In the 1970’s, big men like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Wes Unseld reigned supreme as the most dominant players in the NBA.
The Early Years
Coming of Age
Coming To Motown
A Successful Second Career
For Pistons fans, though, one giant stood above the rest: Bob Lanier. At 6’ 11” in his size 22 sneakers, Lanier dazzled defenders with a potent skyhook, a deadly mid-range jumper and outstanding rebounding skills.
Thirteen years after the Pistons moved from Fort Wayne, Lanier validated basketball in Detroit as attendance rose by nearly 2,500 people in his first season in Motown. In Lanier’s sparkling nine-plus years in Detroit, he gained a reputation as one of the league’s toughest players, constantly playing through the pain of different injuries.
In the lockeroom, Lanier became famous for his gigantic feet, practical jokes and his genuine kindness. His feet were widely known as the biggest in the NBA. Lanier would also be recognized for his off-the-court actions, winning numerous citizen awards for his work in the community. The “Dobber” would become one of Detroit’s most beloved athletes.
The Early Years
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, basketball was anything but an easy sport for the young Lanier. Living in an underprivileged neighborhood, Bob tried out for his grade school team only to be told by his coach that his size 11 feet were too big for his age 11 body.
Lanier, a big man even at a young age had already reached 6’5’’ by the time he was a 16 year-old sophomore at Bennett High School. After being cut from the varsity basketball team, Lanier practiced at a local Boys Club to improve his skills.
One year later in 1965, Lanier was named All-City, All-Conference and led his team to a city title. In Bob’s senior season, he was awarded most outstanding player at the John C. Hoyle Tournament, named All-City and All-Conference for the second consecutive year, and won another city title. Considered one of the top 100 players in the land, Lanier chose to stay in New York and play at St. Bonaventure.
Coming of Age
In a breakout sophomore campaign at St. Bonaventure, Lanier scored a team-high 654 points. Against Loyola of Maryland, Lanier grabbed an amazing 27 rebounds leading St. Bonaventure to 94-78 victory. Lanier led the Bonnies to an undefeated regular season, a No.3 national ranking and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. His tremendous play was rewarded when he was named an All-Conference selection and Second Team All-American.
Entering his junior season, the tall lefthander became a bona fide superstar in the college ranks. In a mid-season tilt against Seton Hall, Lanier scored an astounding 51 points, still the single game scoring record for St. Bonaventure. Named All-Conference for the second straight year, Lanier would move up the ladder to First Team All-America.
In his final year, Lanier dominated college basketball as one its top players. He would lead St. Bonaventure to a remarkable 25-3 record, taking them all the way to the NCAA Regional Finals. In a freak accident in the game against Villanova, Lanier tore a knee ligament when Chris Ford who later became his Pistons teammate clipped him. Lanier never realized his dream of taking the Bonnies to the Final Four. St. Bonaventure was upset in its next game against Jacksonville. The torn knee ligament would be an omen of future knee injuries for Lanier. As his college career ended, Lanier would garner one more accolade, Coach and Athlete Magazine’s Player of the Year.
Graduating with a degree in business administration, Lanier left St. Bonaventure as a basketball icon. The Bonnies record books read like a Lanier biography. During his four years, Bob’s school record 27.5 PPG and 15.7 RPG helped St. Bonaventure become a basketball power. His 2,067 total points is third all-time in school history while Lanier’s 1,180 total rebounds put him first all-time. It’s these statistics along with his hard work and determination that made St. Bonaventure retire his # 31 jersey in 1970. As one door closed for Lanier, another one would open just a few months later when he entered the NBA Draft.
Coming To Motown
Drafted by the Pistons with the first overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft, Lanier a 6’11” center, was expected to provide Detroit with an explosive low-post presence and an outstanding mid-range jumper. Combining with young star guard Dave Bing, the Pistons expected to have a one-two punch for many years to come. Averaging 15.7 PPG and 8.1 RPG in his rookie season, Lanier’s breakout game came when he scored 40 points against his hometown Buffalo Braves. Named to the All-Rookie Team in 1971, Lanier helped the Pistons to a 45-37 record for 1970-71, a 14-game improvement over the previous season.
Nicknamed the “Dobber” as a way of combining Bob and the Big Dipper, Lanier became a dominant force in the 1972-73 season, scoring 23.8 PPG and grabbing 14.9 RPG. Lanier told the Detroit Free Press, “It wasn’t until I was into my third year that I started playing the kind of basketball I felt I was capable of playing and had the kind of mobility I wanted.” On November 28, 1972, Lanier scored 48 points, his highest-scoring game with the Pistons. In 1974, Bob was named the All-Star Game’s MVP scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Following the season, Lanier finished third in the NBA’s MVP race. Lanier led the Pistons to a 52-30 season.
