The Rattler Returns

Theo Ratliff, selected by the Pistons with the 18th pick in the 1995 draft, joins former opponent - and the fourth selection in the '95 draft - Rasheed Wallace in Detroit.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)

Pistons’ 1995 rookie makes second stop in Detroit
The Rattler Returns

by Ryan Pretzer

Theo Ratliff’s long NBA journey has brought him where it began: Detroit, where neither he nor the team are quite how they used to be.

It’s been 13 years since Ratliff was a wiry Pistons rookie for a rebuilding franchise. Back then he was a player of similar dimensions and talents as Amir Johnson; an unassuming, hard-working forward who relied on his 6-foot-10 frame and near-freakish athleticism to block shots and score at the rim. He did both with such frequency that Ratliff’s teammate, Grant Hill, nicknamed him “The Rattler.”

The savvy and strength to thrive in the NBA would come later for Ratliff, as it will for Johnson. When it did, however, Ratliff was already on another team, beginning a 10-year trek through five teams, injuries and, since 2001, losing seasons.

Ratliff returns to the title-contending Pistons more sculpted, more experienced, and hungrier than ever for an NBA championship.

Sleeper of the Draft

Coming off their third straight season below .500, the Pistons landed the No. 8 overall selection in the 1995 NBA Draft. Trying to fill multiple needs, Pistons GM Rick Sund traded the pick to Portland for the No. 18 and 19 selections.

While Portland took Michigan State star guard Shawn Respert with the eighth pick (and traded him to Milwaukee), the Pistons gambled on the “sleeper” of the draft with their first pick: Ratliff, a 6-foot-10 string bean from the University of Wyoming.

Playing in the Western Athletic Conference, Ratliff’s ability to make an impact at the pro level was suspect in all facets but one: the kid could block shots. Ratliff averaged 5.14 blocks his senior season, finishing his career with 425 blocks - second-most in NCAA history. (Ratliff is now 11th on the all-time list.) He also averaged 10.5 points and 5.9 rebounds as a senior.

Though Ratliff’s offensive skills were raw, Pistons head coach Doug Collins hoped forward Otis Thorpe, a former 20.0-point scorer, could help Ratliff develop into an effective two-way player. The Pistons acquired the 11-year veteran by trading the No. 19 pick, guard Randolph Childress, to Portland.

With Thorpe starting all 82 games in 1995-96 and Ratliff leading the team with 116 blocks, the Pistons improved by 18 games, going 46-36 for their first winning season since 1991-92. Despite the team’s turnaround, there were indications throughout Ratliff’s rookie season that his association with the demanding, intense Collins would be an uneasy one.

Dumars: “He’s a young Rodman”

Eager to prove himself worthy of a first-round pick, Ratliff had a strong first NBA training camp, averaging 8.9 points and 5.9 rebounds in the preseason. But his regular-season debut so displeased Collins that the Pistons coach benched him after five minutes and did not play him at all in the next game.

“He had a little (preseason) success and then disappeared,” Collins was quoted in the Oakland Press. “[…] In this business you’ve got to strap it on every night. And if Theo’s not doing it, I’m not going to play him as some experiment.”

Ratliff responded on Nov. 15, 1995. In the fifth game as a pro, Ratliff had 21 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks as the Pistons upset Seattle, the NBA’s highest-scoring team, 94-87. Ratliff shot 7-for-11 from the floor and 7-for-7 at the foul line. Even Collins could not deny the impact Ratliff had on the game and the Pistons fans. “In the games we’ve played here [at The Palace], Theo is the only guy who has excited the crowd,” he said.

Akin to John Salley during the Bad Boys era, Ratliff became a cog in the rotation his rookie year, a defender who didn’t have to play a lot of minutes to get in shooters’ minds. His 0.89 blocks per 48 minutes was fourth among NBA centers behind Shawn Bradley, Dikembe Mutombo and David Robinson. Ratliff’s 116 blocked shots were the most by a Piston since Salley’s 153 during the ’89-90 championship season.

Team captain Joe Dumars compared him to another Bad Boy. “Energy-wise, he’s a young Rodman - like Dennis in his first year,” Dumars was quoted in the Oakland Press. “But I don’t think we’ll ever see Theo with purple hair.”

Ratliff never dyed his hair but continued to draw the ire of Collins entering their second training camp together. “I don’t like it when he gets made at me, but it’s not like I try to make it happen,” Ratliff said. “Sometimes I just do things he doesn’t like.”

In his second season, Ratliff bumped his scoring from 4.5 to 5.8 points per game and blocked 111 shots while starting 38 of 76 games. “Let’s be patient. Let’s not jump the gun. But it looks as if Theo Ratliff is budding into a pretty good NBA player,” wrote Terry Foster for the Detroit News. He ended his Jan. 3, 1997, column with this: “Stay tuned. The best is yet to come.”

Two weeks later, Collins pulled Ratliff out of the rotation again, and his minutes continued to fluctuate into his third season. “I don’t know what I can say,” Ratliff was quoted on Jan. 19, 1997. “I just show up ready to play, ready to provide whatever it is he wants form me. That’s all I can do.”

A year later, Ratliff would be a Philadelphia 76er.

Injuries hinder bright future

Ratliff’s first tenure with the Pistons started to end in the summer of 1997 when the team made a free-agent splash by signing center Brian Williams, who had just won an NBA title with the Chicago Bulls.

Williams provided the scoring punch Ratliff could not, averaging 16.2 points, and second-year forward Jerome Williams started to emerge with comparable production (5.3 points, 4.9 rebounds) to Ratliff’s (6.5 points, 5.0 rebounds).

In search of another perimeter scorer to compliment Hill, the Pistons dealt Ratliff to the 76ers as part of a midseason blockbuster for guard Jerry Stackhouse. He left the Pistons ranked ninth on the franchise’s all-time list with 282 blocks.

Ratliff flourished in Philadelphia, averaging 11.2 points and 3.5 blocks the last 58 games of the 1997-98 season. His 3.15 blocks per game was fourth in the NBA.

Ratliff continued to average more than 11 points the next three seasons as a 76er, culminating in a career year in 2000-01. He averaged a career-high 12.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.7 blocks and was voted the East’s starting All-Star center. A wrist injury prevented Ratliff from participating in the All-Star Game. At the trade deadline, he was dealt to Atlanta in a deal for Mutombo. The 76ers reached the NBA Finals, and Ratliff hasn’t played for a winning team since.

That is, when he’s played at all. Since playing 81 games for the Hawks five years ago, Ratliff has not played close to a full season.

Ratliff’s days as “The Rattler” are behind him, but the Pistons are willing to take a chance that he’s still the same player at heart that he was 13 years ago. At least his old teammate is.

“The kid plays hard,” said Dumars at Ratliff’s first training camp in 1995. “He comes in every day, keeps mouth shut and does his job. Any time you find a kid like that, you’re happy to take him under your wing.”