RIP, Trader Jack – the man who made toughness a Pistons trademark

Jack McCloskey, architect of the Bad Boys, died Thursday at 91
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

It’s no accident that the resonant quality common to all three Pistons NBA championship teams was toughness. The architect of the Bad Boys, Jack McCloskey, was as tough as shoe leather. He fought in the Pacific as a Navy sailor during World War II and was playing competitive basketball in national competitions into his 60s.

He had an iron grip and a steely gaze and didn’t easily tolerate fools. There was little chance for a breakdown in communication with Jack McCloskey. These times would try Trader Jack’s patience. In an age where people seem to assume the right to choose the set of facts that suits their agenda, the world is a poorer place for the loss of a man who dealt only in unvarnished truths.

McCloskey, who brought order to the Pistons when they were an NBA laughingstock and built them into back-to-back champions at the height of Lakers and Celtics dynasties, died Thursday after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in recent years. McCloskey, 91, had years ago retired to Georgia with his wife, Leslie.

He was hired in December 1979 with the Pistons amid a 16-win season but having already dealt their No. 1 pick away. His first move was to offer his entire roster to the Lakers for Magic Johnson, a ploy he never expected to pay off but one that clearly signaled his intention to turn owner Bill Davidson’s franchise on its ear.

McCloskey made every move that a decade later would pay off in the franchise’s first NBA title. It started with the 1981 draft, when McCloskey used the No. 2 pick on the player he’d have taken first – Indiana sophomore Isiah Thomas.

Thomas purposely tanked his interview with Dallas, which held the No. 1 pick, but not so he’d land in Detroit. He was trying to get to his hometown Chicago, which held the sixth pick. But there was no bluffing the tough ol’ Navy vet.

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

True to his word – of course – McCloskey did just that. He dealt for Vinnie Johnson and then for Bill Laimbeer, hoodwinking Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien by selling him on the appeal Paul Mokeski would hold to Cleveland’s Polish fans – except Mokeski wasn’t Polish. He drafted Joe Dumars, shocking Davidson by passing on local hero Sam Vincent of Michigan State. McCloskey thought Dumars was a no-brainer top-five talent in that draft, landing him with the 18th pick.

McCloskey found Dennis Rodman at a tiny NAIA school and drafted him – after taking John Salley in the first round – of the 1986 draft to add a badly needed element of athleticism. Bedeviled by the lack of a counter to Boston’s Kevin McHale, McCloskey kept dealing until he struck upon the right fit for the Bad Boys at power forward alongside Laimbeer – all-time tough guy Rick Mahorn. He made a minor deal for James Edwards, who would become a key player on both Bad Boys title teams.

There’s a warehouse filled with the resumes of ex-NBA general managers who couldn’t bring themselves to make a risky move or two that, ultimately, would threaten their job security. That was never McCloskey.

He traded the most popular player he inherited, Bob Lanier. He drafted Kelly Tripucka in the same draft he landed Thomas, then spun him off – despite his popularity with fans – five years later for Adrian Dantley. With the Pistons coming off a Game 7 loss to the Lakers in the ’88 Finals and clearly the class of the NBA East the following season, McCloskey made his boldest move yet – dealing Dantley for Mark Aguirre, the player Dallas settled on when Thomas stiff armed the Mavs in ’81, at the February trade deadline.

You want to know how that trade was received by Pistons fans?

“I can remember my wife and I driving up the street,” McCloskey told me. “We stop at a red light and there were two guys in the other car. They both looked at me, then they pointed their finger toward me with their thumb up – like they were going to shoot me for making the trade. I told Leslie, ‘You made that trade, I didn’t.’ ”

Only the last part of that was made up and, of course, McCloskey wasn’t running from a decision that could have backfired spectacularly. But McCloskey saw Dantley brooding and couldn’t get him to come clean about the nature of his unrest. He’d spent a decade building a championship team, found the perfect coach to manage a locker room of outsized egos in Chuck Daly, and felt internal discord was on the verge of unraveling all of it.

“That trade had to be made,” McCloskey said.

And so he did it, unflinchingly, the way he lived a long, honorable and rich life. Rest in peace, Trader Jack.