Throwback Thursday: John Mengelt

Mengelt’s breakneck style endeared him to crazy Cobo fans

John Mengelt
John "Crash" Mengelt was a fan favorite of the 1973-74 Pistons.
Photo: Google
If the Pistons had a high point in the pre-Isiah years, it likely was the 1973-74 season when they went 52-30, boasted a dynamic 1-2 punch in future Hall of Famers Dave Bing and Bob Lanier and finally seemed to find a coach meant to lead professional basketball players, Ray Scott.

It was just their luck that 52-30 record was only good enough to finish third in the Midwest Division behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks (59 wins) and Dick Motta’s rugged Chicago Bulls (54). In the four-team Western Conference playoffs, that meant Chicago had home-court advantage over the Pistons in a first-round series that ranks in intensity with the great playoff series the Pistons would later wage with the Michael Jordan-led Bulls.

It went seven games, alternating from city to city after each one, with the Pistons stealing Game 1 in Chicago, the Bulls stealing home court right back at Cobo Arena in Game 2 and form holding from that point forward. The Game 7 loss in Chicago was a crusher, the Bulls winning by two when they batted away a Pistons inbounds pass in the final seconds. The three Pistons losses in Chicago came by a total of seven points.

“Brutal series,” recalls one of the principles, John Mengelt, who was in his second of four seasons with the Pistons that would be followed by four years with the Bulls as part of a 10-year NBA career. “The first game we were down an enormous amount of points and came back to beat them. I remember the next game in Chicago. The score was either 7-6 or 9-6 after the first quarter. If you didn’t hold and push somebody, you weren’t playing.”

Only twice in seven games did the winning team score more than 100 points after a season in which all 17 NBA teams averaged triple digits a game. It was that type of series, with the Bulls’ clenched-fist backcourt of Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan setting the tone and the Pistons rising to the physical challenge.

Nobody was better suited for that type of game than Mengelt, the jut-jawed king of hustle who came to the NBA out of Auburn, where if not for one Charles Barkley the Wisconsin-born and Indiana-bred Mengelt might be remembered as the greatest basketball player in school history. It was Mengelt who dropped 60 points on arch-rival Alabama in 1970.

Mengelt came by his nickname – “Crash” – honestly, floor burns dotting the places where tattoos now cover the arms and legs of NBA players.

Ironically enough, it was Van Lier who conferred that nickname upon him.

“Van Lier gave me that my rookie year,” Mengelt, now 61 and still running his own executive search firm, Breckenridge Partners, said from his base in Northbrook, Ill., a northern Chicago suburb. “I guess his nickname had been ‘Crash’ and he and I collided in an exhibition game. He got 10 stitches and I got nothing, so he said he relinquished his nickname. It was fun. I enjoyed it. That’s a compliment when somebody provides you with a nickname.”

His breakneck style endeared Mengelt to the Cobo fans. They might not have turned out in huge numbers back in those days – though that 1974 team’s success boosted average attendance to more than 7,000 – but Detroit basketball crowds were known for their sophistication and their passion.

“I thought Cobo was great,” Mengelt said. “The fans were wonderful. Cobo Arena had no ice (for hockey, as many NBA arenas of the day did) – the place was warm. They had bleachers in one of the end zones. Those guys brought in their own beer and liquor. They were black and white and they didn’t let anybody mess with me.”

A few months after that stirring series with the Bulls, Fred Zollner sold the Pistons to Bill Davidson. Later, with a new management team in place, Mengelt recalls the Pistons renewing options with him and a handful of his teammates for automatic but modest raises rather than negotiating new contracts that could have kept the pieces of a budding team in place. The ABA was driving salaries upward and players like Bing – who had held out prior to the 1974-75 season but ultimately reported to camp without a renegotiated deal – were growing restless making relative peanuts while lesser players were being rewarded.

“I had played hurt during the (1976) playoffs (in which the Pistons won a series for the first time in 14 years and took defending NBA champion Golden State to six games in the second round) – I’d hurt my knee,” Mengelt said. “Our options were up. But we’d had a great year and it kind of miffed me.

“I came to training camp but told them I didn’t want to be there. Bing – one of the classiest guys you’ll ever want to meet, just a wonderful basketball player – was traded the year before. Chris (Ford) and Curtis (Rowe) went to Boston. I went to Chicago.”

The Bulls paid the Pistons $500,000, Mengelt said, to get him. The Pistons made the playoffs in 1976-77, but lost in the first round to Golden State and wouldn’t make the postseason again for seven years, in Isiah Thomas’ third season.

Mengelt played through the 1979-80 season with Chicago and then one final season with Golden State after signing with the Warriors as a free agent. Mengelt worked in TV for about 20 years, as well, serving as color analyst for both the Pistons and Bulls while also doing some national work for ABC, all while building his business to considerable success. When his daughter began playing college sports, he got out of TV work and focused on his business, which at the height of it, Mengelt said, demanded he travel 500,000 miles a year.

Settling in Chicago was mostly a matter of convenience, Mengelt said, to accommodate the business his wife ran. When he retired from the NBA, they built a home in Lake Forest where Mengelt still lives. He’s had season tickets to Bulls games for years.

“They started out at $9.50,” he laughs, “and now they’re $150. I don’t get to as many as I used to. I give them to clients or to friends. Mostly, I want to watch an interesting game.”

When the Pistons and Bulls waged their epic battles over four straight postseasons starting in 1988, Mengelt remained a neutral observer with one foot planted firmly in the histories of each franchise.

“Playoffs are chess games,” he said. “You play somebody so many nights in a row, you know them better than they know themselves. You know all their plays. It’s just a matter of who has the best intestinal fortitude. It was interesting to watch that take place, the Pistons winning the first few years and then the Bulls catching up to them.”

He averaged 9.8 points a game for his career, 10.3 during his time as a Piston. He shot .480 from the field and .820 from the foul line, and though a gifted scorer he will forever be remembered for his manic playing style, determination and pride. Forever, he’ll be “Crash.”