True Blue Pistons - November 2011

About Keith Langlois
Award-winning journalist Keith Langlois, most recently lead sports columnist at The Oakland Press, joined Pistons.com as the web site editor on October 2, 2006. Langlois, who brings over 27 years of professional sports journalism experience to Palace Sports & Entertainment, serves as Pistons.com's official beat writer and covers the team on a daily basis.

Questions and comments on Keith's posts can be submitted via the Pistons Mailbag. Or follow Keith on Twitter.

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Posted Wednesday, November 30, 2011

(Editor’s note: Pistons.com continues its series on the makeup of new head coach Lawrence Frank’s staff of assistants with a look at John Loyer. Next: Brian Hill.)

There are no secrets among the coaching fraternity. Even the least-tenured assistants charged to work with the second-rounders and D-Leaguers who make up the back end of an NBA roster quickly become known for the enthusiasm and teaching skills they bring – or don’t bring – to the table.

When Lawrence Frank was in the earliest stages of his coaching career, fresh out of Indiana and working under Kevin O’Neill at Marquette, he would occasionally get to observe practices at the University of Cincinnati, coached by a deeply respected peer of O’Neill’s, Bob Huggins. Frank couldn’t help but notice the work being put in by one of Huggins’ young assistant coaches, John Loyer, who had played for Huggins at Akron.

“John was unbelievable,” Frank recalls today. “I said, ‘Man, this guy can really coach.’ ”

And then Frank embarked on the rest of his coaching career, which took him to the NBA when O’Neill left Tennessee for Northwestern in 1997. Loyer left Cincinnati after 10 years at Huggins’ side to become head coach at Wabash Valley, an Illinois junior college. He stayed there only a year, but recruited a team that would go on to win the national title. He’d turned down a chance to work in the NBA once, but when a longtime friend made a second overture, Loyer made the leap. That friend was Mark Warkentein, then an assistant general manager who has since worked for Denver and most recently for the Knicks as a consultant.

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Posted Monday, November 28, 2011

(Editor’s note: Pistons.com continues its series on the makeup of new head coach Lawrence Frank’s staff of assistants with a look at Charles Klask. Next: John Loyer.)

When news of Charles Klask’s hiring to Lawrence Frank’s coaching staff broke over the summer, he invariably was identified as a numbers cruncher. Frank wants to nip that talk in the bud.

“He’s a basketball coach first, statistical guy second,” Frank said. “Very, very bright.”

Klask, who grew up in Livonia and got his degree from Michigan State, didn’t get into coaching to become a stats expert. It evolved during his decade in Orlando, added to his duties when Stan Van Gundy landed there as head coach and wanted someone who could feed him statistical information as part of the game-planning process. Not just regurgitate the numbers produced by conventional box scores, but pore over them for a kernel of information that might help win a game or, better yet, find numbers box scores can’t offer to fill in the blanks.

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Posted Wednesday, November 23, 2011

(Editor’s note: Pistons.com continues its series on the makeup of new head coach Lawrence Frank’s staff of assistants with a look at Dee Brown. Next: Charles Klask.)

Every member of Lawrence Frank’s assistant coaching and extended staffs had either a prior relationship with him or roots with the Pistons, except one. Frank had never met Dee Brown when he contacted him among the 31 people he spoke to in his quest to fill out his staff with coaches of diverse backgrounds.

What he saw from Brown, the 1991 No. 1 pick of Boston whose “no-look” dunk at the 1992 All-Star dunk contest rocketed him to fame, made him the easy choice for the spot on Frank’s staff set aside to focus on point guards and player development.

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Posted Monday, November 21, 2011

(Editor’s note: Pistons.com begins its series on the makeup of new head coach Lawrence Frank’s staff of assistants with a look at Roy Rogers. Next: Dee Brown.) When the fog of anesthesia lifted after the last knee surgery Roy Rogers endured, the nation’s most renowned orthopedic surgeon delivered the news that made his heart skip a beat.

“If you want to run around in the back yard with those little kids of yours,” Dr. James Andrews told the former Vancouver Grizzlies 1996 No. 1, whose deteriorating knees carried him through four NBA stopovers and three European countries, “you better give it up.”

