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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 2)

"Of the 11 audition tapes we received, which were a kind of screen test, John's blew our socks off," said NBC president Dick Ebersole. "Not only was he opinionated [about the NBA], but he had the facts to back it up and had an incredibly engaging TV style."

If anything is true of John Salley's 33 years, it's that he doesn't despair. Whether it's basketball or television, he persists and persists and things have a way of finally working out. The competitiveness that he's had since his youth has helped him down several avenues.

Salley was born on May 16, 1964, and grew up in the projects in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. His father, Quillie, who passed away last summer, drove a truck in Manhattan for 35 years and his mother, Mazie, pressed clothes and did dry cleaning in Brooklyn and cleaned houses on Long Island. His father imparted more than a few important life lessons.

"My father had this thing about being on time," Salley says. "'Always be professional,' he said. 'If they're going to talk about you, make it be a positive comment.' He was quiet; 'less is more' was really what he was about. Sometimes you don't have to say anything. My father was an introvert, my mom was an extrovert. Mom stressed that there's nothing I can't do: 'Do anything you want to do, you only live once.' She's one of my favorite people on the planet. She's 74."

Growing up, Salley learned that the Canarsie courts were the testing grounds. "Basketball was the big sport--in my neighborhood, anyway. Everybody was at the park. I really sucked." The only reason that he even got on the court was that his older brother, Ron, a football player, would use his brawn to stop games and force players to choose John in. John was too slow, couldn't dribble, couldn't shoot--other than that, he was fine.

"My brothers were great football players. I don't mean good. My brother Ron was all-city defensive end. My brother Jerry was the first black QB at Canarsie High. Everyone else in the neighborhood was playing skelly [a game in which you shoot a bottle cap from square to square] or riding the swings or playing run, catch and kiss, a contest in which you find a girl, run after her, catch her and get to kiss her. They're doing all that stuff and I'm in the park to learn [how to play basketball]. My brothers all went out for football and I said, 'You know what, I'm going to do something different.'

"Everyone told me I couldn't do it," Salley recalls. "I was the worst player in my project. I was around and I was a Salley and that was the only reason I was playing. I hung out with a whole crew of 15 guys and they were all better than me."

In Salley's first year of junior high, Barney Davis, a coach of a professional basketball team called the New York Rens (the original Rens, named after the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, were the country's first great black team, having started barnstorming in 1923), came into the neighborhood and took an interest in Salley. "He showed me how to make a left-handed lay-up. He showed me how to slide my feet, how to make it down court with three dribbles. I didn't need all those dribbles. I would meet him after school in the park. I had to wash my clothes and do all the homework before I went out."

Salley was the last guy picked on his high school team by Jerry Pearlmutter, who had been one of his junior high teachers. Salley played in the Empire State Games with Pearl Washington, a standout guard at Syracuse who would go on to play three years in the NBA with the Knicks and the Heat. Salley played for a coach--whose name he says he has "blocked out"--who told him he had no potential and would never be any good.

"He told me the only reason I made the squad was that Pearl said, 'I want Salley on the team.' We went up to Syracuse, won the gold and he wouldn't play me," Salley recalls. "He told all the scouts I wasn't shit. I decided next year to never go a day when I wasn't playing basketball. All those people who were negative to me, I literally blocked them out of my brain. And I used all the negativity as fuel for my Rolls Royce."

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