A Bold Offer

Trader Jack’s first target to launch rebirth of Pistons: Magic Johnson

Jack McCloskey
Jack McCloskey was willing to go to great lengths to revamp the Pistons after the Vitale era.
(Courtesy of Pistons Photo)
I’ve never conceded the point that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player who ever lived. My vote still goes to Magic Johnson, a kid I first saw win a high school state title at Lansing Everett before carrying Michigan State to a magical national championship in a game that transcended college basketball and delivered it to America’s main stage.

If TV had re-created those halftime one-on-one games that drew all of the NBA’s heavy hitters back in the ’70s during the league’s ’80s heyday, my money would have been on Jordan. As long as the context of our discussion is five-on-five basketball, I’ll stick with Magic. His Game 6 stand-in for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the unprecedented position of point-center – remains the single most amazing performance I’ve ever seen, clinching the 1980 NBA title and earning Magic the first of three Finals MVP awards.

(That game, on a Friday night, was shown by CBS via tape delay at 11:30 p.m., the last time that’s happened; if we’re talking historical impact, it would be pretty tough to top Magic’s rookie-season effect on the NBA.)

I had a front-row seat for all the great Pistons-Bulls games of the late ’80s and early ’90s, so I appreciated fully Jordan’s greatness. I just thought Magic was better, at least if the framework for the argument is which player you’d pick to start a team built to win.

Jack McCloskey must have thought he was pretty good, too, because about five minutes after Bill Davidson hired him in December 1979 to clean up the aftermath of the Dick Vitale era, Trader Jack called his former employer, the Lakers, to pitch an offer for Magic. The proposal: any four Pistons. Lakers GM Bill Sharman politely declined. McCloskey called back a few days later and upped the ante: any six Pistons. Nope. Another few days passed and McCloskey tried again: the entire Pistons roster.

Now, it’s fair to point out that taking on 12 players for one would have meant the Lakers would have been forced to cut 11 and McCloskey could have turned around and signed all Lakers castoffs to fill out the roster around Magic, so the deal wouldn’t have been quite the numbers bonanza it might have appeared for the Lakers. But it is instructive of how valuable an asset he was viewed to be.

Remember, Magic had about two months of NBA experience at the time. Though he had already captivated Hollywood, the jury was still out on in the minds of many whether a 6-foot-9 point guard could really revolutionize the NBA.

So McCloskey endured a 16-66 season, trading away the most valuable asset remaining – Bob Lanier – midway through his 10th NBA season, all with the Pistons, and still good enough to average 21.7 points and 10 rebounds a game despite mobility issues caused by knee problems that dated to his days as a St. Bonaventure All-American.

That 16-66 record earned the Pistons the No. 1 pick, so it had to eviscerate McCloskey to know that Dick Vitale had long ago traded that pick away to Boston. Vitale packaged two No. 1 picks and a blue-collar forward, M.L. Carr, to the Celtics for Bob McAdoo. On paper, not a bad trade for a guy who in his six NBA seasons to date had averaged 30 points a game three times and 25 or more in the other three.

But McAdoo’s fire didn’t burn very hot, perhaps cooled by the prospect of joining a team that had won 30 games in Vitale’s first season. It was a move that gnawed at Pistons owner Bill Davidson for years, even after McCloskey had engineered back-to-back NBA titles.

“The biggest (frustration) was the thing with Dick Vitale and the McAdoo thing,” Mr. D told me a few years ago. “That was the killer. Dick fantasized. He said, ‘Boy, if I had McAdoo along with Bob Lanier, I could really do something.’ And the way it ended up, McAdoo never wanted to play for us.”

Mr. D was an avid tennis player – when the Pistons built their practice facility in the ’90s, it originally included tennis courts, the space now dedicated to offices for Joe Dumars and his executive staff – and he would often run into McAdoo at the private club to which they both belonged.

“He was a great basketball player,” Davidson smiled, “when he wanted to play. And he was a pretty good tennis player, too. He just didn’t want to play for us. They ended up calling him ‘McAdon’t.’ ”

Watching McAdoo loaf through his time in Detroit – a mere 18 months after costing them two No. 1 picks and Carr, McCloskey waived him in March 1981 – wouldn’t have pained Mr. D quite so much if not for the bounty Boston realized. The Celtics fleeced Golden State even more badly than they had the Pistons, trading the No. 1 overall pick of Detroit’s to Golden State for the No. 3 pick and Robert Parish, a four-year center coming off a 17-point, 11-rebound season for the Warriors.

Golden State’s deal made zero sense. They used the No. 1 pick on 7-footer Joe Barry Carroll out of Purdue, whose listlessness rivaled McAdoo’s and inspired a derisive nickname the equal of McAdon’t: Joe Barely Cares. Boston, meanwhile, used the No. 3 pick on Kevin McHale, in one grand move surrounding Larry Bird with two more future Hall of Famers.

“We ended up with a player who didn’t want to play and (Boston) wound up with three Hall of Fame guys,” Mr. D said. “They got three great players and we got nothing. That haunted me for several years.”

We’ll look at how Trader Jack began the process of chasing those ghosts away in the next True Blue Pistons.