Archive for Detroit Pistons

Jul
11

President Van Gundy Still Sounds Like Coach Van Gundy

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Fourteen months into his dual role as Pistons president/coach, it’s quite evident that Stan Van Gundy is a coach at heart, and an executive in title.

The first indicator is in his verbal delivery.

Van Gundy doesn’t speak in the slow, measured tones of most sports executives.

Joe Dumars, SVG’s predecessor, would take to the podium during one of his many media summits as he tried to explain yet another coaching change, and Joe gave thoughtful, if uneventful, answers. He had decorum, even when the Pistons’ world was collapsing around him.

Think of the other GMs in town.

Kenny Holland of the Red Wings has a voice drenched in Western Canada so you know that he’s a hockey guy as soon as he opens his mouth. But Holland doesn’t come at you in a rat-a-tat-tat, staccato way. I don’t think any Canadian does, except for Don Cherry.

David Dombrowski of the Tigers speaks casually, almost in a matter-of-fact manner. He is rather emotionless. He has never, that I am aware, gotten short or terse with the media. His answers and explanations of his moves don’t tumble out of his mouth without being filtered. It’s like he’s talking while using his own seven second delay.

Marty Mayhew of the Lions, if he was a college professor, would no doubt be a cure for insomnia for any student who attended his classes.

But Van Gundy talks like a coach, even when he’s supposed to be being the president.

The coach speak was at the fore the other day as the Pistons introduced new small forward Marcus Morris to the scribes.

Morris was acquired last week in a trade with the Phoenix Suns.

As is typical Van Gundy, even when he’s trying to be presidential, the words came out during the Morris presser with the urgency of a coach talking to his team during a timeout.

“Now I think we’ve got two guys with size, strength and quickness that can get in there and battle at that spot,” the Pistons president (or was it coach?) said about Morris and recently drafted small forward Stanley Johnson.

“Physically, we’ve gotten a lot tougher. We wanted to add some toughness and I think with Marcus, with Stanley, with (Aron) Baynes, with (Ersan) Ilyasova … we’ve added tough, physical guys and great competitors so I feel really good about that.”

Van Gundy came up for air. Then there was some more urgent, almost frenetic talk.

“All of those guys also bring a real good energy to the floor and I think we did all of that with not only not sacrificing shooting but improving our shooting. So with all of those reasons, we should be a lot better. I think we’re more versatile. I think we’ve got a lot more guys who can play more than one position and can defend more than one position.”

All the while, Van Gundy sounded like a coach, as he squirmed in his chair with some eager anticipation and rattled off the virtues of Marcus Morris. It was like he was at halftime and couldn’t wait to game plan for the second half.

The two-headed monster that is Stan Van Gundy appears to be a case of coach first, executive second. I still don’t know how GM Jeff Bower fits into this whole thing, for example, though Bower has been presented as the guy who runs the daily operations of the team—especially during the grind of the 82-game regular season.

As for SVG the president, the jury is still out. He’s made a boatload of moves since being hired a year ago May, but it’s too early to declare them winners or losers, although a few of his signings last summer were odd.

He’s trying, that’s for sure. You knew the roster would churn when Pistons owner Tom Gores gave SVG the key to the executive washroom. And why shouldn’t it have churned? It’s not like the Pistons have done anything of note since 2008, other than fire coaches and sign free agent busts.

Van Gundy the coach wants to have a roster that fits his coaching style and philosophy, which every NBA coach wants. Except in Detroit, the coach gets to pick his players and trade and sign like a kid in a candy store.

Van Gundy wants a good big man surrounded by four guys who can shoot. It’s the way he’s won in the league and he doesn’t see any reason to change his spots now. The trades and signings he’s made since last season began demonstrate a slow but sure transformation of the Pistons into a more SVG-like squad.

Van Gundy the president continued to sound like a coach as the Morris presser went on.

“We think that Marcus is at a point in his career where he’s already established himself as a very good player but now with an increased opportunity we think he’s got a chance to blossom into more than you’ve seen so far. So we couldn’t be more excited to have him here and looking forward to getting the season started,” SVG said with unbridled enthusiasm and restlessness.

After just one season it’s far too early to determine whether the Pistons’ two-headed monster is going to pan out.

But Stan Van Gundy the executive is trying to give Stan Van Gundy the coach the roster that the latter wants.

I still have the feeling that Van Gundy is a coach at heart who is having a ball being the president, because what coach wouldn’t love that?

“We said going into the summer that our biggest priority was to get a starting small forward and with this deal we think we’ve done that,” Van Gundy continued as he raved about Morris in a way that only an NBA coach could.

You get the impression that Van Gundy would just as soon be blowing the whistle right now for the start of training camp’s first practice.

He wore a Pistons polo shirt, for example, while going on and on about Morris.

Bower wore a dress shirt.

Typical.

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Mar
22

Monroe Another Big Man Being Wasted by Pistons

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The Pistons teased Bob Lanier when he played in Detroit.

Lanier, the greatest big man in franchise history, got teased from the moment the Pistons chose him first overall in the 1970 NBA draft, out of St. Bonaventure.

Lanier was flat on his back in a hospital bed, his leg immobilized in a cast, when the draft took place. A serious knee injury suffered in his last college game made him a temporary gimp.

Yet the Pistons, for too many years a team that was a doughnut (a hole in the middle), had faith in the 6’11” Lanier and, despite his knee injury, snatched him off the board.

Lanier combined with young point guard David Bing to create an inside-out presence that the Pistons had never known. And the Pistons got off to a 9-0 start in Lanier’s rookie season.

One can only imagine the sugar plums going through Lanier’s head. Rookie year, undefeated after nine games. How many championships will I win in the NBA?

Teased!

Lanier and Bing were great, but the supporting cast was always a work in progress. Some pieces were contributory, but others weren’t a great fit. The result was that the Pistons were frequent playoff participants in the 1970s but only once did they get past the first round (1976).

More teasing for Lanier.

Lanier played for eight coaches in his nine-plus years as a Piston. The revolving door was letting in the stench of organizational dysfunction.

There was no free agency in the NBA when Lanier played. Even now, only speculation can be used as to whether he would have bolted Detroit if given the option.

There wasn’t free agency in Lanier’s day, but there were trades. And finally, late in 1979, Bob Lanier, the face of the Pistons franchise once Bing was traded in 1975, demanded to be relocated.

The Pistons were going through turmoil, yet again, when Lanier approached new GM Jack McCloskey and all but begged to get him out of Detroit.

Lanier was 31 years old and he wasn’t in denial about that. The calendar wasn’t his friend and he wanted so badly to compete for an NBA championship.

The Pistons in 1979 were a mess. As usual.

The team had changed coaches. As usual.

Bob McAdoo, another great big man, had been added to the roster but McAdoo was unhappy, uninspired and unwilling to play nice.

The Pistons were stripped of draft choices thanks to the brief but ruinous era of Dick Vitale and the future looked bleak. The team was winning once every six games or so.

Lanier had had enough of the Pistons, though it pained him to ask for the trade. Any success he was going to have in the NBA, he wanted to have it in Detroit.

But that clearly wasn’t going to happen in the near future with the Pistons, who weren’t even bothering to tease Lanier anymore. They had now moved on to being just plain bad.

McCloskey pulled the trigger on the deal in early-February, 1980. Lanier was shipped to the Milwaukee Bucks, who knew how to win, and the Pistons got Kent Benson, who was no Lanier, but they also received a coveted first-round draft choice.

The Bucks teased Lanier, too.

More playoffs. More post-season heartbreak, though Milwaukee once made it as far as the conference finals with Lanier at center.

Greg Monroe is no Bob Lanier but neither is he a stiff, by a long shot.

