Bob Lanier, a dominant center of the 1970s and ’80s, dies at 73
By Richard Sandomir
Bob Lanier, who as a center for the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks in the 1970s and ’80s parlayed a deft left-handed hook shot, a soft midrange jumper and robust rebounding skills into a Hall of Fame career, died on Tuesday in Phoenix. He was 73.
The NBA said he died after a short illness but provided no other details.
Lanier, who stood 6-foot-11 and weighed about 250 pounds, excelled in an era of dominant centers like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Thurmond and Wes Unseld.
“Guys didn’t change teams as much, so when you were facing the Bulls or the Bucks or New York, you had all these rivalries,” he told NBA.com in 2018. “Lanier against Jabbar! Jabbar against Willis Reed! And then Chamberlain and Artis Gilmore and Bill Walton! You had all these great big men, and the game was played from inside out.”
He added: “It was a rougher game, a much more physical game that we played in the ’70s. You could steer people with elbows. They started cutting down on the number of fights by fining people more. Oh, it was a rough ’n’ tumble game.”
As a Pistons rookie in the 1970-71 season, Lanier shared time at center with Otto Moore. In his second season, as a full-time starter, he averaged 25.7 points and 14.2 rebounds a game, putting him in the league’s top 10 in both categories.
“He understood the small nuances of the game,” Dave Bing, a Pistons teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, said in a video biography of Lanier shown on Fox Sports Detroit in 2012. “He could shoot the 18-to-20-footer as well as any guard. He had a hook shoot — nobody but Kareem had a hook shot like him. He could do anything he wanted to do.”
Lanier wore what were believed to be size 22 sneakers. In 1989, however, a representative of Converse disputed that notion, saying that they were in fact size 18 1/2. Whatever their actual size, a pair of Lanier’s sneakers, bronzed, is in the collection of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
During nine full seasons with the Pistons, Lanier played in seven All-Star Games. He was elected Most Valuable Player of the 1974 All-Star Game, in which he led all scorers with 24 points.
But the Pistons had only four winning seasons during his time with the team and never advanced very far in the playoffs. The roster was often in flux. Coaches came and went. Lanier dealt with knee injuries and other physical setbacks.
“It was like a life unfulfilled,” he told Fox Sports Detroit.
In early 1980, with the Pistons’ record at 14-40, the team traded Lanier to the Milwaukee Bucks for a younger center, Kent Benson, and a first-round 1980 draft pick. Frustrated by the Pistons’ lack of success, Lanier had asked to be sent to a playoff contender.
“I’m kind of relieved, but I’m kind of sad, too,” he told The Detroit Free Press. “I’ve got a lot of good memories of Detroit.”
Lanier averaged 22.7 points and 11.8 rebounds a game with the Pistons.
Robert Jerry Lanier Jr. was born on Sept. 10, 1948 in Buffalo, New York, to Robert and Nannie Lanier. Young Bob was 6-foot-5 by the time he was a sophomore in high school, and he played well enough there to be wooed by dozens of colleges. He chose St. Bonaventure University in upstate Allegany, New York.
He was a sensation there, averaging 27.6 points and 15.7 rebounds over three seasons.
In 1970, the Bonnies defeated Villanova to win the East Regional finals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, sending them to the Final Four. But Lanier injured his knee during the game, forcing the Bonnies to face Jacksonville in the national semifinal game without him. St. Bonaventure lost, 91-83.
“I didn’t even know at the time I tore my knee up,” Lanier told The Buffalo News in 2007. “But when I ran back down the court and tried to pivot, my leg collapsed. I didn’t know at the time I had torn my MCL.”
Lanier was still recuperating from knee surgery when the Pistons chose him No. 1 overall in the NBA draft; he was also chosen No. 1 by the New York (now Brooklyn) Nets of the American Basketball Association. He quickly signed with Detroit.
Although he had statistically better years with the Pistons, Lanier enjoyed more team success with the Bucks (and also played in one more All-Star Game). Under coach Don Nelson, the Bucks won 60 games during the 1980-81 season, and they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 1982-83 and 1983-84.
Lanier was also president of the players’ union, the National Basketball Players Association, and helped negotiate a collective bargaining agreement in 1983 that avoided a strike.
Early in the 1983-84 season, his last as a player, Lanier became angry with Bill Laimbeer, the Pistons’ center, for riling him under the boards at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. Lanier retaliated with a left hook that leveled Laimbeer and broke his nose.
The act not only earned Lanier a $5,000 fine; it also delayed the retirement of his No. 16 jersey by the Pistons until 1993. The Bucks retired his number in late 1984.
He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.
In retirement, he owned a marketing firm and worked extensively with the NBA as a global ambassador and special assistant to David Stern, the league’s longtime commissioner, and Adam Silver, his successor. Lanier was also an assistant coach under Nelson with the Golden State Warriors during the 1994-95 season and replaced him as interim coach for the final 37 games of the season after Nelson’s resignation.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
Lanier said that after he retired, he was less likely to be recognized by the public than when he was a player. After Shaquille O’Neal, one of the league’s most dominating centers, came along in the early 1990s, people figured he must have been O’Neal’s father, he told NBA.com in 2018.
“‘You’re wearing them big shoes,’” he said people would tell him. “I just go along with it. ‘Yeah, I’m Shaq’s dad.’”