of a season?
Langlois: Laimbeer was 36 when he retired 13 games into the 1993-94 season, Caitlin. Here’s what he said at the press conference on Dec. 1, the day after the Pistons lost 92-74 at Cleveland as rumors began to swirl that Laimbeer would be calling it quits the next day.
“I’ve always hated inconsistency and I was turning into an inconsistent player. I was beginning to hate myself.”
Laimbeer prided himself on staying healthy enough to play in a remarkable 685 consecutive games, but he was struggling with a bad back at the time he decided to retire.
I think another big part of it was the fact that the Pistons were on their way to a dreadful 20-62 season. While Laimbeer might not have known exactly how bad it was about to get, he certainly knew that the Pistons were a long way from title contention. It was just three years removed from winning the franchise’s second consecutive title, but so much had changed, including Chuck Daly leaving to go to New Jersey.
My guess is his heart just wasn’t in it anymore, and Laimbeer relied on mental toughness and hard work more than most. It must have taken an incredible amount of willpower on his part to compete the way he did. Laimbeer couldn’t manufacture the motivation to compete any longer and he was too proud to merely collect a paycheck. So he went out on his own terms – exactly the way he played the game.
Carl (Grosse Pointe, Mich.): Can you give us an update on the field for the 2012 Olympic men’s basketball competition now that the European tournament is over?
Langlois: With Spain’s win over France on Sunday to claim the Eurobasket championship, those two teams became the seventh and eighth to claim berths in the 12-team field for the 2012 London Games, Carl.
Great Britain is in as the host nation and the United States locked down the second berth by virtue of winning the 2010 FIBA World Championship. Tunisia became the third qualifier when it won the FIBA Africas tournament earlier this summer. Then Argentina and Brazil earned berths by advancing to the championship game of the FIBA Americas tournament and Australia locked up a spot by winning the FIBA Oceania tournament.
The FIBA Asia tournament is under way now and will conclude on Sunday. As in the Africas and Oceania tournaments, only the Asia champion is assured a spot. That will take the field to nine and leave three open berths.
Twelve nations will compete next July 2-8 for those final three spots. Ten of the 12 are determined, based on their finishes in the various FIBA qualifying tournaments. Angola and Nigeria finished 2-3 behind Tunisia to earn two spots. New Zealand, as runner-up in Oceania, is also in. The 3-4-5 finishers from the FIBA Americas tournament – the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela – will be competing. And from Europe, Macedonia, Russia, Lithuania and Greece will be part of the field.
The final two berths in the qualifier go to the 2-3 Asia finishers.
Alden (Highland Park, Mich.): I read the story about Terry Mills on Pistons.com and was reminded of the talent on that Michigan team when you said he, Glen Rice and Rumeal Robinson were the stars of that team. Were there any other future NBA players on that team? No wonder they won the NCAA title.
Langlois: That Michigan team had six players who went on to NBA careers, Alden, and the crazy thing about it is that wasn’t all that unusual back then. That was nearing the end of the era when the best high school players almost always went to college for at least a few years and usually all four.
The Wolverines went into the tournament as a No. 3 seed, getting routed at home in their regular-season finale by Illinois, the team they would narrowly beat in the national semifinal just three weeks later. In addition to Rice, who graduated as the all-time Big Ten scoring leader, Mills and Robinson, Michigan also had a fourth No. 1 pick on the roster in Loy Vaught, who later would play for the Pistons, as well, plus Sean Higgins and Demetrius Calip. In addition, Mark Hughes, a key reserve on those teams, had tryouts and nearly cracked NBA rosters a few times. (Additionally, they had a freshman who is now one of the NBA’s most prominent agents, Rob Pelinka.)
Yet the Wolverines were tested severely in the first game of that tournament by a Xavier team that featured two big men who would enjoy long, productive NBA careers, Tyrone Hill and Derek Strong.
In the regional semifinals at Rupp Arena in Kentucky, they had to beat a favored North Carolina team that also had six future NBA players, including Rick Fox, Scott Williams, Hubert Davis and J.R. Reid, plus another future Piston, Pete Chilcutt.
The Illinois team Michigan faced had five future NBA players: Kenny Battle, a Pistons first-rounder who was traded before ever suiting up for them, plus Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty and Stephen Bardo.
Karen (Pontiac, Mich.): Your Throwback Thursday story on Terry Mills and the picture of him in his uniform with the flaming horse logo brought back a lot of memories. Why did the Pistons change to those uniforms from the Bad Boys days and why did they change back?
Langlois: Good questions, Karen. Not sure I have all the information that went into those decisions, but I remember talking to some Pistons executives at the time they changed primary colors – abandoning the traditional blue, red and white for teal and burgundy – and introduced the flaming horse logo.
A few things drove the decision. No. 1, the fortunes of the team had flagged once the Bad Boys started drifting apart and retiring. Teams almost never change uniforms when times are good. It’s something you do to draw attention to the franchise when what happens on the court isn’t stirring the fans’ passion.
But it also had something to do with selling merchandise. It had long troubled the organization that there just wasn’t much you could do with that nickname, Pistons. What does a piston look like, anyway? It ties beautifully to the area’s history with the automobile, of course, but makes it tough to create a marketable logo.
So the horse was introduced (horsepower, get it?) and, despite how those uniforms are ridiculed today – derided as part of the dreaded “Teal Era” – they were pretty well received at the time.
In retrospect, of course, they came to be viewed as a mistake. (It didn’t help that the team, despite some success under Doug Collins, didn’t come close to making a mark in the postseason.) It would have been one thing to change uniforms, logos and team colors so radically if the Bad Boys hadn’t done so much to sear them into the memory banks of basketball fans across the world.
Getting the old uniforms back was driven in large part by Joe Dumars’ installation as president of basketball operations in June 2000. The Pistons changed back to the Bad Boys look in time for the 2001-02 season.
Raphael (Detroit): Now that Dennis Rodman is in the Hall of Fame, are there any other ex-Pistons you think are close to making it?
Langlois: As I’ve written before, Raphael, I think the one glaring omission is Jack McCloskey, the general manager who made every move that led to the Bad Boys coming together and winning the first two titles in franchise history.
I read some sentiment for ex-Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause getting his due after the August induction of Rodman, who also won three titles with the Bulls after Krause traded for him, and ex-Bulls assistant coach Tex Winter. I wouldn’t argue against Krause’s induction, but let’s get real: Krause inherited Michael Jordan, which put the ball on the 10-yard line for him.
Yeah, he was the one who identified Phil Jackson as a future coaching star and brought in Winter to install the triangle offense and drafted Scottie Pippen. There was still a lot of work to do after the Bulls added Jordan – it was actually Rod Thorn who drafted him – but the job Krause had to do to get the Bulls from where they were to title contention pales in comparison to what McCloskey faced.
McCloskey inherited a 16-win team. It was McCloskey who drafted Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. It was McCloskey who hired Chuck Daly. It was McCloskey who traded for Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson and Rick Mahorn. It was McCloskey who drafted Kelly Tripucka, turned him into Adrian Dantley and made the daring move to swap Dantley for Mark Aguirre. It was McCloskey who mined the NAIA ranks for Rodman – which many believe led the scouting stampede that turned Pippen into a high draft choice the following June – and drafted John Salley and stole James Edwards in trade.
McCloskey is a no-brainer, but I also think Bill Laimbeer has a shot. It doesn’t help him any that he alienated so many along the way – opponents and media members alike – but on merit alone, there is a solid case to be made for Laimbeer’s Hall of Fame candidacy.
In addition, there are at least two members of the 2004 NBA title team, still active, who will have a shot at the Hall of Fame.
Alan (Wyoming Park, Mich.): I am enjoying the Throwback Thursday stories you have been writing on Pistons players from the past. The two about John Long and Terry Tyler were especially interesting. I sort of remember when they played together in college. Was it considered a coup for Dick Vitale to get them to go to the University of Detroit?
Langlois: Very much so, Alan, although recruiting then wasn’t nearly the monster that recruiting has become today, so only the coaches recruiting them, the high school coaches who had to play against them and perhaps a few very dedicated high school basketball fans knew exactly how big a coup it really was.
Both were coveted by more glamorous programs. As I wrote in Long’s story, Indiana’s Bobby Knight and Michigan’s Johnny Orr both recruited him heavily, among many other powers of the day. Ditto for Tyler, who was such an explosive athlete.
You can only imagine what it must have been like as a 17- or 18-year-old high school student to have Vitale – who, for all the caricatures he inspires, oozes positivity and charisma in person – coming to your house almost daily to preach his vision for what U of D could become.
Vitale recruited many other Detroit-area stars at a time the region gushed college-level talent. In the Long-Tyler class of 1974, he also got Turono Anderson out of Detroit Kettering, Dave Grauzer of St. Clair Shores and Kevin Kaseta from Livonia Franklin. Later, he would land players like Terry Duerod, another big-time talent and a phenomenal deep shooter out of Highland Park; an outstanding point guard out of Detroit Northeastern, Wilbert McCormick; and yet another terrific perimeter shooter, Dave Niles of Garden City West.
