Greg Eno

Pistons’ flurry of number retirements can be excused

In Basketball on February 11, 2016 at 4:15 pm

For 24 seasons in Detroit, they were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

The Pistons were dropped on the Motor City’s doorstep in 1957, via Fort Wayne, Indiana.

They were Fred Zollner’s Pistons in those days, and in their earlier days in Fort Wayne, the uniforms said so, right on the front: ZOLLNER PISTONS.

Zollner—they called him The Z—brought his kicking, screaming baby to Detroit and ever since, the Pistons have been the fourth most popular team in town.

But worse than being unpopular, the Pistons were inept, incompetent and in a constant state of disarray, from 1957 to 1981.

They played playoff games in high school gyms because the Olympia, where they were second tier tenants, was booked. They finally opened Cobo Arena in the early-1960s but it was a struggle to attract more than a few thousand curious souls every night.

They once hired their radio announcer to be the GM. They made a 24 year-old player the coach. They changed coaches like underwear. They misfired in the draft. They got rooked in trades consistently. If there was a fork in the road, the Pistons took the wrong path, every time.

They finally got a decent coach in 1969 when they hired Bill Van Breda Kolff away from the Lakers, but VBK was mystified by the way management did things and the way the players responded to him, so he quit 10 games into his third season.

The Pistons actually had a Coach of the Year in 1974—Ray Scott—but two years later Ray was removed, the victim of a coup d’etat initiated by his own assistant, Herb Brown.

The Pistons hired Dickie Vitale in 1978 and gave him the keys to the kingdom. Dickie lasted 18 months, yet in that time frame, he managed to ruin the Pistons and build the Boston Celtics.

But all that changed—finally—in 1981.

The roots of the change came in 1979, when the Pistons—taking Vitale’s advice—hired an honest to goodness basketball man, Jack McCloskey, to run the team.

Two years later, McCloskey drafted Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka in the first round.

Two years after that, McCloskey brought in a little-known, one-time NBA loser named Chuck Daly to coach.

The Pistons were finally on their way. No longer were they laughing stocks—they became two-time champions in  1989-90.

Yet they were still the fourth most popular team in town. But that’s fine. Detroit was never, and never will be, an NBA town.

So you can forgive the Pistons if they are now retiring numbers like they’re the Yankees.

For a quarter century, the Pistons had nothing to celebrate. Nothing.

After those first 25 years, until Isiah led his team to deep playoff runs in the late-1980s, the only thing the Pistons could look back on fondly was a first round, 2-1 series victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in 1976, sealed by Chris Ford’s steal late in Game 3.

That was it.

But now the Palace rafters are getting crowded. Again, the Pistons can be forgiven.

Five numbers from the 1989-90 Bad Boys days are up there (Thomas’ no. 11, Joe Dumars’ no. 4, Vinnie Johnson’s no. 15, Bill Laimbeer’s no. 40 and Dennis Rodman’s no. 10).

They joined David Bing’s no. 21 and Bob Lanier’s no. 16. Daly is in the rafters, too, as is McCloskey.

All deserved.

Now the Pistons have moved on to honoring players from the 2004 championship team that came a whisker away from capturing the 2005 title as well.

Ben Wallace’s no. 3 went up a few weeks ago, and last night Chauncey Billups’ no. 1 was retired.

Fine. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, when it comes to 1989-90 vs. 2004.

It’s also being reported that Richard Hamilton’s no. 32 is slated for retirement, perhaps next season.

I suppose if you can retire Vinnie’s number, which I always found to be suspect, then I guess Hamilton’s can go up, as well.

It’s getting crowded in those Palace rafters, but let the Pistons indulge themselves.

Their first 25 years in Detroit were bereft of any salient, tangible team accomplishment.

The past 30 have been filled with wonderful memories, some painful, i.e. Game 6 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals and Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals.

