Joe Strawder: No Guarantees, 1968

[In our last post, newspaper columnist Roy McHugh describes how in 1967 NBA veteran Chico Vaughn, underwhelmed by his new NBA team in San Diego, jumped to the ABA’s Pittsburgh Pipers instead. As McHugh wrote: 

“Chico called information and asked for the number of the Pittsburgh basketball team. He did not know that Pittsburgh was called the Pipers, but he knew that his friend Joe Strawder of the Pistons had jumped to Pittsburgh. When owner Gabe Rubin answered the phone, Strawder was sitting across the desk from him. They never saw Chico in San Diego again. Strawder? He’s back in Detroit. Gabe Rubin suspects that he sneaked out of Pittsburgh on a flight in the middle of the day.”

What happened to Strawder? McHugh has the answer in a later Pittsburgh Press column, copied below. But first, some background on Strawder. He broke into the NBA in Detroit during 1965-66 season, a few seasons removed from Bradley University. In Detroit, Strawder was slotted to play center after the notorious seven-footer Reggie Harding was nabbed for armed robbery. Strawder, 6-feet-10, 235-pounder, was no shrinking violet. “I’ll probably get killed for saying this,” he said, “ . . . I used to get the jitters when I went up against Russell, Chamberlain, or Thurmond, but not anymore.”

No jitters, but he couldn’t stop fouling. In 1966-67, Strawder set the Pistons’ all-time record for most personal fouls in a season (344, fouling out of 18 contests). All the hand-to-hand combat with the seven-foot giants soon left Strawder nursing injuries and unhappy with his role, mainly setting screens and rebounding. In a then-brazen breach of league etiquette, Strawder demanded a raise at midseason and actually walked out on the team for one game to show that he was serious. When Harding, now exonerated and cleared to return to the NBA, suddenly reappeared in the Piston locker room, Strawder backtracked and finished out the season, averaging 9.5 points, 10 rebounds, and 4.4 fouls per game. 

But Strawder really wanted more money in his pocket. To get it, he broke again with player protocol and jumped after the season to the fledgling ABA’s Pittsburgh Pipers. The Pistons threatened to sue Strawder and the Pipers to kingdom come, but a bigger issue emerged. The ABA contract wasn’t guaranteed, meaning Strawder wouldn’t get a penny if the newfangled red, white, and blue league went bust. And so, as mentioned in McHugh’s previous column, Strawder got cold feet, even as his NBA buddy Chico Vaughn prepared to join him in Pittsburgh. 

Strawder skulked right back to Detroit, where he found a new grievance. His already-limited role in the Pistons offense was his shrinking.  On February 21, 1968, after going AWOL for several practices, Strawder missed a team flight to New York. “When Joe finally got to New York Tuesday morning,” Pistons GM Ed Coil said, “he indicated to (coach) Donnis Butcher he was thinking of quitting.” Before Strawder made it official, the Pistons suspended him indefinitely. 

And that brought him back to Pittsburgh, and back to sportswriter Roy McHugh for this column dated February 27, 1968. There is no overarching moral to this story. But it does illustrate in this pre-free agency era what a Godsend the ABA was to give players some modicum of leverage with their NBA teams. In fact, Strawder was probably in Pittsburgh to bluff another jump to the ABA and hopefully get the Pistons to loosen their grip on his pro career. Conversely, it shows how ABA teams, desperate for talent, indiscriminately signed anyone with an NBA pedigree, even battle-scarred guys like Strawder who struggled to pass a team physical.]

****

Joe Strawder was in town over the weekend, not looking for work, but available. “If I could get a job here, I’d stay,” he said.

In September, Strawder had a job and didn’t stay. He was going to play center for the Pittsburgh Pipers. His credentials were good—two years with the Detroit Pistons in the National Basketball Association. Owner Gabe Rubin smiled at the thought of having an experienced 6-feet-10 man to pull down the rebounds. But like many another NBA jumper, Strawder was equipped with a reverse gear. All of a sudden, without saying goodbye, he jumped right back to Detroit.

The Pistons, he was saying yesterday, made him promises. “And they gave me a lot of money,” he said. “They knew my importance to the team.” But they did not keep the promises, so last week Strawder left them again, explaining that pride meant more than the money did.

Donnis Butcher, Detroit’s coach, announced that the Pistons had suspended Strawder indefinitely for missing practice and planes. “But the truth is,” said Strawder, “I quit.”

He quit because of the way the Pistons were using him. Strawder’s function was to get the ball off the boards, give it to somebody else, and make himself scarce. “I average two shots a game,” he said. “Every time they came down the court, I’d have to go on the other side. When you’re doing hard work, at least they could let you touch the ball now and then. At least they could let you pass off. But no, I just twiddled my thumbs.

“The same thing happened last year. It’s how Detroit plays basketball. The guards control the game. And if there’s anything left over, it goes to the forwards.

“I came to Pittsburgh, and Mr. Rubin was very fair. But I asked for a guarantee. Detroit could have sued me, and then I’d have been out of everything, sitting out a whole year with no money. Now, Detroit said that if Pittsburgh threw an injunction at me, they’d take care of it. Mr. Rubin didn’t want to stick his neck out.

“And Detroit promised me things would be different this year. I talked to the coach, and he had some new ideas about working me into the team. It was fine at the beginning of the season. We were working together. I was getting only five or six shots a game, but I was handling the ball. I made a contribution. And we were winning.

