Honorary Bad Boy

Trader Jack’s first deal netted tough-as-nails Ron Lee

Ron Lee had moved on from the Pistons by the time they won their first title, but he embodied all the qualities Jack McCloskey wanted in a player.
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If you visit Pistons.com with any regularity, you’ve probably noticed that last week we started a 10-part series – the Best of Trader Jack. In chronological order, we’re rolling out the 10 most critical moves Jack McCloskey made to build the Bad Boys from the 16-win team he inherited to the two-time NBA champions they became in one dizzying decade.

The first two moves were drafting Isiah Thomas and trading for Vinnie Johnson. Up next, we’ll recall how McCloskey coerced Cleveland into trading Bill Laimbeer to the Pistons just minutes before the February 1982 trade deadline. You can probably guess at least five of the remaining seven moves without the benefit of Google or any other outside reminders.

One move that won’t be on the list, yet deserves a special mention regardless, came six weeks into McCloskey’s tenure as Pistons general manager. McCloskey famously offered the Lakers his entire Pistons roster for Magic Johnson, then just a few months into his NBA career, in an attempt at a grand makeover. When that was predictably rebuffed, McCloskey switched to the more methodical approach.

If you’d have lined up NBA players of the day based solely on talent, surely Magic Johnson would have been way over on the far right end of the spectrum. And way over on the left end would have been Ron Lee. He was 28 years old and on his third NBA team in his fourth season when McCloskey shipped James McElroy, a local kid who’d played at Central Michigan, to Atlanta for Lee plus second- and third-round picks on Jan. 24, 1980.

How to describe Ron Lee? As subtle as a punch in the nose. Any picture you ever saw of Ron Lee, chances are he was coming face first into the camera, majestic Afro billowing above him, or on the floor diving after a loose ball. He couldn’t shoot, but nobody wanted to be guarded by Ron Lee. Nobody. In college at Oregon – where he played under Dick Harter, who would move on to the NBA as an assistant coach under Chuck Daly in 1983 – Lee was a central character in a beloved group that came to be known as the Kamikaze Kids. If he’d have taken up football, Ron Lee – at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds of twisted steel – would have been a devastating strong safety, the kind that had wide receivers grow alligator arms as they chased after passes over the middle.

When he couldn’t get Magic, Trader Jack wanted grit, and nobody in the NBA was grittier than Ron Lee.

“No one has ever played the game harder than Ron Lee,” McCloskey told me, the fondness he held for Lee still resonating in his voice. “And I wanted our players to see what it was like to be a competitor. I saw him in college and I thought, ‘This guy kills himself to compete.’ ”

Lee spent 2½ seasons with the Pistons. He averaged 7.3, 4.2 and 3.4 points a game, his playing time and his role diminishing each season, and he never played another game in the NBA after the 1981-82 season – the rookie year for Isiah Thomas and the season that Vinnie Johnson and Bill Laimbeer joined the Pistons in mid-season trades.

Those three are Ron Lee’s links to the Bad Boys, the team that would come to embody all the qualities Jack McCloskey hoped to instill in the Pistons, the qualities he had in mind when he brokered the first of his many deals that culminated in the first two NBA titles in franchise history.