Lanier's impact felt on and off the court
Although Bob Lanier is a Hall of Famer, it is easy to overlook his career. He did not play on a championship team, his game was not flashy and he retired before the NBA became the global, multimedia product that it is today. Some fans may remember him more for his famously large sneakers than for his accomplishments as a player. That is most unfortunate, because Lanier had tremendous impact during his playing days – and even greater impact since his retirement.
Lanier averaged 27.6 ppg, 15.7 rpg and shot .576 from the field while leading St. Bonaventure University to a 65-12 record in his three varsity seasons, including two NCAA Tournament appearances. During his senior year in 1970, St. Bonaventure stormed to a 22-1 record in the regular season and a third place ranking in the final AP regular season poll. The Bonnies had an excellent chance to end UCLA’s streak of NCAA championships until Lanier suffered a devastating knee injury in a 97-74 victory over Villanova in the East Regional Final. Playing without their star center, St. Bonaventure lost 91-83 to Artis Gilmore’s Jacksonville Dolphins in the Final Four.
Lanier was still recuperating when the Detroit Pistons made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft. He did not miss a single game in his rookie season, but Lanier thinks that his haste to return to action may have set him up for future problems.
“In hindsight," Lanier says, "what we should have done – if I had had any sense and if there was some sophistication with the powers that be way back then in Detroit – is have me sit out the first half of the season, at least, and just worked on getting my knee right, getting the swelling down, strengthening it up. But rehab wasn’t as sophisticated then and there was so much pressure to get Bob Lanier out there playing – even on one knee – because I was a No. 1 draft choice and because Detroit was a fledgling team. I think, consequently, because of that I had so many problems with my knees over the years because I started out my career that way as opposed to really getting myself together.”
On March 19, 1971 he scored 40 points, setting a new franchise single game scoring record for centers. Lanier averaged 15.6 ppg and 8.1 rpg and made the All-Rookie Team. Detroit’s 45-37 record was a 14-game improvement over the previous season, but only good enough for last place in the powerful Midwest Division. The Milwaukee Bucks, led by Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, won the division title with a 66-16 mark en route to capturing the NBA title.
For the next seven seasons, Lanier never averaged less than 21.3 ppg or 11.3 rpg. Blocked shots and steals were not recorded during his first three years. In 1973-74, Lanier ranked fourth in the NBA with 3.05 bpg, totaling 247 blocked shots. He also had 110 steals, a most impressive display of quickness by a 6-11, 265-pound center; only 11 other players in NBA/ABA history have had 200-plus blocked shots and 100-plus steals in the same season.
Lanier showcased his playmaking abilities by averaging 4.2 apg that year and a career-high 4.6 apg in 1974-75. Lanier won the 1972 NBA-ABA All-Star Game MVP Award, no small feat considering that luminaries such as Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek, Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving and Rick Barry participated in the second annual contest between the rival leagues. In 1974, he added the NBA All-Star Game MVP to his trophy collection.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of hardware that Lanier won came from a one-on-one contest that included many of the NBA’s greatest stars.
“They brought us all to a high school gym somewhere," Lanier recalls. "I think that they figured that Pistol Pete was going to win it. Vitalis was the sponsor and they made a deal with Pistol to do the TV commercials for the event. But he didn’t win; he got knocked out just before the finals. Jo Jo (White) and I ended up playing in the finals. Jo Jo and I kind of made a little pact. I knew how quick Jo Jo was – he’d break your ankles if you didn’t watch out. So I said, ‘Jo Jo, just don’t embarrass me out here.’ Man, the cameras went on and Jo Jo took off – I think he made the first five hoops. He would make a little fake and when I got too close to him then he would drive around me. After about the third shot he made I’m saying, ‘Jo Jo, come on man, slow down, slow down.’ I’m begging him. He served me a couple more after that and then he missed. I said to myself, ‘OK, I’m going to just rock him to sleep now.’ I wasn’t just big and slow; I was fairly quick for a big guy and I could shoot the outside jump shot. I think that within the 17-foot range I could shoot as well as anyone who ever played. I wasn’t worried once he missed, because it was make it, take it. If you made a shot you didn’t have to give the ball back. So when he missed I rocked him a little bit with some quick back down moves and short shots until I got within range. Once the score was close again, I shot some jumpers.”
