Draft Tales: Even with a stacked Pistons backcourt, there was no passing on Joe D in 1985
Andrew D. Bernstein (NBAE/Getty)
The most overlooked shrewd move of Jack McCloskey’s draft resume came when he spent the 18th pick of the 1982 draft to take a big scorer from a traditionally weak college program, Rice guard Rickey Pierce. It’s overlooked because the Pistons never got much from Pierce, trading him away after his rookie season primarily because he was the fourth guard in a rotation that included Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson and John Long ahead of him.
Pierce would become the fourth-leading career scorer from the ’82 draft, trailing only the top three picks: James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins and Terry Cummings. He had a career much like Johnson, in fact, spending the bulk of it coming off the bench – 269 starts in 969 career games over 16 seasons – but playing starter’s minutes and leaving an outsized impact on games. He made one All-Star appearance and averaged 14.9 for his career, averaging more than 15 points per game for seven consecutive seasons at one point.
But not much had changed with the Pistons roster three years after drafting Pierce. Thomas, Long and Johnson were still around and finished the 1984-85 season – in which the Pistons went 46-36 and took Boston to six tough games in the Eastern Conference semifinals – among the team’s top five scorers.
So the backcourt wasn’t exactly an area of need for the Pistons as draft night approached. Thomas was 23, Long and Johnson 28. McCloskey prepped owner Bill Davidson and his minority partner, Oscar Feldman, every year for the draft, giving them the names of the top handful of prospects the Pistons expected to have available in their range. Feldman, in fact, had acted as Pistons general manager for the first handful of seasons after Davidson bought the franchise in 1974.
One name he didn’t mention: Joe Dumars, a player McCloskey had scouted during a Las Vegas holiday tournament, was wowed by and kept quiet about for the ensuing months.
“The owners would come in and they’d always want to know who were the potential people we would pick,” McCloskey told me in 2011. “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 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!’ ”
McCloskey truly never expected to have a shot at him. He had him rated easily as a top-five pick in a draft that included four future Hall of Famers: No. 1 pick Patrick Ewing, seventh pick Chris Mullin, 13th pick Karl Malone – and Dumars.
The delicate issue for McCloskey was the presence of homegrown star Sam Vincent in that draft. Vincent had been Michigan’s first Mr. Basketball four years earlier at Lansing Eastern High, had broken Magic Johnson’s city scoring record of 61 points and had been an All-American at Michigan State. He was also highly regarded and, in fact, would be picked just two spots after Dumars – and by rival Boston and legendary GM Red Auerbach, no less.
McCloskey was sure that Dallas would take a guard on one of its two picks directly ahead of the Pistons, but instead went with 7-footers Uwe Blab of Indiana and Bill Wennington of St. John’s. The Mavs also had picked eighth and grabbed Washington’s 6-foot-8 Detlef Schrempf, a versatile forward they felt gave them, in effect, another guard. Dallas – much like Detroit – also had an established backcourt with starters Rolando Blackman and Brad Davis plus young Derek Harper coming off the bench.
Dallas coach Dick Motta, though, pushed back on general manager Norm Sonju’s wish to add two big men. Dallas had three guards ranked similarly: Dumars, Vincent and Tulsa’s Steve Harris. Dumars, a Louisiana native who’d played his college ball at McNeese State in the southwest corner of the state, was hoping to stay close to home and be picked either by the Mavs at 16 or 17 or by Houston at 19.
Motta advocated for Harris, but seemed happy to get the two big men to add to a deep roster of perimeter players that also included Dale Ellis and Jay Vincent – Magic’s college teammate and Sam’s older brother – in addition to Blackmon, Davis, Harper and Schrempf.
“If one of them fails – I don’t want to predict that – but if one of them fails,” Motta said of Blab and Wennington, “we’re not out a great deal. If one of them succeeds and can carry his position, we can carry him now. I don’t want to put too much pressure on the players or our organization, but we are getting to the point where we’re getting a nice stable of quality perimeter people. If one of these fellas can hit, we’re going to be a very nice basketball team.”
Blab played five NBA seasons and averaged 2.1 points for his career. Wennington lasted 15 seasons as a journeyman and was part of the last three of Chicago’s six NBA titles in the ’90s, but started a total of 14 games over his five seasons with the Mavs.
One pick after McCloskey grabbed Dumars, Houston went with Tulsa’s Harris, who spent five unremarkable seasons in the NBA but, ironically, briefly passed through Detroit, signing a 10-day contract during the 1988-89 championship season and scoring four points over seven minutes in his three games with the Pistons.
Auerbach, after taking Vincent, would tell Boston media that he had Vincent and Dumars neck and neck among a group of four guards that also included Harris and Terry Porter of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, who would be picked 24th by Portland and face the Pistons in the 1990 NBA Finals during a 17-year career that included two All-Star appearances.
“We had Dumars and Vincent ranked 1-2, 2-1,” Auerbach said.
It would soon become clear that Dumars and Vincent were on different planes. Vincent lasted seven NBA seasons, the first two in Boston. In their second season, the Pistons fell to Boston in an epic Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Dumars scored 35 points that day; Vincent scored two.
Dumars would go on to a 14-year career, all with the Pistons, retiring as the franchise leader in games played with 1,108, a record that still stands. He also leads in 3-pointers made and attempted and is second to Isiah Thomas in scoring with 16,401 points and assists with 4,612. He ranks third in steals behind Thomas and Ben Wallace. A six-time All-Star, Dumars was first team All-Defense four times and a three-time All-NBA honoree who was MVP of the 1989 Finals when the Pistons won their first NBA title.
All McCloskey knew on June 18, 1985 was that there was zero debate or trepidation on his end when Dallas picked Wennington 17th, the roster notwithstanding.
“How could you pass up a guy that I thought was in the top two or three of the draft?” he said. “I had him for sure in the top five. I don’t know how you could pass that up.”