Jack McCloskey loved tall guys.
Made sense, since Trader Jack was a basketball guy, through and through, and basketball does tend to be played by dudes who have to duck through doorways.
There aren’t too many shrimps in the Hall of Fame.
Ralph Sampson was one of those big men who had McCloskey, the Pistons’ GM, drooling.
Sampson, dominating the college game down at Virginia, was, for a time, undecided about whether he’d turn pro in time for the 1981-82 NBA season. If he’d eschew college for the pros, then McCloskey would have been beside himself.
The Pistons won 21 games in 1980-81. But the expansion Dallas Mavericks won but 15, so they’d have the No. 1 overall pick in the ’81 draft. This was when the worst team got the first pick, no strings attached—before envelopes tumbling around in a bingo cage or ping pong balls being sucked through a tube decided the fate of NBA franchises.
McCloskey wanted Sampson. Wanted him badly. If Ralph had come out of college, Trader Jack would have done all he could to either trade with the Mavs for the No. 1 pick, or dissuade them from drafting Sampson.
But the Mavericks had their eyes on Mark Aguirre, anyway—a talented forward of ill repute, who was driving his coach Ray Meyer crazy at DePaul.
Sampson stayed put, and McCloskey went with Plan B.
“We need creativity really bad, and that’s what Isiah Thomas provides,” I recall Jack telling the media folks in the weeks leading up to the draft.
Isiah wasn’t the big man that McCloskey coveted for his sad sack team, but he was the best little man available. By far.
Isiah was just two years out of high school when he made himself NBA-ready. After two seasons and an NCAA championship with Bobby Knight at Indiana, Isiah had had enough—of Knight and the college game. But especially Knight.
They said you can’t build an NBA championship team from scratch—and that’s what McCloskey had in Detroit, scratch—around a little guy. Isiah was 6’1″ and so he wasn’t even very tall by everyday life standards, much less the beanpole world of the NBA.
It was a big man’s game, and Jack McCloskey knew it. But Isiah Thomas was supremely gifted—a dazzling passer and tough-as-nails attacker of the key. Today they call it “the paint.”
So Jack took Isiah, right after the Mavs took Aguirre, Thomas’ boyhood buddy from Chicago.
Isiah became The Franchise in Detroit, while Aguirre so irritated his NBA coach, Dick Motta, that Motta would eventually call Aguirre a “coward” and a “jackass” over the years.
Isiah would, in time, combine with Vinnie Johnson and Joe Dumars to form perhaps the greatest guard trio to ever play for the same NBA team at the same time.
There’s a fantasy being lived out in Pistons Land nowadays.
That fantasy says that today’s Pistons can recreate that guard trio magic through the talents of Rodney Stuckey, Richard “Rip” Hamilton, and newly-signed Ben Gordon.
Where do I begin?
I could start with the obvious—that Stuckey is no Isiah Thomas. But that’s too easy, and maybe a bit unfair, for Stuckey is still only about to embark on his third NBA season, and he hasn’t yet gone into training camp as a starter.
Last season, Hamilton was blinded with grief.
They traded his pal Chauncey Billups, and Rip was too busy pouting and mourning that he didn’t see the opportunity before him.
Even with Allen Iverson in tow, the Pistons could have been Hamilton’s team. Rip was the most consistent scorer, the hardest worker, and he had himself a nice little love affair with the fans.
In Detroit, the sports fans appreciate the hard workers, the blue collar guys. Players who approach their game the way the fans approach their lives.
Hamilton, even though he lost his starting role briefly to Iverson due to the emergence of Stuckey at point guard, nonetheless could have been Mr. Piston with Mr. Big Shot traded away to Denver.
It wouldn’t have mattered if Rip was a bench player. If he had the right attitude, he could have been team captain material and the fans would have continued to embrace him—maybe even more so with the popular Billups gone.
Who else would have been the leader?
Tayshaun Prince? Too quiet.
Rasheed Wallace? Too noisy.
Antonio McDyess? Too nice.
Hamilton wanted no part of providing leadership. He was too busy bitching.
So to think that Hamilton is going to play nice in a three-guard setup with Stuckey and Gordon, who plays the same role as Rip, that of scoring machine shooting guard—is fantasy of the highest order.
Unless Hamilton has an epiphany with new coach John Kuester, after fighting rookie coach Michael Curry tooth and nail last season, you can forget about the Pistons reigning terror on the NBA with another three guard dealio.
Oh, it could work—if Rip gets his 35 minutes a night. But where does that leave Gordon, who the Pistons are paying $11 million a year?
It could be that Rip gets traded; that’s been the scuttlebutt, too. The Gordon signing would make even more sense if Hamilton is shipped away.
Rip Hamilton could have made the Pistons his team. But he wanted no part of it. He showed me a part of him that I didn’t know existed. I didn’t think Rip had the petulant gene in him.
But he did, and I think it’s folly to believe that he’ll embrace a three guard rotation.
Where’s Mr. Rourke when you need him?
“What is your FAHN-tasy??”