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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 5)

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?'

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