Published May 26, 2020
When it comes to front offices, coaches and lines of reporting, the Pistons’ history is colorful, at the very least. Their org charts have often resembled something put together by Salvador Dali.
Today, the team announced that it is putting out a Help Wanted sign, looking for a GM to work under senior advisor Ed Stefanski. Of course, leave it to the Pistons to even have a “senior advisor” running the show.
This is a franchise that, at various times, has made a 24-year-old player the coach (Dave DeBusschere), the team’s radio announcer the GM (Don Wattrick) and hired a clown to be coach AND GM, simultaneously (Dickie Vitale). The Pistons also poached the Lions GM (Nick Kerbawy) as its GM in the late-1950s.
The Pistons finally came to their senses in December 1979, when—acting on a tip from the deposed Vitale—they hired a bonafide basketball man in Jack McCloskey, who became GM in replacing (in typical Pistons fashion) a lawyer, Oscar Feldman.
But even the hiring of McCloskey wasn’t without comedy.
Trader Jack was minding his own business on the bench of the Indiana Pacers, functioning as an assistant coach for Slick Leonard, when he got a phone call from Pistons owner Bill Davidson—who was following up on the tip from Vitale.
“I thought they were interviewing me for an assistant’s job,” McCloskey told me several years ago. In fact, it wasn’t until he got off the plane at Metro Airport did McCloskey learn that the Pistons wanted to talk to him about the GM job.
About a month before hiring McCloskey, the Pistons messed with former star player Dave Bing. To this day, I’d like to know what the team was thinking. I’m sure Mayor Bing would like to know, as well.
“I have a feeling that they used me,” Bing told reporters about the Pistons’ hierarchy, sometime in late-November 1979.
Davidson fired Vitale 12 games into the 1979-80 season, the team spiraling in a five-game losing streak and the era of ReVitaleization having gone horribly wrong.
But before Davidson gave Vitale the ziggy, he and Feldman had lunch with Bing, the former star Piston who retired as a player after the 1977-78 season.
“It was supposed to be private, but our cover was blown,” Bing told the press after word of the lunch leaked.
According to Bing’s version, Davidson and Feldman took him to lunch to discuss the Pistons coaching job, which was going to soon be open. They even discussed contract length, money and power. “I made my pitch to them,” Bing told the press. “Now the ball is in their court.” So to speak.
The Detroit dailies were also confident that Bing would coach the Pistons. His hiring was reported to be “imminent.”
But soon Bing wasn’t alone as a candidate to replace the fired Vitale. Former Knicks great Willis Reed joined Bing as a potential Pistons coach.
Throughout November, Bing and Reed—along with interim coach Richie Adubato—waited on Davidson and Feldman to make up their minds. Eventually Bing, fed up and with his own business to tend to, took himself out of the running.
The Pistons announced, in oh-by-the-way fashion, in early-December that Adubato would have the interim tag removed from his title. Bing and Reed were dismissed as candidates, after all.
About a week later, McCloskey’s mildly surprising hiring was announced.
Finding capable men to coach the Pistons in those dark days wasn’t easy. After Adubato oversaw the remainder of a 16-66 season, McCloskey fired him and brought in Scotty Robertson, a heart attack survivor and former coach of the New Orleans Jazz and Chicago Bulls. For the Pistons, Robertson was eminently qualified; his combine record with the Jazz and Bulls was 12-29.
Even the great Chuck Daly wasn’t as prescient a choice as one might be led to believe, when he was hired by the Pistons in May 1983 to replace Robertson.
McCloskey offered the coaching job, which still wasn’t held in very high esteem despite young stars in Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka, to no less than three men: Jack Ramsay, Phil Johnson and Jack McKinney. All three politely told McCloskey to stick it.
Daly was doing radio analysis for the 76ers when McCloskey reached out. Daly was another man whose prior NBA coaching experience made him perfect for the Pistons; he went 9-32 with the 1981-82 Cleveland Cavaliers.
I don’t have to relitigate the Pistons’ sordid coaching history since Flip Saunders left in 2008. The front office hasn’t been much to write home about, either.
Now the Pistons are in search of a GM. Feel confident? Maybe they could offer the job to George Blaha. As outrageous as that is, it’s, sadly, not unprecedented with this franchise.