Detroit Pistons: Called for Travelling, 1982

[I’m a sucker for articles that document the rigors of life on the NBA road. If you like them, too, here’s a good one from the Detroit Free Press’ Charlie Vincent dated March 14, 1982. That’s near the tail end of Isiah Thomas’ rookie season, and Vincent starts with a poem from the 20-year-old, hotel room-bound Zeke titled, A Family to Share. Further down, the bit about Ron Lee on a video-game tear is priceless. Here you go.] 


The family is all you have in life

Your brother and sister will be with

You through trouble and strife

The world is so confusing

That you must have people whom

You can confide in and trust

People who will put up with you

And understand when you fuss

Car, money, clothes, fame and fortune

Wine, women and song

If you have no family to share these things with 

The life is so awfully wrong!

–Isiah Thomas, written in a hotel room, 1982

With his only company the images of a made-for-TV movie and the crumbs of a room-service meal, the youngest player in the National Basketball Association sat at a desk in his room and jotted his thoughts on a piece of hotel stationery.

“There are just some things I was thinking about,” Isiah Thomas said, handing over the paper. “Just some things I had on my mind . . . use ‘em if you’d like to.”

Isiah Thomas watching TV in his hotel room.

The 20-year-old rookie guard doesn’t admit to loneliness in the Detroit Pistons’ October-to-April odyssey around the nation. But his poetry indicates otherwise. 

The NBA schedule takes the Pistons on the road 22 times this season. It sends them to San Antonio in February, where it’s 87 degrees and where other hotel guests sunbathe by the pool while the players catch up on sleep in darkened rooms. It drops them off in deserted downtown Indianapolis on a mid-winter Sunday night and in the heart of Manhattan for a long weekend.

Life in the NBA is 5:30 a.m. wakeup calls, airport corridors, and an endless succession of hotel meals. It is also a fine style of living, the adoration of fawning fans and late-night phone calls from young women with partying on their minds.

John Long says, “Nothing compares to an athlete’s life.” And Thomas insists he dislikes none of the Pistons’ ports of call, saying, “They’ve all been good to me.”

Thomas’ attitude, Terry Tyler says, is typical for a rookie.


“It’s fun at first, the novelty of it is great,” Tyler says, bending over a giant bowl of fruit in the restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Indianapolis, during the first stop on a recent two-game road trip to play the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks. “At first, you like the responsibility . . . not having a roommate or anything like you do in college. But after a while, it gets tough . . . it starts getting lonely in those rooms. It gets to be such an old routine, check into your room, watch TV, get ready for the game. I get tired of that routine quick. Sometimes, you just have to go down and have a beer or a Coke or eat some nuts or something. Anything to break the routine.

“People think this is glamorous, but it’s tough. My rookie year, guys were introducing me to all kinds of stuff. I was eating steak all the time. I thought it was great, but now I’d just as soon have a hamburger.”


In Milwaukee after practice (l-r) Terry Tyler, Vinnie Johnson, Jeff Judkins, Bill Laimbeer, Alan Hardy, Steve Hayes

Thomas is one of the few Pistons who claims to enjoy visiting 22 cities as divergent as New York and Phoenix, Milwaukee and Oakland. Most favor cities that are warm (“In a city like San Antonio,” Alan Hardy says, “you stand in the sunshine and wait until the last minute to get on the bus.”); that are near home and friends (“The only bad thing about being traded away from Cleveland,” according to Bill Laimbeer, who grew up in Palos Verdes, Calif., “is that I missed the West Coast trip.”); or are cosmopolitan (“Being a small-town boy, I used to hate New York and Philadelphia; now, they’re among my favorites because of their restaurants,” Kent Benson says.)

Ron Lee, though, finds acceptable any city that affords him easy access to video games. “Do you see ‘em yet. . . what time is it?” Lee doesn’t even look up from the work before him, trying to save the red-headed maiden from the possessive gorilla on the Donkey Kong machine.

The Pistons have a practice in 20 minutes at the Milwaukee Arena across the street from Major Goolsby’s, a popular gathering place in the heart of America’s beer capital, and Lee is trying to squeeze every available minute of Donkey Kong time into his afternoon.

While Lee battles the gorilla, a lookout posted at the window watches for Lee’s teammates to make the walk from the hotel to the arena. Lee is a master of the games—and an insomniac who has been known to stay up until 4 a.m. playing them alone. Thirty minutes after walking into Major Goolsby’s, he has recorded the five highest scores on Donkey Kong. Then, looking for a new challenge, moves to Ms. Pac Man, the new version of a popular video game.

