True Blue Pistons - August 2011
The first thing Tom Gores hit Lawrence Frank with when it was time for Joe Dumars to present his choice as coach to the new Pistons owner for further vetting was this: “It’s not enough to win a championship. We have to make a difference in the community.”
In all of his previous job interviews, no one had thrown that at him. But Frank didn’t blink. Because that’s what he believes, too. There are some coaches you’d have to drag to an event like the one Frank attended as the face of the Pistons on Wednesday – the dedication at the Detroit’s Children Museum of the 25th Live, Learn and Play Center the franchise has brought to life.
Not Frank, who amazed team employees at his last stop as an NBA head coach with the New Jersey Nets with his enthusiasm for community outreach.
Posted Monday, August 29, 2011
The first Pistons training camp I covered was getting ready to open 25 years ago. They held it at the University of Windsor back then. Chuck Daly was entering his fourth season as Pistons coach, Isiah Thomas his sixth as a player.
Joe Dumars had emerged from a three-way battle midway through the previous season – his rookie year – to land the starting job next to Isiah. Vinnie Johnson had pretty much settled in as a super sub by then.
The real news from that training camp was the radical makeover Jack McCloskey had just engineered. It was less than two weeks before camp opened – August 21, 1986 – when McCloskey made the daring move of shipping Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson to Utah in exchange for Adrian Dantley.
Maybe it was the fact Tripucka’s career dropped off after leaving the Pistons – he went from a 20-point scorer in his last season with the Pistons to a 10-point scorer with Utah the following season – but removing the guy who’d been their most consistent scorer five years running was a long way from the no-brainer it seemed in retrospect.
Posted Friday, August 26, 2011
Given another shot, or under different circumstances the first time around, Dick Vitale just might have made it as an NBA coach.
That’s what Vitale’s most celebrated recruit while at the University of Detroit and one of the players he chose to be a building block with the Pistons, Terry Tyler, believes to be the case, at least.
“The NBA is a very, very demanding level,” Tyler said when we talked for the Throwback Thursday feature we launched on Pistons.com this week. “I think if the opportunity would have presented itself again, it could have worked out differently for him. Maybe he would have taken an assistant coaching job. Maybe he would have taken another approach and waited, took over a team where he could learn the system. It was just one of those situations where it just didn’t work out for him.”
Posted Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Discovering the next Hakeem Olajuwon or Dikembe Mutombo isn’t the motivation for Harold Ellis to join the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders trek to South Africa, but if it somehow pays off in the Pistons landing Africa’s next great 7-footer down the road he wouldn’t mind.
Ellis, a Pistons scout, leaves for Johannesburg on Saturday for his fourth trip as part of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program in Africa. This year marks the 10th anniversary, Ellis said, and it will be his first visit as a representative of the Pistons.
Ellis was in management with the Atlanta Hawks for his first three African adventures. When he joined Michael Curry’s coaching staff for the 2008-09 season, he couldn’t continue accompanying the NBA group to Africa for two reasons. One, it conflicted with preparation for the start of Curry’s first training camp and, two, then-Pistons international scouting guru Tony Ronzone already was lined up to go as Pistons representative.
Posted Monday, August 22, 2011
When Scotty Robertson died last week, I wondered what might have been if Jack McCloskey had reversed the order of his first two coaching hires with the Pistons. What if he’d hired Chuck Daly first, as he attempted before hearing Daly’s contract requirements, and followed up in 1983 by hiring Robertson at a point when the Pistons were on the cusp of contention?
And it’s a fair question. The coaches’ graveyard is littered with the bodies of those whose one big shot came at the worst possible time.
But there should be no question about this: When the Pistons were ready to win – when they grew into Bad Boys – there was no coach on the planet better suited to lead them against the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls than Charles Jerome Daly.
Posted Thursday, August 18, 2011
Among the things that separate winning coaches from losing ones: timing.