In Vitale’s last season as coach, 1977, before stomach ulcers forced him into the athletic director’s job, the Titans were invited to the NCAA tournament as an independent. That was in the day of the 32-team field when bids were scarce. The Titans won their first-round game, beating Middle Tennessee State, to set up a St. Patrick’s Day clash with Michigan played at the University of Kentucky’s new jewel, Rupp Arena.
The Wolverines were led by two more future Pistons, Phil Hubbard and Ricky Green. But they also had many players who’d knocked heads in high school with Vitale’s local stars, players like Tommy Staton out of Ferndale, Dave Baxter of Lutheran West and Alan Hardy (he also briefly played for the Pistons) who had followed Tyler at Detroit Northwestern by a year.
Michigan, which had been ranked No. 1 for much of that season, won a close game, 86-81. Interestingly, both Michigan and U of D had posted one-point wins over eventual national champion Marquette. The Titans won their game on the road, 64-63, on Feb. 16 in what was likely Vitale’s greatest moment as a college coach. He was a huge admirer of Marquette’s iconic coach, Al McGuire, who abruptly retired the following month when the Warriors (before they became the Golden Eagles) beat North Carolina in the NCAA title game.
Zim (Kansas City, Mo.): As a follow-up to your last Mailbag question on Olympic qualifying, how many of the FIBA regions are there where member nations get together to play these qualifying tournaments?
Langlois: FIBA has five subdivisions, Zim: Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania.
There are 53 FIBA members in the Africa subdivision and they are divided into seven zones. There are 44 members in the Americas subdivision are split into three areas (and four zones – Central America and the Caribbean are separate zones but make up the same area). The United States and Canada comprise the North America area by themselves.
There are 44 FIBA members in the Asia subdivision split into five zones and 51 members in FIBA Europe, but no distinctions by zone. Oceania has 21 members, but Australia and New Zealand are the only consequential basketball nations among them.
The toughest competition almost certainly is in FIBA Europe, fueled not only by the spread of basketball’s popularity across the continent but also by the geopolitical changes that have occurred over the last two decades, starting with the dissolution of the former Soviet Republic and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, which was a rising world power at the time.
Countries like Lithuania, Serbia and Croatia that didn’t exist in the ’80s are now legitimate medal threats.
Steve (Tecumseh , Ontario): I know there are international tournaments going on in Europe and South America at this time. Do they have anything to do with next summer’s Olympics?
Langlois: Yes, the events going on now in Lithuania , Argentina and Australia will produce qualifiers for the 2012 men’s Olympic basketball competition in London, Steve.
There are 12 spots available for nations to compete for the Olympic gold medal in men’s (and women’s) basketball. Three of those spots are already taken. The United States landed one by virtue of winning the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey. Great Britain (England , Scotland and Wales, combined) is granted a spot by virtue of being the host nation. And, last month, Tunisia landed the one spot automatically granted to the FIBA Africa region by winning its qualifying tournament.
The FIBA Americas tournament being held in Argentina will produce two automatic Olympic qualifiers, the champion and runner-up. Likewise, the Eurobasket tournament being held in Lithuania will produce two qualifiers. The FIBA Oceania tournament being held in Australia will produce one qualifier, the champion.
That leaves three more berths up for grabs. They will go to the top three finishers in next summer’s June-July qualifying tournament. Twelve teams will compete for those three spots, with four of them coming from Europe (the 3-6 finishers in the current Eurobasket field), three from Americas (3-5 finishers), two from Africa (2-3), two from Asia (2-3) and one from Oceania.
Carmen (Ecorse, Mich.): I read with great sadness about the Russian hockey team that had its plane crash, killing almost everyone on the team. God forbid, what would happen in the NBA if a team’s plane crashed?
Langlois: It’s never happened in any of the four major professional team sports played in the United States, Carmen, but all four have contingency plans in place if it ever were to occur.
In the NBA, the plan would take effect if five or more players were killed or dismembered. In that event, non-affected teams would be able to protect five players on their current roster. No team could lose more than one player in the draft process to restock the affected team.
There are three primary causes for air disasters: weather conditions, mechanical failure and pilot error. The planes that NBA teams fly – at least the teams that own their own planes, as the Pistons do – are put in service far less than conventional commercial airliners. It’s fair to assume they are maintained beyond mandated standards. The pilots who fly those planes are among the best in the business – those are plum jobs, so the competition to land them is heavy.
Weather is the biggest threat. The NBA schedule is demanding and there is often little wiggle room in the schedule to get from one city to the next. But teams aren’t going to be put at undue risk if air-traffic control and the pilot aren’t comfortable with weather conditions.
John (Petoskey, Mich.): Is there any chance the Pistons will bring back Tony Ronzone now that he and the Timberwolves have parted ways?
Langlois: Tony will land on his feet somewhere, John. He’s too well-respected and well-connected to be idle for long. Whether it’s back in Detroit is a decision that Joe Dumars and Tony would need to make. It would depend on what else is out there for him and what the Pistons could offer him at this point.
Ronzone was director of basketball operations when he left the Pistons in the spring of 2010 to become Minnesota’s assistant general manager. Even though the Pistons haven’t named anyone to fill that title since, they have carved up Ronzone’s duties and expanded the responsibilities of other front-office staffers and Joe D feels comfortable with the makeup of his staff at this point.
Personnel director George David picked up much of Ronzone’s overseas scouting assignments and the Pistons have a full-time European scout, as well, who is based in Istanbul. Doug Ash is now scouting director and, along with scouts Durand Walker and Harold Ellis, aids David and vice president Scott Perry in covering North America. Perry, David and Dumars all made at least one trip apiece to Europe last season and all of them saw the international players who wound up being lottery picks play or met them.
I know the Pistons felt comfortable with how it all came together for them last season, which was one that demanded lots of man-hours be dedicated to international scouting given the heavy concentration of lottery-worthy big men who were expected to make themselves available in the draft.
Joseph (Michigan City, Ind.): With the induction of Dennis Rodman into the Hall of Fame, how many Pistons are now in the Hall?
Langlois: There are 22 members of the Hall who have ties to the Pistons, but some of them logged a more significant body of work with other organizations. Remember, it’s officially the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and enshrines are put there for their contributions to basketball in general, not merely the NBA. Inductees are not indentified as being a member of one particular NBA organization, unlike in baseball, where Hall members are depicted wearing the cap of a single organization.
Among the 22 Hall of Famers with ties to the Pistons, a number of them wouldn’t have come close to clearing the bar based solely on their time spent with the organization. Dick Vitale, for example, is in almost exclusively for helping grow college basketball’s popularity as ESPN analyst, although Vitale did great work at the University of Detroit in the 1970s before leaping to the Pistons.
Likewise, Bob McAdoo’s time with the Pistons did nothing to advance his Hall of Fame candidacy. Walt Bellamy was a major disappointment with the Pistons after they acquired him from the Knicks, lasting less than two seasons before they sent him to Atlanta.
Others fall into a different category – players who were very good with the Pistons yet are more remembered for success elsewhere on winning teams. Bailey Howell and Dave DeBusschere come to mind. Howell won titles with Boston and DeBusschere with New York, yet both were terrific players during their time in Pistons uniforms.
You can make subjective arguments on who’d be in the Hall based solely or largely on their time affiliated with the Pistons, but for certain the list would include George Yardley, Dave Bing, Isiah Thomas, Bob Lanier, Joe Dumars, Chuck Daly, Bill Davidson and Fred Zollner.
Pistons fans would argue that Rodman belongs on that list, as well, and my guess is that more people identify him with the Bad Boys than with the Bulls – mostly because Michael Jordan was by far the dominant personality in Chicago – but Rodman probably wouldn’t have gotten to the Hall without those three Bulls titles on his resume.
Steven (Grand Rapids, Mich.): Pistons coaches tend to lose the respect of the players as the season wears on. What will Lawrence Frank do differently to keep everyone in line and keep that respect?
Langlois: That’s a fair question, Steven. It’s hard to argue that the last three Pistons coaches didn’t have their players tune them out. I’m not sure there’s a single reason that happened in each case, because the makeup of the teams was significantly different in all three instances.
What we know about Frank is that the players in New Jersey responded well to him, by all indications. Even at the end of it, when the Nets started the 2009-10 season 0-16, neutral observers told me that the team consistently played hard for him. There was no insurrection.
When I asked Pistons personnel director George David, who shares Indiana University roots with Frank (both were student managers under Bobby Knight, four years apart), how Frank managed to command the respect of the veteran Nets team he inherited from Byron Scott, he said it was because he consistently put the team and individual players in positions to succeed by making great decisions.
Clear and open communication doesn’t solve every issue a coach will confront, but if he engages in clear and open communication with players it can prevent many issues from occurring. By all accounts, communication is a significant strength of Frank’s. That, too, should go a long way in helping him keep his players riveted.
Every new season takes on a life of its own. We don’t yet know what the roster makeup will be when the Pistons start play again. There’s a chance it could look very different from the team that closed the 2010-11 season.
Frank should start from a position of strength, though, no matter what degree of change is made. He comes with a proven track record and the word of mouth on him from players around the league is strong, both from his time in New Jersey and from the work he did as Doc Rivers’ defensive guru with the Celtics last season.
The fact that Joe Dumars stressed ownership signed off on this hire to a degree that wasn’t present during the years Bill Davidson owned the team – he always OK’d Joe D’s hires, but didn’t take part in the interview process, generally – also sends a clear message to players that Frank has strong backing. It will be incumbent on players, perhaps, to a greater degree than in the recent past to give Frank every chance to establish his credentials.
