Lanier’s Big Feet, er, Feats


Bob Lanier, the top pick by the Pistons in the 1970 NBA Draft, was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991.
NBA Photos
Pistons’ Hall of Fame center had it all but an NBA championship
Lanier’s Big Feet, er, Feats

by John Maxwell

When Bob Lanier retired from the NBA after 14 seasons - the first nine and a half with the Detroit Pistons - he joked that he felt it was time to leave the game because the Milwaukee Bucks had finally found somebody who could fill his shoes in 7-footer Alton Lister.

Considering Lanier wore size 22s - the largest shoe size in NBA history - this was no small feet … er, feat.

Lanier not only became one of the best players in the history of the game, gaining entry into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991, but he has become one of the sport’s great ambassadors.

First, however, Lanier was called upon to serve as savior of the Pistons. Detroit made the 6-foot-11 center the No. 1 overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft after a 31-51 season that marked the team’s 14th consecutive losing campaign in the Motor City. Lanier came to Detroit with impeccable collegiate credentials - he was a three-time All-America selection at St. Bonaventure, had a Final Four appearance under his belt and several player of the year honors to his credit.

The selection of Lanier paid dividends immediately in 1970-71 as he was named to the All-Rookie team and the Pistons posted a 14-game improvement, setting a team record with 45 victories. The playoffs eluded Detroit until the 1973-74 season when they again set a team record with 52 wins. That began a string of four consecutive postseason appearances for the Pistons but they advanced to the second round on just one occasion.

“We were always one man from being able to compete against the cream of the league,” Lanier later told the Detroit Free Press. “That was a huge disappointment for me. We always had to be at the top of our game to compete, and the big boys didn't have to be at the top of their game to beat us.”

In addition to playing “a man down,” Lanier’s tenure with Detroit was marred by front office turnover. He averaged almost one new coach per season, playing for a total of eight head coaches during his nearly ten seasons in Motown.

New Pistons’ general manager Jack McCloskey traded Lanier to the Milwaukee Bucks during the 1979-80 season. The Bucks averaged 53 wins and won a division title all five seasons he finished with the club, but postseason disappointment followed Lanier to Wisconsin. In his last two seasons, the Bucks reached the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost four games to one both times, first to the NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers and then the Boston Celtics. It was the closest Lanier ever came to an NBA championship despite eight All-Star appearances, the 1974 All-Star Game MVP award and three top-10 MVP finishes.

The other constant in Lanier’s career was a spate of injuries that prevented him from playing more than 70 games in seven of his 14 seasons. Shoulders, elbows, hands and toes all robbed Lanier of playing time but it was his knees that caused the most difficulty. He underwent eight knee surgeries during his career. Pistons teammate Chris Ford once related to the Free Press, “I’ve always admired him because he comes to play with injuries. He’s a guy who’d do anything to win. He’s never been with a winner, unfortunately, but he is a winner.”

A hobbled Lanier finally decided to hang up his high-tops following the 1983-84 season, just shy of NBA statistical milestones. He left the NBA with career averages of 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds - a total of 19,248 points and 9,698 rebounds. Following retirement announcement, Lanier told the Milwaukee Sentinel, “I accomplished most of the individual goals I ever dreamed of in this game. But the ultimate reward is to be crowned champions. And if you don’t know what that feeling is, I think it leaves a void.”

Lanier was more than an athlete during his time in the league. He served as president of the NBA Players Association, and earned the 1978 Walter Kennedy Citizenship award and the 1981 Jackie Robinson award for his work in the community during his playing days - all of which would portend the kind of work that Lanier would be known for in his second NBA career.

After stints in business and sports broadcasting, Lanier found his second calling in the late 1980s when he helped the NBA launch its “Stay in School Program” and later its “Read to Achieve” and “Team-Up” programs, for which Lanier traveled around the country meeting with children and speaking to them about the importance of education.

The coaching bug bit Lanier in the mid 1990s when he joined the Golden State Warriors as an assistant coach under Don Nelson, his former coach in Milwaukee. He would become interim head coach of the Warriors in the 1994-95 season but was replaced by Rick Adelman the following year.

Lanier returned to the NBA as a special assistant to Commissioner David Stern, which allowed him to play a larger role in the league’s community relations programs. In 2003, he became a published author as he co-wrote a series of children’s books. Inside Stuff magazine quoted Lanier as saying at the time, “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.”

Lanier’s playing career, even without that elusive NBA championship, is among the best ever by an NBA big man. He was enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991 and had his No. 16 retired by the Pistons on Jan. 9, 1993. He still holds the Pistons’ highest career scoring average (22.7) and is the team’s second-leading rebounder (8,063) and third-leading scorer (15,488).