But three championships have been won and there have been a few other close calls. Billups, Wallace, Hamilton et al made six straight trips to the Conference Finals. Isiah’s group made five straight trips.

So this all should be celebrated. No question.

Billups retirement

Billups watches his number being raised to the rafters at the Palace on February 10, 2016. (photo courtesy the Detroit News/Clarence Tabb, Jr.)

I don’t subscribe to the theory that only players who are in their sport’s respective Hall of Fame deserve to have their number retired by any team they played for.  That’s a lousy sentence but you understand what I mean.

My feeling is that if a franchise chooses to recognize a player’s contribution to that particular organization by way of retiring a number, then so be it. I may not agree with it—there have been many questionable number retirements by various teams in all sports—but if they want to do it, fine.

My only concern with Hamilton’s honor is, what do you do about Tayshaun Prince?

Where does it end?

The Pistons retired Vinnie Johnson’s number, and I was never on board with that. Vinnie was rarely even a starting player. Granted, he was canned heat off the bench, but bench players shouldn’t have their numbers retired.

My opinion.

I don’t have a real issue with Hamilton, although he acted petulantly near the end of his Pistons career. But he also can be excused partially because the Pistons were a mess in those days. Rodman wasn’t a choir boy, either.

But what about Prince?

Prince exemplified the Pistons’ defense in his day, though I always felt it was a little overblown locally. Rodman was known for his defense and rebounding, as was Wallace.

So what about Prince?

Is it weird to recognize Billups, Wallace and Hamilton but leave out Prince, who played for the Pistons longer than all of them?

Just asking.

This is the slippery slope you can ride when you start retiring numbers left and right.

But once again, let the Pistons indulge. They’re still playing catch up.

Lots of words, but great sports quotes a lost art

In All Sports on February 2, 2016 at 5:43 pm

Inside a quiet baseball locker room, aka the clubhouse, in old, decrepit Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, Tigers players changed, showered and tried to wash away the sting of another tough defeat.

One of them was still talking to the media. He tried to put a positive spin on what was becoming a nightmare weekend north of the border.

The Toronto Blue Jays had rallied from a 9-4 deficit on a Saturday afternoon, passing the Tigers at the finish line, 10-9, in a nationally-televised affair.

The Jays scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to cap their furious comeback.

It was September 26, 1987.

With the loss, the Tigers were on the wrong end of three straight contests in Toronto—all one-run defeats—and the American League East flag was slipping from their grasp.

The Tigers arrived in Toronto a half-game behind the Blue Jays on Thursday, but by late afternoon on Saturday, in front of the NBC Sports cameras, the Jays’ lead had ballooned to 3.5 games.

The Tigers had just eight games remaining, the Blue Jays had seven. The magic number for Toronto to clinch the division had shrunk to a measly five.

Kirk Gibson stood among the reporters and in a soft voice, Gibby tried gamely to send a positive message—to the fans back in Detroit and to baseball observers everywhere.

“Maybe we’re setting the biggest bear trap in history,” Gibson said as tape recorders whirred and pens wrote feverishly.

The next day, Gibson, one of the greatest clutch hitters in baseball history—certainly in Tigers history—came through yet again.

Gibby slammed a solo home run off Jays closer Tom Henke in the ninth inning, tying the game, 1-1. In the 13th inning, Gibson did it again, singling home Jim Walewander with the eventual game-winning run as the Tigers survived, 3-2.

The Tigers were still kicking. The bear trap was closing slightly.

The Tigers, of course, came all the way back and swiped the division from the Blue Jays, who dropped their last seven games—including the season’s final trio of contests in Detroit.

And Kirk Gibson’s words, “Maybe we’re setting the biggest bear trap in history,” became part of Detroit sports legend.

So, heard any good quotes lately?

There’s great irony in that question.

There have never been more words written, spoken, reported and recited than today. The digital age and social media see to that.

Yet we’re suffering through quantity rather than quality.

