Before Jack McCloskey was “Trader Jack,” the risk-taking, daredevil GM of the Detroit Pistons—architect of two World Championship teams and damn near a third—he was a rumpled old college basketball coach.
The Eastern seaboard was his jurisdiction. He coached for 10 years at Penn then for six years at Wake Forest, picking-and-rolling in the sweaty gyms of the campuses of Rutgers, St. John’s, Temple, North Carolina and CCNY. The basketballs in those days had just become lace-free.
The shoes were canvas sneakers and their tops were high; if you wore them with today’s basketball shorts, the tops and the shorts would just about touch.
Trader Jack was Coach Jack, and his teams were winners.
Before he was even Coach Jack, McCloskey was Lt. Jack—serving in WWII, commanding a landing ship for the Marines.
It made a road game in Philadelphia seem like a Hawaiian vacation.
In 1972, Coach Jack was lured out of his college lair and agreed to make the jump to the NBA. Perhaps you’ve heard of a potential similar move in the news lately.
The expansion Portland Trailblazers were three years old but still in their Terrible Twos when they hoodwinked McCloskey into leaving campus and becoming their new head coach.
In their first two seasons as an NBA club, the Trailblazers had won 47 games, lost 117. They were the typical NBA expansion team; if they made it through all 48 minutes without tripping over their shoelaces, it was a good night.
McCloskey took the job, and one thing about it was attractive, for sure.
The Trailblazers, thanks to their ghoulish 18-64 record of the season before, were possessors of the first overall pick in the 1972 NBA Draft. There was no lottery back then. In those days, the “last shall be first.”
McCloskey knew a little bit about college players, and he positively drooled over the specimen from the University of North Carolina who would be the cornerstone of the Trailblazers, around whom the entire roster would be rebuilt.
Bob McAdoo wasn’t a basketball player, he was a scoring machine.
Mac was six-foot-nine but he played nine-foot-six. You didn’t guard him, you watched him with an umbrella—as he rained points on you like a monsoon.
McAdoo was, unquestionably, the most talented player that would be available in the ’72 Draft. The Trailblazers had the first overall pick. You do the math.
In February, McCloskey was on the phone, guesting on “The Knee Jerks,” a podcast I co-host with Big Al Beaton. And he recalled how things went horribly wrong in 1972.
“It looked like McAdoo was going to be ours,” Jack said in his famously raspy voice. “The negotiations were going fine. But close to the draft, the owner (of the Trailblazers) and Bob’s agent disappeared into a room.
“When they came out, the deal was off.”
To this day, McCloskey has no idea what happened. All he knows is, one moment he was about to coach the greatest college player in the country, and the next, the kid vanished—like waking up from a good dream and finding out that the giant marshmallow you were munching on really was your pillow.
Bob McAdoo, the crown jewel of the 1972 draft, the leaping, point-churning All-American from North Carolina, was so close to McCloskey and the Trailblazers yet so far. Mac might as well have been playing on Mars.
McAdoo wasn’t going to be a Trailblazer, after all. So who would? If not McAdoo, then who was the hotshot college player about to be selected first off the board?
When they told Coach Jack the name, he might have asked them to repeat it.
The kid’s name was LaRue Martin, from Loyola of Chicago. LaRue was nearly seven feet tall—a beanpole on sneakers. He was so skinny, if he had turned sideways you’d have lost sight of him.
And—get this—McCloskey had never heard of him.
Jack McCloskey, who until being hired by the NBA’s Trailblazers had scraped out a living scouting, recruiting, and coaching teenagers from across the country, had his new bosses informing him that they were about to draft a kid who was an unknown.
It was like being a wine connoisseur and having the maitre d’ bring out something in a Boone’s Farm.
“I said, ‘Gee, I know a lot of college players but I’ve never heard of LaRue Martin,’” Retired Jack told Big Al and me.
LaRue Martin, 22 years old, showed up at Trailblazers camp that fall—we assume with photo ID on his person.
Bob McAdoo, meanwhile, was snatched up by the Buffalo Braves with the No. 2 overall selection, on his way to superstardom and multiple NBA scoring titles—and a trail of migraines he caused along the way.
“LaRue Martin was a very nice young man,” McCloskey said. “But he just wasn’t worthy of that high of a draft pick.”
There are two instances when someone being described as nice should cause grave concern: before a blind date, and when you’re assessing the No. 1 overall pick of the NBA Draft.
Martin played in 77 games his rookie season, but only 996 minutes, or about 13 minutes per game. It wasn’t playing time, it was charity.
LaRue scored 340 points in those 77 games—4.4 per appearance.
Bob McAdoo averaged 18 points and nine rebounds per game and won the league’s Rookie of the Year Award. He would average over 30 points per game the next three seasons.
LaRue Martin played in the NBA for four seasons and laid in 1,430 points—total. McAdoo scored that in pre-game warm-ups in the same time frame.
Coach Jack didn’t have much luck in the NBA. First his bosses blew the deal with McAdoo. Then he was fired after two seasons—just before the Trailblazers got it right and drafted Bill Walton to play center.
When Coach Jack became Trader Jack with the Pistons as their new GM in 1979, the team had a brooding, petulant forward who wanted to be anywhere but in Detroit.
The forward was Bob McAdoo.
When McCloskey first laid eyes on McAdoo at North Carolina, Mac was fine wine. When he encountered McAdoo with the Pistons seven years later, Mac was fine whine.
Twelve years after the Trailblazers’ mistake with LaRue Martin, they managed to top it.
Prior to the 1984 draft, the Trailblazers, possessing the No. 2 overall pick, again looked at a player from North Carolina—a kid of such fantastic skills and leaping ability that he would eventually become an airline.
But the Trailblazers said no, and selected a center with bad knees from Kentucky, Sam Bowie.
The Chicago Bulls, with the next pick, chose Michael Jordan.
And you think Jim Joyce’s call was bad?