Published June 3, 2017
Jerry West’s phone rang. It was an old friend.
“Jerry, are you sitting down?” the raspy voice on the other end of the line said.
West said that he was.
What happened next might seem to be one of those apocryphal stories, an urban legend that couldn’t possibly be true. But it was as true as the sky is blue.
West was a scout for the Los Angeles Lakers at the time. It was early-1980.
On the phone with the great West was old pal Jack McCloskey, a former West assistant when Jerry coached the Lakers in the mid-1970s. McCloskey, former head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, had left the Lakers when West moved upstairs and Jack McKinney was named head coach.
After his time with the Lakers, Jack landed on the Indiana Pacers’ bench as an assistant working for another basketball buddy, Slick Leonard.
But when Jack called Jerry West, he was working for the Detroit Pistons as general manager, having been hired in December 1979 (more on that later).
The reason McCloskey asked West if he was sitting down was that Jack had a proposition for his old boss that was, well, unorthodox. To say the least.
“I’ll give you every player on my roster for Magic Johnson,” McCloskey said.
There was a period of silence on the line.
“Let me get back to you on that,” West told Jack.
West brought the crazy idea to Lakers GM Bill Sharman, who relayed it to owner Dr. Jerry Buss.
“They were thinking about it,” McCloskey said years later.
Ultimately, Dr. Buss passed on McCloskey’s offer. Magic stayed with the Lakers. And the Pistons roster, which would finish the 1979-80 season with a 16-66 record, remained intact.
The Pistons-roster-for-Magic idea happened. McCloskey confirmed it with me, and with anyone else who cared to ask.
“We would have taken Magic, then filled the roster with CBA guys and free agents,” McCloskey said.
As it was, McCloskey basically inherited an expansion team when the Pistons tabbed him to be their “basketball man.”
Dickie Vitale left the cupboard bare when he was fired in November 1979. No first round draft choices in 1980. A thin roster.
McCloskey was actually recommended to the Pistons by Vitale after the latter was given the ziggy by owner Bill Davidson.
But when Jack’s plane touched down in Detroit, he thought he was being interviewed for an assistant’s job with the Pistons. Under that thinking, McCloskey wasn’t sure if Leonard and the Pacers would let Jack out of his contract.
The Pistons didn’t want Jack as an assistant; they wanted him to be their GM.
McCloskey passed away Thursday in Savannah, GA. He was 91. They didn’t call him Trader Jack for nothing.
First, there was the Magic Johnson proposal. Then McCloskey was faced with an unhappy Bob Lanier and Bob McAdoo.
“We needed a first round draft pick. And Lanier wanted to be moved. So I made the deal,” McCloskey recalled of the February 1980 trade of Lanier, the greatest big man in franchise history, to the Milwaukee Bucks for center Kent Benson and the Bucks’ first round pick in 1980.
Throughout the 1980s, McCloskey traded and drafted the Pistons to respectability. Initially, the trades were made to secure draft choices, thanks to Vitale’s mismanagement.
By the end of the decade, the Pistons and the Lakers battled it out in two consecutive NBA Finals. Maybe it was only a ticky-tack foul on Bill Laimbeer in the waning moments of Game 6 of the 1988 Finals that robbed the Pistons of the title, which they would capture in 1989.
But before the Pistons’ first-ever championship, there was one more big deal for Trader Jack to make.
Adrian Dantley was the low post scorer that the Pistons needed when McCloskey traded for him in the summer of 1986. Kelly Tripucka went to the Utah Jazz in the swap.
By 1989, however, Dantley’s propensity to hold onto the basketball was bogging down the offense. Teammates termed it “the black hole” when they gave Dantley the ball.
“Adrian was unhappy. I told him to talk to coach (Chuck) Daly but Adrian refused,” Jack told me several years ago. “The (Dallas) Mavericks were looking to move Mark Aguirre.”
Valentines Day, 1989. McCloskey, his team already favorites to represent the East once again in the Finals, nonetheless pulled the trigger.
Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre will go down as one of the most famous trades in Detroit sports history. I’ve called it the most courageous, by far. The Pistons had a lot more to lose than gain when they traded for Aguirre, who was no favorite of Dallas coach Dick Motta.
Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer et al took Aguirre to dinner in Sacramento and it wasn’t jovial. They lectured and warned Aguirre.
“All I’ve heard about you is bad,” Laimbeer told Aguirre at the dinner. “The only reason you’re being accepted is because Isiah vouched for you.”
Isiah and Aguirre were old chums from Chicago.
The Pistons, built from scratch by Jack McCloskey—who’d never been an NBA executive before Detroit—won back-to-back championships in 1989-90.
Jack loved big men, sometimes to a fault. When he coached the Portland Trail Blazers in 1972, McCloskey wanted the team to draft center Bob McAdoo from North Carolina with the number one overall pick. Management overruled him and selected beanpole LaRue Martin from Loyola. Martin became maybe the biggest draft bust in NBA history.
“LaRue Martin was a very nice young man,” Jack told me, but that’s as far as he would go about Martin as a basketball talent.
In 1974, just two weeks after being fired by Portland, McCloskey watched the team draft Bill Walton from UCLA.
Timing is everything, as they say.
Jack’s love of big men sometimes took him down onerous paths, like with the troubled William Bedford and overpaying for Kurt Nimphius. And Jack said that the Pistons “absolutely” would have drafted Ralph Sampson if the Virgina center entered the 1981 draft. Sampson stayed in school, so the Pistons took Isiah Thomas instead.
That timing thing again.
Jack McCloskey arrived in Detroit in December 1979 as a rumpled, graying, mostly unknown (in Detroit) old basketball man from somewhere out east, where he’d coached in the Ivy League. His NBA resume was less than impressive at the time, but so was the Pistons’ since they moved to Detroit from Fort Wayne in 1957.
Ten years after being hired by the Pistons, McCloskey could have run for mayor of the city and won.
“To this day, whenever I see Dick (Vitale), I thank him,” McCloskey told me about Vitale’s recommendation.
It’s our turn to return the thanks to Jack.
Rest in peace, Trader Jack. The Hall of Fame in Springfield isn’t worth the ground it’s built on as long as you’re not in it.