Bob Lanier Biography
Too Big Too Fast, Became College All-Star, Starred for the Pistons, Traded to Milwaukee
Professional basketball player, businessman
Bob Lanier—6-foot, 11-inches tall and filling size 22 shoes—entered the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1970 as the number one draft pick of the Detroit Pistons. He played nine and one-half seasons for the Pistons and four and one-half seasons for the Milwaukee Bucks. During his 14 years in the NBA, Lanier amassed 19,248 points, 9,698 rebounds, and 1,100 blocks. He averaged over 20 points per game over his entire career, yet he retired in 1984 without ever winning an NBA title. After leaving the court, Lanier remained close to the game as a special assistant to the NBA commissioner, in charge of community services.
Too Big Too Fast
Robert Jerry Lanier Jr. was born on September 10, 1948, in Buffalo, New York, the son of Robert and Nannette Lanier. The family lived in one of Buffalo's poorest neighborhoods, and Lanier, who grew to 6-foot, 8-inches by the time he was 14 years old, had to wear men's clothes when he attended Bennett High School, making him feel awkward and out of place. He later told The Buffalo News, "I remember my first day [of high school]. To me it seemed like the biggest building in the world, and there were so many people. It gave me a feeling of inadequacy because the kids here had nice clothes. They wore khaki pants and penny loafers, and I didn't have all that stuff."
Because Lanier's coordination had not yet caught up to his height, he did not win a place on his grammar school basketball team and was told by the coach that his feet (size 11 at age 11) were too big for him to ever become a good athlete. As a high school sophomore he was cut from the basketball team by coach Nick Mogavero because he was too clumsy. Emotionally hurt by the rejection, Lanier joined a Boys' Club, where he worked out and practiced continually. The following year, with the encouragement of his biology teacher, Fred Schwepker, who had since become the basketball coach, Lanier tried out again. That year, as the center of the Bennett Tigers, Lanier averaged 21.5 points per game and was named to the All-City team. In his senior year, his average increased to 25 points per game and he earned All-Western New York State honors. Both years he led his team to city titles.
Becoming the team's star player helped Lanier overcome his feelings of alienation. His parents, who always stressed the need for getting an education, were also supportive of their son. Lanier was particularly close to his father, who encouraged him and helped him through his awkward years. Despite being courted by over one hundred schools for his basketball skills, Lanier, who was a poor student, was unable to secure a place at Canisius, his first choice for college, because of his grades. Instead, he attended St. Bonaventure University, located in the southwest corner of New York State, near Buffalo.
Became College All-Star
Because National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules at the time did not allow freshmen participation in collegiate sports, Lanier did not join the Bonnies' team until his sophomore year. Now 6-foot, 11-inches tall and 265 pounds, Lanier led the team to a record 22-0 regular season record (23-2 overall), and the team ranked third in the national standings at the end of the season. With an average of 26.2 points and 15.6 rebounds per game, Lanier was named All-American Second Team. In his junior year, his performance improved to an average of 27.2 points and 15.5 rebounds per game. During his junior year Lanier was approached by the American Basketball Association's New Jersey Nets, who offered him $1.2 million to join the team. However, following his father's advice, Lanier chose to remain in school.
During his senior year Lanier averaged 29 points and 16 rebounds per game and was a unanimous pick for All-American. Once again setting a school record, the Bonnies posted a 25-1 season (the one blemish was a 2-point loss to Villanova University) and earned a bid to the 1970 NCAA tournament. In the first two rounds of the tournament, the Bonnies breezed by Davidson College and North Carolina State. In the third round, St. Bonaventure laid claim to the Eastern Regional title by beating Villanova, 97-74. However, after scoring 18 points in the game, Lanier suffered a season-ending knee-ligament injury. Without his presence on the floor for the next game, the Bonnies' dream season came to an end when they were upset in the national semifinals. Lanier ended his college career as St. Bonaventure's all-time scoring leader (he now ranks third) with 2,067 points. He graduated in 1970 with a bachelor's degree in business administration.
In 1970, even though he was still rehabilitating his injured knee, Lanier was selected first in the NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons, who had posted losing seasons for 13 consecutive years and were in desperate need of a shot in the arm. In fact, the Pistons were so eager to secure Lanier that the NBA contract was presented to him while he was still in the hospital recuperating from knee surgery. He showed up to training camp still limping, in significant pain, and overweight from his long period of inactivity.
Starred for the Pistons
During his first year in the NBA, in which he played in all 82 games, Lanier posted outstanding numbers for a rookie, averaging 15.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. At the end of the season he was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team, and the Piston's overall record improved to 45-37. During his second season, with his knee finally healing and his mobility improving, Lanier's performance jumped to 25.7 points and 14.2 rebounds per game, which placed him eighth best in the NBA for scoring and ninth best in rebounding. In 1972 he was invited to his first NBA All-Star game. Over the course of his 14-year career, he was named an NBA All-Star eight times.
Lanier, nicknamed the Big Dobber, took up a lot of room under the basket, and he dominated the middle on defense. On the offensive end, he had an almost unstoppable left-handed hook shot and a range of up to 15 feet. He was also a good free-throw shooter, averaging better than 75 percent from the line over his career. Lanier was also known as a tough and physical player who played through pain, which he did all too often. During his career, Lanier had knee surgery five times, as well as a broken right hand, a bad toe, a sore back, a broken finger, and chronic shoulder problems.
