Isiah Thomas made his NBA debut Oct. 30, 1981 with the Detroit Pistons. They hosted the Milwaukee Bucks at the Pontiac Silverdome, and Milwaukee’s roster featured arguably the greatest Piston in franchise history at the time — Bob Lanier.
Lanier would eventually become a friend and mentor to Thomas, who led the Pistons to their first two championships in 1989 and 1990. That night, they weren’t friendly. Lanier had a well-earned reputation as a dominant big man possessing a fiery, competitive spirit. Opponents respected Lanier as an enforcer. Thomas was aware, and experienced it firsthand.
“I was having some success in the game early on,” Thomas recalled during a phone call with the Free Press on Wednesday. “I remember coming down the lane, and he literally grabbed me out of the air and gently set me down and said ‘Don’t come down here anymore.’ For the rest of the game, I became a great jump shooter. He was one of the true enforcers in the game. And he patrolled the paint. I remember that moment vividly in my head. That was my rookie night.
“Like many of us, there’s an on-court personality and then there’s an off-the-court personality. On-court as a competitor, and then as a big man, at that time his responsibility was to control the paint and keep people away from the rim. He definitely did that and he scored down low. Off the floor, he was as kind a person as you ever would want to meet.”
anier died Tuesday night at 73 years old after a battle with a short illness. He leaves behind a legacy as one of the most important figures in Pistons lore and NBA history.
Lanier was one of the league’s greatest big men. He made eight All-Star teams during his 14-year career from 1970-84 and is among the Pistons’ all-time leaders in several categories, including points per game (first at 22.7), blocks per game (second at two) and rebounds (third at 11.8).
Lanier was respected as a loyal friend off the court, for his tireless work as president of the National Basketball Players Association and for his efforts in the community. He was president of the NBPA from 1980-85, including during the negotiation of the league’s first collective bargaining agreement in 1983, which introduced the salary cap and formalized a revenue-sharing pact between players and owners. After his retirement, Lanier was a special assistant to former NBA commissioner David Stern and embraced being an ambassador for the league.
The Pistons drafted Lanier No. 1 overall in 1970 following a standout career at St. Bonaventure. Knee injuries plagued his career, but didn’t stop him from emerging as one of the franchise’s first superstars. He formed a formidable duo with Pistons great and fellow Hall of Famer Dave Bing, who was drafted by Detroit in 1966. Lanier averaged 22.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists during his decade with the Pistons.
“When you talk about Bob, you gotta talk about him as a person and not just a really great player,” Bing told the Free Press on Wednesday. “He was one of those big guys that wanted to make people think he was mean, he was tough, you couldn’t get close to him. But for those of us that really knew him, nothing could be further from the truth. Easy to get along with, big-time jokester, loved to play cards and to gamble a little bit playing cards.
“He had a great relationship here in the city, because in our era you lived in the city that you played in. He was always available and was always in the community. Got along with pretty much everybody. His love for kids, when we’d go to community centers or we’d go to rec centers, when we’d go to basketball camps in the city, the kids would automatically gravitate to him because he was so big. And he’d try to scare the kids and play games with them, et cetera. He will surely be remembered as a soulful member of the Pistons team, and also of this community.”
Seven of Lanier’s eight All-Star appearances were with the Pistons, who traded him to the Bucks before the 1980 trade deadline. For all of Lanier’s talent, Detroit only made the playoffs four times during his time with the organization. That lack of postseason success was a factor in his decision to request a trade. But he was a two-way force when healthy, possessing deft shooting touch, strong rim protection instincts and posting healthy assist numbers.
Ray Scott, who played for the Pistons from 1961-67 and coached the Pistons from 1972-76, recalled Lanier as being “highly-skilled, intelligent and very, very directed in what he wanted out of basketball.” Winning became a priority for Lanier and led to his split with the Pistons, but he was beloved in Detroit and his adaptability on the floor pushed Scott to make him the focal point of the offense. Lanier excelled during an era of dominant big men. He sparred against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Thurmond, Dave Cowens and Willis Reed, among others, and won his fair share.
Scott recalled Detroit’s seven-game series loss against the Chicago Bulls in 1974, during which Lanier averaged 26.3 points, 15.3 rebounds and three assists.
“A lot of people don’t remember that but he made us one of the top defensive teams in the league,” Scott said. “I’ll never forget that series with the Chicago Bulls. Bob was a Spartan. He did everything that we could possibly get him to do. He, in my opinion at that time, showed that he was one of the greatest in the league because he was competing against Thurmond and Cowens and Reed. He was doing an excellent, excellent job. He would take on the challenge of what we had to go through in the NBA. He would take on that challenge and lead us in many categories. But he was definitely a superstar.
“He was as good a big man as I’ve ever seen, and I grew up with Wilt Chamberlain.”
One one occasion, Lanier’s competitive spirit nearly burned his relationship with the Pistons. On Nov. 1, 1983, Lanier got tied up with Pistons great Bill Laimbeer and delivered a punch that broke Laimbeer’s nose. Lanier eventually expressed regret, and the two men made up. The Pistons would hang Lanier’s jersey in the rafters a decade later in 1993, nearly a decade after the Bucks did so in 1984.
“On the court, nobody wanted to mess with him,” George Blaha, the Pistons’ play-by-play voice since 1976, told the Free Press. “He was a really fierce competitor, and if you played him fair and square, you’d never have a problem. But if you didn’t, look out. I felt like the best thing about Bob on the court was his basketball IQ and his amazing touch. He could step out and shoot the jumper. His hook shot was phenomenal. And he was great around the rim. You’ll notice his name among the top Pistons shot-blockers, not because he jumped out of the gym, because of his size and his basketball savvy. I thought what he did for the Pistons franchise was really immeasurable, and he became almost a world-famous player and when that happens, that puts the Pistons on the map as well.
“It was just always great to be with him. A sensitive guy, kind-hearted guy and if he was your friend, he was your friend.”
Lanier’s work in the NBPA lives on, as the establishment of the CBA in 1983 is a watermark moment. Beyond the salary cap, the CBA also introduced regular drug testing for players, which helped the association’s image during an era when several players struggled with cocaine addiction.
Thomas followed in Lanier’s footsteps, becoming NBPA president from 1988 until he neared his retirement in 1994. After Lanier’s career ended, he helped start the NBA’s Stay in School program and worked closely with Stern, who is oft-credited with leading the league to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s.
Perhaps Lanier deserves credit for the NBA’s rise as well.
“Bob never had to work anywhere else,” Bing said. “He came out of college, went straight to the NBA, and from after his career, went straight to the league. For the majority of his adult life, it was all NBA. He loved the NBA and it allowed him some freedom and some flexibility to go all over the place. I don’t care where he went. I’ll tell you, he left a major, positive impression for himself but also for the league.”
“He will be missed, and just as influential and powerful as David Stern was,” Thomas added. “He was just as influential and powerful. And too many times, the media has only given the league office all of the glory. We as former presidents and union heads, we like to remind you that it was a two-way street, not just a one-way street, and Bob definitely was on the two-way street.”