“I felt like my heart had been ripped out,” he says today, a member of Lawrence Frank’s first coaching staff with the Pistons. “I stopped counting (surgeries) at a dozen – both knees. I had degenerative arthritis. I was just trying to buy as much time as possible. Thirty years old and I had played basketball my entire life competitively and now, all of a sudden, here’s the best surgeon in the world telling you you’ve got to give it up. There were a lot of things I was expecting to hear when I woke up from that surgery, but that wasn’t one of them. That was a very tough day.”

A few months later, Rogers, forced to retire at 30, was about to embark on what he assumed would be the next phase of his life, when an epiphany caused a sudden 90-degree turn.

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Posted Friday, November 18, 2011

Lawrence Frank will get to spend Thanksgiving with his family for the first time in 13 years this holiday season. He spent Thursday night with 700 members of his newly adopted Pistons family, serving up a Thanksgiving feast for the palate and the senses.

The Pistons hosted 400 adults and 300 children sent to them by Oakland County community organizations serving the increasing number of families and individuals in need of a helping hand and a hot meal. With Frank and his assistant coaches, plus another 160 or so Palace employees and season ticketholders volunteering as catering staff, the guests ate at linen-covered tables adorned with fresh flowers while a parade of gospel musicians performed on stage.

“I want to thank all of you for coming to our home,” Frank told them. “We are here to serve you.”

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Lawrence Frank entered his quest to build a deep and talented coaching staff with a clearly held desire to find varied backgrounds and skill sets. Mission accomplished.

In Brian Hill, he has someone who’s been an NBA head coach three times and has 40 years of coaching experience, 25 in the NBA. In John Loyer, he has someone who shares Frank’s college roots – Loyer was at Cincinnati when Frank started at Marquette – and has spent the past 11 years in various roles as an NBA assistant with three teams.

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Posted Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In the 19 years before there was the lottery, there was the coin flip. Starting in 1966, the NBA decided that the No. 1 pick wouldn’t automatically go to the team with the league’s worst record, but would be decided by a coin flip between the worst teams in each conference.

The Pistons, speaking to their aimlessness at the time, participated in the first two. When they lost, they won; and when they won, they lost – evaluation miscalculations that also spoke to their status as a league doormat for too many of their early seasons in Detroit after moving from Fort Wayne, Ind.

In 1966, the Pistons lost a coin flip to the New York Knicks. It stung deeply, because the Pistons – Detroiters for less than a decade and fighting for their share of a winter market the Red Wings had been grooming for 40 years at that point – hoped to get an instant boost of public recognition by drafting University of Michigan All-American Cazzie Russell, an enormously popular player.

The Knicks grabbed Russell, leaving the Pistons their consolation prize: Dave Bing.

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Posted Monday, November 14, 2011

How good is a 15-man team with no room for Julius Erving? Yeah. That was the NBA of the ’80s. You wonder why so many refer to the ’80s as the NBA’s golden age, that’s as good a response as any. No room for Dr. J.

In putting together first, second and third five-man teams from the ’80s, the notion of the league’s star quality during the decade is reinforced. And no position was better stocked than small forward, where Larry Bird dominated but at least another handful of Hall of Famers behind him were at their peak either early or late in the ’80s.

Dr. J really was more a player of the ’70s, though he played through the 1986-87 season and continued to play at a very high level for at least the first half of the decade. But in a 10-year snapshot, others would move him to the periphery – where he would have extremely good company, by the way. Among the other small forwards we couldn’t squeeze into our three five-man units: Bernard King, Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Mark Aguirre and Kelly Tripucka.

I made a few simple rules for consideration. The teams are picked keeping their ability to play together in mind, so I picked by position. The only debatable choice was to place Hakeem Olajuwon on the second team as a power forward, which he certainly had the versatility to do. Players had to have played at least five seasons out of the decade – meaning drafted by 1984, which eliminated the great 1985 draft class that included Joe Dumars, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone – and be recognized at some point in the decade as a dominant player at his position.

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Posted Friday, November 11, 2011

As in no other team sport, winning a title confers greatness on basketball players. The flip side is every bit as irrefutably true. Retiring without an NBA title affixes a symbolic asterisk on even the most dazzling careers to a degree not present in other sports.

