Tragic Turn

’86 draft transformed Pistons – and left Celtics caught short

John Salley and Dennis Rodman
Jack McCloskey was able to wrangle both John Salley and Dennis Rodman in the 1986 draft.
Butler/Capozzola/NBAE/Getty Images
The 1986 draft was transformational for the Pistons. In an off-season that began with a frustrated Isiah Thomas declaring that “something has to change next year,” something did. The headline-grabbing move was the trade of Kelly Tripucka that netted Adrian Dantley.

What turned out to be even more significant, though, was the ’86 draft, where Jack McCloskey nabbed John Salley with the 11th pick and Dennis Rodman with the 27th, which at the time was four picks deep into the second round of a 23-team NBA.

Rodman would go on to be one of only two players from that draft who would become Hall of Famers, and the other – the great Russian center Arvydas Sabonis – was inducted more for what he did in international play.

But there should have been at least a few more Hall of Famers to come from that draft. One of them played for the Pistons. William Bedford was the No. 6 pick of Phoenix in ’86. At 7-foot-1, Bedford ran like a greyhound, possessed a great shooting stroke and had everything a big man needed to become a defensive force.

Yet Bedford might as well have been 7 feet of flagpole with a very red flag affixed to the top of it. There was a reason Phoenix was happy to send Bedford to the Pistons after his rookie season for Detroit’s No. 1 pick in 1988, even though by June of ’87 it was clear to everyone that the Pistons would be picking very late in that draft. As a rookie, Bedford – currently serving a 10-year sentence in Texas on drug charges and hopeful of being paroled this year – got caught up in a grand jury investigation of drug use that involved Suns players.

If McCloskey had a blind spot, Bedford embodied it. Trader Jack would fall hard for talented athletes and sometimes overlook the flaws in their games or their personalities. I’ll never forget the excitement in his voice after making the Bedford trade as he openly pondered a Pistons future with Bedford flanked by Rodman and Salley in a frontcourt he saw as the wave of the NBA’s future.

Bedford wasn’t a bad kid, but he was drawn to destructive behavior and didn’t exhibit an ounce of passion for basketball. He came to a locker room filled with hungry young players, fresh off the sting of losing a crushing seven-game series to Boston in the conference finals, and Bedford’s new teammates quickly sensed this guy wasn’t going to be of any use in their foxhole. Bedford’s apathy stood in stark contrast in a locker room where the fires raged. When his teammates weren’t ignoring him, they exhibited thinly concealed disdain for his aimlessness.

Listen to how one of Bedford’s college teammates at Memphis State, reserve guard John Wilfong, recalled the Bedford of that time in a 2008 story written by Mike LoPresti for the Gannett News Service: “He was a great kid. We played against each other in the state championship game, and I had a lot of fun putting my MVP trophy over his bed in our dorm room, and he had fun telling me about winning the championship. I visited him once when he played for Detroit, and Dennis Rodman grabbed me by the lapel and told me to tell William to grow up.”

(That story is a window into Bedford, but also into Rodman. For everything Rodman became, it might be easy to forget that when he was with the Pistons, at least until Chuck Daly left and things started to derail for him, he was a model teammate who cared about nothing nearly so much as winning.)

Bedford wasn’t the only big man taken ahead of Salley who squandered a promising career. Chris Washburn, the No. 3 pick, was a mountainous center out of North Carolina State – physically, he was a moderately scaled down version of Shaquille O’Neal, with the same rare combination of power and finesse – who was out of the league in two years with three drug-related suspensions. Washburn, now straight, tells hair-raising stories of his demons today, stories that at their root make you wonder why teams didn’t invest more time and money in intercession in that era.

Roy Tarpley, the No. 7 pick out of Michigan, could have emerged as the centerpiece of a very talented Dallas team that for a moment seemed on the verge of toppling the Lakers in the West, just as the Pistons were overhauling the Celtics in the East. But Tarpley twice got himself banned from the NBA while dealing with drug and alcohol addictions.

