The Best of Trader Jack: Part VI

(Editor’s note: Jack McCloskey made every move in building the Bad Boys from his hiring in December 1979 to their winning consecutive NBA titles in 1989 and ’90. Pistons.com looks at the 10 biggest moves he engineered, continuing with a gold strike in the 1985 draft. Up next: Taking the next step.)

It was one of those file-it-away moments. Jack McCloskey was scouting the UNLV Holiday Classic in December 1984 where the two headliner teams were the host Runnin’ Rebels and San Diego State, being coached by Smokey Gaines – the guy who took over at the University of Detroit for Dick Vitale when Vitale left for the Pistons.

McCloskey might have been there expecting to scout the talent on those two NCAA tournament-bound teams – as fate would have it, they would be first-round opponents three months later, UNLV winning 85-80 to improve to 28-3, ending the Aztecs’ season at 23-8 – but it was a guard at McNeese State that wound up catching Trader Jack’s eye.

The kid’s name? Joe Dumars.

“I remember seeing him play in Nevada and in the first two minutes, he made a great move,” McCloskey told me last month. “I said, ‘Hell, this kid can play.’ ”

McCloskey had devised his own numerical evaluation system for players. In his scoring system for guards, quickness and speed were among the attributes he rated. When he added up Joe D’s scores across 10 categories at the end of the tournament – McNeese would lose by six to San Diego State and by 11 to UNLV, margins McCloskey knew would have been tripled without Dumars keeping the Cowboys close – he went back to Detroit and kept his mouth shut, hoping for a miracle on draft night.

But he never believed it would come to fruition. The Pistons had come a long way in McCloskey’s five-plus years as general manager. He’d added Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka via the draft and Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson in trade. The Pistons had just played Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics tough in a first-round playoff series, losing in six games, and their 46-36 record under Chuck Daly meant McCloskey wouldn’t pick until No. 18.

Pistons owner Bill Davidson and minority partner Oscar Feldman, not so long removed from his own duties as general manager, would sit in the draft room with McCloskey and his trusted scouts, Will Robinson and Stan Novak. McCloskey would brief Davidson and Feldman in the days leading to the draft on the handful of players he figured would be in his range.

“The owners would come in and they’d always want to know who were the potential people we would pick,” McCloskey recalled. “I gave them names. Now the draft starts off and we get down to Dallas, which had two picks in front of us. And I’m saying to myself, ‘Do we really have a chance to get this guy?’

“Sure enough, Dallas takes two big guys” – the Mavs picked 7-footers Bill Wennington of St. John’s and Uwe Blab of Indiana – “and I grab the phone right away and say to the NBA, ‘the Pistons take Joe Dumars.’ And both owners jumped off their seats and said, ‘Who the hell is Joe Dumars? You never told us about him!’ ”

One of the players still on the board at the time was Sam Vincent, a local hero who’d been Michigan’s first Mr. Basketball in 1981, was the younger brother of proven NBA scorer Jay Vincent, had broken Magic Johnson’s city scoring record with a 61-point game and had been an All-American at Michigan State. It wasn’t like Vincent wasn’t projected to be a good NBA player, either. In fact, he would go two picks after McCloskey selected Dumars, his selection given greater credibility by the fact it was Boston and Red Auerbach’s front office that made the pick.

It was enormously risky, in other words, for McCloskey to spend the pick on a player his owners – and Pistons fans – had never heard of when a local star with name recognition was on the board. Especially when the Pistons already appeared loaded in the backcourt with Thomas at point guard, steady John Long at shooting guard and Johnson – freshly dubbed “The Microwave” by Danny Ainge for a 22-point fourth quarter in a Game 5 win over the Celtics – coming off the bench.

“How could you pass up a guy that I thought was in the top two or three of the draft?” McCloskey says today. “I had him for sure in the top five. I don’t know how you could pass him up.”

The first five picks in the 1985 draft were Patrick Ewing, Wayman Tisdale, Benoit Benjamin, Xavier McDaniel and Jon Koncak. Ewing went on to a Hall of Fame career, as did three others from that class: Chris Mullin, the No. 7 pick; Karl Malone, picked 13th; and Dumars, who was privately hoping to go to either Dallas, picking 16 and 17, or Houston, picking right behind the Pistons at 19th, so he could stay close to his Louisiana roots.

Turned out pretty well for all sides. McCloskey’s teams would go on to win two NBA titles, play in five straight conference finals and three straight NBA Finals. Dumars would enjoy his own Hall of Fame career and slide into the seat McCloskey occupied, going on to build his own NBA title winner and one that played in a remarkable six straight conference finals. It might have been one of the most profitable trips to Las Vegas ever taken, all without dropping a dime into the slot machines.