Legends Interview: Bob Lanier

September 28, 2015

NBRPA writer Jon Teitel has spent time talking with many of the greatest players in NBA history and will share his interviews at LegendsofBasketball.com. Jon visited with Bob Lanier about being named All-Star Game MVP in 1974 and later serving as president of the NBA Players Association.

Whoever invented the phrase “having big shoes to fill” might have had Bob Lanier in mind, as evident by his size 22 sneakers. Many Hall of Famers have been dominant players since early in their careers, but Lanier is 1 of the few who was ever cut from his high school team. However, he made a very nice recovery after that: winning 2 city titles in high school and being named a 3-time All-American at St. Bonaventure. He was the #1 overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft, which paid immediate dividends after he was named to the All-Rookie Team in 1971. During his 14 years in the NBA he averaged a double-double (20.1 PPG/ 10.1 RPG), played in 8 All-Star Games, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992.

After being cut from your Bennett High School team as a sophomore, your biology teacher became head coach and brought you back to help lead the team to 2 city titles: why did you get cut, and how did you get back on the team? I tried out for the team and the coach called me in and said I was too clumsy and needed to do something else. I was very brokenhearted because all my friends made the team. I talked to Coach Laurie Alexander at the local Boys and Girls Club and he started working with me on my footwork/conditioning.

After going 22-0 at St. Bonaventure in 1968 you scored 23 PTS in a loss to eventual national runner-up North Carolina in the NCAA tourney (Larry Miller had 27 PTS/16 REB): how was your team able to stay focused for the entire regular season? We had the “Iron Man 5”: we only went about 5 players deep. We would raise our hand when we were tired and the coach would bring in 5 new guys. We played hard but you also have to have some luck to do that. We also stayed fairly healthy despite not being the most talented team in the world: I dare say that we overachieved. We were ineligible the following year due to some recruiting violations, so going into our senior year we were geeked up to kick some butt.

Take me through the 1970 NCAA tourney:

You went 25-1 in the regular season with the lone stumbling block being a 2-PT loss to Villanova: were you out for revenge when you learned that you would be playing them in the tourney? Villanova was a very tough team, especially at home in the Palestra. I was sitting in the stands during the game before ours and some woman made a comment that the Wildcats were upset that they had to play us again after already having beaten us. I immediately got up and told our guys in the locker room that they thought we were a bunch of pushovers.

You had 26 PTS/14 REB in the win over Villanova but injured your knee with 9 minutes left and were unable to play in your team’s 8-PT loss to Jacksonville (led by Artis Gilmore’s 29 PTS/21 REB): do you feel that your team would have won if you were healthy? I got hurt when we were up by 20 PTS. I thought we had a legitimate shot at winning the title so I think that we would have beaten Jacksonville.

You were a 3-time All-American, 1970 conference POY, and you still hold the school records for scoring (27.6 PPG)/rebounding (15.7 RPG): what did it mean to you to win such outstanding honors, and do you think anyone will ever break your records? I think that records are meant to be broken but you do not think about it when you are going through your journey: you are just trying to be the best player/person/teammate you can be. There are so many people who do not get the chance to smell the roses along the way, but I have a restless spirit and keep striving for perfection that I can never reach.

Despite signing your brand new contract with Detroit while on crutches after preseason knee surgery, you scored 15.6 PPG and were named to the All-Rookie Team in 1971: how on earth were you able to play all 82 games and make such a smooth transition from college to the pros? It was not even close to smooth! It was probably 1 of the dumbest things that both I and the team did. My knee could not even bend 90 degrees when I went into training camp but there was pressure on everyone for me to play. In hindsight I should have taken a few months or more to get physically ready to play. I have thought about it 100 times but I did what I thought was the right thing at the time.

In the 1974 All-Star Game you had 24 PTS/10 REB and were named MVP in a win by the West: how were you able to play your best against the best? You strive to do that when you enter the league. When you do your work to prepare your body/mind, you just try to control the stuff you can control. We had a good team that played well and I got enough votes to be named MVP. I treasure moments like that: sometimes I mess with my kids and tell them that they better Google me when I am trying to make a point!

What are your memories of Game 7 of the 1974 Western Conference Semifinals with Detroit (you scored 23 PTS but Chet Walker made a layup with 3 seconds left in a 2-PT win by Chicago)? Dave Bing was our best player but his pass at the end of the game was intercepted and Chet made a layup to win it. I had a lot of unfortunate moments like that during my career: I remember talking to Don Nelson about how it seemed like someone sprinkled dust over us at times.

Take me through the 1976 playoffs:

In the Western Conference 1st round you scored 28 PTS and Chris Ford had a steal/layup to clinch a 3-PT win over Milwaukee in the decisive Game 3: where does Ford’s play rank among the most clutch plays you have ever seen? Chris was not the fastest but he was a great anticipator and he guessed right that time.

In the Western Conference Semifinals you scored 30 PTS in a 2-PT OT loss at home to Golden State in the decisive Game 6: how close did you come to winning the game? Realistically, if we had kept our heads cool we would have won. ML Carr got into a fight with 1 of their guards while Rick Barry just kept cool on the sideline, and he ate us alive later on.

In Game 7 of the 1981 Eastern Conference Semifinals with Milwaukee you scored 24 PTS in a 1-PT loss to Philly: what was your reaction when you heard that Coach Don Nelson and the two game officials were heading to the local CBS affiliate to review the tape of the final seconds to see if the shot clock should have expired? I do not remember that incident but it was a heartbreaking loss.

You were later voted president of the NBA Players Association and also served as Special Assistant to the Commissioner: how has the relationship between labor and management changed over time, and do you think it is going to get any better in the future? I do not think it has changed that much because each side has different constituencies to look after. You need both sides working together for the growth of the sport and the common good. It has been a good scenario where players/owners have worked together to grow the sport and split the revenues of a $4 billion pot.