Monroe is a left-handed shooting big man, just like Lanier. He has played for a lot of coaches in Detroit, just like Lanier. Monroe has seen organizational dysfunction, just like Lanier.

But where Monroe differs from Lanier is in two respects.

One, Monroe has never played in a playoff game in the NBA. He was never teased by the Pistons.

Two, Monroe can be a free agent and shop his talents around the league.

Monroe doesn’t have to sidle up to Pistons czar Stan Van Gundy and beg to be relocated. Monroe’s expiring contract will do that work for him this summer.

There was a brief moment this season where the Pistons flirted with playoff contention. They moved on from Josh Smith and a 5-23 start and clawed their way into the picture for spring basketball.

Then Brandon Jennings got hurt and Van Gundy made some trades at the deadline and whatever fragile chemistry the Pistons had was ruined.

Through it all, Monroe has been healthy and doing his thing on the court. One can only imagine what’s going through his head off it.

When the Pistons were in the hunt for the playoffs in February, Monroe’s comments to the press didn’t even attempt to hide his giddiness at such a scenario. Even the notion of being in the mix tantalized Monroe.

But now that’s all gone by the wayside and the Pistons can’t use a playoff berth as a means to entice Monroe to sign with them long term before or after July 1.

Van Gundy will have to use a full court press to convince Monroe that the SVG Way is the path that will lead to competitive basketball in Detroit.

Monroe will have to feel good about the direction in which the Pistons are heading, or else he is sure to get big bucks elsewhere. Unlike Bob Lanier, Monroe isn’t tethered to the Pistons and he doesn’t have to beg for a trade.

Monroe can simply peel off his Pistons jersey after Game 82 this season and move on from them.

Unless he wants to stay.

Greg Monroe has leverage in today’s NBA that Bob Lanier could only fantasize about, 35 years ago.

Today’s Pistons are much closer to contention than the 1979-80 team (16-66) that Lanier begged to be removed from. But Monroe still has played five years in the NBA and all he’s known is losing, coaching changes and chaos.

The Pistons will be asking Monroe to take a leap of faith that, heretofore, has little basis on which to positively refer.

At least the Pistons haven’t teased Greg Monroe.

We’ll see if that’s good or bad.

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The non-contact injury is the scariest of them all.

Sure, there have been some humdingers when bodies have collided and joints get twisted in ways that joints were not meant to be twisted. Think Joe Theismann.

But for whatever reason, the injuries that occur when nary a soul is around the victim, often are among the most devastating.

Dan Marino played 17 years in the rough-and-tumble world of pro football, at quarterback, no less—a position where boys are grown on farms in Iowa and Nebraska specifically to destroy.

Yet I watched in 1993 on television when Marino was felled by…no one.

The game was played in Cleveland. On the sod of Municipal Stadium, Marino did some tap dancing in the pocket, avoiding a pass rush. He did a good job of avoiding potential sackers, but suddenly he collapsed, writhing in pain.

Marino had popped his Achilles tendon. He missed the rest of the season, and nobody had touched him.

Norm Nixon was a whirling dervish of a guard who had starred for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1977-83, and who was playing for the same town Clippers in 1986 when he stepped into a hole in New York’s Central Park during a celebrity softball game.

Nixon missed the entire 1986-87 season, and the only contact he had was his foot in a hole.

Professional basketball players are rough on their knees, ankles and feet. They stop, start and accelerate very abruptly and with violence.

Sometimes a tendon or a ligament gives way, with no contact involved—unless you count sneaker-to-floor.

Brandon Jennings, Pistons point guard whose exemplary play had led his team to a 12-3 run starting just before Christmas, was guarding an in-bounds pass on Saturday night in Milwaukee. No one was near enough to breathe on him, let alone make any physical contact with him.

It was one of those injuries where, when watching on TV, you don’t notice it right away.

But then the camera cut to Jennings, who was inexplicably on the court, in great distress. By the looks of things, something was seriously wrong with his left leg, below the knee.

Everyone wearing Pistons blue, and coach Stan Van Gundy, and the fans watching back home in Detroit, got a sinking feeling.

Non-contact injury. Not good.

You hope for the best and expect the worst when these things happen, and with Jennings, it was the latter.

The worst: a ruptured Achilles.

Prognosis: out for the season and then some.

Jennings may miss a calendar year, if his recovery falls in line with similar injuries to basketball players.

It was a slug in the gut to the Pistons, who’d been prancing through their schedule with unbridled enthusiasm, fun and winning on enemy courts with stunning normalcy.

Jennings was the unquestioned leader of the resurgence, though the Pistons have had many heroes since December 22, when the team shockingly released Josh Smith, which spawned the 12-3 run.

Prior to the injury, Jennings was playing out of his mind, scoring and assisting and defending and growing more comfortable in the idea of the Pistons being “his team.”

The game before the injury, Jennings posted a 20/20 (points/assists), which was the first in the NBA in over five years.

Van Gundy has needed a thesaurus to describe Jennings’ play on a nightly basis over the past month.

The injury is rotten luck for a team that could sure use some good fortune.

So let’s go looking for a silver lining to this latest cloud.

During the 12-3 run, the Pistons have rightly pointed to the host of players who have contributed mightily to the team’s success. It’s not just one guy, they have said over and over.

Despite Jennings’ spectacular play, this is true.

So here’s the Pistons’ chance to prove that they’re not just made of one guy.

Backup D.J. Augustin, who now assumes Jennings’ starting role, is off to a good start in his new job. On Saturday in Toronto, Augustin scored 35 points and dished out eight assists. The Pistons lost, but the pain of the loss was at least partially mitigated by Augustin’s performance.

And here’s where Van Gundy’s dual role of coach and president comes into play.

As a coach, he doesn’t have to petition his GM for a certain player to take Jennings’ place on the roster.

As president, he doesn’t have to convince his coach of anything personnel-wise.

Van Gundy wears both hats, and this is a prime example of why the Pistons thought hiring one man to do both jobs was a good idea.

It’s an unwanted, unplanned example, but here we are.

Van Gundy, like his players, has no choice but to carry on in Jennings’ absence. But with the power invested in him by owner Tom Gores—power that all but a handful of NBA coaches don’t possess—SVG can move on without any hint of disconnect between the court and the front office, which happens more often in the NBA than you think.

It was that disconnect that Van Gundy spoke of back in May, when he was introduced to the media and explained why he took the Detroit job over others that may have been closer to winning.

Those supposedly more attractive jobs were coaching-only gigs, and Van Gundy talked about how sometimes the coach and the front office don’t always see eye-to-eye.

Hence his decision to take the Pistons job, with its direct pipeline from the offices to the court.

Brandon Jennings’ heartbreaking Achilles injury is awful, but at least with one man running the basketball show, and with the players buying into that one man’s message, maybe it will be a little easier to overcome.

 

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Dec
31

The Best (and Worst) of Greg Eno, 2014

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You know those annoying end-of-the-year letters you get from family members around the holidays?

The ones that tell about little Johnny’s new teeth and sister Sarah’s new puppy and the family’s trip to the Grand Canyon? And how mom has taken up embroidery and dad ran a half marathon?

Or, something like that.

Well, this is your annual annoying blog post from yours truly.

The one that reviews the year through the lens of my writing, and which serves to remind everyone that the words that appear on this site don’t always ring true. As if you didn’t already know that.

But sometimes I get it right, or at least semi-right!

So what follows, as usual, is a look back at words of false prophecy and (occasionally) wisdom.

January

On the Tigers’ acquisition of closer Joe Nathan:

Nathan is a real closer. There’s nothing accidental about him. After a few years in the San Francisco Giants bullpen, setting up games in the late innings, Nathan was traded to the Minnesota Twins before the 2004 season and became the Twins’ lock down man in the ninth inning.

