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Long Tall Salley

Former NBA Big Man John Salley makes a play for stardom after basketball.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 1)

The Pistons won 52 games and lost 30 during Salley's rookie season, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games. Their pugnacious defense and overall truculence on the court earned them the title of the "Bad Boys." Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn and Salley--three of the Pistons off the bench--were physical and intimidating. Salley got the nickname "Spider Salley," for his ability to block shots and wreak havoc inside. Still, the defense allowed 107.8 points per game, only 10th best in the league in 1987.

In 1988 Detroit won 54 games and improved its defensive rank to third, allowing a stingy 104.1 points per game. In the Conference Finals the Pistons avenged the 1987 defeat at the hands of the Celtics, beating them in six games, including two victories in Boston. Detroit then came within a whisker of knocking off the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

By then, the Pistons' reputation as bad boys was so entrenched that Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders football team, sent them silver-and-black shirts, with the skull-and-crossbones logo of the Raiders. The Pistons wore the stuff with pride. Their fans showed up at games with silver and black and skull and crossbones. To be sure, they had their share of rough defenders. "It was a blue-collar city and we were blue-collar players," Salley recalls. "We looked like a whole bunch of misfits except for Isiah and A.D. Rick Mahorn was from New Jersey with the big butt. Vinnie Johnson had a funny shot, [Another was] Bill Laimbeer. Joe Dumars was legitimate."

In Detroit the operative model was not basketball as ballet, but basketball as border skirmish. The Pistons ushered in an emphasis on physical defense, an approach that was carried even further by the Pat Riley-led New York Knicks in the early 1990s. As the NBA approaches the millennium, scrambling, grabbing, disruptive defense is embraced by coaches around the league.

Witness the lower scores throughout the NBA. In the 1996-1997 season, just eight of the 29 teams averaged more than 100 points on offense, with Chicago averaging the most: just 103.1 points a game. Ten years ago, in 1988, the Nuggets were the top scoring squad, averaging 116.7 points a game.

If you don't like the defensive wars of today's NBA, blame the Pistons. Not that they would have cared about the statistics when they met the Lakers--already winners of four titles in the 1980s--in the '88 Finals. The Pistons entered Game 6 needing just one victory to upset the immortal trio of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy.

In a game that featured a heroic 25-point third-quarter performance by a hobbling Isiah Thomas, the Pistons led by one as time was winding down. Abdul-Jabbar shot a baseline hook that fell way short, but Laimbeer was whistled for a foul. Jabbar made both free throws for the victory. "We got robbed by a referee," says Salley. "It gave me a different taste in my mouth about the league. I got the film--Kareem never got fouled by Bill Laimbeer. He never hit him; he jumped backwards. Bill said he did it 'to distract him.' Kareem shot an air-ball hook. And the ball hit the ground and he said 'foul.'

Game 7 proved to be anticlimactic, with the Lakers winning, 108-105. "We gave 'em a good fight in the seventh game. When we lost, I knew next year we were going to win the championship," says Salley, recalling the funereal atmosphere in the Detroit locker room. "No one was going to stop us."

No one did. The Pistons won 63 and lost 19. Displaying more testy defense in the 1989 playoffs, they applied the "Jordan Rules"--a strategy to wear the Bulls superstar down by running him off picks, double- and triple-teaming him and basically banging him from pillar to post whenever he touched the ball. The Pistons smothered the Bulls, holding them under 100 points in all six games of the Eastern Finals. The Pistons again squared off against the Lakers in the Finals.

This time the Lakers pulled up lame, having lost guards Byron Scott and Magic Johnson to injuries. Abdul-Jabbar, then 42 years old and in his 20th and last season, could no longer dominate inside. The Pistons cranked out a four-game sweep to capture their first-ever NBA title. "I went from being a kid who was the last pick on a high school team--Jerry Pearlmutter put me on the squad mainly because, I guess he felt sorry for me," Salley says quietly. "Now we were World Champions. When we won the championship, Bill Laimbeer said to me, 'Before I get drunk, I just want to sit here and thank you for putting up with my shit for three years. You took it like a man and you learned. You were developed and molded into exactly what we needed. And without you and Dennis [Rodman] doing what you do, we wouldn't be here.' That was the best compliment in the world."

The Pistons not only had a title but an identity. They led the league in defense in 1990 and bumped and grunted past Chicago in seven games to reach the Finals again. Once there, they easily disposed of Portland, winning in five games, including the last three on the Trail Blazers' court. They were only the fourth team in NBA history to win back-to-back titles.

Salley played his last two years in Detroit in 1991 and 1992 before being traded to the Miami Heat in September 1992. In exchange the Pistons won the rights to Isiah Morris (who played a grand total of 25 NBA games) and a draft choice. For Salley, parting was not too sorrowful. Detroit had begun to slide after the 1990 championship. Maybe it was age. But the Pistons were swept by Chicago in the 1991 Conference Finals and lost in five games to New York in 1992. In that series they averaged a measly 85 points a game, as the Knicks' defense was now beating them at their own game.