Jack McCloskey made a run at Chuck Daly to be his head coach after the disastrous 16-win season of 1979-80, the one that began with Dick Vitale as Pistons coach and with McCloskey as an Indiana assistant. McCloskey arrived in December, surveyed the smoking remains of the Vitale era and attempted to salvage what little remained worth keeping.
Daly, who shared University of Pennsylvania roots with McCloskey, wanted more than Trader Jack – who doled out Bill Davidson’s money most judiciously in the early days – was willing to spend.
So he picked Scotty Robertson to be his first coach. Scotty Robertson, 81, died this week. He never got another shot at being an NBA head coach once the Pistons fired him two days after the 1982-83 season ended. He finished with a career record of 109-178.
Pistons fans will get two chances to see the Miami Heat at The Palace, after all. Though Miami is scheduled for just one regular-season visit, the reigning Eastern Conference champions are coming to The Palace for an Oct. 26 preseason game.
Given where that falls on the preseason schedule – it’s the seventh of eight preseason games for the Pistons and comes one week before Miami’s Nov. 2 regular-season opener – there’s a pretty good chance Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will give his three All-Star starters plenty of minutes that night.
The Pistons will play three preseason games at The Palace in addition to what has become a traditional game in Grand Rapids. This year’s Meijer Basketball Classic at Van Andel Arena, against the Toronto Raptors, is scheduled for Oct. 12.
Posted Wednesday, August 17, 2011
You’d think a team that had posted 16 losing seasons in the 18 years since relocating from Fort Wayne, Ind., would have known better than to pick a player whose nickname was “Bad News” when the NBA held a dispersal draft to divvy up players left over from the two surviving ABA teams that weren’t among the four being absorbed into the NBA in the summer of 1976.
And Marvin Barnes came by that nickname honestly.
In high school, some of his buddies from rough-and-tumble South Providence, R.I., talked Bad News into robbing a bus with them. Alas, he was the one wearing his varsity letter jacket with the name “Marvin” emblazoned in script on it. As a Providence College All-American who led the Friars to the 1973 Final Four, he got into a fight with Providence teammate Larry Kitvirtis and pleaded guilty to assaulting him with a tire iron. Serving out the jail sentence that eventually came of the plea deal, in fact, delayed Barnes’ arrival to the Pistons.
Posted Tuesday, August 16, 2011
(Editor’s note: Ryan Loftis, a Shelby Township resident, spent his first season with Palace Patrol last year.)
The year was 1994 when Steve Coleman read that the Pistons were looking for people to join a new crowd-interactive team, the Palace Knights.
“I jumped at the chance to perform, plus it was an opportunity to grow as a professional,” Coleman recalls. “I have always been a very optimistic person, so I was pleased when I was selected to join the team.”
Posted Monday, August 15, 2011
Like an icicle melting with great reluctance – drip … drip … drip – the Bad Boys are slowly getting their due. Chuck Daly made the Hall of Fame in 1994. Isiah Thomas followed him in 2000. Another six years later, Joe Dumars gained entry. Five years further down the road, the anonymous panel of voters commendably overlooked Dennis Rodman’s peripheral distractions and recognized his singular abilities.
It’s getting harder for Pistons fans convinced the rest of the basketball world had it out for the Bad Boys to continue making the case. But there is still one glaring omission.
Jack McCloskey made every move to build one of the NBA’s most compelling teams. Not every key move – every move. He hired Chuck Daly, firing his hire, Scotty Robertson, when he surmised the Pistons needed someone who spent at least as much time emphasizing defense as offense.
He drafted Isiah Thomas, which was never the no-brainer it came to be portrayed as. Isiah, for all the flash and dash he exhibited in two seasons at Indiana, stood barely 6 feet, and Buck Williams, a tough-as-nails power forward who would have a long and productive NBA career, would have been the choice of many in an NBA era when bigger was almost always better. Williams, in fact, was Rookie of the Year in 1982.
Posted Friday, August 12, 2011
News that Dennis Rodman had won over Hall of Fame voters leaked a few days before the April 4 official announcement. The Pistons played in Boston the night of April 3. A few hours before tipoff, I was in the press room at the new Boston Garden. Through an open doorway, less than 15 feet away in the dining room, two prominent ex-Celtics, one a Hall of Famer, were savaging Rodman’s inclusion.
