They all died in a certain shroud of mystery to varying degrees. And they all, once, might have had the world at their fingertips, at least from a basketball sense. And all were once Detroit Pistons, when being one wasn’t the glamor item that it is today.
Reggie Harding. Howard Porter. Jimmy Walker. Pistons in the late-1960s to mid-1970s, otherwise known as the Stone Age of Detroit basketball. They were times when home games were played to only a few thousand of the most curious, or most opportunistic. They were the days of free coupons and vouchers, picked up at the local fast fry chicken joints and turned in at the Cobo Arena box office, perhaps on a whim or a dare.
Walker was the latest to go. The 63-year-old succumbed to cancer in a medical center in Kansas City on Monday. He was a guard who teamed with Dave Bing for a few years to give the Pistons an Isiah Thomas/Joe Dumars and Chauncey Billups/Rip Hamilton-like backcourt before there were those combos. In 1971-72, playing on a wretched (which was typical) Pistons team, Walker averaged 21.3 PPG. He made a couple of All-Star teams.
But what wasn’t well-known about Walker was maybe more interesting than what we knew from experience, or history, or basketball reference websites. There was the fact, for example, that he was the biological father of former U-M standout and current NBA player Jalen Rose (Rose grew up never having met his father). There was the fact that whenever former Pistons gathered to talk about the old days, according to Bing, “Nobody seemed to know where Jimmy was.” And there was even the reporting of his death — a story picked up first by the Kansas City Star, and not the papers in Detroit.
Walker once led the college nation in scoring, averaging over 30 PPG at Providence. He was the Pistons’ #1 draft pick in 1967, one year after they selected Bing, out of Syracuse — a fellow east coast school. No doubt that Bing and Walker had some campus battles.
Walker (left) was Jalen Rose’s father; there IS some resemblance, I think
It all looked great for Walker, but after being traded by Detroit in 1972, he became just another NBA vagabond, drifting from Houston to Kansas City before retiring in 1976. His career PPG was 16.7 — solid, but not as spectacular as it was once thought to be.
Porter died in late May, not long after a violent beating on May 18. He was another big college scorer, out of Villanova. He led Nova to an NCAA runner-up placement, in 1971. But after a relatively meager NBA career — another that fell far short of expectations — that included a few years with the Pistons in the 1970s, Porter’s life went awry. Drugs were involved. He became wayward.
But Porter had turned his life around, and shortly after hearing of his death, I called one of his former coaches in Detroit, Ray Scott.
“Very saddened,” Scott told me upon learning of the death of “The Geezer,” Porter’s nickname. “I know things were getting better for him.”
Harding was a seven-foot wrecking machine from Detroit, who attended Detroit’s old Eastern High School. The Pistons selected him in 1962 and again in 1963, he never having attended college. For a few seasons he was the team’s starting center, and on a good night Reggie would score maybe 12 points and grab a dozen or so rebounds. But he was grossly overmatched when the opposing center was someone like Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain — even more so than other NBA pivot men. He was fine for the Pistons, Harding was, but not for an elite NBA team. And back then, the two things were definitely mutually exclusive.
His NBA career done by the time he was 26, Harding returned to the streets of his youth and fell into the wrong crowd. The story is legendary of him putting on a ski mask and robbing his neighborhood liquor store at gunpoint.
“What are you doing, Reggie?,” the proprietor asked of the seven-foot-tall robber.
“It ain’t me, man,” Reggie replied. No college, remember.
In September, 1972, 30 years of age, Harding was on the streets, chatting up some friends. A car drove by, shouted his name, and some words were exchanged. Someone in the car opened fire with a gun. Harding was dead, a bullet through his skull and brain.
The Pistons were a troubled team on the court in the ’60s and ’70s. And three of the players from that era are dead — their lives far more discombobulated after the curtain closed on their playing careers than anything that was witnessed at Cobo.
So it’s not always the big money that kick starts the problems.