Kelly Tripucka: Two Crazy Nights in January 1983

[During his NBA career, Isiah Thomas was known for having his fingers in some of the key roster decisions made by the Detroit Pistons. That includes before the Pistons even nabbed him with the second pick in the 1981 NBA draft. In the run up to the draft, Thomas reportedly urged the Detroit front office to select Ohio State’s 6-feet-11 center Herb Williams with its second first-round pick, 12th overall. Thomas lost that one, as the Detroit brass chose Notre Dame’s high-scoring swingman Kelly Tripucka and free spirit. 

“He devours Wendy’s hamburgers, hates staying home alone, loves rock music, and will dance at the drop of a phonographic needle,” a reporter later described Tripucka in 25 words or less. 

Thomas reportedly had his initial reservations about the other rookie, but those doubts were soon allayed by Tripucka’s dependably productive, hard-nosed play. In fact, by January 1983, the two had become old pals. “Isiah and I are like Starsky and Hutch,” said Tripucka, referring the popular TV cop duo. “Salt and Pepper, whatever . . . we more or less treat each other like brothers.”

Tripucka made the comment a few hours before returning to action after seven long weeks on the sidelines nursing a torn ligament in his right knee. “I get chills just thinking about coming back,” he said. 

The chills would give way to two of the greatest thrills in his NBA career. We’ll start with thrill one: the Milwaukee-Detroit game on January 19, 1983. Mike Downey, a sports columnist with the Detroit Free-Press, is on the call and tells all.]


Wearing nothing but a pair of white socks, Kelly Tripucka rolled on the rug, beat the floor with his fists, and spun in circles. He looked like a National Asylum Association all-star.

Outside the door, the Silverdome was something of a madhouse. A crazy basketball game had just been played, and people were hugging and high-fiving all over the place. Tripucka had flung up his arms, gesturing wildly to the crowd. Now, he was throwing a fit in front of his locker, a twistin’ Piston, spinning madly on the carpet, looking as though he needed a padded room more than a locker room.

“Gastineau!” he screamed. “Gas . . . ti . . . neau!”

So that was it. The New Jersey native was pretending to be that ever-popular football player from the New York Jets, Mark Gastineau, who recently celebrated a sack against the Los Angeles Raiders by sprawling on the ground and going similarly nuts. Tripucka kept howling his name, again and again, like prima-scream therapy. “Gas . . . ti . . . neau!”

By the time the other Detroit players returned to the room, Tripucka was sitting on his stool, behaving sanely, singing verses from a Top 40 song called “Down Under.” The Pistons were coming off the job, having just beaten the division-leading Milwaukee Bucks, 107-106. They were through for the day, and Tripucka was singing a song by the band called Men at Work. 

Wednesday’s game had gone wrong most of the night for the Pistons, who had co-habited the top of the standings with the Bucks until torn ligaments had taken Tripucka from their lineup for 23 games. On this particular night, Tripucka’s problems were not with his knees, but with Jack Nies, a referee. Repeatedly, at least in the eyes of Piston coach Scotty Robertson and his star forward, flagrant fouls were being called (against Tripucka) or ignored (when committed against Tripucka).

Twice, on breakaways to the basket, Tripucka layups were blocked by Milwaukee’s Sidney Moncrief, who had materialized like an outlaw dry-gulching Gene Autry from a ledge. Neither time would Nies call a foul. Later, all Tripucka had to do was shoot him a dirty look and mutter under his breath to draw a technical foul.

“Am I wrong,” Robertson asked from one knee, turning to the press table, “or is one player out there not gonna get a call all night?”

At one point, Tripucka threw up his hands and stomped to the other end of the court while a Buck shot a free throw. Robertson had warned him as a rookie not to chafe referees with constant complaining, and he was beginning to see what the man had been talking about.

“Coach, I’m sorry,” Tripucka said, coming to the bench, “but it’s getting ridiculous.”

Detroit’s Terry Tyler celebrates the Milwaukee win.

Detroit seemed doomed, but that was before Isiah Thomas sank an off-balance, three-point shot . . . before Tripucka was fouled on his own off-balance, three-point shot (and made two free throws) . . . before Tripucka was again fouled after stealing the inbounds pass (and made two more free throws) . . before Terry Tyler tormented Steve Mix into taking too much time on the next inbounds pass . . . before Thomas’ driving shot won the game with three seconds to go . . . or before Tyler’s ambush-from-behind block on Moncrief saved the game at the horn.

As at a college or high school game, the players bounded up and down and wrapped their arms around one another. Tripucka shook his fists at the fans. He wasn’t even upset anymore that so many of them had given up on the team in the final five minutes, grabbing their coats and leaving. “Don’t think we don’t notice things like that,” Tripucka said later.

In the locker room, “Pepper” Thomas was talking about what a crazy game basketball can be, what strange things can happen if there are even a few seconds left. “Salt” Tripucka took this in, then together they watched a videotaped replay of the climax of the game. 

“Way to go, Pepper,” said Tripucka.

“Thanks, white boy,” answered Thomas.

Ever since Tripucka described them as a Salt-and-Pepper act in a recent newspaper interview, that’s what they have become to one another. Thomas has another nickname for Tripucka that no newspaper can print, but the initials are B.B. and have to do with anatomical appendages that were displayed during the Gastineau impersonation on the rug.

