Detroit has a checkered past with No. 1 picks, but there have been big hits, too

Detroit Free Press

Detroit’s “Big Four” professional sports teams — the Lions, Pistons, Red Wings and Tigers – have combined to win 22 championships over the past 120 years. And though it’s hard to believe, considering the city’s recent playoff drought — the last postseason victory by any of the four, a 2-0 win by the Wings over the Tampa Bay Lightning came on April 17, 2016 — they’ve rarely ended up on the completely opposite end of the competitive spectrum: Picking first in their drafts.

Perhaps that’s why Tuesday night’s reveal that the Pistons had won the NBA draft lottery was so surprising. In more than 260 combined drafts, the “Big Four” four combined only have a dozen previous No. 1 overall picks. (And no, they’re not all Lions’ picks, either.)

We’re still a month away from learning who’ll be the 13th No. 1 overall pick in Detroit sports history, so let’s take a look back at the previous dozen and how they fared before, during and after their stints in the Motor City:

1943 Lions: Frankie Sinkwich

Before the pick: The Lions certainly earned the No. 1 pick, going 0-11 and getting outscored by 225 points. (That’s an average losing margin of 22.5 points; for comparison, the 0-16 2008 Lions were only outscored by an average of 15.6 points) Sinkwich was a star rusher and passer at Georgia, winning the 1942 Heisman Trophy and joining the Marines during World War II in January before signing with the Lions in September.

In the pros: Sinkwich led the 1943 Lions in passing (699 yards on 50 completions in 126 attempts) and rushing (266 yards on 93 carries). He also averaged 20.7 yards on 11 punt returns and 25.6 yards on five kick returns and made the All-Pro team. But the Lions went 3-8. In 1944, Sinkwich was even more of the Lions’ offense — he attempted 148 passes (second-most in the NFL) and rushed 150 times (third-most) — as he earned another All-Pro nod and the league’s MVP award.

The aftermath: Released from the Marines in 1943, and later the Coast Guard, because of flat feet, Sinkwich was nabbed by the Army in 1945. His posting: playing football with the Second Army Air Force squad. When the war ended, he opted to jump to the NFL’s competitor, the All-American Football Conference, for a better contract with the New York (football) Yankees. “Fireball Frankie” wasn’t quite as fast, however, and he lasted just two seasons before retiring.

1950 Lions: Leon Hart

Before the pick: Hart, a two-time All-American end at Notre Dame, won the 1949 Heisman Trophy for his skills as a receiver and as a blocker. The Lions, meanwhile, went 4-8 in 1949; not the worst in the NFL, but they were given a “bonus pick” giving them the rights to Hart. With the merger of the NFL and AAFC before the 1950 season, that morphed into the “No. 1 pick” after much campaigning behind the scenes.

In the pros: Hart became an instant threat for the Lions in the passing game, with a 16.3 yards-per-catch average that ranked 10th in the league. The following year, he had 12 touchdown catches and made the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams. With Hart in the lineup, the Lions won titles in 1952, ’53 and ’57 (and lost the title game in ’54), though he moved from end to fullback in 1955.

The aftermath: Hart retired after the 1957 season, finishing with 3,111 yards from scrimmage in the NFL, on 317 touches. A Pennsylvania native, he raised his family in the Detroit suburbs. One of his five sons, Kevin, went on to play on Notre Dame’s 1977 national championship team after being named the captain of the Free Press’ 1974 Dream Team. Kevin Hart is still considered one of the state’s best offensive linemen of the past 50 years.

[ Mick McCabe’s high school sports book is a major hit! ]

1964 Red Wings: Claude Gauthier

Before the pick: Gauthier was a right wing in Quebec, playing for the Rosemount Midgets; his moment of fame came in a tournament in March 1964, a few months before the second-ever NHL draft. The Wings had the first pick despite finish fourth the previous year, thanks to a system that rotated the six clubs into the top spot regardless of record.

In the pros: Zip. Zero. Zilch. As in no games, no goals, no assists, no nothing with the Wings. In 1964-65, this wasn’t a problem for the Wings, as they finished first in the regular season. (That came before they were upset by the third-seeded Blackhawks in the first round in a playoff format that had the 1-seed play the 3-seed and the 2-seed play the 4-seed.)

