In its nomadic days of the 1950s and ’60s, the NBA instituted a geographic element to its college draft.
The league allowed teams to claim certain players without fear of competition, based on “territorial rights.”
So the Pistons, for example, would be allowed their choice of players that attended the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the University of Detroit or any other Michigan college. Each NBA team could utilize one territorial pick per year.
Sometimes the league fudged a little.
Wilt Chamberlain, who attended the University of Kansas, was allowed to go to the (then) Philadelphia Warriors as a “territorial” pick in 1959. Why? Because Wilt had grown up in Philadelphia and starred there in high school! And the NBA didn’t have a franchise anywhere near Kansas.
The Pistons had bad luck with the territorial rule.
The NBA abolished the rule in 1966, the year that prized college hoopster Cazzie Russell was set to graduate from the University of Michigan.
The Pistons drooled over Russell. But with the territorial pick no longer an option, the last-place Pistons had to engage in a coin flip with the other last-place team, the New York Knicks, to determine who would draft first overall and thus select Russell.
The Pistons lost the flip. But they did end up selecting David Bing from Syracuse, so all was not lost.
Someone must not have told Dickie Vitale that the territorial picks were abolished when Dickie ran the Pistons for two drafts (1978-79).
Among his first five picks in ’78 and ’79 combined, Vitale drafted four players who attended school in the state of Michigan: Terry Tyler and John Long (Detroit), Gregory Kelser (MSU) and Phil Hubbard (Michigan).
The drafting of Tyler and Long, the Pistons’ two second round picks in 1978—the Pistons didn’t have a first round selection that year—was looked at as a shameless act by Vitale, the players’ old coach at U-D.
Surely Tyler and Long’s U-D ties must have influenced Vitale. And they did!
But to be fair to Dickie Vitale, Terry Tyler and John Long ended up carving out decent NBA careers for themselves. Tyler was the Pistons’ X-factor off the bench—a sixth man who could jump, rebound and hit a baseline jumper. Long was a prototypical NBA shooting guard—someone whose “rock set” (per broadcaster George Blaha) mid-range shot was one of the most reliable in the league.
But both Tyler and Long played for bad Pistons teams. And just when the Pistons were getting better and playoff-worthy, both players left for other franchises: Tyler signed with the Sacramento Kings as a free agent in 1985 and Long was traded to Seattle in 1986.
Its presence doesn’t always manifest itself, but poetic justice occasionally shows up in sports.
That was the case when the Pistons, by then a legitimate championship contender and looking for a veteran shooter, reacquired Long in February, 1989. Just a few days earlier, the 32 year-old Long was waived by the Indiana Pacers. The Pistons moved quickly to snap up old no. 25 and bring the Romulus native back home.
Long celebrated with the Pistons in June of 1989 when the team swept the Los Angeles Lakers to win the franchise’s first-ever NBA championship.
John Long, one of two maligned draft picks from U-D during the disastrous Dickie Vitale Era of Pistons basketball, got his brass ring after all—with the team that drafted him in 1978.
Long retired from the NBA in 1991 but more than five years later, at age 40, he was dragged back onto the court by old teammate Isiah Thomas, who convinced Long to return as a player with the Toronto Raptors, the franchise that Isiah was running at the time. Isiah also signed retired ex-Piston Earl Cureton to fill the Raptors’ bench.
“Isiah wants (Long and me) to keep an eye on the young players and help coach (Darrell) Walker police the locker room,” Cureton told me via phone shortly after it was announced that the two dinosaurs were being brought back. As soon as I heard the news, I dialed Cureton, to whom I gave his first color commentary job (U-D basketball for Barden Cablevision) and gave him the 1996 version of “WTF?”
Actually, it might have been “WTF?”
Cureton chuckled and said that their stay on the roster wouldn’t be too long.
“Just until Darrell feels more comfortable,” Cureton said of the first-year coach.
Long played 32 games as a 40 year-old for the Raptors and Cureton—another U-D guy—played in nine contests at age 39.
It’s yet another stark example to this writer of how time flies that it’s been nearly 20 years since John Long hung up his basketball sneakers for good.
Tonight, the sneakers will stay in moth balls but the Armani suit will be broken out, as Long is inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.
Long’s college career at U-D was marked by the exuberance of Vitale, dramatic on-court entrances from the corner of the Calihan Hall gym, a lot of winning and a memorable appearance in the 1977 NCAA tournament, in which Detroit met Michigan in the second round. The Wolverines edged the Titans in what would be Vitale’s last game as U-D’s coach.
Less than two years after that Michigan game, Long and Vitale—and Tyler—were reunited with the Pistons. The reunion was scoffed at as nothing more than a former college coach trying to get his old band back together in the NBA.
It might have been that, but if you can shoot the basketball, there’s always a place for you in some form of organized hoops. If you can shoot it as consistently well as John Long did, the NBA will keep you around.
Long was a one-dimensional player but that was OK. He had a specialty and when Thomas shared the backcourt with him, many a time Isiah would find Long in the corner or at the elbow for that patented set jumper. From 1979-86, Long hit those shots to the tune of no less than 45 percent to as high as 51 percent of the time.
That’s some serious shootin’.
Long just celebrated his 60th birthday on August 28. His nephews, fellow Romulus natives and former Pistons Terry Mills and Grant Long, are 48 and 50, respectively.
It’s enough to make an old-timer like me groan.
John Long will be inducted into the MSHOF tonight, nearly two decades removed from hoisting his last NBA jumper.
But to hear him say it, Long is a “young” 60.
“I’m still in the same shape I was when I was playing, but I can’t run anymore,” Long told Perry Farrell of the Free Press.
“I had a left knee replacement. If the Champions league (a new league made up of former NBA players) could find a way for me to run I could do everything else. I could play, but not like I used to. I can walk, and that’s the most important thing.”
Tonight Long will walk up to the podium on his replaced left knee and take his rightful place at the MSHOF induction ceremony, to be held at the Max Fisher Music Center.
He wasn’t an official NBA territorial draft pick, but John Long will always be a Michigander.
And a Hall of Famer, at that.