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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 3)

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.

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.


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