The Pistons, in their minds, messed all of that up. And that’s no exaggeration. From the phantom foul called on Bill Laimbeer in Game 6 that cost them the 1988 NBA title – with the champagne on ice and Bill Davidson summoned to the locker room to accept the Larry O’Brien Trophy from David Stern – to Red Auerbach’s endless harangue about the roughhouse style of Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn to the unmistakable clamor for Jordan to dominate the national stage, the Pistons saw the evidence stacked against them pretty clearly.
So when they finally won in 1989, they were ready to celebrate long and loud and deep into the summer. Two days later – as they were toasting the title with the parade up Woodward and finishing with a Palace rally – the air was sucked from the room on them yet again.
Before they left the building that afternoon – June 15, 1989 – Jack McCloskey had to tell his coaching staff and the team that Rick Mahorn was no longer one of them. During the expansion draft, being conducted that day, the Minnesota Timberwolves plucked Mahorn for themselves.
McCloskey had nine players he really wanted to protect – the nine veterans who comprised Daly’s rotation. The no-brainers were Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman and John Salley. The next four were James Edwards, Vinnie Johnson, Mark Aguirre and Mahorn.
There were arguments to be made for leaving each of the final four exposed. The trick was to expose the one who would be least attractive to an expansion team. The year before, when Miami and Charlotte had come into the league, McCloskey had left Vinnie Johnson exposed, in large measure because of feedback he’d gotten around the league.
“They basically told me, ‘We’re not gonna take Vinnie Johnson if you put him on there,’ so I put Vinnie on the list,” McCloskey told Eli Zaret for his book “Blue Collar Blueprint.” “I was ready to put Vinnie on again because I didn’t think anybody would take him. He’s an unusual type player – to be effective, he’s gotta have the ball all the time and he’s gonna shoot. Maybe some guys were turned off by that.”
But Daly and his coaching staff argued that Mahorn should be exposed, not because they didn’t value him but because they felt his back problems would scare the expansion franchises away. Those back problems were real and they were well-chronicled; during the NBA playoffs that had just concluded, the TV cameras frequently zeroed in on Mahorn flat on his stomach on the court along the baseline near the Pistons’ bench when he wasn’t in the game.
While many teams worked out deals with the expansion teams in advance of the draft – take Player X instead of Player Y and we’ll give you a draft pick or other compensation – McCloskey felt the teams were looking to take advantage of him because of the depth he had built and because of the emotional attachment a championship team’s fans naturally have to their players. The price to entice the expansion teams into taking a lesser player, in other words – as they had the year before, when Charlotte took the nondescript Ralph Lewis off of Detroit’s roster – had grown astronomically high for the Pistons.
“I guess we’re being penalized for our depth,” McCloskey groused to reporters at the time.
Pistons players felt like they’d been punched in the gut.
“It’s like you’ve just taken the heart out of this team,” Rodman said. “This is a close-knit family and everyone takes it hard.”
“It’s more than a shock,” Thomas said. “We’re talking about a man who was loved by everyone on this team. To say we’re going to miss him would be an understatement.”
The truth is the Pistons managed to survive Mahorn’s loss. They won again in 1989-90 as Daly moved Edwards into the starting lineup and asked more of Salley and Rodman. When they lost to the Bulls in 1991, it really had more to do with Jordan and the Bulls being ready, at last, for their turn. They’d inched closer to the Pistons in each of the three previous seasons, players like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant had learned firsthand from the Pistons what a championship required, and the triangle offense Phil Jackson instituted with Tex Winter played perfectly to Jordan’s strengths.
But it didn’t make it any easier to swallow for the Pistons, who in their minds had to wait far too long to celebrate their first championship and then had less than 48 hours to fully enjoy it.