The Best of Trader Jack: Part VIII
There is no such thing as a sleeper in today’s NBA, where even players with roots in Africa and obscure professional leagues in Asia and the Middle East are known commodities by the time June’s draft rolls around.
But a generation ago – before the explosion of sports on cable TV and the advent of the Internet and the information gusher it spawned – it was still possible to uncover hidden basketball gems, even those who spent four years at American universities.
Such was the case with Dennis Rodman, who played at a tiny NAIA school in the rural plains, Southeastern Oklahoma State. The Pistons’ scouting staff caught wind of him during the season, then was wowed by him at the Portsmouth Invitational in April 1986, where Rodman was the best player.
He wasn’t quite the same player, though, at the next two major scouting opportunities. In that day, about 50 college prospects were split into four teams to compete over a weekend in Hawaii, then came the Chicago predraft camp. Portsmouth wasn’t as loaded with first-round prospects as the other two, so conventional wisdom held that when the talent level went up, Rodman was no longer capable of dominating.
Most front offices wrote him off as a small-college wonder.
Jack McCloskey dug deeper. It didn’t make sense to him that the Rodman whose athleticism was off the charts in Portsmouth looked so lethargic in Chicago.
“Everybody saw him in Portsmouth – he was MVP for the whole tournament,” McCloskey recalled. “But his playing went down when he went out to Hawaii and then when he went to Chicago. I said, ‘Geez, this isn’t the same guy.’ But I always had (Pistons trainer) Mike Abdenour checking the locker rooms when we saw all of these guys. He told me, ‘This guy is full of allergies.’ I asked, ‘Can we get it fixed?’ He said we could, so I said, ‘OK, that’s all I need to know.’ ”
McCloskey wasn’t sure who else around the NBA knew what about Rodman. But he gave his scouts, Will Robinson and Stan Novak, explicit instructions as they conducted their due diligence leading to the draft in talking with their peers around the league.
“I told them, ‘Make sure you do not mention Rodman and let’s find out if anyone else is mentioning him,’ ” McCloskey said.
McCloskey was prepared to take Rodman with the Pistons’ first-round pick at No. 11 if he thought there was serious danger that he would go before their pick at No. 27. His dream scenario was getting John Salley with the No. 11 pick and Rodman in the second round. But McCloskey was also clear that he thought Rodman would have the greater impact. He just knew that there was no way Salley would slip to 27th.
“I wanted to be greedy,” he said. “I wanted Salley, too. But if the health issue comes up and it doesn’t work, we’re passing up a good pick in the draft. I wanted Salley, also. I said, ‘OK, we’re going to take a calculated risk.’ And that’s what it was. But we really talked to everybody in the league. And he was not mentioned. So I said we’re going to take the chance. And it worked out.”
Did it ever. Before their rookie years were out, Rodman and Salley had been dubbed the X-factor for the Pistons around the league, a moniker they embraced; Salley even turned it into their own personal greeting, Rodman and Salley clasping hands with arms crossed – forming an X. Their athleticism and length transformed the Pistons defensively and breathed life into their transition offense.
Their relationship actually began at the Hawaii scouting event, when Salley and Rodman were not only assigned to the same team but to the same hotel room. Rodman arrived first. When Salley got there, he found the room frigid and Rodman shivering under the sheets.
“I get there and he has the sliding door open, the air conditioning on and he has asthma and he’s under the covers, watching cartoons, shivering. And I’m going, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
“I’m sick,” Rodman replied.
“What kind of sick? I ain’t got time to be sick.”
Salley suggested they turn the air conditioning down a notch or two, but Rodman refused. To make it up to Salley, he told him that since they were teammates, Rodman promised to grab every rebound and let Salley do the scoring so he could impress scouts.
“And I literally went on to get the MVP,” Salley grinned.
Rodman soon displayed the same rebounding and defensive prowess in the NBA, which ultimately led to his 2011 induction in the Naismith Hall of Fame. At the ceremony in April when the Pistons retired his No. 10, McCloskey told The Palace crowd that in all his years in basketball, Rodman was both the greatest rebounder and defender he had ever seen.
“And I mean that,” McCloskey told me. “I have seen every player – and I’m playing in the old Eastern League, before the NBA exists. Then the NBA comes in. I’ve seen every guy that has played. I stick to that.”