December 11, 1979 is one of the most important dates in Pistons history.
For on that date, the Pistons, acting on a tip from recently fired coach Dick Vitale, hired a grizzled old basketball guy named Jack McCloskey to run their team.
Vitale urged the Pistons to call McCloskey, who at the time was an assistant to Indiana Pacers coach, Slick Leonard.
McCloskey was an Ivy League guy who coached Penn and Wake Forest in the 1960s, with a good deal of success. Then McCloskey became the coach of the still-new Portland Trailblazers in 1972.
He was fired just before the Blazers drafted Bill Walton. Talk about bad timing.
From there, McCloskey became an assistant with the Lakers under coach Jerry West.
Then it was on to Indiana, where he was working when the Pistons called.
“I thought they were wanting me to be the coach,” McCloskey once told me. “But then they started talking about the GM job.”
McCloskey was interested, but the Pacers wouldn’t let him leave. Eventually, they did, and McCloskey became the Pistons GM.
The 1979-80 Pistons would lose 66 games and McCloskey found the cupboard bare, thanks to Vitale’s mismanagement of the team’s draft picks. That, plus his two star big men—Bob Lanier and Bob McAdoo—both wanted out.
Lanier was tired of the losing, and McAdoo, in his first season in Detroit, felt the woeful Pistons to be beneath him.
McCloskey traded Lanier to Milwaukee in February 1980 for Kent Benson and a first-round draft pick, and rid himself of McAdoo a year later.
McCloskey’s dream was that the Pistons would, sometime in the late-1980s, battle his old team, the Lakers, in the Finals. His dream seemed to be of the pipe variety.
But “Trader Jack” used draft picks and wily trades to cobble together a squad that emerged as the dominant team of the late-1980s, after all. And the Pistons, indeed, played the Lakers in the Finals—twice.
If the Pistons hadn’t hired Jack McCloskey in December 1979, there’s no telling where they’d be today. Maybe not even in Detroit. No joke.