With Miami, Salley signed a five-year deal for $12 million. "Bill Laimbeer said, 'Salley, you're going to think this is a crock of shit, but your job is as hard as everybody else's and if you continue to do your job you can stay in the league longer than everybody else. Because your body won't be beat up. You average 25 minutes and you can't beat a job where you get paid two million dollars for playing 25 minutes. It's the best job in the world.' It's like Daly's favorite line, 'It beats working.' "

Pay or no pay, Salley didn't find the same environment in Miami that he had in Detroit. "People cared more about minutes, their scoring." The fans turned on Salley, too, expecting him to score a lot of points and be a savior. But that was never his game. He continued to defend, rebound, block shots and hit a high percentage of the few shots he did take.

He wasn't protected by Miami in the 1995 expansion draft and Toronto drafted him. He was getting little playing time with the Raptors and after a few months sought to be traded to a contender. He arranged for a buyout of his contract with the Raptors and signed with the Bulls. Now he was with a team on a mission. The Bulls were trying to take a fourth world championship after not having won since 1993. They were also trying to break the NBA record of 69 wins in a season. Salley found himself reunited with an old mate, Dennis Rodman, and a new coach in Phil Jackson. He would also be joining a team with a star, Scottie Pippen, and a megastar, Michael Jordan, whom Salley simply refers to as M.J. The Bulls rolled into the playoffs, shattering the old victory record with a 72-10 mark.

Though Salley had sat on the throne twice in Detroit, it wasn't long before he discovered the real king in Chicago. He recalls a practice session when Jordan was slightly injured. "Phil told him not to practice. Scottie [Pippen] wasn't practicing, his ankle was hurting. [Ron] Harper wasn't practicing. Phil Jackson called everyone together and said, 'We're gonna scrimmage.' Michael said, 'I want to scrimmage.' Phil said, 'No, you rest.' Michael says, 'I'm scrimmaging.'

"He had on those Nike canvas tennis shoes, a sweatsuit and a top. He tied up those shoes. Phil put me, James Edwards and Dennis on the same team with two guards. Michael must of thought he was playing the Pistons all over again. All of a sudden he gets a steal at half-court. I'm coming back late and I turn around, and it's just me and him. I don't care, I'm going to block the shot. He takes off and he yells, 'Block this shit.' And he just takes off like in the fucking video and just dunked it. He was, like, 'Block that shit, you're a shot blocker.' I thought about it later and got back to my hotel room and called my mother and I said, 'I just played against the greatest player that ever put on a uniform. The best thing about being a Bull is I get to see him twice a day--at practice and in the game. He is by far the best player to ever play.' My mom said, 'They say he is, but I'm surprised you just noticed.'"

Despite the incredible regard for Jordan, the consensus choice as the greatest ever to play, Salley contends that Chicago is still "Phil's team." "Michael listens to what Phil says," Salley says matter-of-factly. Phil will say, 'Michael take a sub.' 'No Phil, I'm all right,' Michael would say back. 'No, you're subbing now,' Phil would say. And his word stuck. Michael gives all the respect to Phil, because Phil was a player. Phil was a champion [as a forward on the 1970 and 1973 Knicks] before Michael was. He's got more rings than Michael." Jackson added a fifth world championship as a coach last spring when the Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in six games.

Since Salley played for Daly and Jackson--who have coached a combined seven NBA championship teams--how does he compare them? "Chuck knew how to get to you. He used to yell at me, 'I can't believe you have all this height and are not rebounding. You keep this up and I'll trade you to Milwaukee.' He knew I hated Milwaukee. He'd take me out of the game--it's not like kids now who say 'the coach embarrassed me'--he respected me. His job is to coach. His job is to rev you up. Chuck would say something to me, 'You want to play 32 minutes, you gotta do what I need you to. You know, I think you play great 20-minute spurts.' I'd say, 'I think I'd be great in 25.' 'Well, prove to me you'd be great in 25,' Chuck would say. He knew that I took it personally.

"Phil and Chuck both understand players," says Salley. "Jackson takes a more spiritual tack to it." Jackson, who wrote an insightful book called Sacred Hoops: Spirited Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, huddled his players to observe a moment of silence on the day Timothy Leary died. "Phil had a guy come in and deal with us on meditation. He said, 'Close your eyes and we're going to meditate.' This guy came in and said the reason we had lost a recent game to Toronto was because we were mentally weak. Phil signed a copy of his book to me. If Phil had called [before the 1996-1997 season] and said, 'Salley, we don't have any money but we want you...'" Salley trails off, his response to such a request not needing to be worded. "I really dug that guy and I used to not like him because I played on the other team."

With 72 wins during the 1995-1996 campaign, there were more than a few occasions for the Bulls to smoke cigars. Rodman smoked, as did Pippen and Jordan. Phil Jackson sampled some, too, often taking whatever came his way. In more ways than one, the Bulls were the smokingest team in the league. Salley laughs recalling one smoky bus ride.