The Hall of Famer was particularly incensed, recalling a game from long ago he watched where the Lakers employed some particular tactic against Rodman, he said, that revealed his shortcomings and rendered him virtually impotent.
I’ll protect their identity on the basis of their expectation of privacy, though I couldn’t have avoided overhearing without leaving the room, and I’m not sure how much privacy should be expected for anything said within the confines of the media dining room.
Posted Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Chuck Daly was blessed in a way only Red Holtzman and Red Auerbach among NBA coaching greats ever really knew. That’s the list of NBA head coaches who had two Hall of Fame guards as long-term backcourt partners.
You could make a very strong case that Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars were the best backcourt combination in NBA history. Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe were terrific for the Knicks a generation before Thomas and Dumars, and before that Bob Cousy and Sam Jones rode the coattails of Bill Russell as the Celtics’ dynasty was blossoming.
During the heyday of the Bad Boys, the other great backcourt combos were all ones the Pistons would have to beat to win their two titles: Magic Johnson and Byron Scott with the Lakers, Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter with the Trail Blazers, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge with the Celtics, Michael Jordan and the designated shooter du jour (John Paxson, Craig Hodges, Steve Kerr) with the Bulls.
But there were nights – even some of the biggest nights – when Joe D’s shot wasn’t dropping and Isiah’s daring resulted in turnovers instead of magic. The Pistons, for all of their depth and flexibility, really didn’t have a go-to scorer they could count on for four quarters up front, either.
Posted Monday, August 8, 2011
There have been 56 NBA champions crowned since the league instituted the MVP award. In 45 of those seasons, the champions were led by a player who finished among the top-four in MVP balloting.
Twenty of those NBA champions, in fact, featured the league MVP. (Twelve players have won MVP in the same season their team won the NBA title. Two players have done it four times each, two others have done it twice apiece. Pretty exclusive little club. Can you name them? Answer at the bottom.)
And in case you think that’s a case of the spoils going to the victors, MVP balloting is done before the playoffs begin. If anything, the correlation between MVP winners and NBA champions validates the credibility of awards voters.
Only eight times has an NBA champion not had someone from its team finish in the top six in MVP balloting. Those eight champions include the three Pistons teams that brought NBA titles back to Detroit. (And, really, even that doesn’t do justice to how rare those Pistons champions really are. Keep reading.)
Posted Friday, August 5, 2011
Joe Dumars heard glowing endorsements from the man who gave Lawrence Frank his first NBA head coaching job, Rod Thorn, and the guy on whose bench he served last year, Doc Rivers. The people who knew Frank back in his days as a student manager at Indiana, such as former IU assistant Dan Dakich, quickly came to believe he had a bright future as a head coach, as well, and is the right man to lead the Pistons as they transition to a new era.
That’s encouraging, of course. But when high praise comes from a perfectly neutral observer with no vested interest in Frank’s success or failure, that should cause further optimism.
Dave D’Alessandro, a first-rate columnist for the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., was there when Thorn made what at the time seemed a stunning move in firing Byron Scott midway through the 2003-04 season and the even more stunning decision to replace him with Frank, then 33 and largely unknown.
D’Alessandro admits he didn’t think Frank was up to the task of taking over a team of headstrong veterans that had been to two straight NBA Finals.
Posted Thursday, August 4, 2011
When the New Jersey Nets elevated an unknown 33-year-old, fuzzy-cheeked assistant to head coach eight years ago, taking over a team that had played in the two most recent NBA Finals, Dan Dakich’s wife turned to him and said, “Look who’s the new head coach of the Nets. He’s going to do really well, won’t he.”
“Yup,” Dakich said. “He’ll do great.”
They might have been two of the few who believed a guy that young, who looks as unimposing as the diminutive Frank, who didn’t have an NBA or college playing career to prop up his image, had even a remote chance to last long in the shark-infested NBA pool.