Aaron (Coleman, Mich.): You wrote in your blog “25 Years Ago” that the Pistons nearly traded Joe Dumars to Phoenix in his second season. Do you think that really almost happened and how do you think it would have affected the Pistons in the Bad Boys years if they had made that deal?
Langlois: Joe D told me that his agent told him Jack McCloskey mentioned the possibility of that trade at the time it was being discussed. Dumars said he had never talked to McCloskey about it.
In Eli Zaret’s book “Blue Collar Blueprint,” Dumars didn’t talk specifically about that trade proposal, but in general about the possibility of being traded after his rookie season, 1985-86, when the Pistons were dominated by Atlanta in a first-round playoff series and seemed a long way from title contention.
McCloskey himself was quoted at the time as saying he would listen to offers for Dumars, whom he called “a very marketable player.”
Here’s what Joe D had to say in Zaret’s book: “I was 22 years old and it was very unsettling for a young guy. I remember how the Hawks just handled us. They were a better team and they should have beaten us. No question, the best team won that series.
“That was quite a summer. I’m a first-year guy and just getting settled. I’m new in Detroit, just bought a condo in Southfield, I’m feeling pretty good. And you wake up and read, ‘This team needs to be dismantled – they need to rebuild this team.’ And I’m 22 thinking, ‘What in the hell is going on? What is about to happen?’ ”
How might history have been altered? Well, Humphries was a pretty darn good player. He would have fit in well as the Pistons transitioned to their stated goal of becoming a team known for its defense.
But, let’s face it: Humphries wasn’t on his way to a Hall of Fame career, and while he might have won a few battles guarding Dennis Johnson and Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson as the Pistons were fighting the NBA’s elite, there is no way he would have provided the scoring punch the Pistons needed to complement Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson and Bill Laimbeer.
If it wasn’t for the scoring Joe D offered, would Chuck Daly have been able to give so much playing time to Dennis Rodman and John Salley as young players, knowing they really provided no half-court offense? That would have been a tough call.
Kyle (Harper Woods, Mich.): In reading your recent True Blue Pistons blog on the 1986 training camp, I was struck by the fact that Kelly Tripucka went from averaging 20 points a game with the Pistons in 1985-86 down to 10 for Utah the following year. Why did Tripucka’s career seem to fizzle out after the Pistons traded him? He was still relatively young, after all.
Langlois: He joined a pretty talented team, for starters. There just weren’t as many shots available to him in Utah as there had been in his early years with the Pistons. Karl Malone, Darrell Griffith and Thurl Bailey were the offensive mainstays and John Stockton was about to push Rickey Green aside as the starting point guard.
But the NBA was morphing into a bigger, stronger league at that time, as well. Tripucka was always a bit undersized at a lean 6-foot-6, but it was about then when the NBA started believing in the benefits of weight training and players got bigger.
It also hurt him that it was something of a golden age of NBA small forwards with Larry Bird, Bernard King and Julius Erving (and Adrian Dantley, for that matter) followed by a growing list of dynamic young and athletic scorers topped by Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy. Those players were simply too big and athletic for Tripucka to consistently guard.
After two years in Utah, Tripucka joined the expansion Charlotte Hornets – coached by Dick Harter, who had been an assistant coach under Chuck Daly with the Pistons in Tripucka’s final three seasons in Detroit – and, with the offensively challenged expansion team needing points, Tripucka again flourished, rebounding to score 22.6 a game. That figure declined to 15.6 the following year and 7.0 the year after that as Charlotte gradually built a better roster and Tripucka grew older and the league continued to get bigger and more athletic.
He retired as a player at 31. I think it’s also right to assume that Tripucka’s body simply wore down because he played so incredibly hard to get the most he could out of what he was given. It wasn’t uncommon for Tripucka to require IV infusions after games early in his Pistons career.
Teresa (Flint, Mich.):I really enjoyed reading about Terry Tyler. It got me reminiscing about those great teams he played on in college with John Long and so many other Detroit-area stars. Who were some of the other players on Tyler’s college team and didn’t a lot of Michigan college players wind up playing with the Pistons?
Langlois: Dick Vitale did a great job recruiting Detroit and the suburbs when he arrived off the staff of Rutgers, which he’d helped set up for its undefeated 1975-76 regular season by recruiting Phil Sellers and Mike Dabney before landing the job at U of D.
When Vitale got to Detroit, his first big recruiting scores were landing Tyler (Detroit Northwestern) and Long (Romulus) in the class of ’74. The following year, he picked up Highland Park’s Terry Duerod.
He landed a quality point guard in Wilbert McCormick out of Detroit Northeastern and went to Garden City West to land yet another superb shooter to complement Long and Duerod in Dave Niles. Kevin Kaseta out of Livonia Franklin was also in the Tyler-Long class and became a two-time co-captain.
Long, Tyler and Duerod all went on to play for the Pistons, though Duerod would last only his rookie season (1979-80) – he was chosen by the Dallas Mavericks in the 1980 expansion draft.
Earl Cureton arrived at U of D from junior college and was chosen by Philadelphia in the 1979 draft, but he came to the Pistons in 1983.
In Vitale’s second draft, he chose two other players with state ties – Michigan State’s Greg Kelser and Michigan’s Phil Hubbard – in the first round. The 1979-80 Pistons featured seven players with Michigan ties: Long, Kelser, Tyler, Duerod, Hubbard, Eric Money (Detroit Kettering) and James McElroy (Detroit Murray-Wright, Central Michigan).
Chuck (Pittsburgh): In reading your True Blue Pistons blog about Harold Ellis’ trip to South Africa as part of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, I was wondering what would happen if he discovers an African prospect who hasn’t been drafted but wants to play for the Pistons in the NBA. Could he bring him back with him?
Langlois: The camp participants are roughly of the ages of United States high school players, in their late teens. International players younger than 22 must formally apply to be considered for the NBA draft in order to play in the NBA.
So nobody Ellis works with in the Basketball Without Borders camp would be a candidate to sign a free-agent contract with any NBA team, Chuck.
Now, if while he’s over there one of the many African national team or club coaches pulls him aside and tells him he has an older player Ellis should take a look at, then that would be fair game.
International players become automatically eligible for the NBA draft when they turn 22 during the calendar year of that draft. That means that for 2012 – assuming draft rules remain the same under a new collective bargaining agreement – any international player born during calendar year 1990 is automatically eligible for the draft and would not need to file any paper work with the NBA beforehand.
If there are any players born during 1989 that went undrafted in 2011, they could be signed to free-agent contracts by NBA teams – again, presumably, depending on how the new CBA applies.
Dwayne (Ocala, Fla.): I saw in the newspaper in Orlando that I read where they rated the top arenas in the NBA and The Palace, despite being one of the oldest, was still in the top 10. What makes The Palace hold up better than other arenas, most of them newer?
Langlois: It starts with the ingenious idea that made The Palace such a revolutionary concept at construction and spans the 23 years since its opening and the many improvements made and the vigilance of everyone on the payroll to maintain it and keep it bright and shiny, Dwayne.
The idea that made The Palace such a game-changer for NBA (and NHL, for that matter) teams was the placement of suites in many of the most desirable locations. Prior to that, the only place suites had been placed was above the last row of upper-deck seats at the very top of the arena.
The thinking was that there was no way to plop suites in the middle of the lower bowl, or anywhere in the lower bowl, without severely limiting the inventory of conventional seating at advantageous viewing locations. But by submerging the suite itself below the arena bowl, while the seats accompanying the suite remained in line with the bowl structure, a new and lucrative revenue stream was suddenly available.
That great idea went a long way toward making The Palace a place worth preserving. It’s to the credit of those in charge of maintaining the building – and all of those pushing the brooms and swabbing the floors – that they’ve preserved it so remarkably well over the years.
The constant upgrades – most spectacularly, the sprawling West Atrium and the Comcast Pavilion – have maintained The Palace’s place among the NBA’s signature arenas even amid the wave of new arenas the opening of The Palace spurred.
Adam (Traverse City, Mich.): After Lawrence Frank was named head coach, I saw some message-board chatter that indicated many people were not thrilled by the hire. I thought it made perfect sense. What do you think was the deciding factor in Joe and the Pistons going with Frank?
Langlois: At the press conference earlier this month, Adam, Joe Dumars said Frank had been not just the unanimous choice of the key parties who sat in on the interviews but that all had agreed Frank was the obvious choice.
Did he say any one specific thing in the many hours of conversations that led to his hiring? I don’t think so. My belief is that it was the entirety of his presentation that carried the day – his analysis of where the Pistons were at in their transition to a younger nucleus, his assessment of the individual talent on the roster, his vision for how the team would need to play in order to be as successful as possible early in his tenure, his underscoring of the tenets of toughness and defense and pride that resonated with new owner Tom Gores and Dumars alike, his clearly communicated thoughts on ways to deal with the type of distractions that undermined last season, etc.
Joe D said it wasn’t a non-qualifier for any candidate to have no previous NBA head coaching experience, but admitted that Frank’s stint in New Jersey that covered five full seasons and parts of two others provided evidence that he was up to the job. Dumars said he was struck by how Frank embraced the idea of being a head coach in the NBA.
