When Bob Lanier hung up his basketball shoes in 1984 after 14 years in the NBA, the eight-time All-Star joked that he did so only because the Milwaukee Bucks had finally found in Alton Lister another player who literally could fill his sneakers. It was no small feat: like Lanier, Lister took to the court in size 22 sneakers. One of the game’s greatest big men, Lanier was actually preceded into the Hall of Fame by a bronzed pair of his shoes, the biggest the NBA had ever seen. “A lot of people,” he noted in HOOP magazine, “can put both feet into one of my shoes.”
Lanier excelled in an era of outstanding centers such as Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed, Dave Cowens and Bill Walton. Despite his 6-foot-11 frame, Lanier’s movements were fluid. He had a deadly hook shot from the lane, a strong outside shot, and outstanding rebounding skills.
Lanier played more than nine seasons in Detroit and is the Pistons’ all-time leader in scoring average (22.7 ppg) and ranks second in rebounds (8,063) and third in points (15,488). Counting his four seasons in Milwaukee, Lanier amassed 19,248 points in 14 years, finishing his career with averages of 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
Yet despite Lanier’s Hall of Fame numbers (he was inducted in 1992), in 14 seasons with the Pistons and the Bucks he never realized his greatest aspiration: to put a championship ring on his finger. Like baseball’s Ernie Banks, a Hall of Famer who never played in a World Series, Lanier was an athlete whose greatness was overshadowed by his failure to not only win the big prize, but never having the opportunity to play in a NBA Finals.
“I accomplished most of the individual goals I ever dreamed of in this game,” he said in the Milwaukee Sentinel the year he retired. “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 is also remembered for his willingness to endure pain. He began his rookie season fresh from knee surgery and later underwent seven more knee operations. In his final 10 campaigns a host of physical problems limited him to fewer than 70 games in seven different seasons. Dogged by injuries throughout his NBA tenure, Lanier forced himself to play while hurt in a frustrating quest to reach the postseason championship round.
“I’ve always admired him because he comes to play with injuries,” onetime Pistons teammate Chris Ford said in the Detroit Free Press. “He’s a guy who’d do anything to win. He’s never been with a winner, unfortunately, but he is a winner.”
Although always cordial and open to reporters, Lanier was never gregarious as a player, only occasionally revealing his altruistic side. “I’m a maverick,” he once told the Milwaukee Journal. “I do what I feel is good. I don’t want to step on toes. I give people their space, but I don’t expect them to infringe on my space, either.”
Despite his gruff on-court appearance, teammates and front-office staffers recalled Lanier as a notorious prankster and practical joker whose specialty was impersonating others on the telephone. In retirement, his dynamic personality, combined with his lifelong interest in children’s issues, made him a perfect candidate for the chairmanship of the NBA’s Stay In School program (later re-named Read to Acheive) , a post he held from 1989-94.
Unlike other basketball greats who seemingly became successful athletes by divine right, nothing in the game came easily to Lanier. Growing up on the poor side of town in Buffalo, New York, he tried out for his grammar school team but was told by the coach that his feet (already size 11 at age 11) were too big for him ever to be an athlete.
Although he had passed 6-foot-5 by the time he turned 16, Lanier was cut from the varsity basketball squad in his sophomore year at Buffalo’s Bennett High. He joined a Boys Club, worked out, and practiced exhaustively. A year later he was All-City; two years later he was All-Western New York State and had led his school to successive city titles.
A poor student in high school, Lanier was rejected by his first college of choice, Canisius, because of his grades. But with his athletic skills no longer in doubt, he was eagerly courted by more than 100 other schools; he selected St. Bonaventure. This time he worked hard in the classroom as well as on the court, earning a business administration degree on schedule. Meanwhile, the now 6-11 Lanier led St. Bonaventure to a 22-0 regular-season record and a No. 3 national ranking in only his sophomore year. He set school marks for scoring (2,067 points) and rebounding (1,180).
In his last year with the Bonnies, however, Lanier suffered the sort of disappointment that later plagued his professional career. En route to a seemingly sure spot in the NCAA championship game, St. Bonaventure lost Lanier to a knee ligament injury in the regional finals against Villanova. Without him, the squad was upset in the national semifinals.
Despite his injury, the Detroit Pistons claimed Lanier with the first overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft. The club had not had a winning record in the 13 years since moving to Detroit from Fort Wayne, and team officials were so eager to secure Lanier that they signed him to a contract while he was still in a hospital bed recovering from knee surgery.
Lanier put up impressive numbers during the next four seasons, averaging better than 20 points and 10 rebounds from 1974 to 1978.
He was still limping painfully from the surgery when he reported to training camp for his rookie season, and because of his long recuperation period he was also overweight. “I had a lot of apprehension when I first came to Detroit,” Lanier told the Detroit Free Press in 1987. “I had a knee injury, and I really could not play up to my capability the way I had in college. Back then there was a lot of pressure to play even though you were hurt.”
Lanier played in all 82 of the club’s games during his rookie season. He averaged an impressive 15.6 points and was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team for 1970-71. The Pistons improved to 45-37, a 14-game jump over the previous year.
With his confidence and mobility improving, Lanier soared to 25.7 ppg and 14.2 rpg in 1971-72. He played in his first NBA All-Star Game that year, and two years later he was the All-Star Game’s Most Valuable Player. Lanier played in eight All-Star Games during his 14 years in the league.
With Lanier dominating the middle, the Pistons finally began to click in 1972-73. “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,” he said in the Detroit Free Press.
