Sunday, May 10, 2009

Only Their Mothers Could Love These Guys

(Author’s note: in honor of Mother’s Day, here are five athletes—and one bonus guy—who played in Detroit and who, for one reason or another, would never have won a popularity contest—unless the only voter was mom)

One was nicknamed, appropriately, “Bad News”. Another was a convicted felon. One of them, they called “Terrible.”

Thank God for mothers.

For without mom, I don’t think the following list of former professional athletes who once played in Detroit would have had anyone to show them any love.

The criteria for this bastion of ignominy is varied. Either they were hated by their opponents, or their coaches, or the fans, or even their own teammates. Some of these guys managed to anger all of the above.

Except mom, it’s presumed.

It’s hoped.

Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers (1963-70). McLain is the last pitcher to win thirty games, and also the last one to spend time in the federal pen as a convicted felon.

Denny’s travails are too numerous to get into when there are so many other people to talk about here, but here’s a quick summary.

Suspended for carrying a loaded handgun. Left teammate Mickey Lolich and his wife at the 1969 All-Star Game, despite promising to fly them back in his plane. Dumped a bucket of water on a sportswriter. Hoodwinked some teammates into investing into a failed paint company.

(Deep breath before continuing)

Openly broke team rules so he could jet around the country and play the organ. Long suspected of having his foot stomped on by a mobster in 1967 due to some gambling debts.

(Another deep breath)

Whined and pouted his way through a season in Washington under Ted Williams. Out of baseball by age 28. Convicted of racketeering. Spent time in federal prison. Released. Convicted of embezzling pension funds from a Michigan packing plant. Spent more time in prison. Released.

(One more….)

In and out of TV and radio as a talk show host. In and out of 7-11 as a store clerk.

But always in the news, for one reason or another.

Like the song said, “There’s never been any like Denny McLain.”

Thank God.

Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, Detroit Pistons (1976-78). When the American Basketball Association folded, four remaining teams merged into the NBA. The ABA’s orphaned players were then drafted into the NBA.

The Pistons had a chance at a young, powerful center named Moses Malone.

So naturally, they picked a talented but troubled forward from the St. Louis Spirits named Marvin Barnes, despite his nickname from college: “Bad News”.

Marvin belted a teammate with a tire iron in college. He skirted team rules, both as a collegian and as a pro.

He reported late to his first training camp with the Pistons. He pouted about coming off the bench. He was caught at Metro Airport with a gun in his luggage. He would arrive late to games, if he arrived at all.

All that, and he had the nerve to ask that his nickname be changed to simply, “News.”

OK, Marvin.

And don’t they say that no news is good news?

“Terrible” Ted Lindsay, Detroit Red Wings (1944-57; 1964-65). The nickname says it all.

But if you look at Teddy today, and thank goodness he’s still with us, it’s hard not be taken by how slight of build he is. A runt, by today’s standards.

Frankly, Teddy wasn’t much more than a runt by yesterday’s standards, either.

Listed at all of 5-foot-8, Teddy was one of the most hated players of his day.

He taught Gordie Howe, no less, how to handle himself on the ice. Teddy gave Mr. Hockey pointers, including being aware of who is on the ice with you—something that served Gordie well when he famously beat the tar out of tough guy Louie Fontinato of the Rangers.

Teddy received death threats before a playoff game in Toronto, and after scoring the game-winning goal, he skated around the ice and used his stick to pretend to spray the Maple Leaf Gardens crowd with machine gun fire.

Teddy started the tradition of skating the Stanley Cup around the ice after winning it. I once asked him how and why.

“Back in those days, all they did was put the Cup on a little table on the ice. You posed for pictures and that was it,” he explained.

“So I decided that I’d give the fans a chance to see it. I took it and before anyone could stop me, I skated it around the ice with me. I wasn’t trying to start a tradition. It was just something I decided to do at the spur of the moment.”

Shucks, Teddy wasn’t so Terrible after all.

Joe Don Looney, Detroit Lions (1965). This time, the surname says it all.

Looney was a first-round draft pick of the New York Giants in 1964 after a stellar, if not strange, career at Oklahoma.

