One more Bad Boy principle deserves a spot in Hall: Trader Jack
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.
McCloskey swung the trade for Bill Laimbeer, whose college career at Notre Dame had been so underwhelming he slid to the third round before Cleveland expended the 65th pick of the 1979 draft for him. He then had to prove himself in Italy for a year in a day that was a last-ditch avenue.
McCloskey swapped fan favorite and one of his own draft picks, Kelly Tripucka, for what he deemed an upgrade at small forward, Adrian Dantley, and when Dantley proved him right and with the Pistons seemingly on the verge of a title, he took the enormous risk of trading Dantley for Mark Aguirre because he thought Dantley was weighing down the offense.
He drafted Joe Dumars with the 18th pick after Dallas had taken 7-footers Uwe Blab and Bill Wennington immediately before him – remember, bigger was almost always better – over the locally adored Sam Vincent.
McCloskey spotted Dennis Rodman at Southeastern Oklahoma State and identified John Salley among a host of talented (and troubled) big men in the 1986 draft, lending the Pistons in one dramatic evening all the ingredients they were lacking.
It was Trader Jack who traded another local icon – Magic Johnson’s Michigan State running mate on the 1979 NCAA champions, Greg Kelser – for the unorthodox Vinnie Johnson, who became the face of sixth men for an NBA generation and made the game-winning basket to clinch the 1990 NBA title.
It was McCloskey who kept drafting and churning through power forwards – Earl Cureton, Cliff Levingston, Antoine Carr, Dan Roundfield – until he found Rick Mahorn, the ideal fit in style and temperament for a franchise shifting gears from one that prided itself on scoring 120 points a night to one that hung its hat on holding the other team below 100.
And it was McCloskey who swapped and swapped again until he landed James Edwards, who provided still more size and the low-post scoring to replace an element the needier Dantley had provided.
A general manager who doesn’t have a franchise-altering center – an Abdul-Jabbar, an Olajuwon, a Shaq – drop into his lap and is never granted the luxury of a megastar like Jordan or Magic can’t make many missteps.
McCloskey never let that cloud his vision. He wasn’t waiting around for his chance to swing for the fences. He kept slapping singles to right, advancing the runners. He once told me his goal was to keep improving the roster in increments, by 10 percent a year, and chip away at the wide gulf that had separated him from the Milwaukee Bucks and Seattle Super Sonics, never mind the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.
His achievement in building a sad-sack franchise from the 16-win team he inherited to NBA champions a decade later should stand alone as reason enough for his induction into the Hall of Fame. The Pistons won back-to-back NBA titles during an era that stands by acclamation as the greatest in league history. They had to cut the heart out of the two most storied franchises in NBA history, first the Celtics and then the Lakers, to reach the top, all the while holding off the indomitable will of Michael Jordan and the hard-charging Bulls.
But McCloskey already had a lifetime in basketball before Bill Davidson, five years into his stewardship of the Pistons, made the most significant decision of his tenure and hired McCloskey in December 1979.
After proving his boot-leather toughness as a teen during the Navy’s invasion of Okinawa during World War II, McCloskey embarked on a playing career in basketball’s minor leagues, then got into coaching, first in college at Penn and Wake Forest, then with the Portland Trail Blazers.
His timing was lousy. Management drafted LaRue Martin over McCloskey’s choice, Bob McAdoo, and even though he improved the team in both of his years with the Blazers, they fired him. He was an assistant with the Lakers and then with Indiana before landing the Pistons’ job. Given the right circumstances, I think he could have been a winning coach, too, but there can be no denying he turned out to be a phenomenal executive.
He spent time with Toronto and Minnesota after leaving the Pistons, and both franchises were the better for having him around. McCloskey was one of the guys who dragged the NBA into the modern era, a tireless worker who pushed a new degree of dedication and sophistication to scouting and player assessment.
No one who watched the Pistons through that magical decade of the ’80s would argue with anyone who contends that Laimbeer, as well, deserves a spot in Springfield. But if it never happens for Laimbeer, neither would it be a heinous oversight. It would be if Jack McCloskey continues to be denied.