The Best of Trader Jack: Part II

Vitale’s lean ’79 draft salvaged by McCloskey’s trade for Vinnie Johnson

Jack McCloskey acquired Vinnie Johnson via trade with Seattle for Greg Kelser.
Dick Raphael NBAE/Getty
(Editor’s note: Jack McCloskey made every move in building the Bad Boys from his hiring in December 1979 to their winning consecutive NBA titles in 1989 and ’90. Pistons.com looks at the 10 biggest moves he engineered, continuing with his addition via trade of Vinnie Johnson. Up next in Part III: Trading for Bill Laimbeer.)

Dick Vitale ran two drafts for the Pistons and, all things considered, his draft record was the highlight of Vitale’s 94-game tenure. His coaching record was 34-60 and his trade record is blotted by the botched acquisition of Bob McAdoo that crippled the Pistons while simultaneously restoring the luster to one of the NBA’s flagship franchises, Boston.

Vitale didn’t have a No. 1 pick in 1978, yet managed to pluck two players out of the second round who would go on to long and productive careers – both Vitale recruits from the University of Detroit, Terry Tyler and John Long.

One year later, armed with three of the top 15 picks … well, did we tell you how well Vitale did with his two second-rounders in 1978?

The Pistons had the fifth, 10th and 15th picks going into the 1979 draft. Vitale had a strong affinity for Michigan State’s Greg Kelser – he’d recruited him coming out of Detroit Henry Ford High – and wanted him badly enough that he paid the Milwaukee Bucks $50,000 of Bill Davidson’s money to take anybody else. The Bucks happily obliged; they had their heart set on Arkansas’ dynamic Sidney Moncrief, anyway.

With the 10th and 15th picks, Vitale took two flawed college players, point guard Roy Hamilton out of UCLA and Michigan forward Phil Hubbard. Hubbard might well have become a great NBA player, but a devastating knee injury he suffered after a brilliant sophomore season at Michigan scared off most teams.

It was the Hamilton pick that would really haunt the Pistons. He averaged 4.6 points and shot 40 percent in a rookie season so uninspiring they didn’t ask him back for a second year. Hamilton would play one more NBA game – five minutes for Portland the following season.

Leave it to Jack McCloskey to salvage something from a draft in which he didn’t participate. McCloskey was an Indiana Pacers assistant coach at the time Vitale drafted Kelser, Hamilton and Hubbard.

McCloskey knew vaguely of Vinnie Johnson from his days at Baylor, where he was good enough in two seasons after arriving from junior college to be the No. 7 pick in that 1979 draft, taken by Seattle. But in his first year as GM, he became intrigued by Johnson.

“I saw him play a few games and I thought he had strength,” McCloskey said. “I thought he could come off the bench and create something. And I thought he was a hell of a shooter.”

McCloskey knew Seattle was interested in Kelser, too – they’d actually agreed to a trade of Kelser for Seattle’s 1981 No. 1 pick in December of 1980. But Kelser, bothered by knee tendinitis, flunked his physical, negating the trade. It was knee trouble that would eventually rob Kelser of the springs that made him the perfect alley-oop complement to Magic Johnson at Michigan State, forcing his NBA retirement after only five seasons.

But those knees were sound enough to pass muster in November 1981, when a second attempt to trade Kelser to Seattle succeeded – this time, bringing Vinnie Johnson back to Detroit.

“I envisioned the fact that he could come off the bench,” McCloskey said. “That was true especially when we had Joe (Dumars) and Isiah (Thomas). Boy, what a third guy. He was a gem. And he was a pleasure to have on the team. He never questioned why he wasn’t starting. He knew that there were two guys there who were great players.”

He wasn’t yet “The Microwave” – that would happen after a 22-point fourth-quarter scoring burst lifted the Pistons past Boston in a 1985 playoff game at Joe Louis Arena. And he hadn’t yet made a game-winning basket to ice a Pistons NBA title – that came about in Game 5 of the 1990 Finals at Portland.

But it didn’t take McCloskey long to feel like he’d hit a home run in acquiring the thick-shouldered Johnson with the sad eyes and the unerring line-drive jump shot. And it didn’t take Pistons fans long to embrace Vinnie Johnson as one of their own for his relentless, fearless play. Johnson would start only 164 of his 798 games as a Piston – most when Thomas or Dumars were injured – but his No. 15 jersey hangs in The Palace rafters, an honor reserved so far for only six other players: Thomas, Dumars, Dave Bing, Bob Lanier, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman.

Kelser, of course, returned to his Michigan roots after his playing days concluded and embarked on a career in broadcasting. Today, he is the longtime TV analyst and partner of George Blaha on Pistons telecasts. And when Kelser was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, McCloskey was there in the front row.

“The guy that introduces Greg says, ‘The man who traded Greg Kelser is here, Jack McCloskey,’ and everybody booed,” McCloskey laughed. “So Greg came up to the microphone, turned and looked at me and said, ‘Jack, you made a great trade.’ ”

He made another great one just three months after landing Johnson. We’ll take a look at that next time in the Trader Jack series.