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Long Tall Salley

Former NBA Big Man John Salley makes a play for stardom after basketball.

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"What month were you born," Salley asks her. "July," she says. "July what?" he continues. "July 11th." "How old are you?" comes his next query in what is shaping up as a scintillating probe into sun sign astrology. He tells me, "I have to see if she's the right year for me to even talk to." But of course. The waitress giggles. "If she's the wrong year, I'm not even going through with it. I was born in the year of the dragon."

"What sign are you?" the waitress asks.

"I'm a Taurus," says Salley. "I know affection."

"Tauruses and Cancers get along," comes the waitress' penetrating observation about celestial connections.

"I know, my mother's a Cancer," Salley confirms. "I didn't give her any problems during pregnancy, nor when I was growing up. When is your birthday, July what?"

"July 11th, 1971," she says.

"If you were 1970, I couldn't talk to you. That's the year of the dog," he tells her, "and dragons don't get along with dogs." What is the significance of 1971, she wonders. "Snake or ox," he says. "I can tell you in a second....I used to know it by heart. Can you give me a lighter?"

John Salley likes to gab. A former member of the World Champion Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls (as well as the Miami Heat), current NBC basketball commentator and cigar store owner, Salley is a kind of walking chat room of interests, not the least of which are television, basketball and cigars. Salley clips and lights a La Gloria Cubana. "There've only been three cigars I smoked to the label," he says. "Fuente, Padrón and Don Melo. If I could swallow a Padrón, I would. I'm getting a cigar with all three of my championship rings on it, and I'm gonna hold it like this," he says with a smile, holding the La Gloria off to the side, imitating how he'll pose for the camera.

Cameras have been finding Long Tall Salley a good deal of late. With NBC Game of the Week host Hannah Storm (the best woman in the business by a country mile), analysts Peter Vecsey and Salley enjoy themselves, providing observant, amusing commentary on the NBA's featured games. After a New York-Houston game in February, Salley noted that several Knicks--notably Larry Johnson--had raised their level of play since Patrick Ewing's season-ending injury in December (the Knicks won 15 and lost 11 with Ewing and had gone 16-11 without him). He then kidded Vecsey, saying that Pete's criticism of Johnson's lackluster play earlier in the year had spurred the New York forward to play better in recent games.

On the other hand, Salley is occasionally guilty of the same excessive praise that is rampant in NBA coverage,. The Lakers' 19-year-old guard Kobe Bryant is one player singled out for coronation. Bryant may become a great player, but lets calm down. He is not yet the "air apparent" to Michael Jordan. One of Salley's advantages as an analyst, however, is that he has competed against many of today's players.

Salley played his last National Basketball Association season for the Bulls in 1996, the same year they set an all-time record by winning 72 games and losing 10. In June 1996 he earned his third world-championship ring in a 10-year career. Just 32, he could have gone on for more. But the power forward/center retired before the start of the 1996-1997 season. Why quit at such a young age?

"You know why I quit? The moment Jerry Krause [the Bulls' general manager] had the nerve to tell me, 'We can only pay you $375,000.' I thought it was a crock of bull. He said, 'But look, you get a chance to play with the Bulls, a chance to win one more ring.' Well, I can buy my own jewelry. I love playing with Michael [Jordan] and I love the situation. But I'm doing this for a living.

"I was making $3 million a year with Toronto [his multiyear contract with the Toronto Raptors was then still in effect]. He said, 'You're already getting your money from Toronto.' That had nothing to do with it. I had $12 million for five years with incentives for another $3 million. I had to give Isiah Thomas [then executive vice president of basketball operations with Toronto] back $1 million to get out of my contract, because he waived me.

"I was in Toronto five months before I went to the Bulls. Krause was the only one who knew where I was at. I wasn't going to take any waiver calls from anyone else. He said, 'What are you going to do, Sall?' I said, 'I'm going to go down to Miami Beach and sit on the beach.' It was funny, because I did whatever I had to do to be a Bull. They wanted to see about the chemistry and if I was going to fit perfectly with the team. I did that. Krause told me they couldn't pay the money and the next thing you know [before the 1996-1997 season] they give Robert Parish $2.5 million for two years." Parish, who was 43 when he got his contract, ended up playing an insignificant role, averaging about nine minutes a night in 43 games during the 1996-1997 season.

So Salley flew to Athens, Greece, to play for Panthinaikos, a team that with the help of Dominique Wilkins had won the European championship in 1996. But a dispute with management ended a deal that was to pay Salley $1.4 million. He made only a fraction of that when he didn't finish the season.

Salley had other cards to play. He had long thought of using his personality to land his own talk show. "I shot a pilot for my own show last summer," he says. "It was the John Salley show, a late-night talk show." It was slated to start last June. "Buena Vista television [a subsidiary of Disney] decided, with 95 percent of the country sold, that they would rather have Keenan Ivory Wayans do five days a week and me on Saturday."

A spokesperson at Buena Vista, who did not want to be named, said, "Buena Vista had hopes of doing both shows, but it wasn't feasible. We settled amicably."

"John's very smart," says Joy Dolce, Salley's manager and a talent executive for the ABC show "Politically Incorrect." "He thought that Buena Vista would be putting all their marketing resources and talent into Keenan's show and not his." So Salley decided that it would be better not to swim against the tide and that he'd try a talk show at a later date. He settled for $250,000 with Buena Vista.

Salley, who was renting a home in Beverly Hills, continued working with people like Malcolm Jamal Warner and Eddie Griffin on "The Malcolm and Eddie Show," a sitcom on UHF cable. Then the call from NBC Sports came. The high-flying Doctor, Julius Erving, had flown his studio perch to become the executive vice president of the Orlando Magic. NBC thought that Salley would be a good fit.

"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."

His motivation was simple. "I didn't want to be in the projects no more. I told my mom, who didn't want me to play, and I begged her, 'Let me play and I'll buy you a brand new house and we'll get out' and told my father, 'I'll buy you a new car you don't have to fix every Saturday.' And they were, like, 'Oh, that's nice, Johnny.'"

Salley attended Georgia Tech, where over a four-year career he connected on 59 percent of his shots and averaged 34 minutes, 13 points and six rebounds per game. He graduated with a degree in industrial management and a minor in marketing.

In June 1986, he was drafted 11th in the nation by Detroit. Now the naysayers who always contended he couldn't make it amended their story, saying he had only made it to the big show because he had gone to Georgia Tech. No matter. He was playing with the Pistons, a team that boasted such stars as Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Adrian Dantley, and was coached by Chuck Daly. Moreover, the Pistons were a team on the verge of something big.

Salley signed a five-year deal for $2.2 million. "The first thing I did was bought my father his car. Second thing I did was bought my mother her house. I bought my father a Lincoln Continental. A big stinkin' blue Lincoln with the blue leather top and spokes in the wheels. Built them a house in Atlanta, Georgia."

Salley found a mentor. Dantley, who averaged more than 30 points a game for four seasons in his career--but was inexplicably left off the NBA's list of the all-time 50 best players--was called "teacher" by Salley. "If it wasn't for A.D., I would have eaten hamburgers and not known how to work out. I wouldn't have known how to take care of my body, not known about vitamins, not known how to get treatment and massage, not known how to stay in my room. A.D. had a saying: 'When you go on the road, you better get used to these four walls in your hotel room. You gotta do a job.' "

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.

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