The next couple of years were difficult for the “Dobber” as he was constantly in pain due to various injuries. In January 1976, Lanier broke his shoulder forcing him to miss eight straight games and later in the season he had to miss 10 games with back and elbow problems. In the 1976-77 season, Bob broke his right hand against Boston and had to miss 15 games. Despite the major injury, Lanier averaged 25.3 PPG and 11.6 RPG, leading the Pistons into the playoffs. Bob’s physical style contributed to the injuries but he told the Kansas City Star, “ Without being physical I wouldn’t have survived in this league.” Along with Lanier’s on-court accomplishments, he was also very active in the community. Bob won the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, which is given to the person in the NBA who most dedicates himself to community service.
In the late ‘70s, the Pistons fell on hard times on under new Head Coach Dick Vitale and Lanier bore the brunt of it both physically and emotionally. Despite scoring 23.6 PPG, the 1978-79 season saw Bob miss 29 games due to knee surgery and a jammed toe. The Pistons finished up the campaign going 30-52.
Shortly after the 1979-80 season kicked off, Lanier realized that tenure with the Pistons was quickly coming to a close. Feuds with Vitale and a poor supporting cast caused Lanier to ask for a trade to a contender at mid-season. Bob was granted his wish when Pistons GM Jack McCloskey traded him to the Bucks for Kent Benson and a 1st round draft pick. Lanier later told the Free Press, “I asked for that trade but my blood and guts were Pistons.” Bob left the Pistons as the franchise’s scoring (15, 488), rebounding (8,063) and blocked shots (859) leader. Currently Lanier ranks third all-time in Pistons scoring behind Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, second in rebounding behind Bill Laimbeer and third in blocked shots behind Ben Wallace and Terry Tyler. Lanier, however, does hold the Pistons record for scoring average at 22.7 PPG.
Playing in Milwaukee, the “Dobber” was able to achieve success, winning five straight division titles and making the conference finals in three of his four-plus years. In the 1980-81 season, Lanier’s first full season with the Bucks, he averaged 14.3 PPG and 6.2 RPG. The Bucks made it to the Eastern Conference Finals against Philadelphia, losing in Game 7 by one point. Unfortunately the next season wouldn’t be so kind to Bob as he played in a career-low 39 games because of knee problems.
During Lanier’s time off the court, he still remained active as the president of NBA Player’s Association, a role he filled from 1980 through 1984. In the 1982-83 campaign, the Bucks once again reached the Eastern Conference Finals before bowing out to the 76ers. The 1983-84 season was Lanier’s finale and he averaged 13.6 PPG and 6.3 RPG as the Bucks lost to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Leaving the game without a championship was tough for Lanier. He told the Free Press, “Missing a shot at the championship hurt. You do the best that you can but it still bothers you.” Lanier finished his 14-year NBA career as an eight-time All-Star, scoring 19,248 points and grabbing 9,698 rebounds.
A Successful Second Career
Shortly after his retirement, Lanier began his own advertising promotions business in Milwaukee. Bob advertised various items ranging from t-shirts to umbrellas. From an original investment of $50,000, Lanier expanded his business in four quick years. By 1989, Lanier became a bona fide businessman in the private sector, grossing $2.0 million in sales.
In 1989, Lanier returned to the NBA, this time becoming an ambassador and spokesman for the league. Bob helped start the NBA’s Stay in School program, an effort to urge middle school students to complete their high school education. The “Dobber” became the program’s national chairman, speaking at many schools and inspiring students with messages of pride and hope. Lanier relayed the idea that people’s dreams and desires start with the education they get in school.
In 1992, Lanier was enshrined into the Naismith Hall of Fame. A year after receiving this prestigious honor, the Pistons retired Lanier’s #16 jersey. After the 1993-94 season, Lanier returned to the hardwood and became an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors.
Halfway through the 1994-95 campaign, Lanier took over the reigns in Golden State as head coach when Don Nelson stepped down. In 37 games as head coach, Lanier compiled a 12-25 record. The next season after Rick Adelman became head coach, Lanier left his post as an assistant and returned to the NBA league offices to become a special assistant to the commissioner, assisting in various capacities including: refereeing, basketball operations and public service functions. In 1996, Lanier was named one of 50 greatest players in NBA history.
Today, Lanier helps head up NBA CARES, the league’s worldwide outreach program. NBA CARES is committed to raising over $100 million for charity and pledging more than one million hours in volunteer service to assist communities build more than 100 locations where children can learn and play in the next five years.
Lanier also has co-authored his own children’s book series called “Hey Lil’D”. Lanier told Inside Stuff Magazine, “I’ve thought about doing a book series for a few years now. Using basketball as the carrot to raise kids’ interests, I wanted to share some of life’s lessons through some endearing characters.” Taken from his own childhood experiences, the series consists of four titles: “It’s All In the Name”, “Take the Court”, “Out of Bounds” and “Stuck in the Middle”. Through his writing, Lanier has become just as valuable off the court for his teachings as he was on the hardwood for his jumper.
In 2000, Lanier received the Horizon Award, presented yearly by Congress to people who have made an extraordinary difference in the lives of the youth of America. Perhaps no other honor best describes a man who has spent over 30 years serving the public.
Lanier’s ability to lead an organization has lead to successful ventures in basketball, business and in public service. Currently Bob resides in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife Rose. Look for the Pistons to pay tribute to Lanier this March and celebrate his extraordinary feats.