Mountain Man

In making the case for an underrated player, the tendency is to overstate his importance. Rick Mahorn wasn’t the MVP of the Bad Boys. Isiah Thomas was, though not by a landslide, and on the days he wasn’t the star, Joe Dumars would be, or sometimes Bill Laimbeer, or Adrian Dantley.

Five Pistons from that era have their numbers hanging in The Palace rafters – Isiah, Joe D, Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson and Dennis Rodman. By the time the Pistons got to their second consecutive NBA Finals in 1989, the contributions of all five were necessary for them to win the franchise’s first NBA title. Three of them are Hall of Famers and Laimbeer has a solid case to make it four.

The Pistons possibly would have won the 1989 title without Mahorn. They just never would have gotten that far without him. Maybe Mahorn didn’t put them over the top. Maybe that was the athleticism John Salley and Rodman (mostly) provided. But Mahorn pushed them up the side of the mountain.

It’s tough to quantify exactly what Mahorn meant to the championships. His statistics – 10.7 points, 6.1 rebounds during his best statistical year with the Pistons, 1987-88; 7.3 points, 4.9 rebounds when they won it all in ’89, when back issues flared – tell only a small fraction of his importance.

There would have been no Bad Boys without Mahorn, that much is indisputable. He was the baddest of them all. It took him a while to find his niche in Detroit and convince Jack McCloskey and Chuck Daly that he – not Dan Roundfield, Earl Cureton, Kent Benson, Sidney Green or Kurt Nimphius – was the answer at power forward.

But once Mahorn began to embrace physical conditioning and moved into the starting lineup – with just four games left in the 1986-87 regular season – the Pistons began to fully blossom as a team with the toughness to match their talent.

And the smarts, too.

We’ll get to Mahorn’s toughness. Let’s talk about his smarts for a minute.

Because that part of Mahorn was seriously overlooked. He perfected the pull-the-chair move, where one minute he would have that meaty forearm planted squarely in the back of Kevin McHale and the next – after Mahorn pulled away just as McHale or (insert other name here, didn’t matter) was about to dip a shoulder and gather himself to explode past Mahorn – he would step back and allow McHale’s weight and momentum to cause him to stagger backwards into a heap under the basket.

Pulling the chair was the most visible evidence of Mahorn’s subtle genius, but it was just the tip of the iceberg with him. (And in that lies the incongruity of Mahorn. Subtle and Mahorn don’t seem to go together, but they do, just as it always struck outsiders as impossible that Mahorn was known to have the biggest heart among the Bad Boys. One of the treasures of Mahorn, if you can still find it, is the clip of him as a young player, with Washington, appearing on the old children’s show, “Romper Room.” Priceless.)

Mahorn understood the game and had a great vision for it. I suspect he’s one of those who could tell you where everyone on either team was at any particular moment on any possession. He was the player who not only knew what his assignment was, but pointed wayward teammates in the right direction. When somebody made a defensive gaffe, Mahorn – instead of sticking to the script – would cover for the mistake and still man his position.

McCloskey’s tinkering had given the Pistons pretty much every ingredient they needed to overtake Boston in the East. In Thomas and Dumars, he had the best two-way backcourt in the East by a mile. In Rodman and Salley, he’d given them a huge injection of youth, length, athleticism and defense. In Laimbeer, he’d added both a rugged rebounder and a fearless tippy-toe jump shooter (Laimbeer, too, was an incongruous package) with unusual range for that era. In Dantley, McCloskey gave the Pistons a post scorer and a guy who forced fouls like crazy. In Johnson, he had the game’s best bench scorer.

What the Pistons lacked was the six inches between the ears that Boston and the Lakers had over everybody – basketball smarts and mental toughness. Mahorn completed the Pistons.

And the mental toughness he gave them really stemmed from the physical toughness he provided. Such a physical player was Mahorn, and so willing was he to put his body on the line, that it empowered them all.

Laimbeer relished wearing the black hat, like no other human I’ve ever encountered, but he needed Mahorn’s menacing support before that role became a viable career option for him. Rodman was an all-time great agitator – he’d get up in a great scorer’s face, 22 feet from the basket, waving those arms and sliding his feet with every head feint, not giving an inch of space, then take a charge square in the chest, bounce up immediately and start that annoying clap-clap-clap to let his man know he’d won another round – and that would have drawn serious retribution from frustrated opponents … if there wasn’t the specter of Sheriff Mahorn lurking.

Thomas and Dumars both were fearless drivers – Joe D, long before he became a 3-point marksman, did his best and most frequent work along the baseline and at the basket – who must have been spared a thousand jagged elbows because of the threat Mahorn presented.

His locker-room presence was perhaps less critical but still a valuable addition. That locker room contained the highest concentration of alpha males professional sports in Detroit has ever known. (Truly, the job Chuck Daly did handling those outsized egos is the greatest testament to his case as the ideal coach of the NBA’s modern era, and made him the slam-dunk choice to coach the original Dream Team.)

Mahorn didn’t have to lead that locker room. In truth, nobody really had to lead that locker room; almost all of the key players were incredibly strong willed, even the quietest among them – Joe D and Dantley. Isiah probably led more than anyone, simply because of his status, his tenure and his nature. Laimbeer, Daly always contended, had a voice as important as anyone’s.

But Mahorn was important simply because he was loud, he was funny and he was non-stop. He was their comic relief in what was a highly pressurized moment in franchise history. The Pistons had two great dynasties to topple, the Celtics and the Lakers, and they had to know what was building in Chicago after Scottie Pippen joined Michael Jordan. The clock was ticking on them even before they won their first NBA title. Mahorn was their pressure-valve release.

(Mahorn made reporters laugh, too. The print reporters, especially, loved him. They were around all the time, practices as well as games, and the radio or TV reporters, radio especially, who would show up only on game nights, and some only on big-game nights, would always be sticking their microphones in to scrums, getting tape to send back to their stations while rarely taking the initiative to start an interview or even ask a question. Mahorn would walk by those scrums surrounding Isiah or Laimbeer or the star of the night, on his way to the shower, and let loose a string of obscenities that would render all of their tape unusable.)

Mahorn made the Pistons strong and he made them laugh. If you make a list of everything the Pistons needed before they finally crested that mountain Mahorn pushed them up, I don’t know where you put that. I only know it has to be on there somewhere.