The aftermath: To be fair to both Gauthier and the Wings, the NHL draft really wasn’t a thing in the 1960s. There were just 24 picks in 1964, and only nine of them went on to make the NHL. Most of the NHL-ready talent was still under contract with team-sponsored junior teams. Gauthier played a few more years of junior hockey, finishing with 15 goals and 15 assists in 19 games in 1966-67 with the St. Jerome Alouettes of the Montreal Metropolitan Junior Hockey League.

1967 Pistons: Jimmy Walker

Before the pick: Walker starred at Providence, averaging 25.2 points — including 30.4 in his final season — 5.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds a game over three seasons. The Pistons had finished last in the Western Division with the league’s second-worst record, better than only the Baltimore Bullets, who finished last in the Eastern Division. The Pistons, though, won a coin flip with the Bullets for the No. 1 pick and went after Walker, who was also being wooed by Indianapolis of the newly formed ABA. They won the bidding war against the Pacers with a four-year, $110,000 contract for Walker, and announced the deal the day before the draft. The money was big, but Walker may have been swayed by the advice of then-Pistons star Dave Bing, attempting to form his own proto-superteam: “I prefer Detroit anyway,” Walker was quoted the next day by the Freep, which noted Bing had spent a couple of exhibition games talking up the Pistons to Walker, who added, “He told me I should sign with Detroit. The NBA is the status league.”

In the pros: Walker struggled early, averaging just 8.8 points and shooting 39.4% in 19.6 minutes per game as a rookie. He shot better in Year 2, at 46.6%, but still only averaged 11.7 points a game. Finally, the 1969-70 season brought a serious jump in playing time — to 36.6 minutes a game — and a serious jump in scoring, as Walker averaged 20.8, 17.6 and 21.3 points per game over the next three seasons, making the All-Star team in 1970 and ’72.

The aftermath: The Pistons missed the playoffs in four of his first five seasons, making it only in his rookie season. They dealt him to the Houston Rockets for Stu Lantz in August 1972; Walker played four more seasons in the NBA with the Rockets and Kings before retiring. But his lasting contribution to Detroit — and Michigan — basketball arrived nearly six months after he left town: son Jalen Rose. Despite never meeting his father, Rose starred in basketball first at Detroit Southwestern, then as part of Michigan’s “Fab Five” in the 1990s before playing 13 seasons in the NBA.

1970 Pistons: Bob Lanier

Before the pick: Lanier starred at St. Bonaventure, averaging 27.6 points and 15.7 rebounds a game while shooting 57.6% from the field and leading the Bonnies to the Final Four in his senior year. The Pistons, meanwhile, finished with the NBA’s third-worst record, but last in their division, and won the ensuing coin toss with the Rockets. (With the No. 2 pick, the Rockets would end up taking Michigan star — and Hamtramck’s own— Rudy Tomjanovich.)

In the pros: Over 9 ½ seasons, Lanier averaged 22.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game and made seven All-Star teams. He averaged a double-double in seven of his nine full seasons with the Pistons, missing the mark only as a rookie — still making the first team All-Rookie squad — and 1978-79, when injuries limited him to 53 games.

The aftermath: As the Pistons returned to the cellar in the later years of his career, Lanier requested a trade to a contender. They sent him to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he played his final 4½ seasons while averaging 13.5 points a game. Milwaukee won its division every year with Lanier, but never advanced past the conference finals. Lanier was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.

1977 Red Wings: Dale McCourt

Before the pick: The Red Wings won 16 games in 80 tries and finished 13 points behind the 18-team NHL’s next-worst team (the Colorado Rockies, who would move to New Jersey in 1982). Their reward was one of three stars in juniors: Barry Beck, Robert Picard or McCourt, who averaged 56 goals and 79 assists a year over three seasons in juniors. As early as April, it was clear the Wings and GM Ted Lindsay were leaning toward McCourt: “McCourt is a fine centerman, he just reminds you of (Stan) Mikita a lot,” Lindsay told the Freep. “He just makes it happen and he’s got great strength. The other two men are big men that are defensemen.”

