Detroit Pistons center Bob Lanier was brightest star in a bleak decade for Detroit sports

Detroit Free Press

Bob Lanier was more than a reference in one of Hollywood’s goofiest movies. But the reference is instructive for what he meant to the Detroit sports scene in the 1970s.

The longtime Detroit Pistons center and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer died Tuesday night at 73 after a short illness.

I don’t remember his days lugging the limited Pistons squads of that era. I do remember his running hook shot and ahead-of-his-time elbow jumper for the Milwaukee Bucks’ contenders of the early 1980s though.

And I remember when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mentioned him in the 1980 movie, “Airplane.”

The former Lakers great played himself playing an airline pilot, and when a boy visited the cockpit and told Abdul-Jabbar his father didn’t think he tried hard enough on the court, the big man lost his composure.

“I’m out there busting my buns every night,” he told the kid. “Tell your old man to drag (Bill) Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.”

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In other words, few things in sports were harder than battling Bob Lanier. Likewise, fewer things in sports were harder than trying to bring a little joy to metro Detroit sports fans in the 1970s. (Though metro Detroit fans these days can relate.)

From 1970-80, the Tigers, Pistons, Lions and Red Wings won a whopping one division title … combined. The Tigers, Lions and Red Wings each made the playoffs once.

The Wings were so bad they earned a nickname to describe the putridness: “The Dead Wings.” The phrase found such traction it turned into a proper noun.

The city had few stars, unless you count Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the Tigers pitcher who shot across the baseball galaxy for a single season. Gordie Howe had departed the Wings to play with his sons in the World Hockey Association, an NHL competitor. The Lions had Charlie Sanders, one of the best tight ends in football, but he was also a tight end in an era well-removed from today, when TEs such as Rob Gronkowski capture national attention (and national endorsement deals).

At quarterback for the Lions? Greg Landry.

I’ve got two words: Roger Staubach. And two more: Terry Bradshaw.

Those were stars who played quarterback in the 1970s.

That left Pistons point guard Dave Bing, whose back half of his career came in the first part of the decade. And Lanier, who was so good he earned a name-drop in one of the most beloved movies of the time.

Lanier was physical and skilled. His lefty hook shot wasn’t quite Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook, but it was nearly as difficult to stop. He could put the ball on the floor and drive, and he could spot up from 14-16 feet.

He was as competitive as he was strong.

Oh, and he loved a good scrap. Just ask Bill Laimbeer. Though to call what Lanier did to Laimbeer a scrap early in November 1983 would be like calling a mist a hurricane.

Lanier dropped Laimbeer with a roundhouse left. Crumpled him to the hardwood. Then immediately leaned over to make sure Laimbeer was all right.

“It was the worst walk of my entire life,” Lanier said, describing the distance inside the Silverdome from near the visitors’ bench — he was playing for the Bucks then — to the exit back to the locker rooms. “I mean all those people I thought had my back, that they loved me, they jeered me. People throwing beer on you. These were supposed to be my people.”

Laimbeer had that effect on opponents. He induced many an angry swing during his career. Still, Lanier felt terrible about losing his cool. If you watch the tape, you can see remorse in his gestures as he bent down toward the Pistons center.

The punch didn’t change Lanier’s reputation. For one thing, punches were common in those days. For another, Lanier was as heartfelt and kind off the court as he was intense on it; he had spent almost 14 years doling out empathy and respect to everyone he met.

At his peak, the 1970 No. 1 overall pick was as beloved as any athlete in Detroit.

“My friend, Bob, was an extraordinary talent who led the Pistons to playoff status,” said Ray Scott, who coached the Pistons from 1972-76.  “He shared his success with his community. He will never be forgotten.”

After Lanier retired, his community grew as far as he could travel. He helped start the league’s Stay in School campaign and became the global ambassador for the NBA.

“There’s so much need out here,” Lanier once told ESPN. “When you’re traveling around to different cities and different countries, you see there are so many people in dire straits that the NBA can only do so much. We make a vast, vast difference, but there’s always so much more to do.”

Lanier never shied from the weight. Whether battling Abdul-Jabbar in the paint or societal issues everywhere else, the Hall of Fame big man leaves a formidable and deep legacy.

“His class and caring for others set a great example for so many to follow,” Isiah Thomas said. “I’m grateful for his friendship and mentorship.”

Just as Abdul-Jabbar is grateful for the competition.

Lanier played in an era when big men ruled the court and when the local sporting scene grew dark.

He remained the light.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor. 

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