It has now been just more than a year since the tragic departure of Jack McCloskey, the Detroit Pistons general manager from 1979 until 1992 who made all the essential moves which improved one of the worst NBA franchises on the turn of the decade into an NBA Champion back in 1989 and 1990.
During his tenure with the Pistons Trader Jack, as he was commonly known throughout the NBA. He made over 30 trades, improving the team with each and every one of those. McCloskey began the winningest chapter in the 20th-century history of 1956 NBA finalists Detroit Pistons by drafting the University of Indiana standout point guard Isiah Thomas in 1981.
Two years later on he would supply Thomas with the right advice from the new coaching mastermind of future Hall-of-Famer Chuck Daly, who would make the Pistons NBA's defensive elite team.
In 1985 McCloskey used 18th pick to select anonymous shooting guard by the name of Joe Dumars from McNeese State University. What McCloskey saw in Dumars was streaking long-range shooter who might be a perfect supplement to the team's leading star - All-Star point guard Isiah Thomas.
Magic Johnson had Byron Scott, Michael Jordan had John Paxson, Clyde Drexler had Terry Porter. Each one of the leading superstars at the guard position, in the league, which was rapidly changing in favor of guards, had a backcourt partner who could supply ball handling when needed, on-ball pressure, and hit the open jumper when the game was on the line.
In unquestionably the most controversial draft ever, 1986 NBA draft, McCloskey came up with just another steal - he used 27th pick overall to select Dennis Rodman out of Southeastern Oklahoma State. With The Bad Boys from Detroit, the little known forward who began playing basketball at 18 would enter the most vivid period of his basketball but also a personal transition. He became one of the most iconic NBA players of the 20th century as a dominant defensive stopper and league-leading rebounder.
With the All-Star inside-out connection of Thomas and Laimbeer, one of the league's most prolific scorers in Adrian Dantley, promising newcomers Dumars, Rodman and Salley, and serviceable veterans Vinnie Johnson and Rick Mahorn, the Pistons, soon became one of the deepest NBA teams.
But the team which gathered nine straight postseason appearances and five consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearances during McCloskey's tenure were a player away from being deep enough to go over the traditional Eastern Conference rivals, Boston Celtics, and reach the NBA finals. But with the Celtics frontline inevitably aging and not being able to keep up the pace with the Pistons it was Detroit who reached the 1988 NBA Finals before eventually losing it to the L.A. Lakers by 4-3.
McCloskey knew something had to be done to improve the team to the ultimate – NBA Championship level. He thus covered his ears not to hear the boos from the fans in The Palace and made the key move midway through 1988-89 season, trading six-time All-Star Adrian Dantley to Dallas Mavericks for three-time All-Star Mark Aguirre, the bold move which soon paid dividends for the team from The Motown.
The Pistons would finish the 1988-89 season with the league's best record of 63-19 and reach the NBA Finals with the Lakers for the second consecutive time. This time around, with Lakers standard backcourt of Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, was sidelined with injuries, the Pistons, who posted unbelievable 15-2 record during 1989 NBA postseason, would take the given opportunity and sweep the 1988 World Champions – the L.A. Lakers.
There's the man who deserves a lot of the credit for this championship. He slowly put us together. He picked the players and the coach and made all the moves. – Isiah Thomas, right after winning 1989 NBA Finals (source: The New York Times)
The very next year, in 1990, Detroit Pistons would repeat the NBA championship title with a 4-1 convincing series win over the exceptionally strong Portland Trail Blazers led by Clyde Drexler. All the Pistons cylinders clicked - Thomas and Dumars would hit shots at will, Rodman played great defense on superstar Drexler. Bill Laimbeer would hit the clutch threes as a part of the superb front-court rotation (along with Edwards, Mahorn, Salley), while Vinnie Johnson and Mark Aguirre provided steady scoring punch coming in from the bench.
But mostly due to Isiah Thomas's injury and eventual surgery of the right wrist, which forced him to sit out the second part of the 1990-91 season. He wasn't in his usual shape for the postseason; Pistons' three-peat dreams fell apart in the 1991 Eastern Conference series with the Chicago Bulls, led by the still globally rising superstar – Michael Jordan.
After being emotionally hugged by Isiah Thomas during the (in)famous exit on Bulls right after the 1991 Eastern Conference finals conclusion in Auburn Hills, McCloskey would make some additional strong off-season moves to make Pistons stronger for 1991-92 campaign. He brought in versatile point guard Darrell Walker, ex-Bulls forward Brad Sellers (who spent a couple of seasons in Greece) and one of the potentially most prolific power forwards of that era - high-flying Orlando Woolridge.
That moves paid dividends throughout 1991-92 regular season. Still, Pistons would eventually fall already in the first round of the NBA playoffs to the new Eastern Conference defensive powerhouse – the New York Knicks coached by Pat Riley.
Soon after, in May 1992, McCloskey resigned as Pistons G.M. and continued his career in Minnesota, where he made some instant moves complementing the Dream Team power forward Christian Laettner with the experienced ex-Pacers combo - Michael Williams and Chuck Person.
The fact which has not yet been publicized is that McCloskey soon embraced the trend of the Eastern European imports and made a move to acquire physical Latvian shooting guard Gundars Vetra. He previously starred for USSR and Latvian N.T.s, before becoming the first European player ever to play for the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 1992-93 season.
McCloskey's impressive story of how to turn one of the worst NBA teams into a feared Bad Boys and eventual NBA champions will forever remain written as an inspiration for all NBA GMs.
Murray A. a.k.a. Marjan Crnogaj is BN contributor and the author of the book ‘Drazen – The Years of the Dragon’ which can be found here.