Bob Lanier deserves to be remembered as an all-time great

Honoring the memory of Bob Lanier, as the Pistons did for Monday’s game with Milwaukee, is on an intimate level the chance to let his children and other family members there for the occasion know the place he still holds in franchise history. On a broader level, its purpose is to etch Lanier’s name a little more permanently in the ongoing story of the NBA and basketball at large.

And Bob Lanier very much deserves to have his name undeniably a part of that story. Almost certainly, less than half of the audience at Little Caesars Arena on Monday was alive when Lanier last played for the Pistons 44 years ago and most of them were too young to have any true appreciation for Lanier’s greatness.

But it would have been impossible to listen to the tributes from Dave Bing, Isiah Thomas, Rick Mahorn and George Blaha and not have been struck by their wonder about Lanier’s ability. History is more than the things historians write in thick academic tomes that gather dust. Its essence is the lore passed down from one generation to the next. The Pistons did basketball history a service in honoring Lanier’s legacy, ensuring it will remain robust for future generations to absorb.

It was fitting, and hardly coincidental, that Milwaukee was Monday’s opponent. Lanier is one of the few handfuls of players in NBA history with his jersey retired by two franchises, the Pistons and Bucks. He spent more than two-thirds of his career in Detroit, but became a beloved figure in Milwaukee in less than five full seasons spent wearing a Bucks uniform, too.

The NBA was in a very different place when the Pistons made Lanier the No. 1 pick in the 1970 draft. It was essentially a mom-and-pop operation. Other than the players, an entire franchise’s payroll might have consisted of 10 people. There wasn’t a lot of money, if any, coming in from TV rights. The way teams made any money – and a lot of teams didn’t – was by selling tickets.

So it was a gamble for the Pistons in 1970 to draft Lanier, even though he was a decorated All-American who averaged a preposterous 27.6 points and 15.7 rebounds over his college career. The box-office bet would have been either local hero Rudy Tomjanovich of Hamtramck and the University of Michigan or LSU showman Pete Maravich, who averaged 44.2 points a game over his three college seasons.

To compound matters, Lanier was coming off a devastating knee injury that prevented him from suiting up for St. Bonaventure, the tiny upstate New York private school he put on the map, at the 1970 Final Four. The injury occurred the previous week when the Bonnies beat Villanova, the latter’s Chris Ford crashing into Lanier in pursuit of a loose ball.

They would remain forever connected. Ford, who died last week at 74 and fittingly was honored before Monday’s tipoff with a moment of silence, would be drafted by the Pistons in 1972’s fourth round and became Lanier’s fast friend and a co-leader in the locker room.

It was those Lanier-Ford-Dave Bing editions that, for the first time since the franchise’s relocation from Fort Wayne, Ind., made the Pistons relevant in Detroit. Fighting for turf occupied by the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings – who had a 31-year head start on the Pistons and employed at the time the player recognized then as hockey’s greatest of all-time, Gordie Howe – the Pistons were a distant fourth in the city’s collective heart until the Lanier-era teams elevated their status.

Lanier wasn’t around when the Pistons won the franchise’s first NBA title in 1989 and forever endeared themselves to the city’s fans, but Lanier’s impact – on the Pistons and on the NBA – wasn’t lost on anyone who popped champagne corks in Los Angeles that June evening 34 years ago.

Thomas, who arrived in Detroit a little more than a year after Jack McCloskey launched the Bad Boys rebuilding job by trading Lanier to Milwaukee, spoke reverentially about Lanier in Monday’s tribute.

“He was one of the most dominant centers and played in an era when centers really had to be dominant. He played against Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), Moses Malone, Robert Parish. He was that guy. To tell you how dominant he was, every year the Milwaukee Bucks with Bob Lanier either played Boston or Philadelphia to see which one would advance to the Finals. There were only three dominant teams at the time – Philly, Boston and Milwaukee. And that’s because Bob Lanier was holding down the middle. Bob was a pillar.”

The mind bends considering the possibilities of how Bob Lanier born two generations later might have evolved. Lanier was an anomaly at the time, a massive man with otherworldly strength yet a refined touch, soft hands and light feet. (Aside: Go watch the YouTube clip of Abdul-Jabbar as Roger Murdock in “Airplane” telling Joey, “Tell your old man to haul Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes!”) If anyone suggests to you Lanier could ‘t thrive in today’s game, dismiss them.

Mahorn arrived for the final three seasons of Lanier’s career at a time when knee injuries limited his mobility, but the skills were still clearly evident.

“He was the first big man, to me, who could go out to 15 feet and shoot and come across the middle inside and punish people with the hooks and the up-and-unders,” Mahorn said. “One of the best – and I mean one of the best – big men that ever played the game.”

With the advances in sports medicine to better address the knee injuries that burdened Lanier throughout his career, it’s no stretch to imagine he’d be an even more devastating force in today’s NBA. Big men weren’t empowered to step outside much in that era, but Lanier’s shooting touch would have easily translated to him being an above-average 3-point shooter. In any era, Lanier would have been a Hall of Famer.

He was never blessed with a full complement of teammates capable of taking down the great teams of his era. And history is never quite sure how to remember great players who never won a ring. But Bob Lanier deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest players of his generation and one of the greatest big men to ever grace an NBA court. Monday’s tribute to the gentle giant who helped the Pistons establish roots in Detroit will go a long way toward ensuring he’s remembered exactly that way.

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