Take a tour of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and you’re likely to come across a peculiar exhibit: a bronze replica of Bob Lanier’s size 22D Converse sneakers. His famously large feet led to some commercial success in the 1970s, but it also serves as something of a metaphor for the playing career of an immensely talented player that left an indelible mark on the NBA. He’s been described by those who knew him as a looming big brother figure; a former union president who served his fellow players, and a lifelong charity ambassador and kind-hearted mentor to the next generations of players. What’s been lost to time is evidence of the player himself.
Bob Lanier left Detroit shortly before I was born, and he retired shortly thereafter. I, of course, have no memory of seeing him play in person, but that didn’t stop my curiosity. There is plentiful footage available of his Milwaukee days. The Bucks were a premier team, a frequent CBS feature, and a playoff mainstay at the time. Those days were well past his prime, though. You saw glimpses of what made him a Hall of Famer, but never the full picture. His Detroit days are far more difficult to find. To this day, my library of Bob Lanier’s greatest hits is sorely limited. The frustrating part is that every game I watch from his Pistons years makes me want to see two more. Lanier wasn’t just good, he was special. He earned tremendous praise from every teammate and opponent he ever shared a floor with, yet his trophy case is bare and he’s very rarely mentioned among the game’s greatest centers. I’m going to try and unravel the conundrum as best I can.
What was Bob Lanier’s game?
One of the things that strike me every time I see Lanier play is his immense array of skills. Bob could score 10 baskets and no two would look alike. His go-to was always his left-handed rolling hook shot, an A+ move that served him well, but he also developed the ability to use his right when defenders shaded him on the block. His face-up game was hardly average, either. He could shoot over the top of defenders and use the glass, give a head fake and drive to the rim, or use his array of up and under moves to draw contact or avoid it altogether. On top of that, he had to be respected at any distance. Lanier had range comfortable beyond 20 feet when needed. I’ve seen him referred to as the best deep-shooting big man of his era, and I absolutely buy it. I haven’t seen Lanier shoot often from beyond 16 feet, but when he has he’s looked comfortable.
That brings us to what made Lanier such a complete weapon: his power game. At 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds (he got up to at least 260-270 in his prime), Bob typically doubled as the biggest and most skilled player on the floor. Taller, leaner shot-blockers bounced off of him whenever he put his weight on them in the post and spun off. His gravity as a roll man was tremendous. He had an excellent touch around the rim, finished well against contact, and was a pretty good passer when the defense collapsed on him, which was frequent.
Lanier wasn’t entirely without flaws. He had nimble feet for a man his size but was relatively slow footed in transition. He didn’t have a great feel for pick-and-roll defense, and his declining health rapidly sapped his effectiveness as a shot-blocker. At his best, his superb knack for rebounding made him a net neutral defender. As he got older, he was picked on frequently. Still, he was so effective offensively that it was nothing for him to take over a game if he found an opportunity. In any sort of space, no one in his day could match both his bulk and scoring variety. He wasn’t the greatest center of his day, but he might have drawn the most defensive attention on a nightly basis. The fear from opposing teams was evident in the usual gameplan against Detroit, which was to force anyone not named Bob Lanier to shoot the ball.
Why Didn’t he have more team success?
Lanier’s playing career was one of momentary achievement followed immediately by misfortune. As a college senior, he led tiny St. Bonaventure past Villanova in their 1970 NCAA regional final en route to their first and only Final Four appearance. As the Bonnies were closing the game out, Bob tore his ACL. He could do nothing but watch as his teammates were no match for Artis Gilmore and Jacksonville in the national semifinal. It was an injury that would haunt him for the rest of his playing days.
One of the early beneficiaries of the NBA/ABA talent war, Lanier was earmarked for the NBA before his college career was even finished, and awaiting him was a 5-year, $1.2 million deal from the team that selected him. One possible suitor was Lanier’s childhood team, the Boston Celtics, were a year removed from the end of Bill Russell’s career and in the market for a new franchise center to anchor their next championship run. On the other hand, there was another team that beat the Celtics to the bottom of the east that spring. That was the Pistons, and they’d been in the market for a franchise center since 1948.
