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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 4)

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.


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