Pistons Bad Boys architect Jack McCloskey dies

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Three men were considered the architects of one of the greatest sports teams ever assembled, the 1990s Pistons "Bad Boys."

Owner Bill Davidson died in 2009 at age 86, coach Chuck Daly died later in 2009 at 78. And on Thursday, general manager Jack McCloskey died at 91, the Pistons announced.

McCloskey had been battling Alzheimer's Disease in recent years, a diagnosis made public last month.

"It's scary almost to think about that," said George Blaha, the longtime Pistons broadcaster, "that none of them are with us anymore.

"He was an amazing guy, and his name hangs from the rafters for a good reason. He built one of the greatest teams in NBA history, and one of the most important and popular teams in Detroit and Michigan history.

"Everybody knows about the 'Bad Boys,' and he was the architect of the 'Bad Boys.'"

McCloskey was general manager of the Pistons from 1979 through 1992, taking over a franchise that hadn't been to the league finals since they were based in Fort Wayne, Ind.

And by the time his tenure in Detroit was up, he had put together one of the fiercest rosters in the game — hence the nickname — one that would win back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990.

A native of Pennsylvania coal country, and a veteran of World War II, McCloskey valued toughness and grit, and it showed in many of his personnel moves.

"The 'Bad Boys' were the toughest team in the NBA," Blaha said, "and if all the general managers were in the room and there was a fight, Jack would win. He was the toughest.

"He built that team in many ways to play like he played, and like he would've wanted to play."

McCloskey hadn't any executive experience when Davidson tapped him as general manager. Instead, he had been a coach, first in college, at Pennsylvania, his alma mater, and Wake Forest, and later with the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers. He then was an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers before he accepted the Pistons' position.

The Pistons would win just 16 games in his first year on the job, and the changes came fast and furious.

In 1981, he used the second overall pick in the draft to select a sophomore guard out of Indiana named Isiah Thomas, and the rest is history — thanks to good drafting (Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, John Salley), as well as shrewd and in many places gutsy trades (Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Vinnie Johnson, Mark Aguire), earning him the moniker, "Trader Jack."

So fearless with trades, in fact, he once offered the Lakers his entire Pistons roster for Earvin "Magic" Johnson, according to longtime Pistons beat writer Keith Langlois.

"He would always listen," Blaha said. "When the Pistons weren't quite good enough, he tried to make them better. One thing he did do, he did stay with the guys who won in 1989 and '90, even though they didn't get back to the Finals in 1991.

"Those were his guys. You could see him walking off the court with tears in his eyes. He was as much of a 'Bad Boy' as anybody."

In 1983, McCloskey took a chance on a coach named Daly, who had had success in the college ranks at Boston College, and later Penn, but was 9-32 in his lone NBA season with the Cleveland Cavaliers before he was fired.

The Pistons then started their climb to relevance in 1984, making the playoffs for the first time since 1977. Four years later, they were in the NBA Finals, losing to the Lakers. Then the Pistons won their first title in 1989, beating the Lakers, and their second in 1990, beating the Trail Blazers.

Their era was sandwiched by the great Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s and the Bulls dynasty of the 1990s, as the "Bad Boys" become cult heroes in Detroit and Michigan. Of course, they were villains just about everywhere else, for their cockiness, fights, handshake snubs, etc. Sports Illustrated once ranked the "Bad Boys" the second-most-hated sports team of all-time, behind the 1986 Miami Hurricanes football team.

The "Bad Boys" lost in the Eastern Conference finals to the on-the-rise Bulls in 1991, and wouldn't be a significant factor in the playoffs again for more than a decade.

McCloskey left the team after a first-round playoff exit in 1992 — seeing the writing on the wall, Daly left, too, to coach New Jersey — and later worked briefly for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto Raptors.

But he'll best be remembered for his time in Detroit. In 2006, McCloskey was enshrined into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, and was honored by the Pistons in 2008 when his name was placed on a banner and sent to the rafters of The Palace. His name will be moved this fall to the rafters at Detroit's Little Caesars Arena, the Pistons' new home.

"When Jack had his name raised to the rafters by the Pistons," Blaha said, "his son said to some of us, 'No matter how much you think this means to my Dad, it means even more.' Jack was an emotional guy in his own way, and truly appreciated the fact the Pistons appreciated him."

McCloskey, who retired to Georgia, is survived by his wife, Leslie, and their two children, Mike and Molly.