The day the Pistons lost Rick Mahorn to expansion during their championship parade

Rick Mahorn fills his role as enforcer during the 1989 NBA Finals against Michael Cooper and the Lakers.

Jack McCloskey was standing on a float in the Pistons’ championship parade, and he was on the phone. The year was 1989, and mobile phones were still the approximate size and weight of cement blocks, so the sight was an oddity. Still, if anyone noticed it, they probably thought the Pistons’ general manager was accepting congratulations, or describing the jubilant scene for a friend.

He wasn’t. Even as he swatted confetti out of his face, McCloskey was frantically trying to prevent the fracturing of the Pistons’ dynasty.

The NBA’s expansion draft was that afternoon. The league was launching two new franchises in Orlando and Minnesota, and they weren’t going to wait around just because the Pistons were having a parade. So McCloskey faced an agonizing choice, literally in the middle of what should have been unspoiled celebration.

The hidden drama had been secretly playing out during the NBA Finals, according to Cameron Stauth’s book The Franchise, an indispensable history of the Bad Boys. Before Game Three, Stauth says McCloskey pulled the coaching staff away from their preparation for the Lakers into a meeting to discuss whom to expose in the expansion draft.

The decision was unanimous, but it wasn’t easy. Their reasoning, Stauth writes, was that Rick Mahorn was the only player the Pistons could replace with pieces they already had. They couldn’t replace Vinnie Johnson’s perimeter scoring off the bench, or James Edwards’ points down low. They did have John Salley and Dennis Rodman to slot into the starting power forward spot, and Edwards could flex to that position too. Besides, Mahorn’s back was a question mark. And he hadn’t been much of a factor in the Finals.

Mahorn was their choice. It made sense in their heads, but not their hearts. And losing Mahorn had risks of its own. Salley and Rodman didn’t bring the same muscle, meanness, and veteran leadership. Mahorn was the enforcer for Bill Laimbeer, who was the enforcer for Isiah Thomas. Breaking that chain could leave the Bad Boys vulnerable next season.

“Lose Mahorn, and lose the soul of the Bad Boys,” Stauth wrote. “It was a miserable choice.”

So after choosing to give up Mahorn, McCloskey immediately tried to prevent it from happening. Stauth says he arranged a three-team deal where Orlando would take Micheal Williams from the Pistons, then trade him to the Pacers and swap draft picks with them. But that would only work if Minnesota passed on Mahorn. And Minnesota’s coach, Bill Musselman, wanted Mahorn more than anyone.

Musselman was who McCloskey was talking to from the parade float, with the expansion draft just hours away. He offered Musselman the Pistons’ first-round draft pick if they took Williams instead of Mahorn. It was a good offer, maybe too much to give up for Mahorn. On the other hand, who needs a draft pick when you’ve already built the perfect roster?

Musselman said no. He was taking Mahorn.

McCloskey had taken over a lost franchise with completely bare cupboards in the early 1980s, and carefully crafted the Bad Boys to topple the decade’s dynasties, the Celtics and the Lakers. This was no thrown-together batch of talent; each piece of the Pistons’ engine was fine-tuned to play a certain role. Their triumph was less than two days old. Now McCloskey’s handiwork was being undone by forces beyond his control.

“We feel like we’re being penalized for having depth,” McCloskey told the press.

After the downtown parade down Woodward, the Pistons held a rally at the Palace of Auburn Hills. When Mahorn took the mike, he thanked McCloskey for standing by him through his battle with his weight and his slow start in Detroit. Mahorn walked over to McCloskey and gave him a high five. McCloskey’s heart lodged in his throat, knowing Mahorn’s fate was already sealed. He probably wanted to crawl under the stage.

As soon as the rally was over, McCloskey and Daly pulled Mahorn into an office. They told him the news, said they did all they could to keep him, and thanked him for all he meant to the team.

Mahorn was stunned. His teammates didn’t believe it when he told them. “Stop screwing around,” said Vinnie Johnson, who thought he would be the goner.

“It’s a sad, sad day,” McCloskey told reporters. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Mahorn would refuse to report to the Timberwolves and force a trade to Philadelphia. He returned to the Pistons in 1996 for the twilight of his career, later coached the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, and now calls Pistons games as an announcer. But two and a half decades later, that wrenching day in 1989 still visibly stings.

“It was the highest of the highs, and the lowest of the lows,” he told ESPN’s “Bad Boys” documentary in 2014. “It hurts even talking about it, because I wanted to be that person to protect [the championship], but …”

Mahorn’s voiced trailed off, and he turned away from the camera, choking back tears.

“To have Rick have to go through that on that day, to have us have to go through that on that day–that was awful,” Thomas told the documentary.

The following week, the Pistons visited the White House for a more subdued celebration. A somber Thomas took the podium and noted that this was the team’s last appearance with Mahorn.

“This was the Bad Boys,” Thomas said. “There can only be one Bad Boy basketball team. This was it, and there can never be another one.”

The next season, it was obvious something was different. The Pistons started sluggishly, searching for a new rhythm and a new spark. They eventually found it when they put Dennis Rodman into the starting lineup. Rodman was a revelation as a shutdown defender, tireless rebounder, and overall X-factor. The Pistons cruised to a second straight championship, and Rodman was named Defensive Player of the Year. Rodman’s emergence validated McCloskey’s decision, but it didn’t erase the pain of breaking up the Pistons’ family in the middle of their victory parade.

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About Nathan Bierma

Nathan Bierma is a freelance writer, web designer, and educational technologist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is on Twitter at @nbierma.