He’s been at this closer thing for 10 years now.

Nathan has 341 career saves. The man he’s replacing in Detroit, Benoit, had 13 career saves prior to last season.

If the Tigers falter in the ninth inning this year, it’ll be because the other guys beat one of the game’s all-time great closers.

Nathan has made the All-Star team six times, all as a closer. In 2013, for Texas, Nathan saved 43 games and had an ERA that you needed a microscope to see (1.39).

He’s 39 years old, but so what? Nathan had Tommy John surgery a few years ago. He’s 39, but his new arm is four.

Nathan’s style of closing is quick and to the point. He doesn’t do the rollercoaster thing with the fans’ emotions. He gets in and he gets out. He works fast. He closes games like he has a plane to catch.

It’s a breath of fresh air from recent years, when Tigers closers often turned ninth innings into a soap opera.

As they say about goalies who let in a soft one, I might want to have that one back.

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On U-M football coach Brady Hoke firing offensive coordinator Al Borges:

Borges, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, got real dumb in 2013, according to the fans and segments of the media.

He was brought to Michigan by head coach Brady Hoke, part of the minions who accompanied Hoke from San Diego State.

The offense struggled mightily in 2013, with quarterback Devin Gardner regressing with frightening rapidity as the season moved along.

So Borges, opposite of hot shot, was given the ziggy last week. Presumably, it was Hoke who rendered it, his decision alone.

“The decisions I make will always be what is good for Michigan,” Hoke said, as he introduced his new coordinator at a presser in Ann Arbor.

The new guy is Doug Nussmeier. Hoke snagged him from Alabama, but the Crimson Tide had already appeared to move on, hiring Lane Kiffin immediately after Nussmeier took the job in Ann Arbor.

Nussmeier is being warmly received, for the most part, by Michigan supporters. I suspect some of the support is derived from the fact that Nussmeier’s name isn’t Al Borges.

Hoke looked on at the presser as Nussmeier shared his vision for Michigan football, when the team has the football.

“We’re going to be explosive,” Nussmeier said.

Hoke smiled.

But it won’t matter, and no one in Ann Arbor will care how the sausage was made, as long as Nussmeier is able to develop Gardner and start torching defenses that Michigan should be torching, by all rights.

And Hoke won’t care how Nussmeier became surprisingly available, as long as the win totals start to move into double digits consistently.

If none of the above happens, Michigan will be looking for a new head coach. It’s as simple as that.

It pretty much was as simple as that.

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March

On the passing of Lions owner William Clay Ford:

Bill Ford, the Lions owner who passed away today at age 88, subscribed to behavior that is just fine and dandy in the conventional business world, but not always so good in the competitiveness of pro sports.

Two L-words come to mind when I think of Ford and his Lions ownership, which spanned an even 50 years.

Loyalty is one. Losing is the other.

The two are not mutually exclusive, except that Ford was never able to strike a healthy balance between loyalty and the cutthroat nature needed to be successful in the NFL.

Ford employed two of the most hated men in Detroit sports—Russ Thomas and Matt Millen—for a combined 30 years between them. Thomas served as GM from 1967-89, and Millen was team president and de facto GM from 2001-08.

Thomas was a miserly curmudgeon who was maybe just as reviled by some of the players as he was by the fan base. Millen had no real issues with the players, but was toxic among the fans.

Neither Thomas or Millen would have survived with any other NFL team for nearly as long as they did with the Lions. Their woeful won/loss records simply would not have been tolerated for that many years by other team owners.

Losing branded the Ford ownership. This is true. But let it never be said that Bill Ford didn’t want to win. He just didn’t know how.

Too bad Ford didn’t live to see another playoff appearance, but at least things look to be trending in the right direction, especially with the coaching.

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On the Tigers starting a rookie at third base in 2014:

Nick Castellanos might want to read up a bit on Mays. Hell, maybe the blabbermouths with cell phones who call into sports talk radio should read, too.

Can you imagine if Castellanos, the rookie ordained to play third base for the Tigers starting this year and for many years beyond, starts his 2014 season in a Mays-like 1-for-26 funk?

Why, it could be enough for folks to call for (gulp) Don Kelly!

Or, to move Miguel Cabrera back to third base and stick someone like Jordan Lennerton at first base. Or Victor Martinez, and have DH-by-committee.

The Chicken Little people would be out in full force, should Castellanos stumble out of the gate as badly as Mays did some 63 years ago.

On March 31, Castellanos finally makes the transition from prospect to big leaguer, when he slips the creamy white jersey with the Old English D over his 6’4″ frame and gets after it as a full-fledged player — not one of these September call-ups. On March 31, Castellanos is no longer the third baseman of the future. He is no longer a player waiting for a position to open up in Detroit.

You know what? The kid will be fine.

Sure, it’s a hunch, but it says here that a flame out isn’t on the horizon. There may be some cringe-inducing moments. Maybe he’ll throw wild to first base, costing the team a game in the late innings. Some nasty right-hander will eat him alive with some sliders from Hell. There may be days at a time where it looks like the bright lights of the big leagues are blinding him with their glare.

Castellanos was no Mike Schmidt and he needs to improve his range, but he wasn’t the Tigers’ Achilles heel, either.

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On the retirement of Nick Lidstrom’s no. 5 jersey:

If Sawchuk was the brick wall, and Lindsay was the pest, and Howe was the complete player, and Delvecchio was the smooth playmaker, and Abel was the fulcrum, and Yzerman was the heart and soul, then Nick Lidstrom was the Red Wings’ calm.

The plaque of Ty Cobb outside Tiger Stadium called him  ”a Genius in Spikes.”

Lidstrom’s should say “a Guardian on Skates.”

Lidstrom, for 20 years, was the Red Wings’ sentry, a hockey beefeater who played the game without expression or emotion. He logged his 25-30 minutes a night, poke checking and  angling opponents into submission. He didn’t lay a body check on anyone in his life. Lidstrom was the game’s Lt. Columbo, who didn’t need a gun to solve crimes.

Tonight it will be official: Nick Lidstrom will take his rightful place among the Red Wings’ all-time greats. No one shall wear no. 5 in the Winged Wheel ever again.

As with the other retired sweaters in the rafters, why bother?

We still miss Lidstrom but the transition has been less painful than was anticipated.

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April

On the hotness of Red Wings winger Gustav Nyquist heading into the playoffs:

Nyquist didn’t join the Red Wings until November 21, from Grand Rapids of the AHL. In his first game this season, he scored twice. It seemed like a harbinger, because of Nyquist’s heroics in the 2013 playoffs, which included a game-winner in overtime in Anaheim in the first round.

But after that two-goal debut in November, Nyquist’s scoring stick fell asleep, and on January 18, he had just five goals.

In 29 games since January 18, Nyquist has 23 goals.

That’s Crosby and Ovechkin-ish.

With Zetterberg and Datsyuk felled by injuries for much of the 2014 portion of the season schedule, it’s been Nyquist to the rescue. When he scores a goal, the Red Wings are 16-6.

It seems as if every Nyquist goal has some sort of importance attached to it. He’s either giving the Red Wings the lead, tying the game, or winning the game.

Nyquist is a Bruce Martyn kind of player: He shoots, he scoooooores!

The brilliance of Nyquist is that he scores from everywhere on the ice, and from any position—skating, falling, sliding, what have you. All that’s left is for him to beat a goalie from the third row of the stands—and that might be coming.

Nyquist continues to show that he can be a consistent 30+ goal scorer in the NHL.

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May

On the Tigers’ fast start in 2014, and what it meant to the AL Central race:

It may not matter, because the AL Central pretty much shapes up like this: there are the Tigers and four pretenders.

This race may be over before Memorial Day, folks.

