The Best of Trader Jack: Part X
Trading Dantley appeared fraught with risk – to all but Jack McCloskey
In Jack McCloskey’s mind, the trade of Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre had to be made – no ifs, ands or buts about it. But it didn’t take him long to understand just how far out on a limb he’d gone with Pistons fans in trading Dantley with the team seemingly on the precipice of winning the first NBA title in franchise history.
“I can remember my wife and I driving up the street,” McCloskey said. “We stop at a red light and there were two guys in the other car. They both looked and saw me, then they pointed their finger toward me with their thumb up – like they were going to shoot me for making the trade. I told Leslie, ‘You made that trade, I didn’t.’ ”
Not that McCloskey, a tough old Navy vet who’d fought in the Pacific during World War II as a teen, scared easily. Turns out he had nothing to worry about, either. After trading Dantley – in the season following the Pistons’ first NBA Finals appearance, when they took the Lakers to seven games and might have won in six if not for a phantom foul called on Bill Laimbeer – the Pistons closed the regular season with a 30-4 rush, then went 15-2 in the playoffs, sweeping the Lakers in a Finals rematch. With Aguirre in the starting lineup, the Pistons went 44-6 that season.
“That trade had to be made,” McCloskey told me last month. “There was something going on with the team.”
It was Chuck Daly who initially tipped McCloskey off that a fissure had developed within the team. Dantley made clear in his body language, if not his words, that he was disgruntled.
“Chuck said, ‘You’ve got to talk to Dantley. There is a division going on.’ ”
So McCloskey asked to talk to Dantley one day after practice, pulling him into the official’s room at The Palace, which had just opened that season.
“Adrian, are you having any trouble with anybody on the club?”
“He said, ‘No,’ ” McCloskey said. McCloskey pressed. Dantley answered, “I really don’t want to talk about it.”
“You have to talk to me about it.” Still, Dantley refused. Finally, McCloskey told him, “Adrian, if you don’t want to talk about it, I’m going to trade you, and I’m not kidding you. I’m going to trade you. I’m not going to have you break up this team. I’m not saying you’re at fault, but you know something that I don’t know.”
“I told him, flat out, ‘I’m going to trade you,’ and I think it was just two days later we flew down to Dallas and made the trade.”
To this day, McCloskey swears, he has no idea what soured Dantley. The commonly held belief at the time was that Isiah Thomas forced McCloskey’s hand. Dantley, upon his return to The Palace on March 27 with the Mavericks, spent a pregnant several seconds talking into Isiah’s ear as the teams lined up for the opening tipoff with a sold-out crowd staring in disbelief at the scene, Isiah smiling benevolently even as Dantley’s whispered diatribe continued.
It was later reported that Dantley admited he said, “I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me.”
But Isiah flatly denied at the time that he pulled any strings, telling reporters, “People didn’t give me credit for trading Paul Mokeski for Laimbeer and I’m not the one who traded A.D., either.”
McCloskey scoffed at the idea Isiah would be so brash as to come to him with a trade demand.
“No, God, no,” he told me. “If a player ever said that to me … no. No.”
Daly’s frustration with Dantley’s tendency to dominate the ball in the post – his unorthodox style called for patience as he deked defenders with a series of head fakes and used footwork and leverage to score inside against players a half-foot taller – was likely a factor in the discord that developed. With Thomas and the blossoming scoring skills of Joe Dumars as viable weapons, the Pistons were best served, Daly felt, by being less reliant on Dantley.
McCloskey had no qualms about the trade, as both he and Daly believed the simmering ill feelings of Dantley would divide a team that for more than one full season – or since they lost in the 1987 conference finals to Boston in seven games – had developed a maniacal focus on going all the way.
“It was going to get worse,” McCloskey said. “It was not a risk. I went to Chuck and said, ‘He didn’t communicate with me; he’s not communicating with you. I’m going to trade him.’ We just had to move Adrian. And I really liked Adrian. But something happened there. And I still don’t know.”
Some 22 years later, the mystery remains intact.
One factor that lessened the degree of risk for McCloskey, of course, was the continuing emergence of Dennis Rodman, then in his third season. Daly wanted Rodman on the floor to end games, as he had rapidly grown into one of the league’s best and most versatile defenders. Nobody thought that would sit well with the enormously proud Dantley.
In Aguirre, ironically enough, the Pistons were getting a player who had more emphatically worn out his welcome in Dallas. The No. 1 pick in the 1981 draft ahead of Thomas, who had long known Aguirre from their days as Chicago schoolboy legends, Aguirre had been a prolific scorer for the Mavs, averaging 24 points or more in five of the six previous seasons.
But Aguirre knew the bargain when his wish to get out of Dallas was granted. He averaged 15.5 points for the remainder of the season, giving the Pistons the inside scoring threat without the same clock-evaporating ball domination Dantley required. There wasn’t a peep from Aguirre when Rodman would finish games or for his status as the No. 3 scoring option behind Thomas and Dumars.
It was the final move of consequence Jack McCloskey would need to make to carry the Pistons through the finish line in what had been a 10-year marathon to catch up and ultimately pass some of the greatest dynasties the NBA had ever known, the Celtics and Lakers, all while hearing the thundering footsteps of Michael Jordan and the Bulls coming up behind them.
It was a decade that produced the first two titles in franchise history and carried three players – Thomas, Dumars and Rodman – plus their coach to the Hall of Fame, which oddly hasn’t seen fit to invite Trader Jack into the club just yet. That makes two mysteries.