“But right before the all-star break, things started going downhill. Guys started worrying about their averages. The only time I saw the ball was if I blocked somebody’s shot or got a rebound. My knees were giving me trouble, and I was going through physical and mental anguish.”

Strawder wasn’t able to sleep. He lost his desire to sleep. He lost his desire to practice, even play. For a day and a night, he sat by himself in a New York hotel room, thinking about his future, and then he went to see Donnis Butcher. 

“I told him I was very unhappy with the way things were going, the way we were losing,” Strawder said. “He told me, ‘Joe, if you’re not happy, you ought to think about quitting.’ That really made up my mind. I asked him to trade me, and he said no. I asked him to drop me, and he wouldn’t.”

There was only one thing to do, as Strawder saw it. He accepted the invitation to quit.

Strawder during a public appearance in Detroit.

He came to Pittsburgh to visit Chico Vaughn, who played for Detroit last year and jumped to the Pipers instead of going to San Diego in the NBA’s expansion draft. “I’m just getting away from it all,” Strawder said. “Now, I’ll go back to Detroit and see if I can find a job. I have to live.”

In Camden, N.J., several years ago, Strawder sold cars. Fresh out of Bradley University, he was playing in the Eastern League then. The Boston Celtics had drafted him, but on the theory that no one was going to beat out Bill Russell. Strawder did not report.

“Then a friend of mine in Camden bet me $5 that I couldn’t make it in the NBA,” Strawder said. “I called Earl Lloyd—he was scouting for Detroit at the time—and told him I’d like a chance. Sometimes, I wish I hadn’t taken that bet.”

Strawder wasn’t here to see if Gabe Rubin has forgiven him. “I don’t think Detroit would release me,” he said. “When they find out I really don’t want to play with them, maybe they’ll sell me to someone else.

“I figure my career is in doubt. My wife says she wants me to quit. She wanted me to quit a long time ago. She didn’t like what basketball was doing to me. It’s a frustrating thing, but I still believe I made the right decision. I’ve got to be a man instead of a puppet.”

[Strawder missed five games while suspended, and the Pistons lost them all. By the end of February 1968, the Pistons reinstated Strawder in desperate need of rebounding. But Strawder also started getting more touches and notching more points. All seemed to be forgotten, except for the aches and pains that kept him awake at night. His back was a mess, and so were his legs. 

“The knee is gone,” Strawder said looking at his left leg late in the season. “Arthritis has set in, and the bones are all weak. I can have an operation, or I can keep going. I don’t know what to do.”

At the end of April, Strawder chose to undergo surgery in Ann Arbor to fuse a torn vertebrae in his lower back. Doctors advised the Pistons brass to consider filling his roster spot. They said Strawder’s pro career was likely finished, ironically more because of knees than his back. But the Pistons doggedly kept Strawder on their active roster. 

In July 1968, Strawder announced during a radio interview that he would retire. He’d had seven surgeries—six of which he blamed on playing basketball—and he’d didn’t want to endure an eighth time under the knife. The Pistons again decided to wait him out, now because expansion Phoenix was anxious to sign Strawder as their opening night center. They were willing to unload a healthy veteran or a draft pick for damaged goods. 

Strawder went along with the program and, at Phoenix’s request, flew to Los Angeles for a specialist to examine all of his aches and pains. The doctor advised against signing Strawder, and he followed through on his threat  to . . . sit out the 1968-69 season and heal. 

By training camp of the next season, Strawder returned to Motown, his back fused and his desire to play restored. According to Strawder, he wanted to negotiate a mutually beneficial parting of the ways, but the Pistons would hear none of it. After all, in this age of the NBA reserve system, they had all the leverage as the sole possessor of his playing rights. “I told the Pistons I wanted to play out my option and then, I said, ‘Get rid of me’ when I knew they weren’t going to play me.

“When I wouldn’t sign, the Pistons told everyone I couldn’t play anymore. My back’s fine. They tried to treat me like a kid, squeeze me to make me sign. They better wake up, [the ABA] is here to stay.”

In between hacks, Strawder scores on Wilt.

And so, Strawder reappeared a third time in in Pittsburgh. He wanted to sign another ABA contract. Rubin added him to the 1969-70 training camp roster of his Pittsburgh Pipers. He lasted a few days, and the Pipers let him go. Strawder spent the next winter back in Detroit, though this time helping to coach a high school team. Soon thereafter, Big Joe was running his own Detroit watering hole at 14666 Livernois Street called the Chez Beaux Lounge. He poured many a beer and entertained many a patron with stories of his three seasons in the NBA. Some of the stories made the rounds and were still quoted years later. From an old Philadelphia reporter:

“Detroit had a journeyman center named Joe Strawder. The coach Donnis Butcher, told Strawder, ‘Every time they get the ball into Wilt, I want you to foul him.’ The first two times, Strawder hacks him good, and Wilt misses his shots. As they’re running down the floor after the second hack, Wilt says to Strawder, ‘If you do that again, I’m coming after you.’

Late in the close game, the Pistons call a timeout. Butcher says, ‘Joe, you’re doing a great job. If the ball goes inside again to Wilt, foul him.’ Strawder looked at Butcher and said, ‘Coach, you can fire me now, but I ain’t fouling him.’ Butcher looked around the huddle for someone else to do it. All, with their heads down, mumbled, ‘Not me, Coach.’”

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