The Pistons won their coin flip with the Rockets for the No. 1 pick in the 1970 NBA Draft and selected Lanier, who was awaiting the news from his hospital bed. The Rockets selected Michigan forward Rudy Tomjanovich, the Atlanta Hawks followed with LSU’s playmaking phenom Pete Maravich, and the Celtics, who had the fourth pick, took Florida State center Dave Cowens. Lanier, from multiple accounts, was considered the best prospect on the board by every team at the top of the draft, Boston included. Despite a knee injury that was a death knell to many pro careers at the time. His potential was simply too immense to pass on, even for Pistol Pete, who averaged 44 points his final year at LSU and still had two healthy knees. Pistons general manager Ed Coil had a tough decision to make, but he made the right one.
From the outset of Lanier’s rookie season, he was plagued by his bad knee. Despite not missing a single game, his contributions were limited and he played fewer than 30 minutes in at least 55 of them. Nevertheless, the Pistons, 31-51 the year prior, were transformed almost instantly. They won their first nine games of the 1970-71 season, a team record that stands to this day. Detroit ran their fast start to 12-1 before coming back to earth, but the point was proven. Led by their rookie big man, the Pistons were no longer a pushover. There was, unfortunately, another big change to the NBA that season. In an effort to streamline scheduling, the league broke its East and West divisions up into conferences, with playoff seeds awarded to the top two teams in each of the four divisions. The Pistons, to make things even, were banished to the Western Conference, and into the Midwest Divison with contenders Chicago, Phoenix, and a Milwaukee Bucks team that already had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and acquired Oscar Robertson to form one of the greatest 1-2 combos in NBA history.
The Pistons, despite winning 45 games, finished dead last in their division and were disqualified, while three teams with worse records made it, including the top two teams in the Eastern Conference’s Central Division. Bob Lanier’s on-the-job rehabilitation was cut short, and he once again had to watch from home as Dave Cowens accepted the Rookie of the Year award on behalf of a Celtics team that had actually won fewer games than the Pistons.
Drafting Lanier was hardly the cure for all of Detroit’s problems. They were still very much a circus act, which reared its ugly face in Lanier’s second season.
- Point guard Dave Bing, on the cusp of superstardom, suffered a detached retina in the 1971-72 season opener that cost him 37 games and marked the start of his own physical decline.
- Head coach Butch Van Breda Koff quit his job just nine games later, shortly after signing a 2-year contract extension.
- Van Breda Koff was replaced on an interim basis by Terry Dischinger, who doubled as one of the team’s small forwards.
- Dischinger was eventually succeeded by Earl Lloyd, a scout/assistant coach that had been loyally waiting in the wings for almost a decade for a head coaching opportunity, repeatedly denied only because he was a black man. Howard Komives, of the few white players on the team, staged an attempted coup after being DNP’d, implying Lloyd was racist. The attempt failed and Komives was forced to apologize before being traded out of Detroit, but the stigma remained and Lloyd was fired shortly after the start of the following season.
I spotlight all of this because Bob Lanier still managed to arrive as a superstar in this cesspool, averaging a career-best 25.7 points to go with 14.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists. The 1972 season would be his first of seven trips to theAll-Star game over the next eight seasons. The Pistons finished 26-56.
Hope and Heartbreak
There was one chance to turn the Pistons around during the Bob Lanier era – the 1973-74 season. Dave Bing, diminished by blurred vision but, as quick as ever, was finally starting to build some chemistry with Lanier as a floor general under coach Ray Scott, who seemed to find the right buttons to push. The Pistons broke through after two losing seasons, winning 52 games for the first time in franchise history. Lanier, a workhorse playing nearly 38 minutes per game, was beginning to hit his prime. His averages of 22.5 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3 blocks per game earned him a third-place finish in MVP voting, and he added an All-Star game MVP for good measure. The Pistons were still just the third-highest seed in their own division, but this time it was enough for them to finally earn a spot in the conference semifinals. The Chicago Bulls awaited.