Of the five candidates known to have interviewed – Frank, Mike Woodson, Bill Laimbeer, Kelvin Sampson and Patrick Ewing – only Woodson in addition to Frank had previous NBA head coaching experience. Sampson had a wealth of experience as a college head coach and Laimbeer, of course, was a successful WNBA head coach.
In talking to people familiar with Frank’s experience in New Jersey, Dumars consistently heard what he had already suspected – that Frank was a diligent worker whose teams were always among the best-prepared units in the NBA. He heard that Frank is a superb teacher of the game, important since the Pistons will have many young players in key roles.
If you read negative chatter on message boards, I suspect it was largely based on the fact Frank has a losing record as an NBA head coach. But for the last half of his run in New Jersey, the Nets were in tear-down mode, intent more on not only clearing cap space but slashing payroll in general as ownership groped for ways to attract new investors to make the move to Brooklyn possible. Amid difficult circumstances that made consistent winning impossible, Frank impressed many all the more for getting his teams to play to the best of their ability and not lean on the many ready-made excuses at hand.
Otto (Three Lakes, Mich.): What would have become of the Pistons if not for Jack McCloskey? Did Mr. Davidson ever consider selling the Pistons in his lifetime?
Langlois: I’ve made the case for McCloskey as a Hall of Famer, Otto, and believe he’s been grossly overlooked by the basketball community at large, if not by Pistons fans who understood his role in the construction of the Bad Boys.
Hiring McCloskey is likely the single most critical personnel decision Bill Davidson made in his 35-year stewardship of the franchise. Not only did it directly lead to the first two championships in franchise history, it created a majority of the most revered figures the Pistons have boasted – Chuck Daly, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson, Dennis Rodman, John Salley, Rick Mahorn, James Edwards, et al.
It’s remarkable to consider that McCloskey did not have an NBA history in management at the time Davidson hired him. He’d been a head coach in Portland and an assistant with both the Lakers and Pacers following his time as a college basketball coach.
As for Davidson’s interest in selling the Pistons, he made it clear to me that it was never going to happen. In the winter of 2007, when his name first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot, I talked to him about the then-recent Forbes estimate that the Pistons were valued at $480 million from his original investment of about $6 million.
(About that purchase price: It’s often been reported to be $8 million, but Mr. D told me it was for “much less” than that. When I suggested $6 million, he merely smiled at me and shrugged.)
Here’s what he said about the Forbes estimate: “I don’t care what it is today. I’m not going to sell, so what difference does it make?”
Kyle (White Bear Lake, Minn.): NBA.com recently posted a feature showing logos of NBA teams down through time for each current franchise. From the dates listed, I calculate the Pistons to be the oldest franchise in the NBA. Could this be true?
Langlois: NBA history is a messy thing, Kyle. The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons moved to Detroit in 1957. They launched as a National Basketball League franchise in 1941, four years after that league began, located mostly in medium-sized Midwest cities and funded by corporations like Goodyear and General Electric.
Some of the cities that hosted teams in the NBL’s first season, 1937-38, were Cincinnati, Dayton and Akron in Ohio; Pittsburgh; Oshkosh, Wis.; and Kankakee, Ill.
The Fort Wayne Pistons won NBL titles in 1944 and ’45.
The Basketball Association of America, meanwhile, launched in 1946, started by some of the hockey owners who had arenas in major Northeast cities. The NBA now recognizes the 1946-47 BAA season as the first in NBA history. But the NBA itself didn’t form until the 1949-50 season – the merger between the BAA and NBL, or at least as legend has it, was struck over the kitchen table of Zollner’s home in Fort Wayne.
There was actually a Detroit team in the original BAA, but it was not around for the second BAA season in 1947-48. League size and membership varied greatly from season to season in the early days. The NBA went from 11 teams in its first season (the 1946-47 season, when it was still the BAA), to eight in its second, 12 in the third, 17 in the fourth and 11 in the fifth.
By the time Zollner moved the Pistons to Detroit in 1957-58, the league was back down to just eight teams. Of those eight, Detroit is one of four – Boston, Philadelphia and New York are the others – that has had a franchise continuously since then.
Ben (Salt Lake City, Utah): We haven’t heard anything about Summer League this year. Was this sacrificed with the lockout? How do you think missing Summer League will affect the incoming rookies?
Langlois: The NBA officially announced in late June that Summer League would not be held as usual in Las Vegas this summer. With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire at midnight on June 30, it seemed unlikely at the time that a new agreement would be in place before the scheduled July Summer League would be held. That proved to be the case.
There is a value to holding Summer League, of course, or it wouldn’t have existed. Players begin to get a passing familiarity with the culture of an organization and, perhaps, with the framework of a team’s offensive and defensive philosophies.
This year’s Pistons, of course, did not have a head coach in place at the time Summer League would have been held. Might their timetable for hiring a coach have been expedited if Summer League was on the horizon? Maybe, but probably not. For one thing, even if Joe Dumars had pushed the search harder and had hired Lawrence Frank by then, it’s questionable whether Frank would have had the time to assemble his staff or even begun pondering what his playbook for the regular season would be.
I’ve come to believe that the greatest value of Summer League is in establishing a baseline of performance for players and giving team coaches and executives a road map for how to get each player from that starting point to where they want him to go.
In other words, when players get a handful of practices and five games under their belts in Las Vegas, coaches and personnel staffers can then sit down with them and give them a grocery list of the things on which they should focus their workouts for the remainder of the summer in order to arrive at training camp with a chance to land or expand their role.
It also gives the player an honest assessment of where he stands. Players should leave Summer League with a little better understanding of how they will have to adjust their games to achieve success at a higher level. Summer League isn’t the NBA, but the talent is greater than they’ve faced on a consistent basis at any time in the past.
For the more diligent and self-aware players, losing Summer League won’t be a huge impediment. They’ll be playing basketball somewhere, seeking the best competition and aligning themselves with top-notch instructors and trainers, working on the areas of their game that they know need improvement.
I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say Joe Dumars and his staff are fully confident that the players who would have made up the roster for the Pistons this summer are exactly that type.
My guess is most rookies who would have played next season are still going to find their way to the floor despite missing Summer League and other summer activities that would have been held under normal circumstances.
Karl (Erie, Pa.): Reading Thursday’s Mailbag question and answer about assistant coaches in the Hall of Fame got me to wondering when NBA staffs started to expand. I remember the days when it was unusual to have any assistant coaches, or maybe one. Now you see some teams that have three or four assistant coaches.
Langlois: I was a Pistons beat writer for a daily newspaper for less than two full seasons, starting in the middle of Joe Dumars’ rookie season, 1985-86, Karl, and back then Chuck Daly had only one assistant coach – Dick Harter.
Harter left and the Pistons replaced him with Ron Rothstein. They also added Dick Versace as a second assistant coach, the first No. 2 assistant Daly had enjoyed. Other teams had more than one assistant, but I don’t remember other teams having more than two in that era.
As many things in the NBA began to grow during that era, benches began to expand soon after that. The NBA was in the midst of going from a mom-and-pop league with bare-bones front offices to far-flung operations. The Pistons were at the forefront of that change as Bill Davidson became the first NBA owner to buy his team their own private plane. He also funded The Palace out of his own pocket and the revenue the new building produced, largely due to the placement of suites as had never been done, remains one of the most important developments in growing the NBA.
It is not unusual for teams to have five assistant coaches today. The Washington Wizards announced today that they had signed five assistant coaches to two-year contracts. The Pistons have had four for several seasons. The proliferation of assistants prompted the NBA to institute a rule that no more than four coaches, including the head coach, can be on the bench. You will see a second row of folding chairs where inactive players in street clothes sit; among them, there will usually be at least one more assistant coach and other staff members.
One reason teams have added more assistant coaches is that technology now provides them with far greater resources at their disposal in scouting future opponents. But that also requires more sets of eyes to do all the work required in exploiting the fruits of that technology. Last year’s Pistons, for example, rotated the breakdown of game tape of future opponents equally among their four assistants. Each was required to watch the most recent five games an upcoming opponent had played and provide a detailed scouting report – one for the coaching staff and a more general, more concise report for players.
Another reason more assistants have been added is because of the money involved in procuring players and the influx of increasingly younger players that come to the NBA. Those last four or five spots on a roster are often occupied now by young players who might have played only a year or two in college, or internationally, and can benefit greatly from the type of individual attention assistant coaches can provide them. Indeed, most NBA staffs now include at least one assistant coach whose primary role is to work with young players before and after practice, before games and during the off-season. If you’re going to pay those players $1 million or so a year, it makes sense to spend another $100,000 or so on a young coach willing to work long and strange hours to develop that player into someone who can crack your rotation – because a player making a $1 million who is good enough to contribute to a winning team could wind up saving a team many millions of dollars. Instead of having to overspend in free agency, you have an in-house option at a relatively bargain rate.
Robert (Walled Lake, Mich.): I noticed that one of the inductees to the Hall of Fame last week was an assistant coach, Tex Winter. I was curious if that means other assistant coaches might be voted into the Hall of Fame and whether any Pistons assistant coaches might be considered?
