Throwback Thursday: Terry Tyler

Tyler’s explosiveness, tenacity made him a Pistons all-time great

(Editor’s note: starts a new off-season feature, Throwback Thursday, that catches up with former Pistons to see what they’re doing today and to reminisce about yesterday. First up is Terry Tyler, who spent the first seven seasons of his NBA career playing for his hometown team.)

Of all former Pistons who wound up sinking roots a few thousand miles away from Detroit, Terry Tyler ranks among the least likely. Tyler, after all, was born in Detroit, became an All-Stater and hotly pursued recruit at Detroit Northwestern High and blossomed into a college star in leading the University of Detroit’s revival under Dick Vitale, all before spending the first seven years of his NBA career with the Pistons.

Tyler left the Pistons as a free agent following the 1984-85 season – that still tugs at his heart just a little, missing out on the glory days of the Bad Boys – when a greater shot at playing time presented itself in Sacramento. He finished up his NBA career with the Dallas Mavericks – where he would meet his wife of 19 years, Sara – and then spent three years playing in Italy before Father Time finally sapped the coiled springs Tyler called legs that made him one of the most dynamic and reliable rebounders and shot-blockers the franchise had ever seen.

“I realized the NBA was a business,” Tyler says today. “I knew that I wanted to get the best offer that I could. Sacramento took a chance on me. Part of me was torn by that. Isiah (Thomas) was on the team, we had just had a pretty good year – I knew that was a team, they were gradually coming together and would do some good things – but at the same time, those opportunities only come once. It was a tough choice, but I felt I made the right choice.”

Tyler, who was named to the Pistons’ all-time team to commemorate the franchise’s 50th season in Detroit, eventually got into coaching. First he was as an assistant at Notre Dame for three seasons under his old Dallas Mavericks coach, John McLeod, and then for two years as head coach at Division II Eastern New Mexico. When that didn’t work out, he and Sara debated moving back to his Detroit or her Dallas – and ultimately settled on taking a shot in Albuquerque, where for the last eight years he’s worked in juvenile corrections and feels as if he’s found his calling.

“After playing and coaching, then all of a sudden I feel I was put into a situation to have the opportunity to help save lives,” he said. “I’d say it’s something I’ve chosen to do and something I enjoy doing.”

Tyler led Northwestern to a 20-0 record and the Colts were expected by many to win Michigan’s Class A state title in his senior year, but they were upset in the first game of the districts by Highland Park. That team was led by a junior who would later become Tyler’s teammate at both U of D and, for the 1978-79 season, with the Pistons under Tyler’s college coach Dick Vitale: Terry Duerod.

Tyler, of course, is most closely associated with John Long, who arrived at U of D from Romulus High in the fall of 1974 as part of Vitale’s foundational recruiting class that brought the magic back to Calihan Hall along McNichols Road on the U of D campus. Tyler became “Thunder” to Long’s “Lightning.”

Long and Tyler carried the Titans to a four-year record of 87-24, including a two-year mark of 51-7 as juniors and seniors. In 1977 – Vitale’s last year as U of D head coach; he served as athletic director the following year, succumbing to stomach ulcers – the Titans went 26-3, won an NCAA tournament game before losing to one of Johnny Orr’s best Michigan teams and scored a huge regular-season win over eventual national champion Marquette.

“We consider Calihan Hall hallowed ground,” Tyler said. “We felt we could not only go there to play and get an education, we could hang with anyone in the country. I think (Vitale) taught us to be competitive and John and I, we have to hang a lot of that on how our discipline was in college.”

As seniors, Tyler averaged 16.4 points and 12.6 rebounds and Long scored 21.4 a game for U of D. Duerod, a junior, added 17.2 points a game. Long and Duerod were two of the all-time great shooters the state has ever produced. Ask Tyler which one was better and he laughs. “I wouldn’t want to live off of that difference,” he said. “I was just glad they were both on my team.”

Vitale was named Pistons coach in the spring of 1978. The Pistons didn’t have a No. 1 pick that year, but Vitale spent his two second-round picks on Tyler and Long. As a rookie, Tyler started 36 games and averaged 12.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots.

Tyler, with his chiseled physique and explosive leaping ability, had played as near the rim as possible as a high school and college player. At 6-foot-7, he needed to expand his game in the pros. A reliable mid-range jumper allowed him to spend more and more time at small forward as his NBA career evolved and Tyler, due to his tenacity and athleticism, often would guard elite small forwards like Larry Bird and Julius Erving.

One of his shining NBA moments was a key jumper drained over Erving to help the Pistons win a game. Erving would come to hold a special place in Tyler’s life, too, after the eager Pistons rookie introduced himself to Erving following one of their first meetings and from then on badgered him at every opportunity for advice.

“He was the best man at my wedding,” Tyler said. “We both played the same position and I wanted to learn as much as I could about the game, so I said what better person to tap into? We started talking after games and things went from there. I’d ask him what I needed to do better, what I needed to work on and he shared his experience. I was very serious about that, very committed.”

Tyler bounced back and forth from the starting lineup to super sub for the Pistons, but still put up enough big numbers to have staying power on their all-time lists. He remains No. 2 in blocked shots (1,070), 10th in rebounding and 10th in steals.

And it’s a point of pride for Tyler that he suited up for all 82 games in each of his seven seasons with the Pistons.

“To this day, I always consider myself a role model,” he said. “I watch a lot of basketball, college and pros, and one of the things when I watch these young men, especially in college – their dream is to someday get a fat NBA contract, but you want to be able to go out there and show people you’re committed and you care. The game is one thing, caring about it is something else.

“I watched my father go off to work every morning to provide a roof for us over my brother’s and my head and I wanted to be that example. I wanted to show people that it does mean something to go out there and play every night and that’s what I want to be remembered for more than anything else.”

He played in some lean years for the Pistons but left them in far better shape than he found them. And Pistons fans always left the Silverdome knowing that Terry Tyler had given them everything he had.