The hijinks began on campus.

Looney first enrolled at Texas in 1960, but flunked out. He then entered Texas Christian. They kicked him out. So he tried Cameron Junior College for a bit. Finally, he ended up at Oklahoma.
But Looney was kicked off the team after just three games in 1963 by coach Bud Wilkinson after Looney punched a graduate assistant.

Still, the Giants drafted Looney 12th overall.

Just a few weeks into training camp, the Giants were so fed up with Looney’s behavior that they traded him to Baltimore. The Colts had him for a year before dealing him to Detroit.

Lions coach Harry Gilmer once asked Looney to run into the huddle with a play for the quarterback.

“Coach, if you want a message sent, call Western Union,” Looney told Gilmer in a story that is absolutely not apocryphal, though it seems so, for as many times as it’s been re-told.

Looney was out of pro football by age 26.

After football, Looney converted to Hinduism and joined the Siddha Yoga movement led by Swami Muktananda. It was alleged that Looney was one of Muktananda’s “enforcers” who intimidated people into obeying him.

Joe Don Looney died on September 24, 1988 in Texas when he ran his motorcycle off the road and crashed into a fence. He was 45.

It was later determined that Looney never hit the brakes.

That should have been his epitaph.

Bill Laimbeer, Detroit Pistons (1982-93). The Pistons of the late-1980s, early-1990s were “The Bad Boys” and Laimbeer was to them what Leo Gorcey was to The Bowery Boys. On second thought, maybe Bill was more like their Al Capone. Or Charlie Manson.

It’s quite possible that there was never an NBA player more despised by opponents than Bill Laimbeer.

He flopped to the floor, drawing whistles. He whined and scowled. He fouled dirty. He smirked. He loved it when the opposing crowds would boo and jeer him.

Once, in Chicago, the team mascot drew roaring approval when he pummeled Laimbeer in effigy.

Laimbeer never committed a foul in his life, according to him. Except the ones where he tried to dismember the other guy.

Bill Laimbeer was a big, lunky white guy who could shoot from the outside, which only proved to torment the opposition even more. He couldn’t jump over a puddle, yet he averaged double digits in rebounds year after year.

Oh, and what do Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Bob Lanier, and Robert Parish all have in common?

Each of them punched Bill Laimbeer in the face during an NBA game.

Don’t bother asking them about regrets.

Ned Harkness, Detroit Red Wings (1970-73). OK, so Ned wasn’t a player, but he might have been the most-hated front office executive in Detroit sports history not named Matt Millen. Russ Thomas of the Lions is up there, too.

Ned was hired to coach the team in 1970, fresh out of college, where he led Cornell to the 1970 NCAA title.

But the players soon revolted, going so far as to submit a petition to GM Sid Abel, stating they wouldn’t play for Ned anymore.

But Ned kept his job, and it was Abel who left, quitting after he wasn’t allowed to fire Harkness.

So Ned was promoted to GM, and then the fun really began.

Ned traded players like bubblegum cards, always getting rooked in the process. He fired coach Johnny Wilson, despite Wilson leading the team to its first winning record in three years. Ned replaced Wilson with minor league coach Ted Garvin, who won two of his first eleven games before getting canned himself.

Ned even bungled that.

He wanted Alex Delvecchio to retire and coach, and Alex agreed. But Ned did it on a game day, and Alex didn’t file retirement papers on time. The NHL wouldn’t allow a still-active player to coach, so Ned begged Garvin to coach that night’s game despite having already fired him. Garvin did, but vamoosed late in the third period, disappearing into the Detroit night. Injured player Tim Ecclestone coached the last few minutes of the game.

That kind of thing is why Ned’s time in Detroit will forever be known as “Darkness with Harkness.”

And it lands him on this list of ignominy.

Shortly after becoming coach, Harkness showed up at the home of defenseman Gary Bergman. Not long after arriving, Ned began rearranging Bergie’s living room furniture to explain his theories and Xs and Os.

“Right then,” Bergman said in recalling the story years later, “I knew we were in trouble.”

Happy Mother’s Day!

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