Langlois: Winter was a special case, Robert. Remember, it’s not the NBA Hall of Fame, but the basketball Hall of Fame. Winter was a very accomplished college coach for years, most notably at Kansas State, where he took the Wildcats to the Final Four, but also at Washington, Northwestern and Long Beach before coming to the NBA.
Beyond that, he also is credited with refining the triangle offense – very few coaches are ever credited as the father of a system, in large part because, unlike football, there are almost never radical new ideas like a 3-4 defense or a wishbone or West Coast offense. Basketball evolves more as a combination of a million different ideas and there is no parallel for anything quite as static as a football formation before the snap of a ball – an out-of-bounds play comes closest – so not many coaches become known as the father of anything quite as unique or significant as the triangle.
It’s also fair to wonder whether Tex Winter goes into the Hall of Fame if not for Michael Jordan and the six NBA titles the Bulls won with Winter at Phil Jackson’s side. That isn’t meant to diminish Winter’s Hall worthiness or his significance, but only to acknowledge that winning multiple championships shines a bright light on an organization and brings acclaim that otherwise would not be granted.
As for the Pistons, I don’t think there’s an obvious Hall candidate. Ex-Pistons coach Doug Collins, in commenting on Winter’s election, said he would campaign heavily for his longtime assistant, John Bach, who was with Collins in Detroit after being with him in Chicago.
Dick Harter probably has the highest profile of other Pistons assistants. Harter came to the Pistons with Chuck Daly after a successful college career and later became a head coach with Indiana. Later still, he became recognized as one of the league’s top defensive assistant coaches.
The assistants who were with Daly for both of the Bad Boys championships were “the Brendans,” Brendan Suhr and Brendan Malone. Both are basketball lifers but unlikely to crack the Hall. Ron Rothstein succeeded Harter, back in the days the Pistons carried only one assistant, and to this day remains one of the league’s most respected assistants. You saw him frequently last season at the side of Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. Rothstein left the Pistons before the 1988-89 season – he missed the championship by one season – to become Miami’s first head coach.
Kaylee (Grayling, Mich.): In some of the coverage recently about Dennis Rodman going into the Hall of Fame, I read that he played at Southeastern Oklahoma State and they played in something called the NAIA. What is that all about? How rare is it for someone to make the NBA from such a small school?
Langlois: The NAIA is a governing body for college sports, very similar in structure to the NCAA, but its members – less than 300 of them – are almost exclusively very small schools with limited athletic budgets that might sponsor only a few sports.
Southeastern Oklahoma, in fact, has left the NAIA, as many schools have, for NCAA Division II, since Rodman left in 1986.
The very next year, Scottie Pippen came to the NBA from another NAIA school, Central Arkansas. There are still players that come to the NBA from obscure backgrounds but not nearly in the numbers that they did a few generations ago.
My best guess as to why that is? The money that’s been made possible in big-time college basketball since the sport exploded about 30 years ago, taken to new heights by the 1979 NCAA title game that featured Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Division I schools now pay enormous salaries to their head basketball coach, their support staffs have mushroomed and they invest huge sums in facilities. It’s an arms race with everybody chasing the glory (and the potential financial windfall) that comes with NCAA tournament success on the belief that a high-profile, winning basketball program has a spillover effect that will drive enrollment and alumni donations. It’s worked for a few schools – North Carolina-Charlotte getting to the Final Four in 1977 is often cited with helping that school explode in enrollment; George Mason saw applications spike in the year following its Cinderella run to the 2006 Final Four – but whether the strategy is really cost-effective is open to great debate.
That means a few things. No. 1, sleepers are rare these days, partly because the major schools now have so many eyes and ears, partly because of the proliferation of AAU programs that put talented players on display in ways not available to them years ago. No. 2, players who don’t have the grades to qualify under NCAA regulations now are far more apt to attend a prep school or a junior college in order to boost their grades and eventually go to a big-time NCAA program than they were back in the ’70s and earlier, when they were more likely to wind up at an NAIA school that would have had greater autonomy over eligibility standards.
Technology plays a role, too. Coaches can now screen players worthy of recruiting from video clips, which streamlines the process and allows them to identify elite players much easier than coaches from even 20 years ago could. Sleepers might not be extinct, but they’re on the endangered species list.
Dawn (Royal Oak, Mich.): I was just looking at the schedule for 2011-12 and wanted to buy tickets to see a Miami Heat game. But I could only find one game at The Palace against Miami. I thought the Pistons played them twice at home and twice on the road every year. What happened?
Langlois: To get to an 82-game schedule, every NBA team will play 30 games against teams from the opposite conference – that’s home-and-home with each of the 15 teams in the Western Conference in the case of the Pistons – and 52 games against teams from the same conference.
To get to that 52, a slight schedule imbalance is required. To remedy that, the NBA has set it up so a team plays each of the four other teams in its division four times apiece – two home, two away – to account for 16 of 52. That leaves 36 games against the 10 teams from the two other divisions in the same conference. So each team will play six of those teams four times apiece and four of those teams three times apiece.
The four teams are rotated annually, split equally among the two other divisions. So the Pistons will play two of the five Atlantic Division teams and two of the five Southeast Division teams only three times apiece.
Next season, that means the Pistons will host Miami and the Knicks just once apiece, while traveling to play those teams twice apiece. On the road, the Pistons will visit Atlanta and Toronto just once apiece, but host them at The Palace twice apiece.
Joseph (Mattawan, Mich.): I heard Joe Dumars say after Lawrence Frank was named the next Pistons coach that if he ever had to hire another coach, he would do it the same way as he did this time – take his time. Why do you think he hadn’t done that with his previous coaching hires?
Langlois: That perked up my ears, too, Joseph. It’s a window into his thinking and into his comfort level that he would admit he learned something in this process. There are some colossal egos in the business of running professional sports teams and not many would have the self-assuredness to publicly state what Dumars said in the aftermath of the Frank hiring.
As to why he didn’t always conduct such painstaking coach searches, there’s no answer that fits every circumstance involved with hiring Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown, Flip Saunders, Michael Curry and John Kuester.
In general, there is usually a sense of urgency with getting a coach hired in the NBA. Even for teams that fire their coach immediately after a season ends, they want to strike fast to get their choice of the elite from the pool of available candidates.
Carlisle was a first-time coach when Dumars hired him and he turned out, of course, to be a very good NBA coach. I think he’s evolved since his Pistons days, though, when players (and subordinates) found him unusually abrasive.
Brown came as a highly respected coach who arrived at the right time for a team ready to take a big step forward. When Brown freed himself from his Philadelphia situation, he became the clear-cut choice in Detroit. That didn’t need to be a dragged-out process.
Joe D said at the Frank press conference that over the nearly two months this hire required, he got to know Frank in a way he really hadn’t known other coaches before hiring them. But a two-month search wouldn’t have told him anything he didn’t know about Brown. They got along famously that first season. Only when Brown started getting antsy in year two – and I think some of it had to do with Brown being more comfortable on the way up the ladder than with the view from the top – did he become a distraction and no longer the right coach for that team.
Would more time taken have led to a different hire when Saunders succeeded Brown? Maybe. But maybe not. Saunders’ biggest issue with the Pistons is he never really won the respect of Rasheed Wallace, and because Rasheed’s personality made him the alpha male of that team, it poisoned the water. I don’t know if many weeks of Dumars-Saunders huddles before hiring him could have revealed that. I doubt it.
Dumars knew Curry inside and out when he hired him. I, too, thought Curry was ideally suited to make the transition from assistant to head coach. Curry carried himself with a palpable sense of self-confidence. But when his decision-making started to backfire, that self-confidence seemed out of place – it’s why Curry came to be accused of being “arrogant” – and undermined respect for him.
Kuester, another first-time NBA head coach, is another Dumars knew well from his season as a Brown assistant. I think if that search had gone on longer, perhaps Kuester’s communicative shortcomings might have been revealed.
The more time you give yourself to hire a coach, the more dimensions you’ll come to learn about the candidates. But hiring coaches always will be more art than science. A year ago, when the Bulls hired Tom Thibodeau, there were many skeptics who believed Thibodeau, with his reputation as an X-and-O wonk with no people skills, would prove disastrous for the Bulls.
Gerald (Atlanta): I know that Joe Dumars was MVP of the Finals the year the Pistons beat the Lakers and Isiah Thomas was MVP the year they beat Portland. What I’m wondering about is if they were clear-cut choices at the time?
Langlois: They were both clearly justified awards. The numbers leave little doubt. In the ’89 sweep of the Lakers, Joe Dumars averaged 27.3 points and 6.0 assists and shot .576 from the field. (Isiah Thomas averaged 21.3 and 7.3 and shot .485). The following year, Isiah averaged 27.6 and 7.0 assists and shot .542, while Joe D averaged 20.6 and 5.6 and shot .415.
The Pistons swept the Lakers, who lost Byron Scott with a hamstring pull in practice before Game 1 and Magic Johnson to another hamstring pull in Game 2, so it’s hard to say there was any one critical moment in that series. But the moment that could have turned the season happened late in Game 3 – the first game at the Forum after the Pistons had won games 1 and 2 at The Palace – when Dumars blocked a game-tying 3-point attempt from David Rivers, then saved the ball to Bill Laimbeer.