Despite all these words, nobody is saying anything memorable—and for these purposes, I’m talking about sports in particular.

A beleaguered football coach stares at the pigeons’ shadows as they gather on top of the Pontiac Silverdome. This is 1988.

An intrepid reporter sidles up to the coach and asks him what he’s looking at—since practice is going on at the same time.

The coach says he is counting pigeons.

Then the coach of the sad sack Lions looks at the reporter and wonders out loud, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”

Darryl Rogers’ words, spoken to Jerry Green that fall day in 1988, are woven into Lions lore.

Rogers was indeed fired, weeks later.

Where are all the memorable sports quotes?

There’s a lot of trash talk. A lot of posturing. A lot of tweets and Instagram posts.

But there’s no “there” there.

Quantity over quality.

The bellicose linebacker is in his glory on Super Bowl media day. He’s taking the opportunity to take jabs at the opposing quarterback.

The linebacker is so flashy and verbose, his nickname—self-anointed—is “Hollywood.”

“Terry Bradshaw is so dumb, he couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted him the ‘c’ and the ‘a’,” the linebacker, Thomas Henderson, says to the media. This is 1979.

In Super Bowl XIII, Bradshaw then systematically destroyed Henderson’s Dallas Cowboys, throwing for 318 yards and four TDs. The Pittsburgh Steelers won, 35-31, and Bradshaw is named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

It was reported that after the game, Bradshaw sought out Henderson and said, “Hey Hollywood! Spell this: M-V-P!”

Good stuff. But so few and far between these days.

Here’s what a sports quote looks like today: “Blah blah blah. And blah, blah, blah. Blah!”

Or that’s what it seems like, anyway.

I submit that we have lost the art of the memorable sports quote because too many people are talking about too much stuff at the same time.

The Internet strikes again.

Now, I do see clever tweets from time to time. Some users of that medium are pretty good at using those 140 characters to their maximum.

But Twitter is fleeting. The content there has the shelf life of hot eggs.

I’m talking about gems that will be repeated 10, 15, 20 years from now—and longer.

The brash, abrasive baseball manager has had his fill of his owner and his superstar slugger.

The manager works in New York and for the Yankees—which was his dream job but it comes with baggage.

Annoyed with George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin boils over.

“One’s a born liar and the other is convicted,” Martin seethes in the summer of 1978. Billy is referring to Jackson in the former and Steinbrenner in the latter.

Billy is fired for his rant, which is also part of his legend—and that of the Yankees.

The great quotes of yesteryear, I believe, would today suffer the same ignominy of their less-salient counterparts. That is, they’d be quickly forgotten.

Quantity over quality.

The oddball running back, a pro football nomad, has landed in Detroit, one of his many stops in the NFL circuit.

The running back has a reputation for driving coaches to drink, and worse.

The coach of the Lions wants to send in a play to his quarterback in a real, actual NFL game. So he enlists the help of his new, oddball running back.

The running back has the apt last name of Looney—Joe Don Looney.

Looney looks at the coach, Harry Gilmer, aghast at the orders to jog to the huddle with a new play.

“If you want a messenger, send for Western Union!” Looney says to the incredulous Gilmer.

Those were the days.

Lions not to blame in Johnson’s retirement decision

In football on February 1, 2016 at 9:57 pm

For the Lions fan, it’s their football version of the Kennedy assassination.

The Lions fan knows where he or she was, and what they were doing, when the news hit that Barry Sanders, the great, jitterbug running back, had abruptly retired from the NFL.

It was on the eve of training camp, 1999—as if you need me to tell you that.

Barry was 31 years old and had played 10 seasons. He was still highly productive and was on the verge of breaking Walter Payton’s all-time career rushing record. It was just a matter of time.

But personal records, as we know, didn’t matter to Barry. He eschewed a chance to lead the NFL in rushing in his rookie year of 1989, when coach Wayne Fontes tried to put Sanders back into a game the Lions already had well in hand. It was the last game of the season, and Barry was just a few yards behind Kansas City’s Christian Okoye.