The Bulls and Pistons did not have any more fondness for each other in 1974 than they did in 1991. Two of the NBA’s most physical teams engaged in a seven-game rockfight that saw only one starter on each team shoot better than 50% from the field; Chicago’s Chet Walker and Lanier. The Pistons big man simply overpowered the Bulls’ top-ranked defense, and his series averages of 26.3 points and 15.7 rebounds led both teams. Despite outplaying the Bulls for most of the series, the Pistons found themselves down 19 points in Chicago Stadium early in the second half of game 7. They staged a comeback for the ages, tying the score with two minutes to go but an errant inbound pass by Bing with three seconds left slammed the door on the comeback. The Pistons lost game 7 by two points despite outscoring the Bulls by 16 in the series. Lanier would never again get this close to postseason success in Detroit.
The Pistons spent the rest of the 1970s trying to bottom out, but Lanier kept them afloat through sheer force of will. Within two years Bing and Ray Scott were gone and yet the superstar big man kept dragging the Pistons back to the postseason for three more seasons. In 1976, he even earned his first playoff series victory as a Piston against a Kareem-less Bucks squad, scoring 65 points over the final two games. It would be Lanier’s only playoff series victory in Detroit.
Following another disappointment in 1978, new team owner Bill Davidson decided to put his thumb on the scale by hiring University of Detroit head coach Dick Vitale to run the franchise, from the bench to the front office. Not a patient man, Dick’s aggressive “ReVITALEize the Pistons” campaign consisted of trading future draft picks for players he felt could help immediately. It was a dud, and in addition, Bob Lanier’s surgically repaired left knee was deteriorating. The final straw came in 1979 on the heels of a 30-52 season when Vitale dealt away two 1980 first-round picks, including his own, to Boston for Bob McAadoo. The big man’s best days were long behind him and he had no desire to play in Detroit. Davidson declared the Dick Vitale era over 12 games into the 79-80 season. His replacement, Jack McClosky, met with Bob Lanier and came to a mutual agreement that the team had to be torn down and at 31, Lanier couldn’t stick around. There was no tearful goodbyes. Only relief.
In his 10th season as a Piston, Bob Lanier was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Pistons would finish a franchise-worst 16-66, and thanks to Vitale’s mismanagement, they didn’t even own their own draft pick.
Milwaukee’s Best Wasn’t Good Enough
Unlike the Pistons, the Bucks were a steady ship, and they already possessed young stars in Sidney Moncrief, Junior Bridgeman, and Marques Johnson, as well as a Hall of Fame mastermind coach Don Nelson. They hoped Lanier would give them the interior presence they lacked. They were right. Lanier joined a Bucks team hovering around .500 and he helped them finish the season on a 20-6 tear, taking the defending champion Sonics to seven games in the playoffs and nearly dethroning them.
Lanier’s quote about the Bucks’ late-season success? “There’s one thing that makes me sad. I wanted it to happen in Detroit.”
Moving from the Eastern Conference in 1980, the Bucks were the biggest fish in the NBA’s smallest pond: the Central Division. Milwaukee won the Central in each of Lanier’s four full seasons with the Bucks. The Pistons had not won their division during his 10 years there. With Laner’s knee condition worsening, he was eventually told he couldn’t play in back-to-back games. While that counts for routine management now, it was a practice unheard of 40 years ago.
His scoring average dipped to 10-14 points and his minutes were slashed to roughly half the game, but he didn’t care; it helped prolong his career and the Bucks were winning 50-60 games a season. Unfortunately, the Bucks could not get through the gauntlet of Boston and Philadelphia. The Sixers eliminated the Bucks in 1981 and 1982. Upon sweeping their way past Bird’s Celtics in 1983, Milwaukee was dumped by the Sixers a third time in the conference finals. In Lanier’s final season, the Bucks managed to avoid the Sixers and made it back to the conference finals only to be wiped out by the Celtics.
How would Bob Lanier Have Fared Today?
It would be easy for me to say Bob Lanier would be dominating in 2022. He was an immensely skilled player and the modern rules are set up to showcase skilled players. His lack of mobility would hurt him a little, but he would bulldoze many of today’s centers with all the extra spacing, and I have no doubt that he would be an established 3-point threat. I’d go a step further and say modern medicine would be a much more important point in Lanier’s favor. His chances of a full recovery would increase tenfold, and he wouldn’t have been rushed into action before he was ready. The most obvious modern-day comparison for him would be Demarcus Cousins whose career has also been plagued by knee problems. Bob played with so much more composure though and was the quintessential teammate even as he was being asked to shoulder far too much of the burden.