Despite his best efforts, Lanier could not carry the weight of the entire team, and the 1972-73 season started off poorly. After 12 games, coach Bill Van Breda Kolff resigned, and four more coaches quickly filed in and out of Detroit. Lanier, who was often blamed for getting coaches fired, was slowly watching his chance at winning a national championship slip away. Of his nine full seasons at Detroit, the Pistons made the playoffs just four times and only advanced out of the first round series once; they never got past the second round. Injuries also continued to plague Lanier. Although he never missed more than two games in each of his first four seasons and only sat out six during the 1974-75 season, he missed 18 games in both the 1975-76 and the 1977-78 seasons and 19 games during the 1978-78 season.
Traded to Milwaukee
By the late 1970s Lanier was feeling the emotional burden of losing and was frustrated with the team's managerial instability—during his nine years in Detroit, he had played for eight different coaches. In 1979, in the midst of the franchise's worst season ever (16-66), Lanier decided he had had enough and asked out. The Pistons' obliged and, in February 1980, Lanier was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for Kent Benson and a future first-round pick. During his time in Detroit, Lanier had amassed 15,488 points and 8,063 rebounds.
When Lanier arrived in Milwaukee, the Bucks were nursing a mediocre 29-27 record. But, during the final months of the regular season, Lanier helped the team go on a 20-6 run to end season 49-33. Lanier, now 31 years old and called "Coach" by his teammates in deference to his age and experience, was not expected to carry the team or play as many minutes. According to Sports Illustrated, which ran a story titled "Big Boost from Big Bob," Lanier said, "I don't have the emotional burden. Here I help on defense, set picks and pass the ball, things I do well anyway. It makes life easier. My playing time has gone down but the [wins] are up." In Milwaukee, Lanier hoped to finally chase down that elusive championship ring. Unfortunately, although the Bucks won the division title for five consecutive years and claimed the Eastern Conference championship twice, Lanier never won the NBA title.
Tragedy struck in October 1980 when Lanier's 59-year-old father was killed in a late-night hit-and-run accident. Lanier was paged by the police in La Guardia Airport, returning from a game, and asked to identify the body. "More so than any other time in my life I'm drained emotionally," Lanier told Jet after the accident. "I've never been so down." Three months later, Lanier's wife, Rose, filed for legal separation and moved out, taking the couple's four children with her. This was the second time in their 11-year marriage that the couple had split. Lanier was devastated. During the tumultuous 1980-81 season, Lanier played in 67 games, averaging 26 minutes and 14.5 points per game. Although he reconciled with his wife, the couple would later divorce.
Retired without Title
During the 1981-82 season Lanier played in 72 games and averaged 13.5 points per game. The following season he was once again hindered by injuries and only played in 39 games, averaging 10.7 points per game, the lowest of his NBA career. Returning to the court full time for the 1983-84 season, he appeared in 72 games, playing nearly 28 minutes and scoring 13.6 points per game. After the season ended, Lanier, whose knees could no longer hold up, announced his retirement. "Basketball is a game because it's fun and it's a job because I get paid," Lanier said, according to The Washington Post. "I don't need a championship to have made my career a successful one. I think the importance of it to me has been overplayed."
After his retirement, Lanier founded Lanier Enterprises, Inc., a company that specializes in advertising and promotional products. He also took on some sportscasting assignments. In the late 1980s Lanier helped the NBA launch its "Stay in School Program" and later its "Read to Achieve" and "Team-Up" programs. As a special assistant to the NBA commissioner, Lanier traveled around the country speaking with kids about the importance of staying in school and learning to read.
During the 1993-94 NBA season, Lanier accepted an invitation from his former coach Don Nelson, now the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, to join him on the bench as an assistant. Nelson was looking for help with his big men, and Lanier was pulled in to work as both coach and mentor to the younger players. After posting a record of 7-30 in the first half of the 1994-95, Nelson resigned under pressure. Lanier was tagged to take over the job as interim head coach, inheriting an injury-laden and demoralized team. Despite his best efforts, the Warriors finished out the season 12-25. Although he expressed interest in remaining as the team's coach, Rick Adelman was named to fill the position.
Lanier returned to his work as a special assistant to the NBA commissioner with responsibilities for the league community outreach programs as well as refereeing and basketball operations. In 2003 Lanier became a published children's author with the introduction of his series "L'il Dobber," co-authored with Heather Goodyear. Targeted for children ages six to nine, the four-book series includes the titles It's All in a Name, Hey, L'il D: Take the Court, Stuck in the Middle, and Out of Bounds. Lanier told Inside Stuff Magazine, "I've thought about doing a book series for a few years now. Using basketball as the carrot to [raise] kids' interests, I wanted to share some of life's lessons through some endearing characters." Lanier, who has received numerous awards for his outstanding community service over the years, lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife Rose and their four children.
(With Heather Goodyear) It's All in a Name, Hey, L'il D: Take the Court, Stuck in the Middle, and Out of Bounds (for children), Scholastic, 2003.
Associated Press, April 10, 1995; September 24, 1984; June 20, 1995.
Buffalo News, March 22, 2003, p. C1; March 24, 2004, p. B4.
Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), February 14, 1995.
Jet, March 6, 1995, p. 46.
Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2004, p. S2.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 29, 1998, p. S1.
New York Times, April 6, 1981, p. C1; May 20, 1995, p. S35.
Newsbytes, June 13, 2003.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 25, 1996, p. D9.
San Antonio Express-News, January 26, 2004, p. D1.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 13, 1995, p. B5; February 15, 1995, p. E1.
Sports Illustrated, February 27, 1995, p. 78-79.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans), June 16, 2004.
USA Today, February 4, 1997, C6.
Washington Post, May 14, 1983, p. D1.
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"Bob Lanier to Visit St. Bonaventure for Children's Book Signing," Inside Bona's, www.sbu.edu/insidebonas/July03/insidebonas_July_18.html (July 12, 2004).
"One-on-One with Bob Lanier," 76ers, www.nba.com/sixers/community/rta_week_lanier.html (July 12, 2004).