Though he is as aggressive in front of the machines as he is on the basketball court, Lee is mild-mouthed, vocalizing his infrequent failures with “Shoot!” The only cities he really dislikes are Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Denver, “because they don’t have any games around.”


Kelly Tripucka’s days on the road, he admits, are dull. “Fine,” he says, when he hears a photographer is going to be recording the team’s routine on the road. “She can come to my room and get a picture of me sleeping.”

The nights, though, the nights are a different thing.

On a night off, he can find something to do—even in Indianapolis. “I got a car and found a couple of places to dance in a shopping center the last time we were here,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.

“If I’m in the town where I don’t know anybody. I usually go out alone because most of these guys aren’t into that.”

Twenty-three, single, handsome, and financially secure, Trupucka willingly accepts the role as the Pistons’ ladies man. “Look at this,” he says, unfolding a piece of paper with the name and telephone number of a well-known female model. “This is a lady I want to meet.”


Kenny Carr at Pac Man game.

Dull might not be the appropriate word for describing the Detroit Pistons. Average might be better. Normal. A typical cross-section of America: Kenny Carr, who grew up in Maryland and was a page in the U.S. House of Representatives before this freshman year at North Carolina State; Tyler and Hardy, high school teammates at Detroit Northwestern; Jeff Judkins, the kid from Salt Lake City with the “aw-shucks” Image; Vinnie Johnson, Brooklyn-born and educated at Baylor, the root of Texas conservatism.

With an average age of 24, the Pistons are one of the younger teams in the NBA. Only three of them—Benson, Carr, and Lee—have been in the league more than four years. That youthfulness is reflected in their demeanor on the road.

“This is new to most of us,” Thomas says, talking more about being in playoff contention than pro basketball in general. “I think after we’ve been through it more, we might want to do more different things.”

For now, though, they are an average bunch of young Americans. An average bunch of young Americans who average $160,000 a year.


Though there are exceptions, the Pistons usually break into a handful of splinter groups when they arrive in the city. Lee’s passion for games leaves him alone a good part of the time, as does Thomas’ love of TV soap operas, and Carr’s and Long’s desire to simply go their own way.

Tyler, Hardy, and Johnson might find their way to a bar for a drink or two. When he’s not out rockin’, Tripucka often joins up with Laimbeer, a former teammate at Notre Dame, Judkins, Benson, and newcomer Steve Hayes.

Socially, they split up almost exclusively along racial lines, not because there is tension among them, but because of different interests and tastes. The one thing that seems to totally unify them is an avowed abhorrence for drugs and people who use them.

Several players admit the opportunity to partake of drugs is not uncommon. But on a team made up entirely of non-smokers and only a few alcohol drinkers, the notion of drug use seems farfetched. Instead, they entertain themselves with television, movies, or music.


Dawn is breaking over another airport runway. The Pistons, on their way back to Detroit, have been up since 5:30 a.m., and they straggle down the nearly deserted corridor leading to their gate, suit bags slung over their shoulders, a duffel bag in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

Lee stops at an arcade for one more game, this time Pac Man. Carr looks for a seat in the coffee shop, and Long listens to his own drummer on the earphones connected to his tape recorder. “Johnny Paycheck,” he says, motioning to the cassette player. “Johnny Paycheck and Tammy Wynette.” Then he turns up the volume so the soulful rhythm, not Country and Western, can be heard. A grin spreads across his face.

Laimbeer and Kelly Tripucka take seats in a corner and begin poring over the morning papers, checking out the critique of their performances in the out-of-town press. 

Hardy, probably reflecting the feelings of all his teammates, says: “There are times when I can’t wait to get on the road, and there are times when I can’t wait to get back home.”


Hardy, Tyler, and Long are the only Pistons who call Detroit home, who are from the city and of the city. But even the newest of their teammates is beginning to acquire a feel for it.

Detroit City, a city I am not very familiar with, for I have

only been here a very short time

Detroit people I am very familiar with, they are survival people, people with hopes and dreams

Because they believe that life is not as bad as it seems

They have so much to offer and so little to give

But it doesn’t bother these people because I truly believe

they just love to live.

–Isiah Thomas, written in a hotel room, 1982

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