During a decade of fabulous performances with the Detroit Pistons, Bob Lanier was known around town as “The Big Dobber,” and there was much speculation about how the center got the nickname. One account said it came from his high school days and his prowess on the gridiron. Hard to say with any certainty about this name, but on the basketball court there was no question about his huge and prodigious production.
He was born Robert Jerry Lanier Jr. on Sept. 10, 1948, in Buffalo, New York. He was always big for his age—and by the time he was a teenager he was 6-foot-5 and weighed more than 220 pounds. In high school he was scouted relentlessly and was sought after by a number of colleges, including St. Bonaventure in upstate New York where he decided to go.
As the center on a team called the Bonnies, Lanier starred, averaging nearly 28 points a game and more than 15 points over three seasons. He led the team to a victory over Villanova in 1970 in the East Regional finals of the NCAA tournament, earning them a slot in the Final Four. Unfortunately, he injured his knee leaving the Bonnies without their outstanding scorer and leader. They lost to Jacksonville in the semifinal contest.
Several years later after his retirement, Lanier recalled the injury, but told a reporter, “I didn’t even know at the time I tore my knee up, 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 M.C.L.,” which nowadays is a common injury.
The injury, however, didn’t stop the Pistons from drafting him, making him the number one NBA draft in 1970. At the same time, he was drafted by the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association. He chose to sign with the Pistons. A formidable presence on the court, Lanier now stood a bulky 6-foot-11 and tipped the scales at 250 pounds. He possessed an adequate mid-range jump shot, was a powerful rebounder, but it was his left hook that kept opposing teams on their heels and sports writers praising his skillful maneuvering at the post. And these successful moves were done against a coterie of all-time greats such as Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Nate Thurmond, and Wes Unseld. And you can add the names of Willis Reed, Artis Gilmore, and Bill Walton to the list.
With such big men at the center post, the game back then was a bruising encounter and none of the players were willing to concede their turf without a fight, and Lanier brought a devastatingly accurate left hook to the battles. His rookie season was shared with Otto Moore, but the next season he was the full-time center, averaging nearly 26 points and more than 14 rebounds a game, and in both categories he was among top ten in the league. Piston immortal and once the mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing said that Lanier, “understood the small nuances of the game. He could shoot the 18-to-20 footer as well as any guard. He had a hook shot—nobody but Kareem had a hook shot like him. He could do anything he wanted to do.”
During his nonfull seasons with the Pistons, Lanier was selected to seven All-Star Games, and in 1974 he was the most valuable player, leading all scorers with 24 points. Even so, the team had only four successful seasons and they never advanced very far in the playoffs. The fault may have been the large number of injuries to star players, and Lanier himself played through pain.
The Pistons were chugging along in 1980 with a record of 14-40 when Lanier was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for Kent Benson. “I’m kind of relieved, but I’m kind of sad too,” he told a reporter.
“I’ve got a lot of good memories of Detroit.” He averaged 22.7 points and 11.8 rebounds a game with the Pistons. There was also a lot of fun poked at the size of feet, which depending on the source was anywhere from 18 to 22 inches. In the 1983-84 season, Lanier’s last season, he had a ruckus with Bill Laimbeer, the Pistons new center for roughing him and Lanier retaliated and hit Laimbeer so hard he broke the man’s nose. He was charged with a $5,000 fine for the assault.
According to one source, 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. He was inducted into Basketball’s Hall of Fame in 1992 and he died on May 10 after a short illness. He was 73.