A Hall of Fame without Trader Jack McCloskey has credibility issues
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
AUBURN HILLS – There are plenty of people without whom the first two of three NBA championship banners that will be packed up for the move from The Palace to Little Caesars Arena would not exist.
Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, of course. Bad Boys Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. Vinnie Johnson and James Edwards and John Salley and Mark Aguirre. The Hall of Fame coach who managed that dizzying collection of outsized egos and fill-up-the-room personalities, Chuck Daly.
But if they ever dust those banners for fingerprints, Jack McCloskey’s will be all over them.
It was McCloskey, after all, who was responsible for bringing all of them to town. Every single one.
There was an outpouring of emotions a few months ago when McCloskey’s rival from the other side of Lake Michigan, Jerry Krause, died in March and a few weeks later was announced as part of the Naismith Hall of Fame’s 2017 class. Krause built the Chicago Bulls, who would go on to win six titles – after being eliminated from the playoffs in three straight seasons by the Pistons. Today’s news that McCloskey, 91, is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, as reported in today's Free Press, evokes similar feelings.
There is surely room for both Krause and McCloskey in Springfield and, yes, Krause belongs. Basketball’s Hall of Fame is a strange place where many deserving players keep coming up short but every active college coach who wins one national title in a single-elimination crap shoot tournament is virtually assured of enshrinement well before he begins cashing pension checks.
But McCloskey belongs every bit as much as Krause. In fact, stack up their resumes and remember one salient fact: Krause inherited Michael Jordan in Chicago. As building blocks go, that’s a pretty good one.
Look at the mess McCloskey inherited when Pistons owner Bill Davidson hired him in 1979. His best player was an aging Bob Lanier. The roster otherwise was a collection of castoffs and young players with ties to Michigan. Dick Vitale – another Hall of Famer, no less – built the Pistons as if he were still recruiting to the University of Detroit.
In fact, after Vitale was fired and assistant Richie Adubato stepped in as interim coach, he forlornly looked out at the mishmash one night and said to no one in particular, “We’d have a hell of a team – if we were playing in the Big Ten.”
Trader Jack had to start from scratch. One of his first moves was calling his former employer, the Lakers, and offering his entire roster for Magic Johnson.
Rebuffed, he launched his rebuild by drafting Isiah Thomas in 1981. The following February, he beat the trade deadline by convincing Cleveland owner Ted Stepien to deal Bill Laimbeer by selling the appeal of Paul Mokeski to the Polish population of Cleveland. Later, McCloskey delighted in the fact that Mokeski, in fact, was not of Polish descent.
He drafted Dumars from tiny McNeese State and found Rodman in an even dustier bin, Southeastern Oklahoma State. McCloskey knew Rodman performed poorly at the forerunner to the NBA draft combine in Chicago because only he had brought his trainer, a young Mike Abdenour, along with him and only the Pistons discovered Rodman’s lethargic performance was due to allergy issues.
Yeah, if Jack McCloskey were dropped into today’s NBA, he’d be ahead of the curve in the era of analytics. In fact, the trade for Laimbeer? The one in which the Pistons also got Kenny Carr, a more heralded player that everyone assumed was the key to the trade for the Pistons? No. It was Laimbeer. And it was because McCloskey had a rudimentary analytics formula, devised by him and shared with no one outside the organization, that told him Laimbeer was a much better player than his Cleveland experience revealed.
He traded for Vinnie Johnson, swapping out local hero Greg Kelser – Magic’s Michigan State sidekick and a Vitale draft pick, now sidekick to George Blaha on Pistons telecasts. He drafted Kelly Tripucka and traded Lanier for Kent Benson, then packaged Tripucka and Benson to get Adrian Dantley.
He brought in Mahorn for his toughness and drafted Salley for his athleticism. He got Edwards on the cheap to back up Laimbeer and eventually to start alongside him in the 1989-90 title season after the painful loss of Mahorn to Minnesota in the expansion draft.
McCloskey shocked the NBA by trading Dantley for Aguirre amid the 1988-89 season with the Pistons already poised to get back to the Finals. To this day, McCloskey swears he has no idea what had turned Dantley sullen, but felt in his bones that Dantley’s dark mood would undermine a championship drive.
It was as thorough a floor-to-ceiling rebuild to result in a championship as the NBA has ever seen. And it came amid an era of NBA super teams with Magic’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics at the peak of their dynasties and Jordan’s Bulls restlessly flexing their muscles.
The Alzheimer’s gut punch rekindles the sense of injustice at his exclusion from the Hall of Fame. His resume was full and rich even before he built the Bad Boys. McCloskey, a Navy war hero, played in the NBA and coached in college – a decade at Penn before Daly took a turn, then at Wake Forest – and the NBA before Davidson made the best move of his long and acclaimed stewardship of the Pistons.
Davidson left a huge mark on the NBA for his early backing of David Stern as commissioner and for the way he revolutionized arena financing and construction in everything The Palace represented.
But chances are he wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, a 2008 inductee, either without the three championship banners the Pistons won. You even have to give McCloskey an assist for the third Pistons title, 2004’s. He drafted Dumars, after all, who brought all of the Goin’ to Work mainstays to the Pistons. But those first two, the titles that forever changed the way the NBA looked at the Pistons, they were all Trader Jack. A Hall of Fame without him has credibility issues.