Salley: ‘I’m a Piston’

Ex-Bad Boy riffs on his time with Isiah, Michael and Kobe

John Salley found mentors in renowned coaches.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
(Author’s note: John Salley, who will make appearances this weekend at Saturday’s Pistons-Indiana game and Sunday’s VegFest in Novi and will be back at The Palace for the April 1 ceremony to honor Dennis Rodman upon his jersey retirement, sat down with me on Friday afternoon and shared some great stories. I’ll roll them out over the next week leading to Rodman’s special night against the Bulls.)

Michael Jordan was the greatest player John Salley ever saw. But it was nothing Jordan did against the Pistons that finally sold him. It wasn’t even anything he did during a Bulls game once Salley joined the Bulls and became Jordan’s teammate. It happened in a Bulls practice.

Phil Jackson dismissed Jordan and Scottie Pippen from practice, telling them it was just going to be a quick walk through. When the stars left, Jackson told everybody else they were about to scrimmage. Jordan suddenly reappeared, angry about being excluded from a good run.

“I knew you were going to scrimmage today,” he snarled at Jackson, dismissing the teams Jackson had handpicked and insisting, instead, that he pick sides.

“Put the Pistons on that side,” Jordan said.

“It was me, James Edwards, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper – anybody that was on a team he went against, we were all on one side,” Salley recalled. “And MJ was on the other side. He had regular tennis, boat shoes. They were canvas, low tops. They looked like Vans. And I got back to the hotel and I called my mother and I said, ‘I’ve just seen the greatest player.’

“And she said, ‘It’s taken you that long?’ Because I thought Michael was a great player. I didn’t think he was the greatest until that day. I’d been around him with his head down, I’d been around when he scored 62 on us. I was also there when Joe (Dumars) shut him down and he didn’t score over 20. So I’d seen human. Everyone else had seen something other than that. I’d always seen him as human.”

Salley won NBA rings with the Pistons, Bulls and Lakers. By reputation, those teams were led by three of the most cutthroat competitors in NBA history – Isiah Thomas, Jordan and Kobe Bryant, though Salley was teammates with Bryant relatively early in Bryant’s career.

Who was the most ruthless of the three?

“Isiah,” Salley says in a heartbeat. “The thing people don’t know about Junior – he will cut your head off. He’s the head cutter. He will cut your head off with that smile. Michael – great competitor, just down and dirty.

“You found out who Michael was when he made his Hall of Fame speech, when he invited everybody he thought had shunned him. What he didn’t realize is that everything he wasn’t made him everything he was. The (high school) coach who cut him – if he had been on the team in 10th grade, he wouldn’t be Michael Jordan today. He went and practiced 10 times harder. Kobe Bryant works out harder than both of them. Kobe Bryant is the hardest-working person I have ever seen.”

And the toughest player Salley ever opposed?

“Larry Bird. Magic Johnson is second.”

As for the Bad Boys? I asked Salley if he knew he was going to be in a street fight, which ex-Piston teammate he’d want at his side.

“Dennis Rodman. The only reason I would take Dennis is he’s not afraid he’s going to get punched in the face and ruin his looks. That’s funny – that is funny.”

And then Salley took the opportunity to poke a little fun at half the roster.

“I wouldn’t say Rick (Mahorn), because his back is bad, but I used to want to take Rick everywhere. Vinnie Johnson would scare away most people. Isiah is going to try to negotiate. Bill Laimbeer would probably join the other team. James Edwards is going to have too many kamikazes to realize we’re in a fight. He has kamikazes on tap. I’ll take Rodman.

“Scott Hastings would be No. 2 because he would fight anybody. That’s how he got on the Pistons. When we started beating up on the Hawks, he begged to be put in the game when he was with the Hawks. He was literally saying, I will take all of you out, and when it came time for it, they were like, this guy’s got a great attitude.”

As for how he identifies himself, Salley says, “I’m a Piston. I tell everyone. When I went to Miami, they knew I was a Piston. When I was with Isiah up in Toronto for that quick amount of time, they knew I was a Piston.”