The Tigers are distancing themselves from the division pack as if the other teams all had Limburger and onion sandwiches for lunch.

This isn’t a pennant race, it’s an anointing. The only way the Tigers don’t win this division is if they stop showing up—and even then they might squeak it out by a game or two.

This was supposed to be the Kansas City Royals‘ year. The Royals won 86 games last year and their young talent and all that pitching was to mesh and bring post-season baseball back to KC for the first time in 29 years.

But the Royals can’t hit, they never could hit, and the trendy folks who picked the Royals to be serious threats to the Tigers either ignored the lack of offense or tried to see through it.

The Royals’ so-called young studs—Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer—can’t hit their way out of a wet paper bag. It takes them a week to launch a home run, and two weeks to score 20 runs.

The AL Central is child’s play now. The division will be clinched by the All-Star break, at the latest.

I took a lot of grief for this piece on Bless You Boys, as well I should have!

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On the Pistons’ hiring of Stan Van Gundy to be coach and president of basketball operations:

Van Gundy will return some lost interest in the Pistons. He will be front and center, and not just because he is wearing two hats. His is a big personality, matching his physical girth. He won’t be a wallflower, operating in clandestine fashion behind the scenes. His face won’t end up on the side of a milk carton upon the first long losing streak.

This hire isn’t about whether Van Gundy can do both jobs—and Lord knows we’ll be hearing that question being asked relentlessly over the next several months.

This is about the Pistons frantically waving their arms and saying, “Look at us! We’re the Pistons! Pay attention to us!”

Stan Van Gundy has respect, a fine track record and he’s refreshed after being away from the game for two years.

He can coach, big time.

This is the Pistons’ best hire at coach since Flip Saunders in 2005, and some cynics might go back two years earlier, to Larry Brown.

I’ll roll the dice with a coach who has a .641 winning percentage any day. I’ll gamble that he knows enough about the players in the league that he can cobble together a workable roster.

This isn’t Matt Millen, redux.

It may not be Matt Millen, but it’s not good—yet. Maybe the cashiering of Josh Smith will be the turning point of the season.

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June

On the prospects of injured Andy Dirks (back) returning to the Tigers in 2014:

Backs are funny things, and I don’t mean ha-ha.

Remember the sight of Rick Mahorn lying on his stomach, rather than sitting on the bench, when he wasn’t in games as a Pistons Bad Boy? The unusual posture was best for Mahorn’s trick back.

Tigers left fielder Andy Dirks is, reportedly, about to begin a rehab assignment that is designed to put him closer to rejoining the Tigers, perhaps sometime around the All-Star Break. The rehab is the culmination of his recovery from lower back surgery that he underwent in March.

Dirks’ bat and glove are already being penciled into the Tigers lineup with zeal by fans who are begging for a left-handed hitting alternative in left field, despite the unexpected success of righty-swinging J.D. Martinez.

It is assumed by the Tigers faithful that, once cleared after his rehab assignment, Andy Dirks will step into the lineup and start producing like nothing ever happened to him.

Good luck with that.

But don’t be too disappointed if, for the rest of the season, Dirks has to take occasional days off to rest his still-tender back. And don’t be surprised if we don’t see a true facsimile of the Dirks of old until 2015.

Dirks never dd come back, and his career seems to be hanging in the balance.

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July

On why the Lions’ Ndamukong Suh shouldn’t be considered a leader:

There seems to be an obsession in Detroit with making Suh a “leader”—that obtuse, undefinable noun that nonetheless makes sports fans and analysts salivate.

Why do a team’s best players all have to exhibit model behavior and all be chiefs?

You need to have some pretty damn good Indians to win, as well.

The Lions, and their fans, should toss away this misrepresentation of Suh as a so-called leader, forthwith.

They should leave him alone and let him play football, for crying out loud.

So Suh doesn’t show up to voluntary camps. He is absent at teammates’ charity events. He prefers to be left alone and work out on his own.

He is the Garbo of the Lions. He is enigmatic, like DiMaggio of the old Yankees and Jeter of today’s.

He can also be one of the most dominant players in the NFL. He has the potential to be the best football lineman in Detroit. Ever.

But it says here that we may never see how close Suh can come to reaching his ridiculously high ceiling if the yoke of leadership and being an extrovert continues to be placed on him.

Yet new coach Jim Caldwell designated Suh one of the team captains this season. It continues to be a crown that rests uneasily on his huge head.

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September

On why Brady Hoke’s lack of winning might be a good set-up for his successor:

It can now be said that Brady Hoke, Rodriguez’s successor and “Michigan Man” extraordinaire, is presiding over the most turbulent years in Michigan football history. Hoke is making the Rodriguez Era look like the halcyon days in Ann Arbor.

Hoke, in his fourth season as Michigan’s football coach—one more than Rodriguez was granted—is doing two things at once.

One, he’s showing that a “Michigan Man” can fail just as easily as an outsider.

The second thing may come as a shock to your system.

Hoke is turning the football job at Michigan into quite the plum.

Hoke’s car wreck is setting the job up for a big name guy to come in and “save” Michigan football.

There is a lot of ego in coaching, as there should be. It’s actually a desired attribute, as long as it’s kept in check.

Somewhere out there is a high profile coach who would drool at the opportunity to bring Michigan back from the brink of irrelevance—which is where it is now.

Somewhere is a man whose eyes light up at the thought of being a near god in Ann Arbor.

Somewhere there is a coach who doesn’t look at the Michigan job as a career killer, in the slightest.

Somewhere, it turned out, was San Francisco.

—————————

On why new Lions coach Jim Caldwell might succeed where so many predecessors failed:

It’s hard to imagine Caldwell, a fine, experienced, intelligent man, sinking to the level of the aforementioned coaches by saying something untoward or doing something weird.

The Lions coach seems to have his act together.

There certainly won’t be any words or actions from the new coach that will induce eye-rolling and sighs. My opinion.

Caldwell, on the surface and beyond, seems to be the Lions’ most refined coach since George Wilson. And Wilson coached in Detroit some 50 years ago.

Jim Caldwell is a grounded, spiritual, experienced  coach who doesn’t have the “embarrassing” gene in him. His foot doesn’t seem destined for his mouth.

That’s not to say that Caldwell won’t eventually be fired by the Lions without achieving his goal of winning a Super Bowl in Detroit. But if that happens, it won’t be because of multiple losses of composure.

The Lions played more disciplined football, overall, than under Jim Schwartz. They didn’t jump offsides and they rarely committed stupid personal fouls at inopportune moments. Now, about those hard-to-control feet…

————————————-

December

On U-M’s chances of landing Jim Harbaugh as its new football coach:

Anyone other than Harbaugh could be perceived as being sloppy seconds.

And guess what? Michigan isn’t getting Jim Harbaugh.

If Michigan fans were being honest with themselves, they’d have faced the fact that once a football coach leaves college and has some success at the pro level, he usually doesn’t go back to school. He becomes an NFL journeyman and then ends up in a TV studio as a talking head.

Only those coaches who flop in the pros, return to college. Usually.

Harbaugh won’t be Michigan’s coach. I don’t have any insider information to support this, but I don’t think any is needed to come to this conclusion.

Harbaugh has spurned his alma mater, but Michigan shouldn’t take it personally. Jim’s an NFL guy now, and who can blame him?

I have no more idea who will be the next coach at Michigan than you do. But I do know it won’t be Jim Harbaugh.

But Michigan faithful, take heart.

No one knew who Bo Schembechler was in 1969.

I saved my worst for last, right?

———————————–

So there it is. If you hung in there and are still reading, my hats off to you. And I hope you resolve to keep reading in 2015, warts and all.

Happy New Year!

I was at a public gathering one evening and I needed to find out the score of a game. So I used a phone.

