RIP: Detroit’s Finest

When I think about Bob Lanier, I think three things:

  • Great player on a team with no direction
  • Huge feet (size 22 shoes)
  • Airplane!

Lanier was the prototypical 20-10 player; he averaged 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds over his 14-year career. He led the NBA in scoring rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage and minutes per game in different seasons. He is in the Naismith basketball Hall of Fame.

He was built like Karl Malone but had the post-up game and mid-range shooting touch of Kevin Garnett. He was mobile despite bad knees; he was a strong passer, rebounder and shot blocker who could get to the rim quicker than most big men.

The first overall pick in 1971, Lanier got off to a great start; he led the NBA in scoring his second season and rebounding the third. His Detroit Pistons rose from the dregs of the league to post a 52-30 record in 1974. But the team was sold, the new owners were incompetent, star shooting guard Dave Bing got old and the team quickly faded back to the bottom of the NBA. Traded to the to Milwaukee in 1980, Lanier helped the Bucks win five Midwest titles and reach the conference finals twice.

Lanier’s feet were legendary, the largest in the NBA. In interviews, Lanier often joked about them.

“My feet got to the gym at 7:45; the rest of me got there around 8:30.”

And, of course, he was accidentally immortalized by the quote from Airplane!:

Joey Wait a minute. I know you. You’re Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Roger Murdock I’m sorry, son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdock. I’m the co-pilot.

Joey You are Kareem! I’ve seen you play. My dad’s got season tickets.

Roger Murdock I think you should go back to your seat now, Joey. Right, Clarence?

Captain Oveur Nahhhhhh, he’s not bothering anyone. Let him stay here.

Roger Murdock But just remember, my name is…

[showing his nametag] 

Roger Murdock ROGER MURDOCK. I’m an airline pilot.

Joey I think you’re the greatest, but my dad says you don’t work hard enough on defense.

[Kareem gets angry] 

Joey And he says that lots of times, you don’t even run down court. And that you don’t really try… except during the playoffs.

Roger Murdock [breaking character]  The hell I don’t! LISTEN, KID! I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night! Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes!

Lanier, along with several Detroit teammates, appeared in the film “The Fish that Are Pittsburgh” in 1979.

Lanier was a spokesperson for the NBA’s “Stay in School” program from 1989-1994, and he worked the last 17 years of his life as the NBA Cares Global Ambassador. It’s fairly common to hear about players who work with kids, but often it’s just a seminar and some selfies. Lanier was the real deal, though; helping youngsters was his life’s work.

He was one of the best centers in the NBA in the golden era for centers. Like several of them — Wes Unseld and Artis Gilmore come immediately to mind — Lanier was a lefty. He struggled with bad knees from his college years, and had his last knee surgery in 2017.

Big Bob and his shoes are each ensconced in the Naismith basketball Hall of Fame. Rest in peace, Bob. You were a true champion, rings or no rings.

1 thought on “RIP: Detroit’s Finest

  1. In the late 70s, it could also be the early 80s, the NBA had a 1 on 1 tournament at halftimes on their game of the week. I remember watching some of the matches. Bob Lanier won the tournament. This surprised me as I thought the quick guards would have an advantage in the 1 on 1 game.

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