by | May 1, 1988 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

When John Salley was a kid in Brooklyn, he would go door to door on Saturday mornings with members of his church.
“Good morning,” he would say, when someone answered the bell. “My name is John Salley. I’m with Jehovah’s Witness. We have these two magazines, they’re going for a small price of 10 cents apiece, and–.”

“Get lost.”

“I gave already.”


Two hours. Every Saturday. When noon came, he was free. He dashed home to his family’s apartment in the projects near Jamaica Bay.

“Hang up your clothes!” his mother would yell. But he was already changed and out the door, into the park, onto the basketball court. Hat down. Sneakers open. Laces loose.

Johnny Cool.

“You’re late,” a kid with braces might say.

“And you’re real good-lookin’, thanks, metal-mouth,” Salley would answer.

Meet John (Spider) Salley, who has never had trouble talking to anyone, strangers or metal-mouths. Give him a minute, he’ll sell you his T-shirt. Give him five minutes, he’ll tell you about Eddie Murphy’s house. Give him an hour, he’ll tell you about Malcolm X, religion, or the time his brother made him sit like a Buddah at the foul line, all alone.

“I was 15. I had never dunked. My brother said if I meditated on the rim I could bring it down in my mind to the point where I could dunk.”

“What happened?”

“I sat for a while. Then I got up and dunked.”

“You weren’t embarrassed, sitting there with the other kids around?”

He smiles.

“You can’t embarrass me.” Well, we’ll see. This may be the tester, these next few weeks, because John Salley, 23, is now center stage in Detroit. Fly or flop. Embarrass or be embarrassed. The playoffs have begun; the Pistons need his help. Rickey Mahorn has an iffy back, and without a strong frontcourt, they will fall off the rainbow more sooner than later. The question is — is Salley, the lean, 6-foot-11 forward, up to it? Consistency has never been his strong point — yet he has strung together two good performances in games 1 and 2 against Washington. “He usually has one good game, then he goes in the tank,” Chuck Daly has said.

And that’s his coach talking.

But you can say that kind of thing to Salley, and he doesn’t flinch. Too slick? Too cool? Too scared? Too insecure? Who can tell?

Here is a guy who will tell you, in one breath, how he has incorporated himself, how he plans to promote rock concerts, how he can insult anybody, and how he can’t be seen with ugly women (“I don’t want to go to the movies and have people turn around and say, ‘GOOD GOD! WHAT IS THAT!’ “). Yet in the next breath, he’ll relate how his mother made him read out loud for a half-hour every night, and how he plans to run the summer camps for the kids this year, and how Martin Luther King and Malcolm X disagreed on the militancy of the black struggle.

“I am a deal-maker,” John Salley says.

“I am a loner,” John Salley says.

“I am an entertainer,” John Salley says.

He says “I am” about a lot of things, this tall, lanky bean pole with the spider pendant around his neck, because, I suppose, he is.

JOHN SALLEY, ON HIS NAME: “Everybody in my family has a name that rhymes. My father’s Quilley Salley, my mother’s Maisey Salley, my brothers are Jerry Salley, Ronnie Salley. I said to my parents once: ‘What’s with this rhyme stuff? Were you all, like, rappers or something?’

JOHN SALLEY, ON CAREER ALTERNATIVES: “If I wasn’t a professional athlete, I’d be a professional entertainer of some sort. A clown in a circus, or a Lurch in the movies. You know, one of those big guys with the bad teeth? Lurch. That’d be me.” John Salley came to the Pistons as a first-round draft choice from Georgia Tech, where he was an excellent shot blocker who sometimes faded in and out of the game. Now, two years later, in the NBA, he is an excellent shot blocker who sometimes fades in and out of the game. “I know my reputation,” he says, sitting alongside the Silverdome court long after the others have left practice. “Chuck pulled me aside before the all-star break and said: ‘I can’t deal with your inconsistencies.’ Since then, I’ve been trying to concentrate more.”

Critics suggest that Salley has too much on his mind besides basketball. The Spider T-shirts he hopes to market. The record company, RW Records, which has faltered. The clothes. The parties. The women. The celebrity friends, who include, he says, Eddie Murphy, Mike Tyson and L.L. Cool J. (“Did you know that Eddie Murphy, when he wants to meet a girl, he just sits there and points and his bodyguards get her and bring her over?”)

