[When the Fort Wayne Pistons in the 1950s relocated to Detroit, pro basketball arrived with a thud. “The citizens of Detroit could have cared less if we were in town,” recalled coach Charley Eckman. In a city that loved its Lions and Tigers and Red Hawks, oh my, were the Pistons bad. Fred Zollner, the franchise’s aging, long-time owner, wintered in Miami. He followed his Pistons mostly in the newspaper and called in firings like ordering a peperoni pizza. After the team’s first eight seasons in Detroit, Zollner had hired-and-fired a grand total of five coaches and four general managers.
By the early 1970s, Zollner’s new-and-improved Pistons, featuring the All-NBA talents Bob Lanier and Dave Bing, finally caught on with wealthy suburbanites from Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham, and Grosse Pointe, Management soon catered to their more-sophisticated palettes by opening Cobo Arena’s swishy Friends of Basketball (FOB) Room. Raising Cain down below were the bleacher-seat rowdies, who, in keeping with Detroit’s funky Motown reputation, all dressed to the ever-loving nines.
The ambiance wasn’t quite as intense as Madison Square Garden, but Cobo Arena could be a fun night out on the town. The team even briefly trotted out a mascot dressed in a silver, blue, and red encasement meant to resemble a piston. This almost asphyxiating, 25-pound contraption, worn by the team’s equipment manager, was called: the Magic Cylinder. Joining in the fun was Gus the Vendor doing a beer-bellied twist in Section C during timeouts, and the NBA’s heavyweight heckler Leon the Barber ripping the latest Pistons coach from six rows behind the bench. Leon the Barber eventually got relocated behind the opposing team’s bench and would be hailed as the Pistons’ super fan.
In this post, which is cut material from my book Shake and Bake: The Life and Times of NBA Great Archie Clark, Leon the Barber shows just how super of a Pistons fan he really was, with a big assist from the great Detroit sportswriter Joe Falls. Leon the Barber passed away in 1992, though his legend thankfully lives on.]
New York, January 28, 1976—Trident Sugarless Gum was the NBA’s proud new sponsor of this year’s all-star balloting. Trident may have been right that “4 out of 5 dentists surveyed recommended sugarless gum for their patients who chew,” but the company got it all wrong with this year’s 549,231 all-star ballots.
Trident requested that NBA fans mail their ballots to a computer company in St. Paul for the official tally. Per Trident’s instructions, ballots weren’t coded to indicate their source, meaning NBA fans could vote early and often, and the computer whizzes simply fed the cards into the computer, no questions asked. David Dupree, a reporter with the Washington Post, was among the first to notice something funny about the early voting. All five of the Western Conference starters played for Milwaukee and Detroit.[i]
Dupree’s suspicion was confirmed the other night at a Pistons game when the infamous heckler Leon Bradley, a.k.a., Leon the Barber, was overheard telling a partner in verbal abuse that he’d exercised his NBA right to vote 70,000 times.
“Where did you get that many ballots?” asked the partner.
“The Pistons gave ‘em to me.”
“They gave them to you, just like that?”
“Just like that,” Leon answered. “Filled ‘em all out myself, too. Last year, my wife helped me but she didn’t want to have anything to do with it this time. I did it all myself this time.”
Overhearing it all was a mild-mannered reporter with the Detroit Free Press. He called the Pistons the next day for clarification.
“No, that’s not true,” the voice declared. “We didn’t even get 70,000 ballots.”
“How many did you get?”
“How many did you give Leon?”
Dead silence. “I . . . really . . . don’t . . . know,” the voice finally beat out of itself. “I’d say between twenty and twenty-five thousand.”
The reporter did the math in his head. If Leon filled out ten ballots per minute, it would take him forty-two hours to complete his dastardly deed.
“You mean you gave twenty to twenty-five thousand to one fan?” the reporter asked.
More dead silence. “Well, he asked for them,” the voice finally snapped. “It was a case of him making a request of us and us filling his request.”
“That must have cost him a ton to mail them all in.”
“We did that for him.”
“You did that for him?” asked the reporter.
“Well yes. He requested them and brought them back to us, and we mailed them in for him.”
“Do you know that he voted for only Pistons players – all five on the ballot?”
“Yes, we saw that,” the voice confirmed.
“And you mailed them in anyway?”
“The man made a request, and we filled his request.”
“But twenty to twenty-five thousand ballots, all with Pistons names on them. I don’t think that’s what the NBA had in mind when they sent out those ballots. I think what they were trying to do is have the fans pick the most representative, fairest, and best teams.”
The voice was done talking. “We had only 50,000 ballots. Milwaukee asked for 300,000.”[ii]
[i] Dupree D, “Bullets Even Mystify Foes,” Washington Post, December 21, 1975. Those early leaders were: Bob Lanier and Kevin Porter of Detroit and Dave Meyers, Brian Winters, and Bob Dandridge of Milwaukee. It’s clear that other cities started ballot stuffing, too, and only Dandridge and Winters held on to start in the all-star game. About 40,000 late-arriving ballots were thrown out.
[ii] Falls J, “How Pistons Helped Fan Stuff Ballot Box,” Detroit Free Press, January 30, 1976.