But the team was winning and that’s all that mattered to Barry, so he declined Fontes’ offer.

Barry was about 1,500 yards behind Payton after the 1998 season. Another good season would put Barry on top of the heap for all-time rushers.

But that was a personal milestone and since those things didn’t fuel Sanders’ fire, it played little to no part in his decision to quit the NFL in the summer of 1999.

Sanders had simply lost his inner drive to play football, so he got out. Just like that.

The timing, of course, was odd and Barry has rightly been criticized for waiting so long to make his decision—after the Lions had a reasonable chance to find a starting running back.

I have been among those critics, and I always will be. I respect Barry as the greatest runner in NFL history but his handling of his retirement was done poorly.

The Lions were indicted in the court of public opinion for hastening Barry Sanders’ decision to retire, because of the team’s slapstick performance while no. 20 did his thing from 1989-98.

But the Lions did make the playoffs five times during Sanders’ career. Granted, the team went 1-5 in the post-season while Barry was in Detroit, but it wasn’t like the team was in a Matt Millenesque spiral, like it was for the first decade of the 2000s.

Still, the Lions will always be blamed, at least partially, for greasing the skids into retirement of the greatest player in franchise history.

Fine.

But the Lions are getting a bad rap today. For once they don’t deserve the cross eyes.

Calvin Johnson, the greatest pass receiver in Lions history, is on the cusp of retirement, according to reports.

And again some folks are giving the Lions dirty looks.

It’s not deserved, and worse, it’s not fair.

When Barry Sanders hung up his cleats, there was nothing physically wrong with him. How could there be, when he never got hit?

Sanders was never beat up on the football field. Even when he was tackled, it wasn’t with any violence. He was soup and the defenders were forks.

You never would read stories of how much of a physical mess Sanders was after every season. Because he wasn’t.

This isn’t a criticism; it’s praise.

But Calvin Johnson is another story.

His body has been ravaged after nine NFL seasons. Despite his physical stature and dominance, Johnson never got through a season unscathed.

Calvin JohnsonAnkles, wrists, hands, knees, shoulders—you name it, Johnson has hurt it.

So his apparent decision—all but official if sourced reports are to be believed—has little to do with the Lions organization and a lot to do with his physical well-being.

Unlike Barry Sanders in 1999.

Johnson recently got married. He’d like to start a family. And he’d like to have his wits about him.

He’s only 30 years old, for goodness sake.

And while some look at his age as a reason to keep playing—he’s “only” 30—it’s really a reason to stop.

Johnson has no more to prove in the NFL, from an individual standpoint. He’s broken some records. He’s established himself. He’s made a ton of money.

Yes, he’s leaving a lot of money on the table if he retires, but what is money if your body won’t work?

Some in his inner circle have said that Johnson is “tired.” Makes sense.

But so are a lot of NFL players after another grueling season, which starts in earnest with July training camp and runs for six months straight.

So being tired is not reason enough, of course, for a player to consider retirement. It goes much deeper than that.

The only thing that Johnson hasn’t suffered through—that he knows of—is a concussion.

That makes him increasingly rare in today’s game.

Everything that has happened to Calvin so far, related to football, has been non-brain  related.

So far.

He’d like to keep it that way, I’d imagine.

Johnson can afford to retire at age 30 because he doesn’t need the dough like so many of his brethren do. The money he’s made—and it’s a lot—still might not last him for his entire life, but if he wants to earn some after his playing days, it’s always easier to do that when you have a sound mind.

I don’t think Calvin Johnson is retiring from the NFL because the Lions have had such little success in his nine years in Detroit. Granted, the team has mostly stunk, but that’s not why he’s thinking of getting out.

Another Lions superstar appears to be on the verge of retiring from the NFL at a relatively young age, but this time the team isn’t to blame.

It’s the game itself.

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