In the pros: McCourt was ready to play right away, with 33 goals, 39 assists and a plus-10 rating while finishing fourth in the rookie of the year voting. He delivered a big boost to the Wings’ fortunes as well, as they went from 41 points to 78 points and a playoff spot. McCourt’s second season was a step back, but understandably so due to off-ice issues: In the offseason, the Wings signed goalie Rogie Vachon away from the L.A. Kings, who were then awarded McCourt as compensation. McCourt fought the compensation rule in court and won early in the 1978 season, making him pretty popular with teammates such as left winger Nick Libett: “It’s the best thing that ever happened to the players of the National Hockey League. I think it’s just great. (The Wings instead sent two first-round picks to L.A. — the first of which became future Hall of Famer Larry Murphy.) In Year 3, McCourt was named Wings captain and had 30 goals and 51 assists. He added another 30 goals and 56 assists in his fourth season before the Wings traded him to Buffalo (and then-Sabres GM Scotty Bowman) in December 1981.

The aftermath: McCourt lasted just over than a season and a half with the Sabres —with 98 points in 119 games — before they bought him out and he signed with the Maple Leafs early in the 1983-84 season. His final NHL season, with 20 goals and 27 assists in 77 games with the Sabres and Leafs,  came at age 27.

1980 Lions: Billy Sims

Before the pick: The Lions won just two games in 1979: Week 4 vs. the Falcons by one poit and, somehow, a 20-0 rout on Thanksgiving vs. the Bears. Sims, you might have guessed, had a slightly happier 1979, rushing 224 times for 1,506 yards and 22 touchdowns for Oklahoma en route to a runner-up finish in the Heisman voting, That came a year after he won the Heisman after rushing 231 times for 1,762 yards and 20 touchdowns in 12 games.

In the pros: Sims debuted with 153 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 22 carries vs. the L.A. Rams, and Detroit was in love. Picking up another 134 yards in Week 2 against the Packers didn’t hurt, either. The Lions jumped out to 4-0 with Sims averaging 6.4 yards a carry. He finished the season with just over 1,300 yards, a league-high 13 rushing TDs, a Pro Bowl nod and the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award; the Lions, meanwhile, finished 9-7, for their first winning record since 1972. Sims’ follow-up campaign brought 1,437 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns in 14 games. Labor issues in 1982 held Sims to 639 yards as the Lions only played nine games, but 1983 brought another 1,000-yard season. Sims appeared to be hitting a new level in 1984 with five 100-yard games in his first eight, but then, tragedy: On Oct. 21, a few plays after setting the franchise’s career mark for rushing yards, Sims shredded his knee on a run against the Vikings in Minneapolis.

The aftermath: Sims was determined to make a comeback telling the Free Press in a news conference the day after his surgery: “I’ll be ready in 1985, you can count on that. I’ve been throwed and kicked by horses and cows and I’ve always come back. I’ll come back from this, too.” Nearly two years later, Sims announced his retirement.

1986 Red Wings: Joe Murphy

Before the pick: After making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the 1960s, the Red Wings lost star center Steve Yzerman for nearly 30 games with a broken collarbone and collapsed, back into the 1970s-era “Dead Wings” phase of the 1970s, with a 17-57-6 record that was 14 points worse than the next-worst team in a 21-team NHL. Meanwhile, Murphy starred for Michigan State, putting up 24 goals and 37 assists in 35 games as the Spartans won the 1986 NCAA title.

In the pros: Murphy made it into five games in his first season, all in October, then was sent to the AHL, where he had 21 goals and 38 assists in 71 games. He spent most of the 1987-88 season with the Wings, scoring 10 goals with nine assists. He only played 35 more games with the Wings, with four goals and eight assists before a November 1989 trade to Edmonton in a package for Jimmy Carson, the Grosse Pointe Woods product who’d been 1986’s No. 2 pick.

The aftermath: Murphy won a Stanley Cup with Edmonton in 1990, with 14 points in the playoffs. But the Oilers dealt him to Chicago in 1992. From there, he went on to play in St. Louis, San Jose, Boston and Washington, wrapping things up in 2001 with 528 points in 779 career games. After that, though, he dropped off the grid, becoming homeless in Canada.

