Draft tales: Isiah tried to talk his way out of Detroit, but Pistons legend Trader Jack wasn’t having any of it

(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the NBA season is in limbo amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pistons.com will periodically look at past draft classes to illustrate the uncertain nature of the draft or to illustrate how even draft classes considered weak – as the 2020 draft is reputed to be – can yield impact players.)

When Bill Davidson bought the Pistons in 1974, he was getting a team that had compiled two winning seasons in the 17 years since Fred Zollner relocated them from his pistons plant in Fort Wayne, Ind., to Detroit. It took Davidson five years of flailing with just one additional winning season – and one spectacular swing and miss in the hiring of flamboyant University of Detroit coach Dick Vitale – before he made the most critical decision of his tenure and installed a tried-and-true basketball man to run his front office.

After essentially having his old University of Michigan roommate and minority owner Oscar Feldman make basketball decisions to that point, Davidson in December 1979 named Jack McCloskey general manager. The Pistons were mired in a franchise-worst 16-win season at the time and – insult to injury – were without their No. 1 pick as a result of a Vitale trade for Bob McAdoo, whose seeming disinterest in being with the Pistons resulted in him acquiring the nickname “McAdon’t.”

So it took McCloskey a little more time than it otherwise would have to make the call that would become the first step in constructing the Bad Boys: the decision to draft Isiah Thomas with the No. 2 pick in 1981 with the Pistons coming off of a 21-61 season in McCloskey’s first full season as GM.

There were three players who’d separated themselves in the draft class of 1981: Thomas, a sophomore at Indiana, and juniors Mark Aguirre of DePaul and Buck Williams of Maryland. Dallas had the No. 1 pick and New Jersey the No. 3 pick with the Pistons in the middle and McCloskey hoping the Mavericks wouldn’t pick Thomas.

Somebody else didn’t want the Mavericks to pick him: Isiah Thomas. When he visited Dallas prior to the draft, he told Mavs coach Dick Motta that he didn’t think he’d fit his system and that Aguirre was the best player in the draft. He then irked Mavs owner Donald Carter, who liked to wear cowboy hats, by refusing to don one of his Stetsons for the cameras.

But Thomas wasn’t trying to steer the Mavericks off of him so he could get to the Pistons. He was hoping to land with his hometown Chicago Bulls, who went into the draft with the No. 4 pick.

“He wanted to play in his hometown,” McCloskey recalled. “He told me, ‘You don’t have any players.’ I said, ‘That’s true. But I’ll get you some players.’ ”

Thomas tried the same tactics that worked in Dallas when he visited Detroit, where he met with McCloskey and his trusted longtime scout Will Robinson, who coached Detroit Pershing and all-time great Spencer Haywood before becoming the first black Division I head coach at Illinois State.

“Jack McCloskey was asking me all these questions and I was intentionally answering every one of ’em wrong and finally he looked at me and said, ‘I know what you’re doing but I’m going to draft you at number two if you’re there and you’re going to love it,’ ” Thomas said on a recent podcast with another Chicago native and NBA alumnus, Quentin Richardson. “So he walks out and Will Robinson walks in and Will goes, ‘Champ, if you’re lucky enough to get here to Detroit, this place will love you like no other.’ … And he was right.”

There wasn’t much Thomas could have done to scare off McCloskey, who said he would have taken Thomas with the No. 1 pick over Aguirre, a childhood friend of Thomas from Chicago’s west side and a player McCloskey would shockingly trade for eight years later with the Pistons on the verge of the franchise’s first NBA title. McCloskey was sold after scouting Thomas during his sophomore season and seeing him play “a perfect game.”

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” McCloskey told me. “And the extra thing about it is he was absolutely demanding everything from everybody. You could tell he was a great leader. And that, to me, was a no-brainer.”

Maybe to McCloskey, but not necessarily to outsiders. The NBA was a big man’s game in the early ’80s and Williams was a classic power forward with elite toughness and strength. And in 1980, McCloskey had used his first-round pick – not the No. 1 overall pick traded to Boston by Vitale but the 17th pick from Milwaukee as part of the Bob Lanier-Kent Benson trade McCloskey used to kick start a rebuilding – on another point guard, Larry Drew.

“I thought both of those guys were exceptional,” McCloskey said of Thomas and Williams. “But I went with Isiah, despite the fact that the first year there, I drafted Larry Drew. He had a great career.”

But McCloskey would have taken Thomas no matter where he was picking that year, no matter who else he had on his roster, despite his regard for Aguirre, who’d averaged 24.5 points over his three years at DePaul and had taken the Blue Demons to the NCAA Final Four as a freshman in 1979 where DePaul lost at the buzzer to Larry Bird and Indiana State.

“I liked him,” McCloskey said of Aguirre. “I had heard he was a little tough to handle, but obviously he was an outstanding player.” But if the Pistons had landed the No. 1 pick in ’81? “I’d have taken Isiah.”

McCloskey eventually got Thomas the players he’d promised to deliver – drafting Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, who would join Thomas in the Hall of Fame, plus John Salley; trading for Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson, Dantley/Aguirre, Rick Mahorn and James Edwards; and hiring Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly – and saw it all come together with back-to-back titles amid an era with the greatest concentration of elite teams the NBA has ever known.

The Pistons went from a franchise that posted three winning seasons in 24 years in Detroit to one in an exclusive group – among the eight NBA franchises that have won three or more titles in their history. The line of demarcation that separates those two segments of Pistons history came on June 9, 1981, when Jack McCloskey made the most significant personnel move in franchise history, drafting Isiah Thomas.