Sunday, August 20, 2006

Dantley Deal Had To Be Done, McCloskey Says Today

The Pistons were cruising along, in control of their division, winning about 70% of their games. It was February, 1989. The NBA trade deadline loomed. But surely the Pistons, with their glittering record and odds-on favorites to appear in the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year, wouldn’t, couldn’t, be players in the trading game … right?


The Pistons traded forward Adrian Dantley to the Dallas Mavericks for forward Mark Aguirre. It was a bold move, one that lesser GMs wouldn’t have had the guts to make. But it had to be done, according to the deal’s artisan.

“We had some internal problems on that team,” Jack McCloskey says today from his home on tiny Skidaway Island, just outside of Savannah, GA. “Adrian didn’t want to talk to [coach] Chuck Daly. I told him [Dantley], ‘Look, coach Daly will talk to you about anything in the world. You gotta talk to him.’ But Adrian didn’t want to do that.”

When I suggested to McCloskey that certain cynics – me included – thought the trade would harm team chemistry, he scoffed.

“It was because of team chemistry that we had to make the trade,” McCloskey says. “We had internal problems.”

Such as, a falling out between Dantley and coach Daly?

“Such as … internal problems.”


McCloskey, during the Pistons' Bad Boys era

Aguirre was no saint, either. Drafted just ahead of Isiah Thomas in 1981 by Dallas, out of DePaul University, Aguirre was going to someday lead the second-year Mavericks to the promised land. Coach Dick Motta raved about him on draft day.

But eventually, years later, Motta would call Mark Aguirre a “coward” and a “jackass.”

So wasn’t it a risk to try to improve team chemistry by trading for someone like Aguirre, who came with his own baggage?

“I spoke to Isiah, and Bill Laimbeer, and Rick Mahorn, and I told them, ‘If we get this guy [Aguirre], then you have to make sure he plays Pistons Basketball,’” McCloskey recalls. “And they told me they’d take care of it.”

Did they ever.

The team was on the west coast when the trade was made around Valentine’s Day. But there weren’t any candy kisses being passed around when Thomas, Laimbeer, Mahorn and company took the new Piston to dinner.

Basically, each of them took turns browbeating Aguirre, reminding him that he came with a poor reputation, and that wasn’t going to be tolerated with the Pistons.“I’ve heard a lot of bad things about you, and the only reason I’m willing to give you a chance is because you’re Isiah’s friend and he vouches for you,” Laimbeer told Aguirre during the dinner, according to Jerry Green’s book, The Detroit Pistons: Capturing A Remarkable Era.

Trader Jack, they called McCloskey. Never afraid to pull the trigger.

The Pistons caught fire after the trade. They finished with a 63-19 record, and cruised to the championship, losing just two playoff games in the process.

Dantley had his own suspicions about why the trade was made. Thomas’ friendship with Aguirre, which dated back to their childhood in Chicago, certainly must have contributed to the move, Dantley thought. When the Pistons and Mavericks met at the Palace for the first time after the trade, Dantley whispered something into Thomas’ ear before tip-off. What he said, has never been revealed. But it’s widely accepted that it wasn’t, “I love you, Isiah.”

Although, maybe “you, Isiah” was included in the missive.

Naturally, McCloskey debunks the conspiracy theorists who would have us believe that Isiah Thomas orchestrated the Dantley-for-Aguirre trade.

“I made that trade,” McCloskey has always maintained. “Me. Nobody else.”

McCloskey insists he, not Isiah, put Aguirre into a Pistons uniform and Dantley into a Mavs jersey

Did he think, I asked, that the Pistons would have won the championship with Adrian Dantley instead of Mark Aguirre, had the trade fallen through?

“It would have been questionable,” McCloskey answered me. “Because of what was going on with the team.”

Trader Jack, they called McCloskey. Never afraid to pull the trigger. Bold, sometimes to a fault. But also a master drafter and team architect. He was, in Detroit, the Frank Lloyd Wright of the NBA. When today’s NBA observers laud current Pistons GM Joe Dumars, the more informed ones recognize that Dumars’ inspiration and the one he emulates is Jack McCloskey.

Yet the biggest trade of all, the mother of all deals, never happened. But it wasn’t because McCloskey didn’t try.

Shortly after becoming Pistons GM in December, 1979, McCloskey realized his roster was more befitting that of an expansion team than one that had been in the league for over 25 years. Across the country, dazzling NBA fans in Los Angeles, was the rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

McCloskey had some ideas.

“I called Lakers GM Bill Sharman, who was a good friend. I offered him any three players from our roster for Earvin. He said no. I upped the offer to any six players. He said no again. So a few days later I told Bill he could have my entire team for Magic.”

Sharman, stunned, talked to Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke. The next day, he called McCloskey and declined the offer.

“They were thinking about it,” McCloskey said in Green’s book. “We would have taken Magic, and filled the roster with CBA players and free agents.”

And the basketball world would have been set on its ear.

McCloskey left the Pistons as a two-time champion after the 1991-92 season. Then it was off to Minnesota to be the Timberwolves’ GM for three years. In 1995, Thomas called up his old boss.

“When Isiah went up to Toronto, he asked me to come up there and help,” McCloskey says. “So I went to Toronto and was a consultant and a scout for almost ten years.”

With the Raptors, McCloskey used his expert drafting eye to help select players like Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Marcus Camby, and Chris Bosh. It was the same eye that had once drafted names like Joe Dumars, John Salley, and Dennis Rodman.

“All-star players,” McCloskey says with pride about his Raptors picks, “but management couldn’t keep them.”

Today, McCloskey, who turns 81 next month, is still an avid tennis player.

“I play tennis three times a week and golf about nine times a week,” he says of his retirement on Skidaway Island. “If I sound out of breath now, it’s because you caught me in the middle of a workout.”

McCloskey will be back in Detroit in October, when he’s inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he says.

Watch your valuables, if you plan on attending. Trader Jack will be back in town.


Ian C. said...

The "team chemistry" aspect to the deal was obviously the biggest deal, judging from McCloskey's words. But if I recall correctly, there was also some solid basketball reasoning behind the deal, too.

Dantley had become the proverbial "black hole" in the post, which killed the Pistons' ball movement on offense.

The spacing became much better with Aguirre doing his work from the wing, which opened up the lane for drives to the basket, created another perimeter threat to keep defenses honest on Isiah, Joe D, and Vinnie Johnson, and allowed James Edwards to become more of a weapon down-low.

It's hard to imagine the Pistons winning a championship without that deal (though they obviously came close in '88 - but maybe that's as far as that team could go).

Greg Eno said...

Something else I found out: the man who McCloskey said recommended him for the Pistons' GM job?

None other than Dickie Vitale...

Ian C. said...

So Dickie V did do something good for the Pistons? Is that his legacy?