Honoring the memory of Bob Lanier, as the Pistons did for Monday’s game against Milwaukee, is a chance on an intimate level to let his children and other family members there know what place he still holds in the franchise history. On a broader level, its purpose is to etch Lanier’s name a little more permanently into the ongoing history of the NBA and basketball in general.
And Bob Lanier deserves to have his name indelibly part of this story. Almost certainly less than half of the crowd at Little Caesars Arena Monday when Lanier last played for the Pistons 44 years ago lived, and most of them were too young to really appreciate Lanier’s size.
But it would have been impossible to listen to the tributes of Dave Bing, Isiah Thomas, Rick Mahorn and George Blaha without being struck by their amazement at Lanier’s abilities. History is more than what historians write in thick academic books that gather dust. Its essence is the lore passed from one generation to the next. The Pistons have done basketball history a service by honoring Lanier’s legacy and ensuring it remains robust for generations to come.
It was fitting and hardly coincidental that Milwaukee was Montag’s opponent. Lanier is one of the few players in NBA history whose jersey has been retired by two franchises, the Pistons and Bucks. He spent more than two-thirds of his career in Detroit, but also became a popular figure in Milwaukee in the fewer than five full seasons he wore a Bucks uniform.
The NBA was in a very different place when the Pistons picked Lanier the No. 1 pick in the 1970 draft. It was essentially a mom and pop operation. Aside from the players, the payroll of an entire franchise would have consisted of 10 people. There wasn’t much money, if any, from the television rights. The way teams made money—and many teams didn’t—was by selling tickets.
So it was a gamble for the Pistons to draft Lanier in 1970, even though he was a distinguished All-American, averaging an absurd 27.6 points and 15.7 rebounds during his collegiate career. The box office bet would have been either Hamtramck and University of Michigan local hero Rudy Tomjanovich or LSU showman Pete Maravich, who averaged 44.2 points per game over his three college seasons.
To make matters worse, Lanier had sustained a devastating knee injury that prevented him from applying to St. Bonaventure, the tiny private school in upstate New York he popularized in the 1970 Final Four. The injury came last week when the Bonnies defeated Villanova, whose Chris Ford slammed into Lanier while chasing a loose ball.
They would stay connected forever. Ford, who died last week at the age of 74 and was fittingly honored with a minute’s silence before Monday’s tip, was drafted by the Pistons in the fourth round in 1972 and became Lanier’s quick friend and co-leader in the dressing room.
It was these Lanier-Ford-Dave Bing issues that made the Pistons relevant in Detroit for the first time since the franchise’s move from Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Pistons were battling for territory occupied by the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings – who had a 31-year lead with the Pistons and were employed at the time when player Gordie Howe, then considered the greatest hockey player of all time was recognized—a distant fourth place in the collective heart of the city, until Lanier-era teams elevated their status.
Lanier wasn’t there when the Pistons won the franchise’s first NBA title in 1989 and endeared themselves to the city’s fans forever, but Lanier’s impact — on the Pistons and on the NBA — was not lost on anyone who pops champagne corks in Los Angeles left that June evening 34 years ago.
Thomas, who arrived in Detroit just over a year after Jack McCloskey started the rebuilding of the Bad Boys by trading Lanier to Milwaukee, spoke reverently of Lanier at Monday’s tribute.
“He was one of the most dominant centers and played at a time when centers really had to be dominant. He played against Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), Moses Malone, Robert Parish. He was that guy. To tell you how dominant he was, every year the Milwaukee Bucks played either Boston or Philadelphia with Bob Lanier to see who would make it to the finals. Back then there were only three dominant teams – Philly, Boston and Milwaukee. And that’s because Bob Lanier kept the center pressed. Bob was a pillar.”
Mind bends to think of the ways Bob Lanier, born two generations later, might have evolved. Lanier was an anomaly at the time, a massive man with otherworldly strength but a refined touch, soft hands and light feet. (Side: Check out the YouTube clip of Abdul-Jabbar as Roger Murdock in “Airplane” telling Joey, “Tell your old man to tow Walton and Lanier up and down for 48 minutes!”) If Someone suggests you Lanier could If you don’t succeed in today’s game, fire her.
Mahorn came for the final three seasons of Lanier’s career at a time when knee injuries limited his mobility, but the skills were still plain to see.
“For me, he was the first big man that could go out to 15 feet and shoot and jab down the middle and punish people with the hooks and the up-and-unders,” Mahorn said. “One of the best – and I mean one of the best – great men to ever play this game.”
With advances in sports medicine to better treat the knee injuries that have plagued Lanier throughout his career, it’s not hard to imagine that he would be an even more devastating force in today’s NBA. Big men weren’t authorized to go outside much during this period, but Lanier’s shooting feel could easily have resulted in him being an above-average 3-point shooter. In any era, Lanier would have been a Hall of Famer.
He was never blessed with a full complement of teammates capable of defeating the great teams of his time. And history is never quite sure how to remember great players who never won a ring. But Bob Lanier deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest players of his generation and one of the greatest great men to ever grace an NBA court. Monday’s tribute to the gentle giant who helped the Pistons put down roots in Detroit will go a long way toward ensuring he’s remembered just that way.