"I was on the bus and we were smoking cigars going to Philly, leaving the Jersey game. Gary [Footlik, his business partner] had told me how to take a paper clip, break it off and stick it into the cigar so when you light the cigar it will hold the ash. I was showing my cigar to M.J., talking about good cigars. I said, 'It's a good cigar.' M.J. says, 'Yeah, you can tell by how good the ash is. Look how good my ash is.' He'd say, 'This tobacco smoke is 30 years old, this cigar here...' Michael's drawing on a Montecristo No. 2. And I got the cigar and my ash is about two inches, then two and a half inches long. M.J. was, like, 'Yeah, let that ash fall, it's gonna mess his clothes up.' He didn't know what to say. That ash got bigger and bigger and no one knew that I had this paper clip in the middle of it, holding that ash right on top of it. Finally I pulled it out real quick to break the ash."

Did any of the Bulls' nonsmokers complain about the habitual smoking on bus rides? "Hey, we were just apostles," Salley says with a laugh. "Jesus was smoking, that's all there is to it." He laughs harder. "Jesus is in the back of the bus smoking, so you don't say jack shit. Jesus and 11 apostles. What are you going to say? 'M.J., I'm not feeling good today, put your cigar out. Don't make me come back there and kick your ass.' " Not likely.

Barely two years earlier Salley had despised smoking. "When I got to Miami, I would go to [managing partner] Lewis Schaffel's and [partner] Billy Cunningham's office, and just hated it. But it wasn't like I hated the smell. I kind of liked the smell. And I said to myself, 'You know what, try this.' I liked it right off the bat. My first cigar was an Ashton. It was smooth because Gary said, 'I'm gonna give you something smooth.'" But how did Salley go from cigar smoker to cigar businessman?

"When I was with Miami in 1995, Gary was there. They opened up the Grand Havana Room in Miami before that and I got my box in there. Gary [a smoker] had been in the clothes business for 25 years and he said, 'You know what, the next thing I want to do is open up a cigar shop. Whaddya think?'

"I said, 'I don't know shit about cigars, Gary. What do you know about cigars?' And he was, like, 'Well, I'm learning every day.' So one time in Chicago he said, 'You should ride with me downtown.' We go downtown and we go to Jack Schwartz, an old cigar place, and I'm watching these guys come in from the stock exchange and buying cigars like they were buying bubble gum."

That was Salley's eye-opener.

Footlik, 48, confirms Salley's story. "John said it would never work. Six months later he calls and says, 'I'm finding cigars every town I'm in.' We opened this store in Wilmette, Illinois, and I put two and two together to get four and named it Cigary--cigar with a 'y' on the end." Salley recalls that when people wanted a cigar, the response would be "See Gary," and so the name of the establishment came about that way.

Together the two have fashioned a shop that deals in premium brands. "We specialize in hard-to-find brands," says Footlik. "We always have Padróns, Ashtons, Arturo Fuentes. In all, we have about 100 brands. We're an upscale store; we carry few off-brands. I like to say we're the Ultimo [a swank clothing store] of cigar stores. We're not getting the trendy kid who wants to be cool. Our guys have been smoking for a while."

What is Salley's favorite cigar? He has five: La Gloria Cubana, Avo Intermezzo, Padrón (especially the Pyramid), Don Melo and Tamboril. His partner disagrees. "His favorite cigar is a free one," Footlik cracks. "He never carries any so someone has to." And what about Footlik? "I smoke a variety of brands; I'm partial to Padróns, which are very smooth, have a lot of flavor, are not overpowering. I like the Flor de Florez [a Nicaraguan cigar]. I like a full-bodied, flavorful smoke, not a mild papery smoke but something with a lot of flavor and body to it."

Though Salley had enjoyed his first smoke just two years earlier, he quickly learned enough about cigars to assist in evaluating the more than 100 brands for the store. His learning curve was steep. "Gary gave me the cigar diary a year before we even opened the store. So I'm buying new diaries now. A diary has a place to put the label. You can put what you thought about it, the taste of it. The first puff, the middle puff, the end of it. So whenever I go into it I can say, 'Hey, that was a good cigar. This was a good cigar.' You can talk about 'em like that."

Salley and Footlik opened Cigary in November 1996. They plan to open another store in the Chicago area this spring.

Life after basketball is looking up for Salley. Not only did he land the big NBA broadcast gig; he was recently married to Natasha, 28. "The first night I met her, I wrote her name down, put it into a computer and said, 'That's my wife to be.' Together they had a child, Tyla Milan, who was a year old last July. His first child, Giovanna, from a previous relationship, turned 10 in January.

Natasha doesn't go for smoking, however. "I have to brush my tongue, my lips," says Salley. "I don't smoke in the house. Plus, I've got a newborn."

You can't have everything. But Salley's life, even after basketball, shows that you can have most everything. Long Tall Salley is large enough proof that there's not only life after the courts--there's an abundant life after the courts.


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