Only, I didn’t bring up the Internet and go to ESPN.com or the like; I placed a call. And it wasn’t my phone.

No, not to my bookie. I never made enough dough to have a bookie.

I called SportsPhone.

We’re talking circa the mid-to-late 1980s.

Anyone reading this under the age of 40 may not know of what I speak. It may as well be written in hieroglyphics to those folks.

Wherever there was a public phone (remember those?), there was SportsPhone. We’re talking the days before everyone had a “mobile device.”

SportsPhone was a lovely invention. Not lovely enough to not be made extinct by the advances of technology, but in that regard SportsPhone is hardly alone.

Oh, how I miss those days.

There was excitement, there was drama. I’m not talking about the games themselves; I mean in terms of just waiting for the score.

SportsPhone worked like this: you dialed into a number (1-976-1313) and on the other end you were greeted by the (fresh) recording of a fast-paced, breathless voice of someone like Dave LewAllen or Rich Kincaide, who would blast through the scores of all the major sports matches of the night. Some brief mentions of top stories were thrown in as well.

The recordings were updated every 10 or 15 minutes, so you were getting almost all partial scores unless you called past 11 o’clock at night, in which case everything was pretty much final—unless the Tigers, Pistons or Red Wings were playing on the Left Coast.

Sounds archaic, doesn’t it?

Well, of course it was! But that’s all we had in 1985.

The Tigers didn’t air 162 games a year back then, even with the birth of the pay-to-watch Pro-Am Sports System (PASS) on cable.

The Pistons had plenty of games not televised, as did the Red Wings.

So with no Internet to run to, what else was a shaggy young man to do if he wanted to know how is team was faring?

Dial 1-976-1313, that’s what.

Now, using public pay phones meant you needed one of two things: lots of loose change, or a calling card.

I can see the 30-year-olds’ heads spinning at the mention of a calling card.

It was actually very simple. Before AT&T there was something called Ameritech. And before Ameritech there was something called Michigan Bell. And Ameritech and Michigan Bell had calling cards.

The calling card was a sort of credit card for phone calls. The calls were billed to your home phone bill. You dialed the number you wanted from a pay phone and then, when prompted, you’d punch in your calling card number in lieu of depositing coins.

I knew my calling card number by heart. In fact I was probably the fastest calling card puncher in the midwest.

You had to be fast, if you wanted to get the score in rapid fashion, so you could rejoin your party without appearing to be too rude.

I called SportsPhone from all sorts of places and events: wedding receptions (including when I was the Best Man), social gatherings, business meetings and even dates.

One of the first things I would do whenever I entered an establishment was ascertain where the pay phone was. I’d mark the spot mentally, because you never knew when you might have to make a quick dash to call Dave LewAllen to see how the Red Wings were doing in Chicago.

This was when establishments had pay phones.

The voices on SportsPhone all sounded so rushed and urgent and I liked that. It added to the drama. Every time, LewAllen et al sounded as if they were giving their reports amid gunfire from a war zone. They couldn’t mince words or waste any time.

At the end of every call, they’d tell you when the next update was forthcoming. Mostly it was 10 or 15 minutes, although on some especially frantic nights, SportsPhone would update in seven or eight minute increments.

I think I got hooked on SportsPhone during the first Tommy Hearns-Sugar Ray Leonard fight, in September 1981.

I was a college freshman and if the fight was on closed circuit TV, I had no idea where it was being shown. And even if I did, I certainly didn’t have the cash for admission.

So I called SportsPhone that night. A lot.

Even from my dorm room, I could get a feel for the excitement and drama of that fight as it happened, because I was dialing SportsPhone every couple of rounds or so.

My heart sank when, on one call, I got the word that Hearns had been knocked through the ropes in the late rounds. Another phone call confirmed it: Sugar Ray had won by technical knockout.

Times had changed by 1989, when I did have the dough to pay to see Hearns-Leonard II on closed circuit TV. I wished I hadn’t; Hearns was jobbed in the decision, which was a draw.

I saw Hearns last December and I told him that he got rooked, which probably made me the millionth person to tell him that.

He laughed and told me that even Sugar Ray admits that Tommy won that fight.

But despite witnessing the second fight on television as it occurred, somehow it still doesn’t measure up to that September night in 1981, when as a freshman at EMU I “followed” the bout from my dorm room through several frantic phone calls.

For some who lived through the 1980s, the most famous phone number is 867-5309.

Pfft!

Gimme 1-976-1313. Now THAT’s a phone number!

Dec
01

After Just 17 Games, Van Gundy Seems at a Loss

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Welcome to the world of Pistons basketball, Stan Van Gundy.

Giving the coach all the personnel power in the world can’t save this bunch from itself.

Van Gundy is 17 games into his reign as Pistons czar and already he has that look and demeanor of his recent coaching predecessors.

Heavy sighs, long pauses before answers and a tight mouth punctuated his press conference after Sunday’s 104-93 loss to the Golden State Warriors.

Someone asked if the lineup he used for the game was the one he would use for the next game.

“Look, when you’re 3-14, you’re never happy with the lineup,” the Prez/coach said.

Van Gundy already has the look. He’s already imploring his players to “fight” during games. He has the body language on the sidelines of a man trapped in a phone booth.

Too bad he can’t change into Superman.

The Pistons are chewing up another coach, but this time from the inside out.

Van Gundy has fallen on the sword for his players several times in the first 17 games. He’s pointed the finger at himself for everything from the team’s lack of energy (maybe he worked them too hard in training camp) to not making good substitutions (there’s been more than one instance of bemoaning taking a player out and/or leaving him in) to being unable to find the right quintet that can actually deposit the basketball into the hoop.

The Pistons can’t shoot—and that includes free throws. They allow far too many layups. Nobody knows what to do or where to go on offense. They can’t even win at home anymore. They are, again, running a lengthy fourth place in a four-team town when it comes to relevance and fan interest.

I didn’t think it would go this badly for SVG out of the gate. I didn’t see 3-14 coming. I doubt Van Gundy did, either.

But it’s here, and it’s not likely to get better until it gets worse.

The Pistons have lost for so long that they literally don’t know how to win. With them, it’s not just a catch phrase. They actually do not know how to win.

Van Gundy is in a world of hurt with this roster.

He wants badly to play an inside/outside game but nobody can shoot from the outside, and the inside guys keep getting in each other’s way.

Nobody can make a stinking free throw. Their prized player, Andre Drummond, practically starts every game with two fouls.

Nobody trusts each other. Why should they? No one has really won anything, anywhere in the NBA.

The coach has had success, but he’s had much better players, too.

Van Gundy has to coach heads more than x’s and o’s. He has to burrow himself inside the addled brains of his players and somehow convince them that his way is the right way and that they can win if they stick to it.

Right now, no player (save Caron Butler, who’s played for SVG in the past) really believes in Van Gundy, and that’s not his fault. They wouldn’t believe in Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach, either; they’re too full of losing to think that there’s any way that can work in Detroit.

The players might talk a good game and put on a brave face, but the fact is that there isn’t a dude on the roster who’s truly experienced any sustained success in the NBA. All they know is losing, and that’s why the Pistons might stay in games after 36 minutes but collapse sometime in the fourth quarter.

Van Gundy surely knows all this. He didn’t sign with the Pistons after falling off a turnip truck.

But it’s one thing to know what the problem is and quite another to be able to fix it.

Pat Riley won 15 games one year with the Miami Heat, just two years removed from a championship. And that team had Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal.

Riley is a Hall of Fame coach, but sometimes you just don’t have the rest of the players.

Van Gundy, I believe, knew that the Pistons had some issues when he took the President/coach jobs, but I don’t think he expected this, right out of the gate.