Jerry Dziedzic has been Detroit’s equipment manager for 15 years and said he never had seen a team as excited after a game as the Pistons were Wednesday. Tripucka, being from Notre Dame, tried to say it was nothing new: “You have to remember, I went to the school that wrote the book on finishes like that.”

And yet, he seems as emotional as a professional ever gets. “Hey, it has to come from the heart,” Tripucka said, poking himself in the chest. “If you can’t be excited about a game like this, if it doesn’t give you any kind of thrill, you’ve got absolutely no business in the game. Absolutely no business. I mean, am I crazy or what?

[Five games later, Tripucka played in what he later would chose as “The Game I’ll Never Forget.” The Pistons were at home in the Silverdome entertaining the Chicago Bulls. Tripucka was sick as a dog, but inexplicably his offensive game was a picture of NBA health. “Tripucka inside! Tripucka inside!” Chicago coach Paul Westhead yelled over and over. But Chicago’s medley of defenders—Rod Higgins, Dudley Bradley, Mark Olberding, Reggie Theus, and his former Notre Dame teammate Tracy Jackson—couldn’t handle Tripucka the Sick-O that night, inside or out. Here’s Tripucka on that memorable night, as published in the April 1988 issue of Basketball Digest.]

Sometimes when you least expect it, you can have an amazing game. That happened to me on January 29, 1983, when I was with the Detroit Pistons. It’s a night I never will forget. We were playing the Chicago Bulls in the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, and I was feeling terribly physically. 

The previous night, we had also played at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers, I had a temperature between 101 and 102 degrees and didn’t play. I figured that we would win without me. I felt that I should try to get better and be ready for the Bulls. So, I sat on the bench for the entire game wearing three sweatshirts and a towel wrapped around me. 

I felt horrible. Then, the Cavs made me feel worse, beating us by a point. That didn’t sit well with me. I was very disappointed. If I had known we were going to lose, I would have tried to play against Cleveland.

The following day, I didn’t practice and remained in bed until about 5 o’clock. When I finally got out of bed, I felt worse than the previous day. But I reported to the arena. I told our coach, Scotty Robertson, that I would try and give him a few minutes of playing time. And he told me that he would try and give me as much rest as possible. 

I started the game, and, surprisingly, I hit my first four shots, all in the first five minutes before coming back in and playing the final three minutes of the first period, finishing the quarter with 11 points.

I was on the floor again when the second period began and hit three quick field goals before needing another rest, this time after three and a half minutes. I rested for about four minutes, then was back in. When you’re hurting or ailing, you just try and put out of your mind that you don’t feel well.

That’s exactly what I tried to do the final four minutes of the second quarter, and it worked. In that span, I scored 11 points, including our last six, and we led 66-60 at halftime.

I had scored 28 points in only 15 minutes, missing just four of 14 field goal attempts and only one of nine free throws.

I began the third quarter as I had the first two, on the floor with the starting five. I played about seven minutes, scoring nine points, before the coach substituted for me. I sat about two minutes, then came back in and scored five more points—for a total of 42.

But the Bulls were getting well-balanced scoring, and they had moved ahead, 100-97. We had trouble stopping them, and with less than six minutes remaining in the game, we trailed 117-110. The coach didn’t want me to play the entire period, but I was going so well that I didn’t want him to take me out. He didn’t, and for that, I thank him.

With about five minutes left, I hit a short turnaround bank shot, giving me 50 points, my career-high. I had scored 49 the previous season when I was a rookie, and I thought I would never have another game like that.

Still, we were trailing 118-114, and I didn’t want to have a memorable game like that and lose. The fans were really into the game and cheering loudly on every shot. I could also hear them whispering how many points I had every time I came to the bench during a timeout.

First, the fans wanted me to score 50—that was something special. Then, they started rooting for me to break Dave Bing’s club record of 54, set in February 1971. First and foremost, I wanted to win the game. I didn’t care how many points I scored.

Then, Isiah Thomas and I scored, and we were even at 118 with a little more than four minutes to play. After another tie at 120, I connected on a turnaround jumper from the left baseline with two minutes left, giving me 54 points and equaling Bing’s record. More important, it gave us the lead for good.

I hit another baseline jumper in the final minute, breaking the record, and that was the margin of difference, as we hung on to win, 128-126, thanks to Vinnie Johnson’s two free throws with five seconds to go. When Vinnie made those shots, I acted like it was the seventh game of the championship series and started jumping up and down.

But Chicago wasn’t finished yet. With one second to play, Dave Corzine made a layup and was fouled. He wanted to miss the free-throw, hoping that the Bulls would get to rebound and possibly tie the score with another basket. But he missed the rim completely, giving us the ball, and the victory was secured at last.

It was a game I’ll never forget for several reasons. For one, it came so early in my professional career. Second, it was before the home crowd. Third, we needed every point to win. Fourth, it made it something special to break the record of probably the greatest Pistons player of all time. Dave Bing, a man I greatly respect. And lastly, I did it on a night when I didn’t feel well.

When it was announced at the end of the game how many points I had scored, I still couldn’t believe it. When I went home, I wanted to celebrate, but I was just too exhausted. I went straight to bed.

I wondered how I could score 56 points when I didn’t figure to score six. All things combined, it was the most memorable game of my NBA career. And I’m very proud that the record of 56 still stands.

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