His defense and rebounding improved. Lanier averaged 14.9 rebounds, including a single-game best of 33. He credited part of the Pistons’ steady improvement to new coach Ray Scott. “He took over and we started playing collectively as a unit,” Lanier said in the Free Press. “We had a good feeling, and we related well with one another.”
Lanier put up impressive numbers during the next four seasons, averaging better than 20 points and 10 rebounds from 1974 to 1978. The Pistons made the playoffs in three of those seasons but were eliminated in the early rounds every time. “We were always one man [away] from being able to compete against the cream of the league,” Lanier told the 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.”
Managerial instability contributed to the problem. During Lanier’s 10 seasons in Detroit he played under eight different coaches. “There were always different ideologies,” he added, “different philosophies and styles, different players. It was a constant adjustment.”
The injury jinx began to plague Lanier in 1975-76. He had never missed more than two games in each of his first four seasons, and he had missed only six in 1974-75. But he sat out 18 games in each of the next two seasons, 19 games in 1977-78, and almost 30 contests in 1978-79, as he dealt with a litany of problems. In addition to ailing knees he suffered fractures to his right hand and left finger, a bad back, and chronic shoulder problems. When he broke the hand in a game, he played almost the entire contest before having the break diagnosed.
Lanier’s physical style of play may have contributed to his proneness to injuries. “I haven’t been blessed with great jumping ability or speed, so I’ve had to utilize my assets,” Lanier acknowledged in the Kansas City Star. “Without being physical, I wouldn’t have survived in this league.”
Despite the time spent on the sidelines, Lanier put up good numbers when he was on the floor. In 1977-78 he scored 24.5 ppg and racked up 11.3 rpg. That year he also earned the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, given annually to a member of the NBA family who distinguishes himself in community service. His charity work at the time included fund-raising for muscular dystrophy research, the Special Olympics, Boys Clubs, and the YMCA.
Dick Vitale took over as head coach in 1978-79 and the Pistons fell to 30-52. Lanier played in 53 games and averaged 23.6 points. In 1979-80, in the middle of the worst season in Detroit franchise history (16-66), Lanier, still nursing dreams of playing for a champion, asked to be traded. The Pistons obliged, sending Lanier to the Milwaukee Bucks for Kent Benson and a first-round draft pick. Lanier left Detroit having amassed 15,488 points and 8,063 rebounds in a Pistons uniform, both team records at the time.
“When I got on that plane, I cried like a baby,” Lanier recalled in 1993 in the Detroit Free Press. “I asked for that trade, but my blood and my guts were Pistons. Playing in Detroit was an emotional roller coaster. There was a lot of sadness of not being able to go where you want to go.”
In Milwaukee, Lanier helped lead the Bucks to five consecutive division titles in the regular season, but his bad luck in the playoffs continued. In 1980-81 the Bucks fell to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals; Game 7 was decided by a single point. Two years later the Bucks made it to the conference finals before again bowing to the 76ers. In 1983-84, Lanier’s last year, Milwaukee reached the conference finals once again but was eliminated by the Boston Celtics.
Missing a shot at the championship hurt. “You do the best you can, but it still bothers you,” he told the Free Press years later.
Repeated knee surgeries limited Lanier’s time and effectiveness in his years with the Bucks. He averaged around 25 minutes a game in his four full seasons with Milwaukee after having played nearly 40 minutes a night for much of his time in Detroit. In 1982-83, he appeared in a career-low 39 contests. Lanier scored 10.7 ppg that year, and he averaged only 14.3 ppg in his best season in Milwaukee, 1980-81. He called it quits after the 1983-84 campaign.
During his final years on the court, Lanier was voted president of the NBA Players Association by his peers. Lanier’s former coach, Dick Vitale, said in the Free Press, “If every player had a Bob Lanier attitude, it would be easy for a coach to function.”
In 1985, Lanier launched an advertising promotions business in Milwaukee, marketing such specialty items as T-shirts, umbrellas and coffee mugs. From an initial stake of $50,000, in four years he expanded his business to more than $2 million in annual sales.
In 1989, Lanier became involved in the launching of the NBA’s Stay In School program, a nationwide campaign in which the NBA and its players urge middle school students to complete their high school education.
Lanier became the program’s national chairman, visiting hundreds of schools across the country and delivering his famous “PRIDE” message. In countless speeches and motivational talks, the dynamic “Big Bob” related experiences from his own life to convince students that pride and determination are vital to success, and that every person’s dreams start with the foundation of education.
While serving as Stay In School chairman, Lanier also did color commentary for national radio broadcasts of NBA games. In 1992, he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His uniform No. 16 was retired a year later by the Pistons in 1993.
Following the 1993-94 season, Lanier left his post with the Stay In School campaign to return to the court, this time as an assistant coach to Don Nelson with the Golden State Warriors. Nelson, who had been Lanier’s coach in Milwaukee, hoped that Big Bob could impart some of his wisdom to young Warriors big men Chris Webber, Clifford Rozier and Carlos Rogers.
Midway through the 1994-95 season, Lanier was elevated to interim head coach when Nelson stepped down because of personal reasons. Lanier was at the helm for the team’s final 37 games and posted a 12-25 record. After the season the Warriors hired Rick Adelman to take over as coach, and Lanier returned to his role as an assistant.
Shortly thereafter, Lanier left the bench and returned to the NBA executive office as a Special Assistant to the Commissioner. In that role, he serves youth in programs that support education, family development and health-related classes. He was also a spokesman and chairman for the NBA’s “Stay In School” program from 1989-94.
Lanier died on May 11, 2022 at 73 after suffering a short illness.