The Pistons are on track to win about 15 games—just like Pat Riley’s 2007-08 Miami Heat.

The talent would seem to indicate that 15 wins are ridiculously low for a roster of the Pistons’ caliber, but as usual with this team, it’s not as much about talent as it is about getting everyone to trust and believe and know where to go on the court.

Van Gundy hasn’t come close to figuring that out yet, and he would be the first to admit it. In fact, he already has—several times.

The prez/coach has been pretty good at not tweaking his players publicly, with the exception of Cartier Martin and Gigi Datome for their often-injured ways. But other than that, SVG is careful not to throw his players under the proverbial bus.

That’s fine, for now. But sooner or later you know Van Gundy is going to lose his patience and someone’s feelings are going to get hurt. It’s one thing to pick on scrubs like Martin and Datome.

The one saving grace SVG has is that he is likely to outlast his players in Detroit, and you haven’t really been able to say that about a Pistons coach since Chuck Daly. With the power of president, Van Gundy can freely wheel and deal. He can cut and waive and bench players with impunity.

The greatest challenge Stan Van Gundy has now is to convince his players not to pack it in for the next 65 games. And staring down the barrel of 3-14 isn’t making that task any easier.

After the Golden State game, Van Gundy was asked by the Detroit News’ Vinnie Goodwill about the “FIGHT!” remark during the game.

Van Gundy gave a long pause and looked down before commenting. For a moment, it appeared that he didn’t really want to answer the question—almost as if he was hoping nobody had heard him yell the word to begin with.

“Yeah, I thought at that point we fought harder,” he finally said.

“But,” he added with exasperation, “by that time the hole was too deep.”

Too little, too late.

That’s been the Pistons’ epitaph since 2008.

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Nov
17

Pistons Can Play in Timbuktu as Long as They Win

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It’s the refrain of the real estate professional.

Location, location, location!

It’s true. You can take the same 1200 square foot ranch house, lift it from its current lot and plunk it down in another, and the property value will go up or down based on the neighborhood and other location-related factors.

The home itself is officially the thing that is being appraised, but everyone knows that where that home is located largely determines what price a prospective buyer is expected to pay.

Rochelle Riley, columnist for the Free Press and self-admitted non-basketball fan, recently joined the latest mini-consortium of folks who are calling for the Pistons to move downtown.

“We left at halftime because it was too hard to stay,” Riley wrote of a recent trip to the Palace with a girlfriend to watch the Pistons play. “The parking lot wasn’t full. The highway was clear. It took less than an hour to drive back. It just wasn’t the same.”

It wasn’t the same—she compared it to going to a game in 2004—because the team hasn’t won in years.

You want the Pistons to move downtown?

They tried that—remember?

In 1960, the Pistons started playing in a shiny new, circular-shaped arena at the riverfront called Cobo. The arena was an extension of Cobo Hall, which was built for conventions and other big events.

The team was three years removed from moving to Detroit from Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Pistons shared Olympia Stadium with the Red Wings in those days—and the experience was often less than desirable.

The floor would get slippery from the condensation that formed due to the basketball court being placed on top of the ice surface. The seats near the court—the supposed “good” seats—gave the patrons cold feet, literally.

The Red Wings were the primary tenants, and they weren’t about to constantly melt and re-freeze the ice to accommodate the new basketball team. So the court was plunked on top of the ice with minimal wooden planking in between.

On top of that, the Pistons were losers in the 1960s. Attendance was always going to be a challenge because basketball was—and still is—running fourth place in a four-team race for market share in Detroit, behind the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings.

Even the drafting of Hall of Famers Dave Bing (1966) and Bob Lanier (1970) couldn’t lift attendance at Cobo into five figures for a night on anything more than rare occasions, even when the Pistons won 52 games in 1973-74.

Owner Bill Davidson finally pulled up the stakes and moved the Pistons north in 1978, starting with the Silverdome in Pontiac and, 10 years later, the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The Pistons have been in the northern burgs for 36 years—15 years longer than they spent playing downtown. That’s about 60 percent of their 57 years since moving from Fort Wayne.

The Pistons are in a conundrum, and they partly have their arena to blame.

The Palace continues to be one of the NBA’s crown jewels—still a state-of-the-art facility that was built ahead of its time, with some suites positioned at mezzanine level instead of in the nose bleed part of the arena, as was the norm for so many hockey and basketball arenas built in the 1970s and beyond. It simply isn’t old and decrepit and in need of replacing, as is Joe Louis Arena.

The Palace is a great venue but now that the Pistons are losing again, suddenly it’s in the wrong part of town?

In pro sports, the real estate mantra doesn’t apply.

It’s not about location—it’s about winning.

If the Palace was where Cobo Arena is, and the Pistons were losing like they are now, attendance would still be a challenge, despite the arena’s amenities.

Conversely, if you put the Pistons in a dump like JLA and the team is winning, the arena could be in Kalkaska and the attendance would be OK.

Fans will drive a bit to see a winner. The Pistons have proved that—twice.

They proved it in the late-1980s and they proved it again for most of the 2000s. The common denominator? Winning, championship-caliber basketball.

The Pistons simply don’t have, and never will have, the kind of following in Metro Detroit that their three brethren enjoy; i.e. the ability to draw fans even when the team isn’t all that.

The Pistons rely on winning for their attendance figures to remain aloft, more than any pro team in Detroit. It’s been that way since 1957 and that will never change.

Detroit has never been a pro basketball town. The major colleges draw very well, but the pro game is still the redheaded stepchild of Detroit sports.

Pistons owner Tom Gores has been pretty diplomatic when the subject of the Pistons moving downtown crops up, even when broached by heavy hitters like Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Gores knows he has a gem in the Palace. He has backed up that adoration by pumping millions of dollars of improvements into the arena, including a monstrous new scoreboard, aiming to enhance the basketball attendance experience.

So when the question arises of the team moving back downtown, Gores has deftly demurred. He doesn’t want to hurt feelings, but he also wants folks to know that, for now, the Pistons are happy to play at the Palace, some 45 minutes north of downtown Detroit.

The question isn’t whether the Pistons should move downtown. It’s, when will they be good again?

The quality of the team has always driven Pistons attendance, not the location of the arena.

Been there, done that.

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Oct
28

SVG Not the First Man to Wield So Much Power With the Pistons

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To hear the media tell it, the Stan Van Gundy hire is the first time the Pistons have given so much power to one man.

Don’t they remember Dickie Vitale?

On Wednesday, the Pistons will tip-off in Denver against the Nuggets to open the 2014-15 NBA season—which will be Van Gundy’s first as the team’s judge, jury and executioner.

SVG wears the hats of coach, President of Basketball Operations and de facto GM. Players will find Van Gundy at every turn, should they ever act out.

Power? Oh yes. But 36 years ago, the Pistons unwittingly gave lots of power to Vitale, and it didn’t end so well.

Vitale was a year removed from coaching at the University of Detroit in the spring of 1978, having just served one year as the school’s Athletic Director. He quit coaching because his stomach turned against him.

But Dickie V’s tummy made a miraculous recovery in time to accept a hefty contract from the Pistons.

There have been many cautionary tales of college coaches trying to make it in the NBA without first serving as an assistant. Vitale’s time with the Pistons should be the mother of all those tales.

Vitale was officially hired as coach only, but the Pistons in those days were a strange little organization. And Dickie got a lot more power than anyone thought he was going to have.

The Pistons had a GM when Vitale was hired, a former NBA player named Bob Kauffman, who also served as interim coach for half a season after firing Herb Brown.

But not long after Vitale was hired, Kauffman, who could see the writing on the wall, resigned. Kauffman knew that Vitale was ownership’s darling.