Isiah Thomas came to the Pistons with a competitive streak a mile wide. It was the force that carried him away from the gang violence that suffocated the lives of so many around him on the hardscrabble streets of west Chicago. It should surprise no one if Isiah set even that up as some sort of a competition – rising above the odds to beat the gangs and the poverty and the drugs and everything else that conspire to beat down the underclass.

I’ve long believed that his hunger for an NBA title shifted into a higher gear, though, as he saw the adulation accorded to the contemporaries he believed his only true peers: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They were two other products of the Midwest who preceded him by two years to the NBA and racked up eight combined league championships by the start of the 1988-89 season – Isiah’s eighth since leaving Indiana upon carrying the Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA title as a sophomore, matching Magic’s achievement of two years earlier at Michigan State.

Let’s put that another way: Isiah wanted to win at everything he ever did, but his desire to win an NBA championship was amplified because he understood his place in basketball history would be defined by whether or not the Pistons – his Pistons, as the world saw it – could elbow their way past Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics.

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Posted Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Mount Rushmore of Detroit sports would stand with that of just about any city’s. Just narrowing the field to a final four is no small challenge. The slam dunk has to be Gordie Howe, still universally acknowledged as one of the three greatest hockey players ever. Joe Louis probably goes next, for his cultural significance as much as his boxing prowess.

After that, you can flip a coin on a number of worthy candidates, including Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Barry Sanders and Steve Yzerman. The Pistons surely would have their own short list of contenders, including Dave Bing, Bob Lanier and Joe Dumars. But Isiah Thomas has to be first on that list, for his pure basketball ability but also for what he represented to a franchise adrift when he arrived in 1981, a mere 20-year-old, part cherub, part assassin.

Surely, I’ve never encountered a more complex character in 25 years of observing and connecting with Detroit’s prominent sports figures.

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Posted Monday, November 7, 2011

Twenty years after being handed what the world assumed a death sentence, Magic Johnson still tiptoes through tulips. He seemed the most blessed athlete we’d ever seen – the 100-watt smile powering an incandescent charisma – and then, all of a sudden, it seemed the gods were punishing him for his magical first 32 years by afflicting him with the HIV virus. On Nov. 7, 1991, that was as good as gone.

Twenty years later, he’s still Magic, blazing new trails, a business dynamo, perhaps a future NFL, NBA or baseball owner, as big a star in Los Angeles and Michigan as he ever was.

Life worked out the way it was supposed to for Earvin Johnson, who even before the explosion of AAU basketball and the advent of the Internet that combine to make precocious 16-year-olds household names, was widely known even before he arrived at Michigan State in the fall of 1977 as an 18-year-old at the head of a ballyhooed freshman class led by New York’s Albert King and Philadelphia’s Gene Banks.

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Posted Friday, November 4, 2011

For a guy who played a mere 43 of his 831 NBA games for the Pistons – all of them after the athleticism that set him apart had been robbed by injuries – Chris Webber sure has a lot of history at The Palace.

He won the last two of his three Michigan high school state championships there. As a sophomore in 1989, he led Detroit Country Day to the Class C title at Michigan’s Crisler Arena, where he would play his college basketball. For the next four seasons, though, the MHSAA held its four boys state title games at The Palace. Country Day voluntarily moved up to Class B for stiffer competition and won in both 1990 and ’91.

That ’91 title was the beginning of a memorable day, not just for Webber, but for Jalen Rose, for Steve Fisher and Michigan basketball, and for The Palace.

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Posted Wednesday, November 2, 2011

There are firsts and then there are absolute firsts. Most historians would cite Nov. 5, 1988 as the first game at The Palace, when the Pistons opened what would become their first championship season – an absolute first of the highest order – with a 94-85 win over the expansion Charlotte Hornets.

But while that was the first Pistons game, that wasn’t the first basketball game at The Palace.

(And, no, it’s not a trick question. The answer isn’t the first home preseason game, either. The Pistons wanted their regular-season opener to be their first game at The Palace with all of the attendant fanfare. So they played all of their preseason games on the road that year, even the ones designated as “home” games.)

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