“For an NBA guy to look at his pedigree, student manager at Indiana doesn’t really cut it,” said Dakich, the former IU assistant to Bobby Knight who was the point man in helping Frank earn a spot fetching basketballs for Hoosier stars when he arrived on campus from Teaneck, N.J., his college destination chosen specifically to prepare him for a career in coaching.
Posted Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Lawrence Frank came exactly as advertised for his Pistons debut. If he can be half as clear and concise when he’s standing in front of his basketball team as he was with the media at his introductory press conference Wednesday, the Pistons will lead the league in coach-player communications.
What kind of team will the Pistons be?
“We’re going to be a defense-first team,” Frank replied, rattling a list off the top of his head as swiftly as if he were reading from note cards. “We’re going to be an excellent rebounding team. We’re going to be an attack team on the offensive end. We’re going to be a high-assist, low-turnover team. And we’re going to have great team spirit and unity.”
How can he coach effectively with the stigma of never having played the game hanging over his head?
Posted Wednesday, August 3, 2011
In a coaching search that included two near 7-footers among the five known candidates, Joe Dumars was struck by the aura of the one candidate well shy of 6 feet.
“He has a strong presence,” Dumars said of Lawrence Frank, introduced Wednesday as the successor to John Kuester as Pistons coach. “What caught my attention is he seems to embrace that head coaching seat. Lawrence is 40 years old. For a young guy like him who has that kind of energy, who has that kind of passion for the position, it jumps out at you when you sit and talk to him.”
Dumars said his mission when he started the process of finding his next head coach in early June was to identify a young coach who would be a good fit for a roster in transition and held the potential to lend stability to the position as a young team evolved.
“We wanted to get somebody who was young and smart who we could grow with for a long time,” he said. “It wasn’t preconceived that the person had to have former NBA head coaching experience, but that surely helped that you could hire someone who had been on a bench before and had done it before.
Posted Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Almost nobody becomes an NBA head coach at 33. These days, relatively few make it at any age without having an NBA playing career of some duration on their resume. If you don’t have that going for you, then you better have served on the staff of an acknowledged NBA coaching legend.
Lawrence Frank, who now takes over as Pistons coach, comes up empty across the board. Yet he not only wasn’t awed by the moment of his swift ascent when the New Jersey Nets stunned the basketball world by installing the Doogie Howser lookalike as their head coach midway through the 2003-04 season, he started marching boldly forward immediately, dragging a team filled with cantankerous personalities along with him.
The Nets won their first 13 games under Frank after GM Rod Thorn canned Byron Scott, who’d taken the Nets to the NBA Finals the previous two seasons. But they’d stopped playing for Scott.
The first remarkable aspect of Frank’s unlikely rise to NBA head coach was that an NBA lifer like Thorn – who followed a long playing career with stints as a coach, a league administrator and a general manager – saw in Frank the stuff to lead despite the odds stacked against him.
Posted Monday, August 1, 2011
The Pistons went 45-6 over the final 34 games of the regular season and the mere 17 they required to storm through the 1989 postseason on their way to the first NBA title in franchise history.
That’s the argument ender of all-time for whether Jack McCloskey – or Chuck Daly, or Isiah Thomas, or all of the above – was right to trade Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre on Feb. 15, 1989. It was a stunning trade to all but the handful of people at the eye of the storm who felt a championship team was at risk of falling short of its perceived destiny because of … well, what, exactly?
Dantley fit Pistons needs perfectly when McCloskey packaged Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson to Utah in August 1986, a few months after the Pistons were pretty convincingly drummed out of the playoffs by Atlanta in the first round.
They needed his low-post scoring and his ability to draw fouls. On another level, they needed his professionalism and devotion to detail.
What did they need 2½ seasons later? Not many thought anything more than a healthy roster and the avoidance of the crazy misfortune – Isiah’s sprained ankle, a phantom foul call on Bill Laimbeer, Bird's steal or Dantley and Vinnie butting heads – that had prevented them from winning the 1987 and ’88 titles.