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Detroit Piston's legend Bob Lanier dies at 73

Legendary Detroit Piston’s center Bob Lanier died Tuesday. He was 73.

The NBA said Lanier died after a short illness. The Hall of Famer had worked for the league as a global ambassador. The Athletic reported in 2019 that Lanier was being treated for bladder cancer.

Bob Lanier, on the left wearing a white uniform, holds a basketball ready to take a shot.
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The Detroit Pistons drafted Bob Lanier with the No. 1 overall pick in 1970 after he led St. Bonaventure to the Final Four.

Lanier was one of the top players in the NBA during the 1970s. He played 14 seasons with the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks and averaged 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds for his career. He is third on the Pistons’ career list in both points and rebounds. Detroit drafted Lanier with the No. 1 overall pick in 1970 after he led St. Bonaventure to the Final Four.

Lanier made his mark during his decade wearing a Pistons’ uniform, muscling up beside the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. However, despite the team’s potential, Lanier regretted never bringing a championship to Detroit.

“You’re judged by that. You’re judged by the rings,” Lanier said in an interview for Pistons In Focus.

While regretting never winning a championship, in that same interview, Lanier did not fault his own effort.

“I can look in a mirror every day of my life and say I gave it my all,” Lanier said.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Lanier was among the most talented centers in league history, and added that his accomplishments went far beyond what he did on the court.

“For more than 30 years, Bob served as our global ambassador and as a special assistant to David Stern and then me, traveling the world to teach the game’s values and make a positive impact on young people everywhere,” Silver said in a statement. “It was a labor of love for Bob, who was one of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever been around.”

In 1992, he was enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame, where a bronzed pair of his boat-sized sneakers is displayed.

He was known for wearing size 22 shoes, although that was disputed in 1989 by a Converse representative, who told The Atlanta Constitution that Lanier wore size 18 1/2.

“The 22 he was reputed to wear was a Korean size,” shoe rep Gary Stoken said.

Not contested was the abundantly clear fact that his feet were big.

“A lot of people can put both feet into one of my shoes,” Lanier told HOOP magazine.

Born September 10, 1948, in Buffalo, New York, Lanier starred in college at St. Bonaventure, where he averaged 27.6 points and 15.7 rebounds in three seasons. The Bonnies made it all the way to the Final Four in 1970, but Lanier had injured his knee in the regional final, and St. Bonaventure lost in the national semifinals to Jacksonville.

“As fierce and as dominant as Bob was on the court, he was equally kind and impactful in the community.”
The Detroit Pistons

Lanier overcame a litany of orthopedic injuries, dealing with shoulder, back, elbow, hand and toe problems during his career. But that didn’t prevent him from earning his place among the top NBA centers of his era. After being named to the all-rookie team in 1971, he averaged at least 21 points and 11 rebounds for each of the next seven seasons. Lanier was an eight-time All-Star and the MVP of the 1974 All-Star Game.

He remains the Pistons’ franchise leader in scoring average at 22.7 points per game, beloved in Detroit for both his fierceness and friendliness.

“As fierce and as dominant as Bob was on the court, he was equally kind and impactful in the community,” the Pistons said. “As an ambassador for both the Pistons organization and the NBA, he represented our league, our franchise and our fans with great passion and integrity. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Bob’s family and friends.”

As exceptional as Lanier was, the Pistons won only one playoff series with him. He played 64 games or fewer in each of his last four full seasons with Detroit. In February 1980, he was traded to Milwaukee.

Lanier averaged fewer minutes with the Bucks, but he was part of Milwaukee teams that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 1983 and 1984, the final two seasons of his career.

He also served as president of the players’ union during the final years of his career, with Silver saying that he played “a key role in the negotiation of a game-changing collective bargaining agreement.”

Lanier was Detroit’s career leader in points and rebounds before he was passed by Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer in those categories, and his single-game franchise record of 33 rebounds was topped by Dennis Rodman.

The Associated Press is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting.
Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Radio since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.