X-Factor

Salley, Rodman transformed Pistons into legit NBA contenders

John Salley and Dennis Rodman were the duo that helped bring championships to Detroit.
Butler/Capozzola/NBAE/Getty Images
(Author’s note: John Salley, who will attend Friday night’s ceremony to honor Dennis Rodman with the retirement of his jersey, shared a number of memories recently. In the first installment, Salley talked about being teammates with Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant over the course of his career and compared them as competitors. In the second, Salley recalled playing for both Chuck Daly and Phil Jackson. In the final installment, Salley recalls his days with Rodman.)

Before John Salley and Dennis Rodman were teammates, they were roommates. It came in Hawaii, a strange place for a slick city kid from Brooklyn who played on college basketball’s big stage at Georgia Tech and a shy unknown from Southeastern Oklahoma State to meet.

The draft process was different then. There were three distinct events at which scouts got to see players in different settings at a time when ESPN and cable was in its infancy and the Internet had yet to be hatched. Scouts have access to virtually every game tape of practically every player in the draft pool today. Back then, sleepers were still out there – and Rodman was the poster boy for sleepers.

Which makes it fitting that Salley first found Rodman in bed.

More on that in a minute. Back to the draft process. Hawaii was the final stop, where the NBA, on the advice of its in-house scouting guru Marty Blake, invited what it considered the top 50 players eligible for the draft. They’d split them over four teams and play a round-robin event to get a good look at all prospects against top-level competition in a team setting.

The first stop was Portsmouth, Va., which still exists today. Then, as now, Portsmouth was a place where lesser prospects were invited in the hope of getting invited to Chicago and finally to Hawaii. Salley was considered a lock for the first round, so he didn’t have to prove himself in Portsmouth. Rodman went and opened eyes by smothering Georgia’s high-scoring shooting guard/small forward, Joe Ward.

But Rodman was awful a few weeks later in Chicago. Only the Pistons really knew why. GM Jack McCloskey had the foresight then to have trainer Mike Abdenour accompany him and his scouting staff, Will Robinson and Stan Novak, to check out prospects medically. Only Abdenour discovered that Rodman was badly afflicted with an asthmatic condition that limited his endurance.

And that explains how Salley found Rodman in bed in Hawaii when he checked in.

“This is why it’s crazy,” Salley smiled broadly, recalling his first meeting with Rodman. “Dennis was my roommate. I get there and he has the sliding door open, the air conditioning on and he’s under the covers – watching cartoons – shivering. And I’m going, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

“I’m sick.”

“What kind of sick? I ain’t got time to be sick.”

“He wouldn’t leave the room,” Salley said. “We’re in Hawaii and he wouldn’t leave the room – my first time meeting the cat. But he also told me, ‘I’ll get every rebound so you can be MVP.’ ”

Rodman and Salley were grouped on a team coached by Salley’s coach at Georgia Tech, Bobby Cremins, and they ran the offense Tech ran. So Salley had that going for him, but mostly what he had in his pocket was Rodman’s vow to grab every rebound so he could be MVP.

Sure enough, “I missed three shots for the whole event and I was MVP.”

What did he think watching Rodman play for the first time?

“I couldn’t believe this kid was that skinny,” he said. “I have a picture of Dennis, 6-7, weighing 175 pounds, and I’ve never seen anybody run that fast at that height. And I thought I was fast. I’ve never seen anybody run that fast and I’ve never seen anybody rebound like that.”

Salley and Rodman went on to have a huge impact on the Pistons as rookies, of course, transforming a poor defensive team that had been drummed out of the first round by Atlanta in 1986 to one that pushed Boston to seven games in 1987, one step from the NBA Finals.

The Celtics dubbed Salley and Rodman the Pistons’ X-factor, of course, which led to Salley choreographing the famous salute he and Rodman would execute with crossed arms forming an X.

The Pistons overhauled the Celtics the following year, 1988, en route to three straight trips to the NBA Finals, holding off the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls at the end of the run. Those games with the Celtics and Bulls in two of the NBA’s grand old barns, Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium, include many of the most passionate moments in Pistons history. While they might have been equal in decibel levels, Salley recalls them differently. For him, the Boston rivalry was much more intense.

“I’m a very honest person,” he said. “I stopped lying at the age of 40. So, when I say this, I don’t even say it to be politically correct. I say it as I feel my truth is. I feel it was eight against five when we played the Chicago Bulls, because the NBA really, really, really needed Michael to be that person.

“When we played against Boston, we had to literally beat them. You had to beat them. And you had to beat them well. We lost in Game 5 (in 1987) – not one second was Larry not trying to win the game. The same thing with us.

“There were days I didn’t sleep when we were playing the Celtics. We lost in 1987 in Game 7 when Adrian Dantley and Vinnie hit their heads. The next day, I literally jumped out of bed and thought I was late for practice. When I got (to the Silverdome), there were three other guys who thought they were late for practice, too. And it was over. That’s how intense it was. It was more than just a game. It was a part of our lives.

“The Chicago thing – remember, they were chasing us. We were on top. We just had to beat the refs. That’s why we ran pick and roll on every play – so they couldn’t make those bad calls.”