A Legacy of What-ifs
Bob Lanier retired on September 24, 1984. The Bucks, expressing gratitude for him playing through tremendous pain for 4.5 seasons, retired his No. 16 the following December.
The Pistons would not retire No. 16 until January 9, 1993, a year after the Hall of Fame had already enshrined him. A result, I suppose, of hard feelings from ownership over the bitter divorce between them and the brooding superstar they’d inherited. It’s become almost cliche today to boil a superstar’s value down to wins and losses, but in Lanier’s case, I don’t see it that way. He was mismanaged from the get-go, the team around him was mismanaged for a decade, and was never a picture of health at any point. His knee required constant maintenance, from surgeries to injections, to having fluid drained before games. He was playing through it long before he arrived in Milwaukee. The Bucks simply could afford to give him a break and compete at the same time.
His tenure in Detroit is almost impossible to not marvel at for how much of a rock he was for a hopeless franchise. From his second season to the end of his 20s, he averaged between 23-26 points and 11-14 rebounds. He scored more points during his Detroit years than any of his peers other than Kareem, and only Kareem could surpass his efficiency on such a high volume. What of Dave Cowens, the center taken after Lanier in 1970? Two seasons after winning Rookie of the Year, he was named MVP on his way to winning a pair of rings in Boston in the following three years. From a scoring standpoint, Lanier dwarfed Cowens, but Cowens landed in a far better spot. He was able to utilize his court vision, mobile frame and non-stop motor to be the two-way glue guy the Celtics needed. A three-time all-NBA and
All-Defense selection, Cowens was more of a hub than a go-to guy, and reaped the rewards. Lanier matched Cowens with eight All-Star appearances but was never named all-NBA.
Why was Lanier left off every All-NBA team for which he was eligible? It’s important to note the era he played. Here are the centers responsible for the 18 first- and second-team selections during Lanier’s nine full seasons in Detroit:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 8 (6 first, 2 second)
- Dave Cowens: 3 (3 second)
- Bill Walton: 2 (1 first, 1 second)
- Bob McAdoo: 2 (1 first, 1 second)
- Moses Malone (1 first)
- Wilt Chamberlain (1 second)
- Willis Reed (1 second)
All seven players on this list took home at least one MVP. Five of them won championships during the 1970s, and the other two would get theirs in the following decade. Still, Lanier was right there with them in status, finishing top-10 in MVP voting four times and top-5 twice. All-NBA selections typically go to winners, and each of them played on far better teams than Lanier did. This includes McAdoo, who at the very least had one of the better off guards in the game next to him in Randy Smith. It’s easy to counter that argument with Bing, who at his peak was a better player than Smith, but Bing was never really healthy after the eye problems, which brings us to the larger question: What if Lanier hadn’t torn up his knee in the NCAA tournament?
It’s a consensus opinion among Lanier’s peers that we never got to see his true potential in the NBA. His peak was perhaps 90% of it, but he still some extra lacked explosion and overall mobility, in addition to playing in constant pain. If anything, logging 36-40 minutes a night in Detroit only hastened his decline. Did being drafted by the Pistons doom Lanier’s career? Of course not; he’s still in the Hall of Fame, and his jersey is retired by two different franchises. Did it hard-cap his ceiling? Absolutely. He is, in my estimation, the best center to ever wear a Pistons jersey, and the best player in NBA history to never be named to an All-NBA team. There is a solid argument to be made for Nate Thurmond, one of the best defensive players of all time, but I’m going with Lanier for the incredible skill level.
Of all the great players of the 1970s, Bob Lanier and Bill Walton are my two favorites to go back and watch, because they were such uniquely talented players and there is so little film of them at their best. Walton with his point-center approach, and Lanier with his “any way you want it” bag of offensive gifts. At least Walton has the 1977 NBA Finals for people to go back and study, though. The Dobber had no such legacy showcase, and film of the 1974 Pistons/Bulls slugfest that was his highest stage may as well be locked away in Fort Knox. In a lot of ways, Bob Lanier is emblematic of a bygone era full of legendary names with big statistics that the NBA loves to mention but we’ll always be left wishing we could learn a little more.