The Best of Trader Jack: Part I
The enduring legacy of the Bad Boys, the hard-edged bunch assembled by Jack McCloskey and coached by Chuck Daly to the first two NBA championships in Pistons history, will be their indomitable collective will, a bunch of hard hats swinging picks and wielding shovels to elbow their way past glamorous rivals in the NBA’s golden age.
But first among equals was Isiah Thomas, so good out of the gate that he was that rare NBA rookie who played in the All-Star game, the first of a remarkable 12 straight All-Star berths en route to a Hall of Fame career.
The No. 2 pick in the 1981 draft was McCloskey’s reward for enduring a 21-61 record in his first full season as general manager and not having his own No. 1 pick the previous season for his first draft. Dick Vitale had dealt it away to Boston in the infamous Bob McAdoo deal and, of course, it would have yielded the Pistons the No. 1 pick in 1980. Boston took that No. 1 pick (plus the 13th pick) and swapped it to Golden State for Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick, which the Celtics spent on Kevin McHale.
Think Trader Jack might have cut a few years off his rebuilding plan if he’d have had that No. 1 pick in his pocket?
What he had in the 1980 draft was the No. 17 pick, which he used to take Missouri point guard Larry Drew. Drew had a perfectly good rookie year and, in fact, went on to become a very dependable NBA point guard. Going into the ’81 draft, it could have been logically argued that the Pistons had too many other pressing needs to spend the No. 2 pick on another point guard.
And since there were three consensus elite players in the draft that June, it wasn’t as if Isiah Thomas was destined to become a Piston.
The two others considered can’t-miss NBA stars were Isiah’s old Chicago playground pal, Mark Aguirre of DePaul, and Maryland’s Buck Williams. Both were college juniors, Thomas a sophomore.
When McCloskey went to scout Thomas that year, he was struck by a couple of things.
“I saw him play at Indiana and it was a perfect game,” said McCloskey, who along with his wife, Leslie, now lives in Savannah, Ga. “He didn’t do anything wrong. And the extra thing about it is he was absolutely demanding everything from everybody. You could tell he was a great leader. And that, to me, was a no-brainer.”
Dallas took Aguirre with the No. 1 pick, a decision made easier in part for the Mavs when Isiah purposely sabotaged his chances to become their man by reacting coolly to owner Donald Carter on his predraft visit, famously refusing to wear a cowboy hat for a photo opportunity.
McCloskey said of Aguirre, “I liked him. I had heard he was a little tough to handle, but obviously he was an outstanding player.” But if he’d have had the No. 1 pick that year? “I’d have taken Isiah.”
Williams was not easy to overlook with the No. 2 pick, though. He was a prototypical power forward of that era, not a scoring threat outside the paint but a menacing physical presence who possessed unquestioned toughness.
“I thought both of those guys were exceptional,” McCloskey said of Thomas and Williams. “But I went with Isiah, despite the fact that the first year there, I drafted Larry Drew. He had a great career.”
Thomas was listed at 6-foot-1 throughout his career, but probably checked in at 5-foot-11. Yet McCloskey never worried he would be too small in a league that at the time was influenced by the effect Magic Johnson, a 6-foot-9 point guard, had on the Lakers in his first two years.
“Oh, no, that was never a concern,” McCloskey said. “His heart was as big as his body.”
And nothing Thomas did – make the All-Star team as a rookie, earn first-team All-NBA twice in his first five years, average a double-double as Thomas would four straight seasons or, especially, lead the Pistons to NBA titles – ever amazed McCloskey.
“I never had a doubt about him as long as he was with the Pistons,” McCloskey said. “I thought he was capable of doing anything. Anything he did, it didn’t surprise me.”
Good thing McCloskey didn’t scare as easily as Dallas did. Turns out Isiah didn’t really want to play in Detroit at first, either.
“He wanted to play in his hometown. He told me, ‘You don’t have any players,’ ” McCloskey said. “I said, ‘That’s true. But I’ll get you some players.”
He was true to his word. We’ll roll through the parade of players Trader Jack brought to Detroit to surround Isiah Thomas over the coming days and weeks on Pistons.com.