John Salley will be missed most by people like me, that is, people who talked to him for a living. Salley could talk. From his car, from a phone in his coat pocket, after a loss, after a playoff elimination, in the mornings, in the shower, in the middle of the night. Didn’t matter. You could call him
— his phone number, considering his status in this town, was as easy to get as a lottery ticket — and when you said hello and he recognized you, his voice would jump an octave — “YO! WHASSSUP!” — and he was on his way, the words tumbling out of him, your fingers straining to keep up.

So words were never a problem for Salley in Detroit. Basketball was. Money was. Swallowing his pride under the Isiah Thomas-run, Chuck Daly-dictated Pistons, that was a problem. He never really found his place in that Palace locker room. He was drafted high out of college — a full round ahead of Dennis Rodman — but his development in six seasons here was stunted, like a tree that grows branches but no leaves. Was he a starter? Was he a bench player? Was he a success? Was he a disappointment? Did the Pistons need him? Could they do without him?

I guess they answered that last one.

“I told my girlfriend I’m scared and she said, ‘What are you scared for — you got everything you wanted,’ ” Salley said after news of the trade sending him to Miami for a first-round draft pick and rookie forward Isaiah Morris was released Tuesday night. “And she’s right. I get to be a real NBA player now. I get to be a leader. I get to be recognized as a starter, not just someone who was once on a championship team.”

And we get a championship team that we barely recognize anymore.

This trade makes sense if you understand the big picture: That it’s not over yet. I don’t believe the Pistons dealt Salley to wind up with a draft pick and Morris, whom they really don’t need. No. I think more moves are coming, for Dennis Rodman to get his walking papers, and maybe an effort to bring in Stanley Roberts from Orlando.

Why the wholesale changes? Well, first of all, if we’re talking Pistons, we’re talking Isiah Thomas, the General, and I can only assume he wants all of this and gave it his blessing, otherwise, nothing gets done with this team. I half-expect he was on the phone with Miami people, helping close the deal. Also, remember, you have a new coach in town, Ron Rothstein, who wants his own

guys, guys who won’t moan in the middle of January about how “Chuck Daly never made us do that.” Rodman has already said he misses Daly so much he doesn’t want to play here. He all but wrote his boarding pass with that one.

Salley, meanwhile, was becoming an expensive burden. A free agent at the end of this season, he wanted to renegotiate a still-wet-ink contract. And some felt it was already too generous. Critics question Salley’s toughness, say he can’t finish the break, or box out, that he spends more time on party life than basketball. Salley is nonplussed. He looks at his age, 28, his height, about 7-feet, and says, “Pay me.”

And Miami will.

I do not know how great a ballplayer Salley could have been if he only had a mind for the court. You accept Salley as a whole package, a Brooklyn kid who used to go door-to-door for Jehovah’s Witnesses, and learned early that unless you want that door slammed, you’d better make ’em smile. “I’m an entertainer who happens to play basketball,” he will tell you.

He was always honest.

And funny. I once saw him take the stage in a New York City comedy club and crack up the room:

SALLEY: “You hear Michael Jordan’s getting married? (Girl moans.) Oh, yeah, like you had a chance.”

I have seen him entertain a row full of hockey fans at Joe Louis Arena, just by asking questions about the game. (“Those guys jump off the bench and don’t have to check in or nothing?”) I have seen him hold little kids spellbound, and secretaries, and auto mechanics. I have seen him do more charity work than pretty much anybody else in this town, and, best of all, he didn’t insist on sticking his name on it, like some athletes. With his departure, the DETROIT Pistons lose the only player they have who actually lives in the city. That says something.

“Hey, I’m not moving,” Salley said. “I’ll be back in the summers. And my music studio is going good here, and so’s the record company. . . . “

Same old Salley. Still juggling. In a way, I’m gonna miss that. He is not the first championship player to leave Detroit. Rick Mahorn, James Edwards, Vinnie Johnson, all gone, to name a few. But Salley was drafted into this franchise, he grew up as the team grew up, and he became its emotional release: first to laugh, first to cry.

He won’t be the last to go. You look at what’s left of the “old” Pistons: Thomas, who wants to be king; Rodman, who wants out; Mark Aguirre, whom they would like to ship out; Joe Dumars, who keeps quiet; Bill Laimbeer, who creaks when he walks.

And there goes John Salley, with his worldful of words. About the only noise in Pistonland now is the sound of the roster being snipped apart, and our whispered prayers that these people know what they’re doing.

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