Bob Lanier, whose stellar career with the Detroit Pistons in the 1970s was marked both by injuries and his desire for a title, has died at age 73 after a short illness, the NBA announced Tuesday night.
Lanier, taken No. 1 overall by the Pistons in 1970 out of St. Bonaventure, spent parts of 10 seasons with the franchise, averaging 22.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game over 681 games in Detroit. He then played parts of five seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks while hunting for a championship that eluded him at both the collegiate and pro levels. He ended his NBA career in 1984 with averages of 20.1 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
An eight-time All-Star, Lanier was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. That came despite at least eight serious knee injuries, including one before he had even signed his rookie deal with the Pistons. An ACL tear suffered in St. Bonaventure’s Elite Eight victory over Villanova on March 14, 1970, kept him out of the NCAA tournament national semifinal, lost by the Bonnies a few days later. The Pistons drafted him on March 23, 1970, then reportedly signed him from his hospital bed after knee surgery.
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“I’ve always admired him because he comes to play with injuries,” Chris Ford, his teammate on the Pistons from 1972-79, told the Free Press in 1983. “He’s a guy who’d do anything to win. He’s never been with a winner, unfortunately, but he is a winner.”
Lanier finished among the top 10 in NBA MVP voting four times during the 1970s, a decade in which he gained fame for his battles in the middle with Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
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His excellence during a turbulent decade for the NBA included a fourth-place finish in 1976-77 and a third-place finish in 1973-74, the season he was named MVP of the NBA All-Star Game.
That year, he averaged 22.5 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists and three blocks a game while leading the Pistons to a 52-30 record, the first 50-win season in franchise history. The Pistons wouldn’t win 50 games in a season again until 1986-87.
The Pistons and owner Tom Gores released a statement on Lanier’s death early Wednesday morning:
“The Detroit Pistons organization is deeply saddened by the passing of Bob Lanier, a true legend who meant so much to the city of Detroit and to generations of Pistons fans. As fierce and as dominant as Bob was on the court, he was equally kind and impactful in the community.”
The Pistons retired Lanier’s No. 16 jersey on Jan. 9, 1993.
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NBA commissioner Adam Silver remembered a basketball legend who remained active in the game even after he retired.
“Bob Lanier was a Hall of Fame player and among the most talented centers in the history of the NBA, but his impact on the league went far beyond what he accomplished on the court,” Silver said in a release Tuesday night. “For more than 30 years, Bob served as our global ambassador and as a special assistant to David Stern and then me, traveling the world to teach the game’s values and make a positive impact on young people everywhere. It was a labor of love for Bob, who was one of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever been around. His enormous influence on the NBA was also seen during his time as President of the National Basketball Players Association, where he played a key role in the negotiation of a game-changing collective bargaining agreement.
“I learned so much from Bob by simply watching how he connected with people. He was a close friend who I will miss dearly, as will so many of his colleagues across the NBA who were inspired by his generosity. We send our deepest condolences to Bob’s family and friends.”
A Buffalo, New York, native, Lanier became a star at St. Bonaventure in the late 1960s, leading the small school from New York state to the Final Four in the 1970 NCAA tournament. He finished his career with the Bonnies averaging 27.6 points and 15.7 rebounds a game while shooting 57.6% from the field, which understates his senior season, in which he averaged 29.1 points and 16 rebounds while shooting 56.1% from the field.
The Pistons, meanwhile, had missed the playoffs in six of the previous seasons. They finished with the NBA’s third-worst record, but last in their division for the 1969-70 season and won the ensuing coin toss with the Houston Rockets.
The addition of Lanier righted the franchise quickly, as the Pistons went from 31 wins to 45 in 1970-71 — and their first winning record since moving to Detroit from Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1957.
Over 9½ seasons, Lanier made seven All-Star teams as a Piston. He averaged a double-double in seven of his nine full seasons with the Pistons, missing the mark only as a rookie — still making the first-team All-Rookie squad — and 1978-79, when injuries limited him to 53 games.
After playing at least 76 games in each of his first five seasons, Lanier played in 64, 64, 63 and 53 games in his final four full seasons in Detroit. Still, he gutted out the pain in a center-heavy league that included big men such as Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Moses Malone.
“I’m prejudiced because we’ve been together in down moments, like when I was fired,” former Pistons coach Dick Vitale, who coached Lanier from 1978-80, told the Free Press in 1983. “But if every player had a Bob Lanier attitude, it would be easy for a coach to function. I was always amazed watching him in the locker room, the agony he’d go through. … He’d whirlpool, have his knees taped and sit there looking down at the floor.”
As the Pistons returned to the cellar in the later years of his career, Lanier requested a trade to a contender. They sent him to the Bucks, where he played his final 4½ seasons while averaging 13.5 points a game.
The Bucks trade, hammered out at Lanier’s request early in the 1979-80 season, ended in bad blood between the star and his former franchise after it was delayed by a month when Lanier broke a bone in his left hand. Still, Lanier expressed regret at the time for departing the Motor City.
“Yeah, I’m kind of relieved, but I’m kind of sad, too,” he was quoted as saying in the next day’s Free Press. “I’ve got a lot of good memories of Detroit … the warmth of the fans. I’ll always remember the standing ovation I got at the All-Star Game here last year.”
Lanier was Detroit’s career leader in points and rebounds before he was passed by Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer in those categories, and his single-game franchise record of 33 rebounds, set in December 1972, wasn’t topped until Dennis Rodman hauled in 34 boards in March 1992.
Despite the chance to contend for a title with the Bucks — Milwaukee won its division every year with Lanier, but never advanced past the conference finals — leaving Detroit wasn’t easy for Lanier.
“When I got on that plane, I cried like a baby,” he told the Free Press in 1993. “I asked for the trade, but my blood and my guts were Pistons. As wonderful as it turned out with Milwaukee, my heart and soul were Pistons.”
If the trade to the Bucks was a separation for Lanier and the Pistons, his roundhouse punch of Laimbeer on Nov. 1, 1983, was essentially a divorce. Laimbeer called the punch a “cheap shot,” and talks of making Lanier’s number the second retired by the franchise were put on hold for a decade. (Milwaukee retired Lanier’s number soon after his retirement in 1984.)
But Lanier and Laimbeer made their peace in the early 1990s — “We had a very upfront conversation,”‘ Lanier told the Free Press in 1993. “What I did wasn’t the right thing. No question about that.” — and his No. 16 was soon raised to the rafters of the Palace of Auburn Hills, to hang alongside that of his teammate for five seasons (1970-75): Dave Bing.
“We got to be a lot more like brothers than teammates … we used to sit up all night just talking about things,” Bing said of Lanier in 1983. “He’s very intelligent and he’s gregarious. He’d make a very good coach.”
In 1995, Lanier was an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors, then took over as interim head coach after the resignation of Don Nelson (Lanier’s coach with the Bucks in the 1980s). Lanier went 12-25, and the Warriors hired another coach after the season.
Lanier won the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for the 1977-78 season for outstanding community service. Following his playing career, he helped start the NBA’s Stay in School campaign and participated in other outreach for the league.
“There’s so much need out here,” he said. “When you’re traveling around to different cities and different countries, you see there are so many people in dire straits that the NBA can only do so much. We make a vast, vast difference, but there’s always so much more to do.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Ryan Ford at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.