1997 Tigers: Matt Anderson

Before the pick: The Tigers’ first season since the 1970s without Sparky Anderson as manager was a bust. They started 8-8 under new manager Buddy Bell, then finished with a 45-101 stretch to end up with 14 more losses than any other team. Matt Anderson, meanwhile, was arguably the most dominant — and MLB-ready — college pitcher available, posting a 1.82 ERA with 97 strikeouts over 74⅓ innings of relief for Rice.

In the pros: Contract negotiations with Anderson went to Dec. 23, meaning Anderson didn’t pitch again until 1998. But Anderson zoomed through spring training, allowing no runs and striking out six in 5⅔ innings at TigerTown. He started in High-A, where he allowed two earned runs over 26 relief innings, then allowed one earned run over 15 relief innings in Double-A. The Tigers called him up in late June and he was arguably the team’s most valuable reliever the rest of the season, with a 3.27 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 44 innings. But it all fell apart for Anderson the next season, as a mysterious “pitching flaw” led to an ERA over 6 in the majors and a demotion to Triple-A. Anderson eventually returned to the majors — the Tigers had too much sunk into him — but never figured it out, In the five seasons after his rookie year, Anderson had a 5.24 ERA over 202⅔ innings, and suffered a muscle tear in his right shoulder, destroying his velocity.

The aftermath: Anderson made 12 appearances in 2005 with the Colorado Rockies, then spent six more years attempting a comeback, including stints in the organizations of the San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox and, finally, the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011, all without returning to the majors.

2009 Lions: Matthew Stafford

Before the pick: A three-year starter at Georgia, the childhood teammate of MLB’er Clayton Kershaw did some hurling of his own, throwing for 7,731 yards and 51 touchdowns. That included 3,459 yards in 13 games as a senior, when he led the Bulldogs to a bowl win over Michigan State on New Year’s Day. That, of course, was one more win than the Lions had in all of 2008, as they became the first NFL team to go 0-16 in a single season.

In the pros: Injuries limited Stafford to 13 games played over his first two seasons combined. But in Year 3, Stafford became the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season, and the Lions made the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Stafford passed for at least 4,000 yards in seven of the next nine seasons — becoming the NFL’s highest-paid player for a while — as the Lions made the playoffs twice more without a postseason win. In October 2019, Stafford reached 40,000 passing yards, becoming the 21st QB to do so, and doing it in the fewest games.

The aftermath: A little more than two years later, after multiple injuries, Stafford requested a trade to a contender. The Lions obliged, sending him to the Rams for a package that included younger QB Jared Goff and multiple first-round draft picks. Stafford is set to suit up against his former team on Oct. 24, 2021.

2018 Tigers: Casey Mize

Before the pick: Mize went from undrafted as a high-school senior to the consensus top prospect on the strength of his sophomore and junior seasons at Auburn, where he had 255 strikeouts and a 2.77 ERA over 198⅓ innings. The Tigers, meanwhile, went 21-49 — a .300 winning percentage — after trading J.D. Martinez away on July 18, 2017. The deal signaled the beginning of a rebuild; the Tigers later traded Justin Verlander away and finished with a 64-98 record.

In the pros: Mize struggled in four 2018 appearances in High-A after signing in late June. But in 2019, he dominated High-A with a 0.88 ERA, then threw a no-hitter in his first Double-A start. Baseball’s shortened 2020 season — and the cancellation of the minor leagues — slowed Mize’s MLB debut, but only for a couple months. He joined the Tigers in mid-August 2020, and struggled, posting a 6.05 ERA in his first 12 starts (and 55 innings) of 2020 and 2021 combined. Since May, however, Mize has a 2.91 ERA in 55⅔ innings.

The aftermath: To be determined.

2020 Tigers: Spencer Torkelson

Before the pick: Torkelson homered 54 times in a little more than two seasons at Arizona State, including 25 as a freshman — breaking Barry Bonds’ freshman school record. The 2019 Tigers could’ve used Barry Bonds, even as the 55-year-old he would have been; they lost 114 games and finished last in the AL in nearly every major offensive category.

In the pros: The coronavirus pandemic stalled Torkelson’s pro debut until May 2021. He struck out 11 times in his first five games with High-A West Michigan, but in 35 games since — at West Michigan and Double-A Erie — the 21-year-old has a slash line of .232/.432/.629 with 24 walks and 23 strikeouts.

The aftermath: To be determined.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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