Bob Lanier, who as a center for the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks in the 1970s and ’80s harnessed a deft left-handed hook shot, smooth mid-range jumper and solid rebounding skills for a Hall of Fame career of Fame, died Tuesday in Phoenix. He was 73 years old.
The NBA said he died after a brief illness, but did not provide further details.
Lanier, who stood 6-foot-11 and weighed about 250 pounds, stood out 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 up against the Bulls or the Bucks or New York, you had all these rivalries,” he told NBA.com in 2018. “Lanier vs. Jabbar! Jabbar vs. Willis Reed! And then Chamberlain and Artis Gilmore and Bill Walton! You had all these great big men, and the game was played from the inside out.”
He added: “It was a harder game, a much more physical game than we played in the ’70s. You could lead people with your elbows. They began to reduce the number of fights by fining people more. Oh, it was a rough and tumble game.”
As a rookie for the Pistons 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 per game, ranking in the top 10 in the league in both categories.
“He understood the little nuances of the game,” Pistons teammate and Hall of Famer Dave Bing said in a video biography of Lanier that was shown on Fox Sports Detroit in 2012. As well as any guard. He had a hook shot, nobody except 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 Converse representative disputed that idea, saying they were in fact size 18 ½. Whatever their actual size, a pair of Lanier’s tan sneakers are 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 named Most Valuable Player in the 1974 All-Star Game, in which he led all scorers with 24 points.
But the Pistons only had four winning seasons during his time with the team and never made much progress in the playoffs. The list was often in flux. Trainers came and went. Lanier dealt with knee injuries and other physical setbacks.
“It was like an unfulfilled life,” 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 1980 first-round draft pick. Frustrated by the lack of success of the Pistons, Lanier had asked to be sent to a playoff contender.
“I’m a little relieved, but I’m also a little sad,” he told The Detroit Free Press. “I have a lot of good memories of Detroit.”
Lanier averaged 22.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game with the Pistons.
Robert Jerry Lanier Jr. was born on September 10, 1948, in Buffalo to Robert and Nannie Lanier. Young Bob was 6-foot-5 when he was a sophomore in high school, and he played well enough there to be courted by dozens of colleges. He chose St. Bonaventure University in Upstate Allegany, NY
He was a sensation there, averaging 27.6 points and 15.7 rebounds in three seasons.
In 1970, the Bonnies defeated Villanova to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Eastern Regional Finals, 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. San Buenaventura lost, 91-83.
“I didn’t even know at the time that I broke my knee,” Lanier told The Buffalo News in 2007. “But when I ran down the court and tried to turn, my leg collapsed. I didn’t know at the time that I had torn my MCL.”
Lanier was still recovering from knee surgery when the Pistons selected him No. 1 overall in the NBA draft; he was also voted No. 1 by the New York (now Brooklyn) Nets of the American Basketball Association. He promptly signed with Detroit.
Although he statistically had 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 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 prevented a strike.
Early in the 1983-84 season, his last as a player, Lanier got angry at Pistons center Bill Laimbeer for irritating him under the boards at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. Lanier responded with a left hook that dropped Laimbeer and broke his nose.
The act not only earned Lanier a $5,000 fine; he also delayed the Pistons’ retirement of his No. 16 jersey until 1993. The Bucks retired his number in late 1984.
He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.
When he retired, he owned a marketing company 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 to 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 most dominant centers in the league, showed up in the early 1990s, people thought he must be O’Neal’s father, he told NBA.com in 2018 .
“’You’re wearing those big shoes,’” he said people would say to him. “I just accept it. ‘Yes, I am Shaq’s father.’”