Similarly, the next year, the Pistons won in five and, of course, Vinnie Johnson’s famous 00.7 shot was a big one – it won Game 5 and clinched the series. But Isiah nailed a couple of huge 3-point shots down the stretch of Game 1, after Portland led by 10 points with seven minutes to go, and the Pistons might not have won the series had they lost Game 1. (Remember, they would go on to lose Game 2, and while there’s no way of knowing how Game 2 might have turned if a Pistons team desperate for a win had gone into that game already down 1-0 in the series, you can’t discount the effects on Portland’s confidence that winning Game 1 on the road might have had, either.)
The Pistons had a very healthy respect for Portland going into those Finals, even though the Blazers were new kids on the block. They had size, depth and athleticism – a similar package to what the Pistons presented the traditional NBA powers, the Lakers and Celtics, just a few seasons earlier as they were on the rise. And the Pistons had a subpar Dennis Rodman going into the series, dealing with an ankle injury.
Isiah’s brilliant Game 1 – he finished with 33 points – might have been the most important individual aspect of that championship.
Blaise (Trenton, Mich.): During the draft, I heard some commentator say that teams can’t trade their No. 1 pick two years in a row because of the “Stepien Rule.” What is that?
Langlois: It’s only unofficially the “Stepien Rule,” named for former Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien, forever remembered as one of the most inept owners in pro sports history.
Stepien was a meddling owner who made trades over the objection of his basketball people. One of them was when he decided to send a 1982 No. 1 pick plus Butch Lee to the Lakers for a modestly talented forward named Don Ford plus a 1980 No. 1 pick. Ford was averaging 3.0 points and 1.9 rebounds in 11 minutes a game for the Lakers at the time of the trade.
The Lakers’ draft pick that Cleveland got, of course, wasn’t nearly as valuable as the Cavs’ draft pick the Lakers received two years later. That pick, in fact, wound up being the No. 1 pick overall, which the Lakers used to select James Worthy.
Of course, the Stepien Rule could just as easily have been named for whoever pulled the trigger in New Orleans on a trade that sent three No. 1 draft picks to the Lakers for the right to sign aging Lakers guard Gail Goodrich in 1977. The last of those three picks wound up being the No. 1 pick in the 1979 draft – which the Lakers used to draft Magic Johnson.
Think about that for a second. For the price of a below-average forward and an undersized shooting guard whose best years were well behind him, the Lakers wound up with James Worthy and Magic Johnson.
Joe (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.): I’ve been enjoying your True Blue Pistons blogs about the great days of the Bad Boys and wondered what you thought would have happened in the 1987 NBA Finals if the Pistons had beaten the Celtics instead of losing in Game 7?
Langlois: I’m sure every Pistons fans who remembers that era has wondered the same thing. No one can ever know the answer, but here’s what I believe: It would have been another epic series.
Some might point to the fact the Pistons needed another year of seasoning and experience another full playoff run before they would have been ready to win the Finals. After all, the Pistons lost in seven to the Lakers in 1988 even after having gained that extra year of experience.
The Lakers would go on to beat the Celtics in six games in the Finals. Is that proof the Lakers would have beaten the Pistons, who lost to the Celtics in seven? Not really. The Celtics team that got to those Finals had been absolutely wrung out by the Pistons.
Robert Parish had twisted his ankle. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge had had to play long, tough minutes because Boston had such a thin bench. The series ended on a Saturday in extreme heat in Boston and the Celtics had to fly across the country and play Game 1 on a Tuesday and Game 2 on a Thursday – they got blown out in those first two games. They came home, won Game 3 and only lost Game 4 when Magic Johnson made perhaps the most famous shot of his career – the junior-junior-junior sky hook, as he called it, to win by a point in the pivotal game.
The Pistons would have been a much different matchup for the Lakers, who also had a short bench that season. Michael Cooper and Mychal Thompson were the only ones Pat Riley really leaned on off of that bench. The Pistons would have had a big edge in depth.
Maybe it would have been too much for them. Maybe that Eastern finals series would have left them too wrung out emotionally to put up a stiff fight against the Lakers. I think it’s just as likely, though, that a young and deep team would have become that much further emboldened by knocking off the Celtics in Boston Garden in a heated Game 7 and would have rolled into the Forum on a huge wave of emotion.
We’ll never know. It’s still fun to wonder about and debate.
Sammi (Windsor, Ontario): I read your True Blue Pistons blog on Joe Dumars being cut from the U.S. Olympic team in 1984 along with Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Terry Porter and A.C Green. How was that team picked?
Langlois: Bobby Knight was the head coach and he had a very large say in it. The Olympic trials were held on his campus at Indiana in Bloomington. That says something right there. Knight’s status was at its peak at that time. I’m sure he only agreed to coach the Olympic team under certain conditions – hosting the trials, for one example, and having a significant voice in shaping the roster, though that’s just my speculation.
Back then – remember, this was before professionals were allowed to compete in Olympic basketball, so the NBA had no influence in the matter – USA Basketball was basically controlled by the game’s most powerful college coaches.
The committee that was empowered to make the final choices was stocked with the coaches of programs in America’s power conferences. Notice that four of those players who were among the final cuts – Dumars, Stockton, Malone and Porter – played in college basketball’s Netherlands: Dumars at McNeese State, Stockton at Gonzaga long before it had established itself, Malone at Louisana Tech and Porter at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which was and remains a Division II school. Even Barkley and Green, though they played in major conferences, were not at glamour schools in those conferences, Barkley at Auburn and Green at Oregon State.
Again – purely speculation here – but it’s probable that some of the players on that team were coached in college by men Knight respected. Jeff Turner of Vanderbilt, for instance, was coached by C.M Newton, who would go on to become athletic director at Kentucky in the wake of scandal and later head up USA Basketball.
There was no great pressure on Team USA to pick an elite team that year, due to the Soviet bloc boycott. Knight could afford to pick a number of good-soldier types like Turner – mixed in with stars like Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Sam Perkins, Wayman Tisdale and Chris Mullin – and still rest easy that the U.S. would go largely unchallenged in Los Angeles.
Cal (Ashtabula, Ohio): I have been watching some of the vintage NBA games on NBA TV and saw one old All-Star game with Wilt Chamberlain in it. I know he once scored 100 points in a game. Could he do that today?
Langlois: I don’t think anyone is going to score 100 points in a game again. That’s remarkable, but it’s not the statistic I find most compelling about Chamberlain. How about his 1961-62 averages of 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds for a season?
Think about that. If any modern player went for 50 and 25 in a game, ESPN would lionize him. Wilt averaged that over 80 games! His career averages over 14 seasons were 30.1 and 22.9. In 1967-68, he led the NBA in assists at 8.8 per game while averaging 24.3 points and 23.8 rebounds. These are video game numbers.
Would Wilt average those numbers in today’s game? Surely not. But would he be the game’s dominant center today? Yeah, he sure would. If you’ve seen some of the old clips of Wilt on NBA TV or elsewhere, you can see the way he runs the floor and handles the ball that he wasn’t just getting all those numbers because he was bigger than everyone else.
In fact, there might have been a higher concentration of legitimate centers in his era than there are today. With only nine or 10 teams in the NBA early in Wilt’s career, he was going up against Bill Russell and Walt Bellamy – two terrific big men who would have thrived in any era – for about 25 percent of his games. A few years later, Nate Thurmond and Willis Reed – again, two big men who would be big-time players today – came along. And then Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bob Lanier.
Darlene (Watersmeet, Mich.): Lawrence Frank’s record to start the 2009-10 season was 0-16. Shouldn’t that be a red flag for the Pistons?
Langlois: Frank didn’t duck that question at his introductory press conference on Wednesday, Darlene. He said he deserved to be fired. He failed, Frank said, but he wouldn’t let that define him as a failure.
Frank won his first 13 games when Rod Thorn made him the head coach midway through the 2003-04 season, replacing Byron Scott. I’m sure he would credit his players for those wins, but I talked to a sportswriter from New Jersey I respect highly, Dave D’Alessandro, and he said it was no accident that the Nets started turning their season around when Frank took control.
There were a number of difficult circumstances that added up against Frank in that 0-16 start. They lost a crusher to Minnesota to start that season. It snowballed from there. But everybody knew the Nets would struggle that season. Ownership had mandated that payroll be slashed. The franchise was gushing money and the former owner was desperately to attract investors – he knew he needed to get the books in order to do so – to facilitate a move to Brooklyn, where he was part of a larger development that needed a new arena to anchor it.
What anybody who was around Frank at that time found remarkable, though, was that the team stayed together and that Frank maintained the same focus, work ethic and dignity throughout the tough times. If anything, as strange as it sounds, the way Frank conducted himself during and after that dismal stretch – never pointing fingers or whining even after his dismissal – further enhances his image in the eyes of general managers around the NBA, who understood the magnitude of the challenges Frank faced in his waning days with the Nets.
Bruce (Alpena, Mich.): I noticed that Lawrence Frank said the Pistons would be a defense-first team at his press conference. Is he known more for defense than offense?
Langlois: He might be known more for defense than offense, but that’s only because Frank comes to the Pistons from Boston, where he was hired to fill the role previously held by current Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau as the coordinator of the Celtics’ defensive system.
