Rookie Cade Cunningham is not the first Detroit Pistons point guard to be hear he was not good enough to build a team around. The other was Hall of Fame guard, Isiah Thomas.
Dave Bing caused a stir when he said the Pistons could not build a team around Cunningham, who is now trending toward being NBA rookie of the year, as a guy you can build a team around. Pistons fans created a bigger stir when many said Thomas wasn’t the guy in the mid-1980s.
Our story begins inside a Sacramento gym where 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson ran wind sprints, working out to later show teams he still belonged in the league. This is the guy many fans were willing to replace Thomas with when his knees were still functional.
Those were the sounds Sampson made as he began every journey across a basketball court somewhere in Sacramento. His knees were shot, but he still wanted to play
The Pistons were in the same gym working out before playing the Sacramento Kings the following day. The Kings released Sampson because of recurring knee problems.
A few years earlier, before knee problems set it, many in Detroit wanted to trade Thomas for Sampson. The Pistons and their fans were hungry to hang an NBA championship banner inside the Pontiac Silverdome, where the Pistons played.
Many here believed it was impossible to build a championship-contending team around a 6-foot-1 point guard, no matter how spectacular he was on the court. The NBA was different back then. Teams won by brute strength. Today Steph Curry influences a game way more than 6-foor-10, 260 pound center Moses Malone could.
Back then you built teams around front –court guys who were 6-foot-7 or taller like Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Dr. J, Moses Malone, Willis Reed, Bill Russell and Magic Johnson.
What in the hell were the Pistons thinking?
It seemed as if history was repeating itself after Dave Bing said the Pistons could not build around Cade Cunningham. It created a huge stir around here, but Bing has since backed down from those words during an interview with the Detroit Free Press.
I thought our community had gone mad when it pushed for the Thomas-Sampson trade. Now Sampson was Naismith College basketball player of the year three times. And he enjoyed a brief stint of success playing as a member of the Twin Towers next to Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston. Despite that, I was never a fan of his game.
I thought he was too soft.
If the Pistons made that deal, they’d turn from Mamba to Bambi. That is not what they needed. Pistons General Manager Jack McCloskey said he never considered trading Thomas. It was all talk by fans and there was nothing he could do about that.
Trade deadlines came and went. Thomas remained a Piston and helped the team win two NBA titles. Sampson bounced around the league and eventually to Europe, mostly because of bad knees. It’s a deal that could have devastated the Pistons. They not only would have not won titles in 1988 and 1989, but it could have sabotaged the 2004 title
While Thomas twirled a basketball like a wizard, Sampson toured the country hoping somebody might pick him up. Sweat poured from Sampson’s face that day in Sacramento and his face twisted in an anguish of pain after every jog down the court.
“There goes Zeke’s replacement,” one player quipped after spotting Sampson.
It’s a good thing this deal never took place. Red Wings fans can appreciate this tale, because Scotty Bowman wanted to trade Steve Yzerman to the Ottawa Senators. But a loud standing ovation for Yzerman at Joe Louis Arena may have scuttled that trade.
Common sense scuttled the Thomas trade.
Follow Foster on Twitter at TerryFosterDet. More From Foster on Cade Cunningham: Pistons need an old head to help Cade Cunningham grow