Oscar Feldman held the title of general manager, but like so many other GMs before him with the Pistons, Feldman was less of a basketball man and more of something else. In Oscar’s case, that meant lawyer.

So Vitale was the coach only, in title, but in reality, Dickie had pretty much the same power that Van Gundy enjoys now with the Pistons.

That meant Vitale could make trades and draft players, unabated.

There have been GMs in Detroit who have been among the most hated men in the history of sports in this town.

Ned Harkness with the Red Wings. Russ Thomas with the Lions. Matt Millen with the Lions.

Vitale wasn’t hated; he wasn’t with the Pistons long enough to hate him. But Vitale arguably did more damage to the Pistons in his 18-month reign than the above men did to their teams over many years.

Operating with little to no supervision, like a puppy left alone at home by his owner for the first time, Vitale ran amok. He had never been able to trade and draft players in college. In the pros, he could—and he wreaked destruction on the Pistons franchise.

Feldman, the feckless GM and owner Bill Davidson (who bought the bull that Vitale sold in his interview) pretty much looked the other way as Vitale traded, traded some more, and drafted very curiously.

First, Vitale apparently didn’t get the memo that the Pistons were allowed to draft players who went to school in states other than Michigan.

In 1978, Vitale chose John Long and Terry Tyler (both in the first round), his old players at U-D. A year later, he famously (and foolishly) gave the Milwaukee Bucks $50,000 to trade places in the first round, so Vitale could draft Greg Kelser from Michigan State. The Bucks wanted Sidney Moncrief anyway. Later in the first round in 1979, Vitale grabbed Phil Hubbard out of Michigan. In the third round, Dickie drafted Terry Duerod, another former Detroit Titan.

The NBA had killed the territorial draft allowance in the mid-1960s, yet Vitale drafted as if the state of Michigan was the only repository for NBA players.

Then there were the trades.

Dick Vitale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(above) Vitale, probably announcing the drafting of another Michigan-based collegian

 

Just a few games into his first season, Vitale dealt guard Chris Ford to Boston for Earl Tatum. It was a lopsided trade, one that was made because Ford and Vitale didn’t see eye-to-eye.

Later in that season, sticking with his U-D theme, Vitale brought in former Titan Dennis Boyd, whose claim to fame was hitting the game-winning jump shot that beat 8th-ranked Marquette in Milwaukee in 1977.

But the most egregious trade Vitale made occurred in the summer of 1979.

Again acting without supervision, Vitale had his good eye on scoring center/power forward Bob McAdoo, a malcontent who the Boston Celtics were eager to jettison.

McAdoo was a former multiple league scoring champion, but in recent years his stints with the New York Knicks and the Celtics hadn’t gone well.

Vitale had sugar plums dancing in his head about what McAdoo and center Bob Lanier could do together for the Pistons.

The Celtics, all too eager to trade McAdoo, told Vitale that they wanted M.L. Carr in return. For starters.

So Vitale engineered a deal that essentially brought McAdoo to Detroit and which sent the Celtics two first round draft choices and Carr.

The Celtics used one of those draft picks to select Kevin McHale and the other to trade for Robert Parish. Those big men, plus Carr and rookie Larry Bird, helped turn the Celtics from a 29-win team in 1978-79 to strong championship contenders, overnight.

And McAdoo? He didn’t want anything to do with Vitale and the Pistons, and so Mac spent an uninspired season-and-a-half in Detroit before being benched and eventually waived. McAdoo would turn up a few years later with the Lakers as a role player for championship teams in Los Angeles.

Vitale was fired 12 games into his second season with the Pistons, but he left the franchise bereft of draft choices and with little future.

But there was one good thing that came from Vitale’s reign of terror and subsequent dismissal.

He recommended that the Pistons hire, as a bona fide GM, a haggard assistant coach sitting on the bench with the Indiana Pacers.

Jack McCloskey told me that to this day, whenever he sees Dick Vitale he makes sure to thank him for the recommendation.

 

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Stan Van Gundy was less than 30 seconds into his first press conference as the Pistons’ coach and director of basketball operations, and his voice was already hoarse.

But that’s par for the course. Basketball coaches always sound like they’ve been screaming bloody murder for days on end.

Listening to Van Gundy speak today at the Palace, two things came to mind. One was, get that guy a Sucrets. The other, was that Detroit is going to love this guy.

Van Gundy fits perfectly in what the Detroit sports fans crave in their coaches.

They like the fiery, no-nonsense type. The athletes can be quiet leaders of few words—Steve Yzerman, Barry Sanders, Nicklas Lidstrom and Calvin Johnson come to mind—but the coaches need to be engaged and have some hothead in them.

Based on that description alone, Van Gundy will win over many a fan, initially.

Van Gundy spoke with urgency, energy and fire, and if any franchise in this town needs that in its leader, it’s the Pistons.

The fan base is dwindling. Worse, they’re flat-out bored and disinterested.

There’s nothing boring about Van Gundy. Maybe the most exciting part about him is that he has never had a losing record as a coach. His .641 winning percentage ranks in the top five of coaches with at least 500 NBA games under their belt.

In the late-1980s, when the Lions were again stumbling and bumbling through the NFL, owner Bill Ford levied a most damning indictment against his football team.

“We’re losing,” Ford said as he made his way past the media in the press box after yet another loss, “but worse than that, we’re boring.”

Not long after uttering those words, Ford gave coach Darryl Rogers an overdue ziggy.

The Pistons have been losing for five years, and they’ve been boring—unless you count player revolts, a flavor-of-the-month coaching plan and the death of the owner and subsequent sale as exciting stuff.

No one comes to the games anymore, but that’s nothing new. Detroit has always been a front-runner’s town when it comes to pro basketball. Unlike its three brethren in football, baseball and hockey, the Pistons don’t get love unless they’re winning. It’s been that way ever since the team moved here from Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1957.

When you consider that the Pistons haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, the hemorrhaging of fans in five years from an already shaky base is significant.

Van Gundy will return some lost interest in the Pistons. He will be front and center, and not just because he is wearing two hats. His is a big personality, matching his physical girth. He won’t be a wallflower, operating in clandestine fashion behind the scenes. His face won’t end up on the side of a milk carton upon the first long losing streak.

It would be that way if Van Gundy was only coaching, or if he was only in the front office. There isn’t any run away-and-hide in him.

That was proven when Van Gundy went shoulder to stomach with Dwight Howard in Orlando. The coach lost, but he didn’t go down without a fight—nor without some hard truths about the All-Star center.

Howard, by the way, now counts himself as a Van Gundy fan, after further review.

This hire isn’t about whether Van Gundy can do both jobs—and Lord knows we’ll be hearing that question being asked relentlessly over the next several months.

This is about the Pistons frantically waving their arms and saying, “Look at us! We’re the Pistons! Pay attention to us!”

But that’s being a little unfair, too.

The Pistons needed a high profile hire at either coach or GM in the wake of the non-renewal of former president Joe Dumars’ contract last month. They ended up getting a high profile guy at both jobs, so hats off to Tom Gores.

That’s right, I said it. As someone who has been less than kind and thrilled with the Pistons owner, I must admit that he hit a home run here.

I was concerned that Gores, who I viewed as a clown of an owner, wouldn’t have the acumen to hire the right people after Dumars’ departure.

I was wrong.

Stan Van Gundy has respect, a fine track record and he’s refreshed after being away from the game for two years.

He can coach, big time.

This is the Pistons’ best hire at coach since Flip Saunders in 2005, and some cynics might go back two years earlier, to Larry Brown.

The dual hat thing even has some national people who don’t follow or cover the Pistons wringing their hands.

But I would ask them, how much worse can it get?

I’ll roll the dice with a coach who has a .641 winning percentage any day. I’ll gamble that he knows enough about the players in the league that he can cobble together a workable roster.