There’s a reason Frank was the choice of Celtics coach Doc Rivers to fill that role – Frank’s teams were known for hard-nosed and disciplined team defense during his time in New Jersey, at least when the Nets fielded a competitive roster.
But as Joe Dumars told me in discussing Frank, that’s only because he was asked to fill that role. Frank also was known for spotting weaknesses in the opposition’s defense as Nets coach and not outthinking himself – if something was working, he kept going to it until the other side overcompensated, leaving them vulnerable somewhere else.
You can be sure that in their interviews, Frank convinced Joe Dumars that he not only properly emphasizes defense, but will clearly and constantly communicate his defensive principles to his team on a daily basis – the way it must be communicated.
Frank said he wants to have an attacking team on offense and one that pushes the ball when the opportunity arises. Those who know him say he is especially coach-friendly to point guards. I expect Frank will meld his offense to fit the talents of his personnel.
Joshua (Kalamazoo, Mich.): I’m a 19-year-old college student who has never played on an official basketball team. I consider myself to be extremely basketball savvy and would love nothing more than to be an NBA assistant coach. Is there any way to actually work toward that goal?
Langlois: Your question seems especially well-timed, Joshua, after the Pistons today named Lawrence Frank their new head coach.
Frank knew when he was in high school in Teaneck, N.J. – getting cut all four years from his school team – that he wanted to be a coach, so he plotted a path to realize his dream. He coached youth-league teams while he was still in high school. He badgered Howard Garfinkel, who for years attracted top-notch college coaches to his Five-Star camps for elite high school players, and earned an invitation to his camp to network and learn from coaches.
In his most decisive move, Frank decided to attend Indiana University specifically to serve as a student manager on Bobby Knight’s basketballs staff. For his dedication and aptitude there, he earned the trust of the coaching staff – I’ll have a True Blue Pistons blog soon talking to former IU assistant coach Dan Dakich about Frank – and that won him a recommendation when then-Marquette University coach Kevin O’Neill was looking for a top-notch graduate assistant.
A year later, O’Neill took Frank with him to Tennessee as an assistant coach, and Frank was on his way. From there, he earned a spot on the staff of Brian Hill with the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies, eventually landing in New Jersey as an assistant to Byron Scott. When the Nets, who had been to the 2002 and 2003 NBA Finals, struggled the following season, GM Rod Thorn fired Scott and elevated the relatively unknown Frank, then only 33, to head coach.
As the fine print says on gimmicky weight-loss advertisements, those results are far from typical. But I’d say that’s a fine blueprint to get your foot in the door. The bottom line: be prepared to sell your willingness to work, to do anything from picking up towels to rebounding shots at midnight for a player who wants to get some extra work in, and when you get a chance, figure out fast what a coach wants and get it done before he has to ask you to do it.
For more, I’ll refer you to our Mailbag FAQ, where there is more general advice for aspiring young coaches who don’t have the benefit of a college or NBA playing career on their resume.
Adam (Traverse City, Mich.): I read recently that the Pistons won the highest-scoring game in NBA history. What can you tell me about that game?
Langlois: It happened on Dec. 13, 1983, and it was played at altitude in Denver and pitted two teams pretty likely to stage just such a game. Denver finished No. 1 in the NBA in scoring that season at 123.7 points per game and the Pistons finished No. 3 at 117.1. (San Antonio finished No. 2 at 120.3.)
The Pistons won 186-184. It didn’t hurt that the game went into triple-overtime. It was tied at 145 at the end of regulation, at 159 after the first overtime and at 171 headed to the third OT. Remarkably enough, each team made only one 3-point shot in the entire game – Isiah Thomas for the Pistons and Denver’s Richard Anderson, who hit a meaningless triple as the game ended and the Pistons ahead by five points.
Thomas led the Pistons with 47 points and 17 assists – it was the kind of game where a point guard could rack up some eye-bulging stats – and John Long (41) and Kelly Tripucka (35) also put up big numbers The Nuggets’ starting forwards – Kiki Vandeweghe and Alex English were both All-Stars that year – combined for 98 points, 51 for Vandeweghe.
That, of course, still left them two points shy of Wilt Chamberlain’s mind-boggling 100-point game, achieved on March 2, 1962. Coincidentally, that had come in the highest-scoring NBA game in history, Wilt’s Philadelphia Warriors beating the Knicks 169-147, until the Pistons and Nuggets blew it out of the record books.
Twelve players, six per side, scored in double figures and both teams shot better than 50 percent. Denver made 68 of 115 shots (.591) and the Pistons 74 of 136 (.544). With all those shots, amazingly enough, only two players (English and Bill Laimbeer, with 12 apiece) managed to crack double figures in rebounds. The Pistons should have won the game in regulation, but shoddy foul shooting (they finished 37 of 60) undermined them.
Steve (Windsor, Ontario): The Pistons have never had a regular-season MVP. Which Piston is closest to having won the award?
Langlois: Three Pistons have finished as high as No. 3 in MVP balloting, Steve. But you have to go back 37 years to find the most recent No. 3 finisher, Bob Lanier. He finished behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo that year, getting 37 first-place votes and finishing with 395 points. Kareem got 74 firsts, McAdoo 60.
Three years earlier, Dave Bing finished third behind Kareem and Jerry West. That voting wasn’t nearly as close. Kareem pulled 133 first-place votes to four for West and six for Bing.
In 1957-58 – the first season the Pistons played in Detroit after Fred Zollner moved them from Fort Wayne, Ind. – George Yardley finished third behind Bill Russell and Dolph Schayes. Russell picked up 33 first-place votes, Schayes 25 and Yardley 12.
Lanier and Bing also had a No. 4 finish apiece, Lanier in 1976-77 (behind Kareem, Bill Walton and Pete Maravich) and Bing in 1967-68 (Wilt Chamberlain, Lenny Wilkens and Elgin Baylor). Yardley had a No. 4 finish in Fort Wayne in 1956-57, as did Mel Hutchins in 1955-56, the first year MVP balloting was conducted.
Seventeen Detroit Pistons have drawn All-Star ballot votes, none more often than Isiah Thomas, who appeared on All-Star ballots in 10 seasons. Lanier was on five.
John (Grand Rapids, Mich.): Does anyone remember Reggie Harding? He was a 7-footer from Detroit Pershing High who played for the Pistons from 1963-67. I grew up in Holland, Mich., and we had a semi-pro team, the Cook’s Texaco Oilers (later the Holland Carvers) who had Reggie for one season in the early ’60s. I remember reading once that Reggie and the Pistons held Wilt Chamberlain to 18 points at a time Wilt would score double or triple that.
Langlois: Harding was, by all accounts, a highly talented and deeply troubled young man. He joined the team midway through the 1963-64 season. I’ve read that the reason he couldn’t join them any earlier is that he was suspended on gun charges. But Harding, who did not play college basketball, did average a double-double for the rest of that season and the following season (12 points, 11.6 rebounds), when he played 78 games.
He missed the entire following season – not sure if he was suspended or was in trouble with the law, as he had often been as a youth growing up in Detroit. He was shipped to the Bulls in October 1967 for a third-round pick. He lasted just 14 games with Chicago, then latched on with Indiana of the ABA.
If people have heard anything about Reggie Harding, it’s most likely the story of his holdup of a Detroit liquor store, or maybe it was a gas station – accounts vary. Harding went into the local establishment with a nylon stocking over his head, brandishing a weapon, and demanded what money was in the register.
The clerk recognized him – not a lot of 7-footers in Harding’s Detroit neighborhood, so it didn’t take great detective work – and pleaded with him to call it off. “C’mon, Reggie, don’t do this,” or words to that effect.
“Nah, man, it ain’t me,” Harding is supposed to have replied.
There were stories that teammates who roomed with Harding on the road sometimes woke up to find him waving a pistol at them.
I found this story, written by longtime NBA writer Roland Lazenby, as told to him by Harding’s coach with the Bulls, Johnny “Red” Kerr:
“I got a chance to get Reggie Harding. We needed a big center. I had heard about his pistol. Rumor had it that he carried it in his gym bag. He’d play one-on-one with Flynn Robinson. Flynn would beat him and Reggie would say, ‘Get out of here, Flynn, before I pistol whip you.’ Everybody figured he might have it with him.
“When we were in the midst of that losing streak in 1967-68, we played the Lakers in Los Angeles. We needed a win in the worst way, and we had a one-point lead with just a few seconds left on the clock. The Lakers got the ball at half-court, and I put Reggie in to guard Mel Counts, their big guy. I didn’t want them getting an alley-oop. Counts set up out near the free-throw line, but Walt Hazzard, who was taking the ball out of bounds, threw the ball over the backboard and the buzzer sounded. I was jumping around and screaming because we had finally won a game. I looked up and Reggie had decked Mel Counts. Counts got up and shot two free throws and beat us.”
It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that Harding’s life didn’t end well. He was shot to death on a Detroit street corner on Sept. 7, 1972. He was 30.
Randy (Cudahy, Wis.): In reading your True Blue Pistons blog on Jack McCloskey’s attempts to find a solution at power forward, whatever happened to Antoine Carr? He was the No. 1 pick in 1983 and, if I recall, he was a pretty high pick.