Tarpley, I’m convinced, would be in the Hall of Fame today if he hadn’t derailed himself. At 25 in 1989-90, in his last full season before being banned the first time for drug-test failures, he averaged 17 points, 13 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots – presumably, doing so while using drugs. Tarpley could shoot from 20 feet, had a terrific assortment of back-to-the-basket moves, ran the floor and devoured rebounds.

Tarpley was part of the first Fab Five recruiting class at Michigan – yeah, they were really called that. It was 1982 and he arrived in Ann Arbor with the least credentials of the bunch, a skinny sleeper out of Detroit Cooley that the peripatetic Bill Frieder found playing at St. Cecilia, the famed summer rec league on Detroit’s west side. (The other four: Rob Henderson, Michigan’s Mr. Basketball out of Lansing Eastern; Paul Jokisch from Birmingham Brother Rice, who became a favorite target of Jim Harbaugh when he switched to football; Richard Rellford, a powerful small forward from Anthony Carter’s high school in south Florida; and Butch Wade, a thick-shouldered power forward out of Boston.)

There were whispers about Tarpley’s affinity for late hours dating to his days in Ann Arbor. You wonder how high he would have set the bar if he’d ever put down his demons and fixated on basketball.

But the most discussed drug-induced casualty of the infamous 1986 draft class is Len Bias. And when we say the 1986 draft was transformational for the Pistons, most of it is about Salley and Rodman, but some of it is about Bias, too.

(For historical perspective on Bias’ death, check out “Without Bias,” part of ESPN’s mostly terrific 30 for 30 series. Bias’ death shook America awake at the height of its infatuation with cocaine. Sadly enough, as the travails of Bedford, Washburn and Tarpley proved, it didn’t immediately cause pro athletes to believe they were something less than invincible. On a steamy Friday night a few weeks following Bias’ death, I sat in the locker room at Ferndale High after Isiah Thomas’ annual charity all-star game talking to Tarpley – he’d been with Bias the night of the draft in New York, and who knows how they spent the hours after being two of the first seven picks – and he looked me in the eye as he talked about how close to home the tragedy had struck for him.)

Because if Len Bias hadn’t died of a cocaine overdose two nights after the Celtics made him the No. 2 pick in 1986, the Pistons might never have scaled the mountain. Mike Krzyzewski is on record as saying Bias ranked right there with Michael Jordan as the greatest players he’s seen come through the ACC in his 31 years at Duke.

Think about where the Celtics were at that time. They were reigning NBA champions, coming off an incredible 67-15 season with perhaps the most dominant frontcourt – Larry Bird, then 29; Kevin McHale, 28; and Robert Parish, 32 – in NBA history. If Bias could have come close to Jordanesque impact – let’s say he would have been Dominique Wilkins – the Celtics could have extended their dynasty into the ’90s.

(And how did a 67-15 team wind up with the No. 2 pick? Because before the start of the 1984-85 season, the Celtics traded journeyman guard Gerald Henderson – who would later be a reserve on the 1990 Pistons championship team and is the father of the player of the same name now with Charlotte – to Seattle for a 1986 first-rounder. It’s right up there with the No. 1 pick the Lakers got from New Orleans for Gail Goodrich that became Magic Johnson.)

Instead, the Celtics had no punch beyond their terrific starting five. In Game 1 of the 1988 Eastern Conference finals – the series the Pistons would win to make it to their first NBA Finals in franchise history, keyed by a Game 1 win that snapped a 21-game Garden losing streak – Bird played 44 minutes, McHale and Dennis Johnson played 43, Danny Ainge played 42 and Parish, now 34, played 36. Isiah Thomas got 44 minutes for the Pistons, but no one else played more than Rick Mahorn’s 32, and he only played that much because Bill Laimbeer left in the third quarter with a shoulder injury.

While the Pistons were bringing Rodman, Salley, Vinnie Johnson and James Edwards off the bench – a virtual playoff team all by themselves – the Celtics had a backup unit of Fred Roberts, Mark Acres, Brad Lohaus, Jim Paxson and Dirk Minniefield.

Len Bias would have lent a very different dynamic to that Boston bench, and a Bad Boys bunch that already faced some of the most imposing obstacles an NBA title hopeful was forced to scale would have had a road that much tougher ahead of it.