This isn’t Matt Millen, redux.

Millen, the atrocity of a president with the Lions, not only had zero GM experience, he had never coached. So he didn’t have an aura about him—a presence that would automatically attract good football people without any coercion or major sell jobs.

Van Gundy, on the other hand, will have little trouble, I believe, in attracting quality basketball people to Detroit—and that simply wasn’t possible under the previous administration, anymore. Dumars was too tarnished by the time his contract ran out.

So this won’t be Van Gundy doing two jobs. It will be Van Gundy coaching—and he’ll attract quality assistants as well—and a presumably sharp front office staff being the new man’s eyes and ears on a day-to-day basis.

This won’t be Millen, who hoarded power and who tried to take on too much by himself. The most egregious example was hiring a rookie head coach, which made things worse.

People already seem to have this misconception that Van Gundy will conduct practice in the morning, run upstairs to change from sweats to a suit in the afternoon to be the front office guy, and then race down to the floor to coach that night’s game, skipping lunch and dinner.

It won’t work that way, folks.

There’ll be quality (assumption) people in the offices, doing the grunt work, and reporting to Van Gundy at the end of the day.

It’s very doable. Frankly, I wonder why more NBA teams don’t try this model, which has been very effective in San Antonio and Miami, as Van Gundy pointed out in Thursday’s presser.

I’ll go you one further and say that more teams will go this route before too long.

Through it all, Pistons fans will enjoy Van Gundy’s blue-collar, no-nonsense manner of coaching and they’ll enjoy seeing the top dog in the front office not shying away from the cameras and microphones.

Dave Dombrowski with the Tigers, Kenny Holland with the Red Wings and even Marty Mayhew with the Lions aren’t afraid to show their faces on a regular basis.

You can now add Stan Van Gundy to that group.

This is all well and good, but of course there is a roster that needs some overhauling. There is a losing culture that needs to be discarded. There is a certain restricted free agent big man who needs to be addressed.

But at least we won’t be looking under rocks to find the man who is making the decisions.

 

 

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Some 43 years after Gordie Howe got it, looks like another Detroit sports legend is about to get the “mushroom treatment.”

Old-timers will remember this one. The Red Wings, after Howe retired in 1971, gave him a job title—Vice President—and an office inside Olympia Stadium.

Gordie didn’t find the new “job” all that enthralling.

“They give me the mushroom treatment,” Gordie said to reporters back in the day about his new role, in words that reverberate to the old-timers—yours truly is guilty as charged—to this day.

The mushroom treatment, Gordie?

“They keep me in the dark and every so often they dump (manure) on me.”

The Red Wings’ pathetic effort to keep the franchise’s—and perhaps the sport’s—greatest player in a meaningful role lasted just two years before Gordie got tired of the mushroom treatment and came out of retirement to play in the World Hockey Association with his sons, Mark and Marty.

Gordie would play professional hockey for seven more seasons—six in the WHA and one last go-round in the NHL.

So now it appears that the mushroom treatment is being dusted off and brought back out of the dark office, so to speak.

Joe Dumars’ tenure as Pistons president and GM effectively ends at the final horn of Wednesday’s game at Oklahoma City. His contract, which officially expires at the end of this dreadful (again) season, will apparently not be renewed.

But that’s not all.

Dumars, it is being reported, will take an advisory position with the Pistons. It is shaping up to be a do-nothing, strictly titular job that will have no influence over the thinking—and I use that term loosely here—of owner Tom Gores and his Platinum Equity minions.

The Pistons are going to be giving Joe Dumars, one of the team’s iconic players, the mushroom treatment.

Let’s hope he doesn’t put up with it for two years, like Gordie Howe did with the Red Wings.

Maybe this will be Dumars’ way of slowly fading from view and from our consciousness. Maybe there is method in his madness. Frankly, if I were Joe, I would have told Gores to take his adviser role and shove it where a basketball doesn’t fit.

That, of course, isn’t Dumars’ style.

Maybe we’ll see Joe on TV sometime soon, perhaps as a studio analyst for NBA TV or ESPN. The cast of characters on those two networks is filled with ex-players but not really any executive types. Joe is both, but his playing days ended some 15 years ago. He’d bring a different perspective.

We’ll see.

But today isn’t so much about Dumars’ future as it is about his recent past.

As the Joe Dumars Era, Part II winds down this week, it’s easy to do the “What have you done for me lately?” thing. I’ve been guilty of it already, in the wake of the news that broke last week that Dumars likely wouldn’t be coming back as team president/GM.

But then I got to thinking about what it is that Dumars is leaving. And he should be thankful that he’s going.

In too many horrific ways, current ownership reminds me of the Pistons circa 1978.

Bill Davidson, still finding his way as Pistons owner—he bought the team out from a group of investors in 1974—was clueless about the sports ownership thing in ’78.

Davidson moved the Pistons from Cobo Arena downtown to the cavernous Silverdome in Pontiac in time for the 1978-79 season.

To help augment the move from a PR standpoint, Davidson took leave of his senses and bowed to pressure from local riff raff, such as sports columnists, and hired Dick Vitale to be coach and de facto GM in the spring of 1978.

Vitale fed Davidson—and those same columnists—a line of bull and miraculously, his suspect stomach, which supposedly forced him to resign his gig as U-D’s coach in 1977, all of a sudden got all better in time for him to take the Pistons job.

Davidson bought the bull and, dazzled by the allure of hiring Vitale—who at the time could have been elected mayor of many cities around town—the owner gave Dickie the keys.

Of course, it all blew up in Davidson’s face just 16 months later and Vitale got the ziggy, but not before leaving a path of destruction to the franchise in Dickie’s wake.

The Pistons were a circus in those days, and Dickie Vitale was the leading clown under the big top.

The Pistons are back to being a circus again, but this time the owner is the biggest clown.

The Pistons, right now, are beneath someone of Dumars’ stature, and I have been one of Joe’s harshest critics in recent years. In fact, I was browbeating Dumars before it became fashionable to do so.

The Pistons are a joke, being run by an absentee owner who directs his Platinum Equity Dweebs—Phil Norment and Bob Wentworth, Detroit’s PEDs—to keep an eye on the franchise in Detroit while the owner hobnobs in TinselTown.

The Pistons were absentee-owned by Fred Zollner, who was based in Florida, when Davidson bought the team in 1974. Forty years later, they are again owned by someone who barely sees the team play in person.

Dumars, I have a feeling, may be somewhat relieved that his run as a Pistons executive has ended. The difference between Davidson’s personality and style, and that of Gores, couldn’t be much further apart. I also have a feeling that Dumars knows that what Tom Gores knows about sports ownership could fit into a thimble.

All this being said, Joe Dumars is certainly not without culpability for what the Pistons franchise has become since their last appearance in the NBA’s Final Four in 2008. There is blood on his hands, for sure.

But that’s what it has become on the basketball court. And the Pistons, today, are more than just broken on the court. They are broken upstairs, and the confidence level as to whether Gores can hire the right person to fix things from the top down can’t be terribly high among the fan base.

Nor should it be. Gores is a clown under a big top.

But the owner can stuff those words down my throat and reverse his image if he somehow, by hook or by crook, makes a good hire (or two) this off-season.

Pistons fans are pretty united that when it comes to turning points in team history, the biggest came on December 11, 1979, when Davidson, stung by Vitale’s turbulent tenure, hired Jack McCloskey off the Indiana Pacers bench (assistant coach) to be the team’s GM.

By the end of the next decade, the Pistons were starting a three-year run in the Finals, winning two of them.

Gores could make a great hire this summer. Because you know what? Davidson hired McCloskey off a recommendation.

The recommendation came from Dick Vitale.

So you never know.

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