Langlois: Though Carr went on to a 16-year NBA career, once averaging 20 points a game for Sacramento, he never played a game for the Pistons. Jack McCloskey made Carr the No. 1 pick, the eighth overall selection, of the Pistons in 1983 – one year after he’d used the ninth pick to take Cliff Levingston, who had been Carr’s college teammate at Wichita State.
They remain two of the most famous players in Wichita State history and were called the “Bookends” during their three years together there; Levingston left after his junior season. Carr was actually the more highly recruited and had been a McDonald’s All-American in a phenomenal year for high school talent. (Among his McDonald’s teammates that year: Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy and Ralph Sampson.)
Levingston had experienced a protracted contract negotiation the previous year – McCloskey was a tough bargainer; it’s often forgotten today, but he fought Chuck Daly tooth and nail a few times, to the point where it looked like Daly was about to quit – and Carr and McCloskey never could agree to terms. Carr spent what should have been his NBA rookie season in Italy at a time when that was considered an unusual route to take to the NBA.
The following summer, McCloskey packaged the Wichita State bookends with two future No. 2 picks and shipped them to Atlanta for Dan Roundfield. Carr spent 5½ seasons with the Hawks before they shipped him to Sacramento.
George (Grand Haven, Mich.): What bench players do you think contributed the most toward Pistons championships?
Langlois: The two names that stand out are pretty obvious ones: Dennis Rodman and Vinnie Johnson. Rodman was a reserve when the Pistons won in 1989, then he moved into the starting lineup midway through the next season, swapping roles with Mark Aguirre.
Rodman was really good in the 1989 playoffs, leading the Pistons in rebounding off the bench. And Vinnie was the Pistons’ third-leading scorer, behind Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, averaging 14.1 points a game in the postseason.
The Pistons’ bench in the 1988-89 season was phenomenal: Rodman, Johnson, John Salley and James Edwards. They would often play as a unit, with either Thomas or Dumars rounding out the lineup – clearly, that was a team good enough to make the playoffs on its own.
The 2004 Pistons were similar to the Bad Boys in some respects, most notably that they were a defense-first team that didn’t always have the same player taking the biggest shots. But they were different in that the starting five pretty much carried the 2004 team.
The bench came together in the playoffs, though, a unit led by Corliss Williamson and Lindsey Hunter. The bench was remade late in the season, too, after the Rasheed Wallace trade. Hunter was a part of that trade and he needed to be added back to the team after taking a buyout from Boston. Elden Campbell didn’t play much, but he wound up giving the Pistons good minutes in the Finals when they needed his size against Shaquille O’Neal. And Mike James, a throw-in to the Wallace trade to make the salaries work, had nice moments alongside Hunter as part of a pit-bull defensive backcourt.
But Rodman and Johnson are head and shoulders above the field for overall impact off of the bench in contributing to the Pistons’ three NBA titles.
Ankha (West Jordan, Utah): Now that Yao Ming is retired, will you give us your opinion on him as far as his accomplishments in the NBA and how he fared against the Pistons?
Langlois: If his legs hadn’t betrayed him, Yao would have had a chance to crack the top 10 list of all-time NBA centers. I don’t think he could have worked his way into the top five – in whatever order you wish, that would be Kareem, Shaq, Wilt, Russell and Hakeem – but he might have belonged in the mix with Lanier, Ewing, Robinson, Moses, Parish, Mikan, Cowens, Reed, Unseld, Thurmond, et al.
The most memorable game Yao played against the Pistons, to me, wasn’t one of his best. It came early in the 2007-08 season and was remarkable for me because the Pistons defended him with a player about 9 inches shorter than him – still active, mulling retirement with the Spurs – and Yao finished with 12 points and five rebounds, shooting 4 of 13, and frequently had the ball swatted away.
There is little question, though, that Yao’s legacy in basketball will dwarf his NBA career with Houston. It remains to be seen if Yao’s success in the NBA will translate into China becoming a bigger talent producer, but there’s little doubt Yao’s time in the NBA opened the eyes of hundreds of millions of potential NBA fans to the league.
That said, Yao’s greatest legacy might be what he did for the relationship between China and the United States. The importance of China-U.S. relations in the scope of global relations is pretty obvious for the short- and long-range future. Nobody has done more to humanize each country to the other than Yao Ming. We might have seen the last of him as a basketball player, but I suspect we haven’t heard the last of him in other and more important ways.
Chris (Ann Arbor, Mich.): The Pistons have had some tremendous talent over the years. Who do you think made the biggest impact in franchise history and what characteristics or traits did that individual have that helped mold the team’s identity?
Langlois: You can probably make a case for a handful of players, but I don’t think you can go with anyone but Isiah Thomas ultimately. Jack McCloskey needed to make a number of significant moves in building the Bad Boys who would win the franchise’s first two NBA titles, but all of them were influenced by the drafting of Isiah with the No. 2 pick in 1981.
He traded for a scoring guard (Vinnie Johnson) to complement him, traded for the rock-solid rebounder and defender to anchor the middle (Bill Laimbeer), found the perfect sidekick in the 1985 draft (Joe Dumars), got the depth and athleticism he needed in the ’86 draft (John Salley, Dennis Rodman), kept tinkering until he got it right (Rick Mahorn) at power forward and made a series of supplemental moves (adding James Edwards at the trade deadline, swapping Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre to better fit the Isiah-led offense, etc.).
But it all started with Isiah, whose utter fearlessness and intense competitiveness were driving forces in the mind-set that ultimately shaped the Pistons into the chip-on-the-shoulder bunch that so endeared themselves to their blue-collar fan base that first achieved the rather amazing task of transforming a barren football stadium into an intimidating basketball home court and ultimately made the enormous challenge of privately financing The Palace a calculated financial risk worth taking.
Ralph (Saginaw, Mich.): Who do you think was the greatest international player ever?
Langlois: Because he spent three full seasons in an American college, Hakeem Olajuwon tends to be overlooked when people talk about international players. But Hakeem is likely the greatest international player ever. Some would contend it isn’t really close.
I think one who could have challenged him, perhaps, is Arvydas Sabonis, the great Russian center. Sabonis was nearly 31 when he finally came to the NBA in 1995, nine years after Portland used a No. 1 pick to draft him. Injuries to his legs had robbed him of much of his mobility by then, but he was still an effective NBA center for about five seasons before heading back to Europe. Sabonis was an enormous man – a legit 7-foot-3, with broad shoulders and a huge frame – yet he was an amazing passer and had great touch and shooting range.
Drazen Petrovic, had he not died at 28 in a car accident just as he was blossoming as an elite NBA guard, opened a lot of doors by convincing NBA executives that the international market didn’t only yield big men. Yao Ming would have challenged to be on the short list for this discussion had injuries not severely curtailed his career.
Of course, there are at least a few active players who also belong in the discussion.
Philip (Negaunee, Mich.): Why did the team that represented the United States in the recent FIBA U-19 tournament in Latvia not include many college All-Americans and players projected to be lottery picks in next year’s NBA draft?
Langlois: Good question. And you’re right – players from many of the highest-profile colleges, the teams projected as most likely to scrap for Final Four berths next spring, were highly discouraged from making their services available to USA Basketball by their college coaches.
The underlying reason is the NCAA rules that penalize colleges if, over time, too many of their players left the program without college degrees or left well behind what their academic standing should have been at the time. The NCAA issues “academic progress reports” and if teams don’t meet certain benchmarks, they ultimately are docked scholarships – the lifeblood of successful programs.
Elite college programs – North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, UCLA, UConn, Michigan State, etc. – typically recruit players who expect to stay in college one or two years, the McDonald’s All-Americans, and then leave for the NBA. And when they decide to apply for the NBA draft, they are forced to do so earlier and earlier, within days now of the Final Four’s conclusion.
(Those changes came at the urging of college coaches, who didn’t want to get caught short in recruiting if a star player declared for the NBA draft too late for the coach to address the shortfall in recruiting.)
When they decide in early or mid-April to apply for the NBA draft, many drop out of spring semester classes and focus full-time on preparation for the draft. So if a freshman drops all his second semester classes, then as far as the NCAA is concerned, he would be well behind where a student who had completed one academic year should have been.
To counter this effect – and instead of merely recruiting players who are unlikely to leave after one or two seasons, or less talented players – college coaches require high-profile incoming freshmen and rising sophomores to take summer classes. And that makes them unavailable to compete for the national team.
Al (Wolverine Lake, Mich.): I just made a bet with someone who said that Joe Dumars played his last game as a Piston in a college gym. Please tell me I’m right and he’s wrong.
Langlois: Sorry, Al. Your buddy wins this one. Joe D’s last game in the NBA came on May 16, 1999 against Atlanta. The game was played at Alexander Memorial Coliseum on the campus of Georgia Tech while Philips Arena was being built on the site of the old Omni. The Hawks were without a home for two seasons and played most of their games at the Georgia Dome, but scheduling conflicts shifted a good number each season to Georgia Tech. The first two games of the series were at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta won both, but the Pistons forced a deciding Game 5 by winning both of their home games. Atlanta won Game 5 87-75. Dumars came out of the game and was hugged by coach Alvin Gentry, having long ago decided the 1988-99 season would be his last. Dumars spent the next season learning the ropes of the front office – ironically enough, under current Hawks GM Rick Sund, then Pistons GM. Dumars assumed the title of Pistons president of basketball operations on June 6, 2000.