OK. It’s all a bit much. But to understand it, you have to understand The World According To John, a place where average is for losers, where a basic job with a basic home life will basically put you to sleep. “I don’t want to work for a living, I want to work for a fortune,” he freely admits. “It’s like they ask Adrian Dantley: ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’ And he says: ‘Count my money.’

“I’m like that, too. Look. My father was a construction worker. Then he drove a truck. He’d be up at 5:30 in the morning, wouldn’t come home till late at night. That’s the kind of life I wouldn’t want to live. No way.”

So he tries everything. Why not? Never met a deal he didn’t like. Never met a clothes store he didn’t like. And all this might be truly worrisome except that John Thomas Salley is so damn . . . likable. He really is. JOHN SALLEY, ON SARTORIAL SPLENDOR: “My mother always said, ‘When you dress, make sure you dress well, because you’re a big object. No one’s gonna miss you. They’ll say, “Look at those ugly shoes that seven-foot guy is wearing!” ‘

JOHN SALLEY, ON BEING A NEW YORKER: “We were brought up with a New York way of thinking. All of us. Once, my brother came down to visit me in Atlanta. We were walking along and some guy said hello and my brother goes: ‘Is he gay?’ I said, ‘No, Jerry, people just say hello down here.’ ” There was a time when John Salley’s pals back in Brooklyn were into stealing little things, like food from stores. Salley balked. “I won’t eat stolen goods,” he told them.

There was a time when Salley used to come home from school, and was eager

to hit the streets. “Your homework has to be done first,” his mother would scold. And he usually listened.

There was a time last year, Salley says, when Daly instructed the Pistons to foul him during a training camp scrimmage. “Toughen Salley up,” was the edict. Certain players took it too seriously, and Salley and Sidney Green wound up tangled on the floor. “Frustration’s a bitch, ain’t it?” Salley mumbled at Green, then got up and walked away.

The point is, for all the wheels and deals and chains and jewelry and clothes and women and stories about Manhattan nightlife, part of John Salley still knows what’s right and what’s wrong, even if it hurts. If the Pistons are ever going to rely on him the way they want to, that part is going to have to surface.

“It takes time to mature as an NBA player,” he says, staring at his extra-long legs. “It takes time to get that glint in your eye, like A.D. has or Larry Bird has. . . .

“I have problems with foul trouble, because I try to block every shot. That’s my role. If somebody gets past Isiah (Thomas), then he has to know I’m there to block the guy. Ron Rothstein (the assistant coach) says I should get two blocks a game minimum. Dick Versace (the other assistant coach) will say,
‘You’re supposed to get three rebounds this quarter. You only have two.’ They keep after me.”

“Do you think they have complete confidence in you?” he is asked.

“No,” he says, without hesitation. “They don’t. Not yet.” So what’s it gonna be, Spider-Man? This is the time the Pistons need him — to rebound, to score, to defend without foul trouble — and this is the time he can put some doubt to rest. True, you may be wary of a guy who, at one point or another, went door to door with religious pamphlets, talked his father into buying him a car (“Next June, I’ll buy you one”), wears a jacket that says “JOHN” on the front, and has a cute if devious way with numbers (“I was a B student in college. My grade-point average was 2.5. That’s a B to me.”).

Just the same, remember that Salley was good enough to rise out of Brooklyn’s projects, good enough to rise out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and good enough to show flashes of excellence in his stint with the Pistons. He runs the break well. He blocked 137 shots this season. Saturday night in the Pistons’ 102-101 win over Washington, Salley scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 29 minutes. He is witty, cool and confident enough to travel his own road on a team full of cliques.

And, besides, he can’t be embarrassed.

Which may be good or bad. No doubt Daly would like to take Salley and make him sit on the court, as his brother did back in Brooklyn, staring at the basket until he could bring the job he must do down to a level where he can do it. But that won’t work. The magic of John Salley, basketball player, will have to surface through the pile, working its way past John Salley, businessman, John Salley, party man, John Salley, Mister Everybody Loves You Now.

And it will have to surface on its own.

“If you could have one or the other, either all the business and celebrity

success you desired, or an NBA championship, which would you choose?” I ask him.

He pauses.

“The NBA championship.”

“Honest?” I say. “You’re not just saying that?”

“No.” He smiles. ” ‘Cause if we get a championship, all that other stuff will follow.”

No one ever said he was dumb. CUTLINE Fast-talking John Salley, on another roll: “I don’t want to work for a living, I want to work for a fortune.”


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!