As a child of the 1970s, I followed baseball and basketball with most of my sporting passion. On the hardwood, I preferred the rebellious American Basketball Association. With its red, white and blue ball, unusual three-point field goal (unusual for the time, that is), penchant for fast-break offenses and eye-opening dunks, and widespread franchise instability, the ABA was full of fun and folly. I didn’t follow the NBA quite as closely in those days, but there were a few players who caught my fancy in the established league.
One of those players was Wilt Chamberlain; we loved his nickname of “Wilt the Stilt” and his ability to dominate games, seemingly at will. Another was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly Lew Alcindor, who was as silky smooth as Chamberlain was powerful. And then there was Bob Lanier of the Detroit Pistons. Being kids back in the early seventies, we sometimes followed players for odd reasons. In the case of Lanier, I first became intrigued because of the size of his feet. One of my classmates told me that Lanier had size-18 feet, which I didn’t think could be quite right. I had large feet in my own right—they would grow to a size 12—but size 18 seemed like something more befitting of a clown performing in a circus.
Later on, I found out that Lanier’s feet were actually larger than what my friend had told me—size 20 to be more exact. (According to legend, Lanier wore size-22 Converse sneakers, but that was an exaggerated number put out by the shoe company.) Either way, that dimension of shoe seemed incomprehensible. Of course, I didn’t realize that Lanier was six foot, 10 inches tall, so a size-20 shoe wasn’t really that outrageous, even if it was a record for an NBA player. At the time, it seemed otherworldly. As Lanier once said, “A lot of people can put both feet into one of my shoes.” Indeed. With my interest piqued, the big-footed Lanier became a player I needed to follow more religiously.
There were many good reasons to follow Lanier, beyond those feet that seemingly had the length of spatulas. As a youngster, Lanier’s feet were so big that they caused him to become clumsy, which led to the inevitable conclusion that he would never make it in basketball. But Lanier grew into those feet beautifully and developed a game that would play at higher levels. After a star-studded career at St. Bonaventure, Lanier entered the NBA draft, where the Pistons selected him with the first pick overall in 1970. The Pistons would not be disappointed. As a rookie, Lanier averaged roughly 15 and a half points and just over eight rebounds per game. At season’s end, he earned selection to the NBA all-rookie team. In a league that already had several well-established star centers, including Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and Nate Thurmond, Lanier was just about ready to compete and hold his own on a nightly basis.
In his second season, Lanier established himself as a full-fledged star. He upped both his scoring and rebounding rates, averaging 25.7 points and 14.2 rebounds per game. With his bruising physique, aggressive rebounding, and a soft shooting touch that was highlighted by a deadly left-handed hook, Lanier became one of the best centers in the league. Even if he gave away a few inches in height to some of his seven-foot counterparts, Lanier posed problems because of his ability to play physical ball down low and shoot the ball from as far as 15 feet away.
Matchups between Lanier and Abdul-Jabbar became especially memorable, in part because of the contrast in their frames: the long and lean Kareem against the bulkier Lanier. As Abdul-Jabbar once noted, Lanier had a tendency to take cigarette breaks during halftime. Knowing that Lanier smoked cigarettes, Abdul-Jabbar would typically try to force a winded Lanier to run the floor more often during the second halves of games.
Smoking aside, it was largely because of Lanier that the Pistons became a respectable franchise in the mid-1970s. Just prior to his arrival, the Pistons had struggled to a record of 31-51. In his rookie season, the win total jumped to 45. After a dip in 1971-72, the Pistons then played close to .500 ball in 1972-73, won 52 games the following winter, and remained fairly competitive for the rest of the decade. Along the way, the Pistons made it to two Western Conference semifinals before being eliminated.
Unfortunately, the Pistons did not win a championship with Lanier, mostly because they lacked the supporting cast to win it all. (Some observers tried to blame Lanier for the many coaching changes during the decade, but it might have helped if the Pistons picked better coaches.) Clearly, these were not the “Bad Boys” of later vintage. By the middle of the 1979-80 season, the Pistons had reached a crossroads; with Lanier now 31 and plagued by nagging injuries, and the team rebuilding under new head coach Richie Adubato, the Pistons decided to make a move. They traded Lanier to the Milwaukee Bucks, acquiring a former college star in Kent Benson and a first round pick in the upcoming spring draft.
Even in his thirties, Lanier had plenty to contribute. Remaining with the Bucks for five seasons, he helped the team win a Central Division title each year. Much like the Pistons, the Bucks did not have the talent to win a title, but Lanier remained a productive player through his final season, when he averaged over 13 points and six rebounds per game at the age of 35. Clearly, Lanier had enough physical skill to continue playing, but the pain in his chronically injured knees had become too much to overcome.
How good was Lanier? That’s easy enough to answer. By the end of his career, he had earned selection to eight All-Star teams, with averages of 20 points and 10 rebounds. By a conservative estimate, he ranks as one of the top 20 centers in league history; I would probably place him higher, somewhere in the top 10, behind the likes of Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Bill Russell. In 1992, Lanier earned selection to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Hall of Fame also pays homage to his feet. An exhibit at the Springfield museum allows visitors to compare the size of their feet to the extra, extra, extra large feet of Lanier.
All these years later, those monumental feet are still the first two things that come to mind when I think of Lanier. It’s funny how those childhood memories persist. But as both the Pistons and the Bucks’ franchises will attest—along with all those NBA centers who had to match him in the 1970s and 80s—there was much more to Bob Lanier than a pair of oversized shoes.