Lanier still remembers the scene after he defeated White to earn the crown as the NBA’s best one-on-one player: “They gave me a Vitalis trophy and a satchel that contained about $15,000. I remember unzipping it and pretending that I was tossing the money out to the fans.”
Lanier did not just excel in All-Star games and the one-on-one contest. He twice finished in the top five in regular season MVP balloting (third in 1974 behind Jabbar and Bob McAdoo, fourth in 1977 behind Jabbar, Bill Walton and Pete Maravich), but there were always two centers ahead of him, so he never made the All-NBA team. This is somewhat reminiscent of Hal Greer, the great Sixers guard who made the Hall of Fame and the 50 Greatest Players List but never made the All-NBA 1st Team because he played at the same time as Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.
Lanier holds the Pistons franchise record with 20 games of 40-plus points, including a career-high 48 in a 120-116 victory over Portland on November 28, 1972. Lanier’s 33 rebounds on December 22, 1972 versus Seattle stood as a team record until Dennis Rodman had 34 rebounds versus Indiana in 1992.
He averaged 22.7 ppg and 11.8 rpg in a little over nine seasons as a Piston. Detroit did not win a championship during Lanier’s time with the team, but he can hardly be blamed for this: he elevated his averages to 25.6 ppg and 13.8 ppg in his 22 playoff games as a Piston. Frustrated by Detroit’s postseason failures, Lanier requested a trade and on February 11, 1980 the Pistons sent him to Milwaukee. The Bucks went 20-6 down the stretch after Lanier’s arrival and finished first in the Midwest Division. The defending champion Seattle SuperSonics defeated Milwaukee in seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals, winning the clinching game 98-94.
In 1980-81, Milwaukee moved to the Eastern Conference’s Central Division. The Bucks had a 226-112 record during Lanier’s four full seasons with the team, winning the Central Division crown each year. They lost Eastern Conference Finals showdowns to Philadelphia in 1983 and Boston in 1984. Each of those teams won the NBA title.
“The bad thing was if we got past Philly we ran into Boston and if we got past Boston we ran into Philly," Lanier says. "That was when Philly had a hell of a team with Julius, Moses and a couple great guards, Mo Cheeks and Andrew Toney. God bless America, was he tough, man. He would wear Sidney Moncrief out. He was really tough. Then if we got by them, shoot, we had to face three Hall of Famers – Robert Parish, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale – plus Dennis Johnson. Think about it – that’s really tough.”
Lanier retired after the 1984 season with career averages of 20.1 ppg and 10.1 rpg.
LIFE AFTER RETIREMENT
Bob Lanier’s basketball prowess does not define him as a human being. He is a special assistant to commissioner David Stern in charge of the NBA’s Team-Up community service programs, but Lanier’s devotion to helping others predates his involvement with the NBA.
“It started long before I was a player," he explains. "It happened in high school and even prior to that because my mother got me to do things with kids in the church. We would mentor and do clinics and stuff like that with kids in the church. That’s how all that got started. Then, when I was in college, I used to go and help the Seneca Indian nation. They gave me a beautiful Indian headdress with eagle feathers.”
The Seneca also bestowed an Indian name upon Lanier ("he who leaves big tracks”) which superficially could refer to his imposing physique, but on a deeper level reflects the impact that he had on their lives.
Lanier is proud that his example has inspired other NBA players to reach out and help others.
“We have a lot of players who have foundations and who are doing some really wonderful things in their communities around the country and I dare say around the world," he says. "Dikembe Mutombo has given large amounts of time and money to people in Africa to build hospitals and build places for young kids to have beds and showers and washing machines. He has done a wonderful job. Stephon Marbury, through his Starbury Foundation, has done a wonderful job for kids, making a difference in communities. We have a bunch of guys who continue to do great, great work, trying to make a difference in the world.”
Lanier laments that NBA players do not receive enough recognition for these efforts: “It is unfortunate because I dare say that there is not a group of young men who do more to make a difference around the world than NBA players. I travel around the world with our ‘Basketball Without Borders’ program in which our ambassadors of basketball run basketball clinics. But we also talk to these players in different countries about how to deal with life issues and tell them that they need to make it and then reach back to help others to make it. That is truly important and that is one of the things that we take very, very seriously in the NBA.”
Bob Lanier did not achieve his dream of winning an NBA championship, but his efforts are helping countless people to have better opportunities to fulfill their dreams. It’s hard to imagine a greater legacy than that.
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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