HOLY COW, WHAT DIGS!

The Pistons' John Salley, a 6'11" man of wit, sophistication and discipline, has a house that fits him, literally and symbolically. It's big—62 rooms—and was home to the Archbishop of Detroit, exactly the place for a guy of Salley's catholic tastes
November 06, 1989

The gloves were white silk, and they belonged to the Cardinal. John Salley suddenly wonders what happened to them. "Where are 'those gloves, Ernie?" he asks.

"I burned them," says Ernie Scarano.

The afternoon air is cool, the day sunny. The conversation is being held in the garden. Salley is stretched out on a bench. He's a long and slim man, with a face that everyone tells him is borrowed from comedian Arsenio Hall. His sport coat is a black-and-white check. He's wearing sunglasses with purple frames.

"Burned the gloves?" asks Salley.

"John...." Scarano says.

"Burned them?"

"I had to, John," says Scarano. "You know that. They were sacred. The ashes are buried right over there, with the other stuff."

Scarano points to the burial area, which is approximately 10 feet long and five feet wide. The grass is gone, the earth turned over. Next to the burial area is the four-car garage. A vintage Lincoln Continental sits in front. Above the garage are the rooms that once were servants' quarters. They will be converted into offices.

Scarano says he had to burn for three days: shoes, vestments, linens. That's the old rule. Scarano was a Passionist Fathers seminarian. He knows the rules of the Roman Catholic Church, even the ones, like this, that aren't in force anymore: Anything sacred has to be burned when it comes time to discard it. "How about the red shoes and the red socks?" Scarano asks.

"They were wild," Salley says.

"Cardinal Mooney wore them for the last confirmation he performed," says Scarano. "Then he went to Rome for the election of John XXIII. He died there, never came back. That was in 1958. Those shoes sat in a closet for all that time—till four days ago. I burned them, too."

In the house, plasterers are busy on the third floor. Lucile is cooking in the kitchen. Quivari and Michael are doing maintenance work. Sabrina is doing paperwork. Jill is making the beds. Jo-Jo, an umbrella cockatiel, is flying free. Sixty-two rooms can contain a lot of activity. The house has an elevator and a chapel with eight rows of pews. Sun filters through the chapel's stained-glass windows and onto the eight carved heads of angels on the walls. The house also includes a wine cellar, a conference room, 12 fireplaces and seven porches. What appears to be the biggest Oriental rug in Michigan is on the sitting room floor. The Steuben glassware is locked in one of the four vaults.

Salley wants to make a telephone call. Scarano hands him a cordless phone. Salley punches out the numbers. "Hello, gorgeous," he says from the middle of the garden to somebody's secretary somewhere. The Cardinal's house, in the Palmer Woods section of Detroit, now belongs to a professional basketball player, the happiest, talkingest, funkiest member of the world champion Detroit Pistons. The basketball player is 25 years old.

"I was looking for a big house," says Salley, who at 6'11" can make an argument that he needs one. "I was with my brother Ron. We looked at another house in the neighborhood. The man said he had sold that one but that he knew about a bigger house. He gave us directions. I remember Ron stopped the car. He said, 'John, do you think this is it?' "

The conversation is being held in the dining room. Salley is eating a health-food lunch. The table seats 20. A marble fireplace looms at one end of the room. The andirons are approximately the size of Willie Shoemaker. A bas-relief of a bishop's hat is sculpted into the marble. The three Latin words ABUNDARE FACIAT CARITATUM are engraved below the hat. They translate to, "Do all things abundantly with love." A portable TV set is turned to a video channel. Prince is singing a song from the score of Batman.

"Stevie Wonder was the first person to look at the house," says Scarano, who has been its caretaker for two years. "Is that the right thing to say? That he looked at the house? His people took him here. He wanted to go through and feel the vibrations. There was a moment—this is amazing. There was a statue of Jesus on the second floor. Stevie Wonder was walking down the hallway, and he stopped. He turned. He put out his hand and touched the statue's shoulder—Jesus' shoulder. Whoa. Everyone just sort of stood there. It was quite a thing to see."

The house went on the market after the death of 80-year-old Cardinal John Francis Dearden, who had been retired for seven years, in August 1988. The present Cardinal, Edmund Szoka, was already living in a much more modest house, next door to the Cathedral of The Most Blessed Sacrament. He did not want to move. The Archdiocese of Detroit decided that owning the house was impractical, considering the upkeep, so it decided to sell.

Palmer Woods is one of the last pockets of residential elegance in the city. Trouble can be found only six or seven blocks away, on Seven Mile Road, where the proprietors of variety stores make change from inside Plexiglas cells. But Palmer Woods has retained an imitative touch of the English countryside.

"I wanted to buy a house in the city," says Salley. "I grew up in Brooklyn, and of all the players who went away, only World B. Free and Sid Green ever came back. I wanted to be in the community. No one else on the team lives in Detroit. I wanted to be here. It's like Malcolm X said. If you take money from the community and don't put anything back, you destroy the community. Everyone should have a hero. Malcolm X is my hero."

Home in Brooklyn was an eighth-floor apartment in the Bay View Projects. Salley was the low man on the bunk bed. sharing a room with an older brother, Jerry. The entire apartment could probably fit inside the dining room of this house. The two other brothers, Ron and Will, already were grown and gone. Salley's father, Quillie, worked as an installer of acoustical ceiling tile. His mother, Mazie, had an assortment of jobs.

One of them was as a domestic in a mansion on Long Island. Salley sometimes would take the trip with her to help with the vacuuming. It was his first look at the world of elegance.

"It was a big house with a pool on about four acres," he says. "The woman who owned it was very nice. Going there gave me an appreciation of quality, of the worth of fine things. Everything you do teaches something. My mother worked in a dry cleaner's. I'd help her there, too. Did you ever try to iron pleats in curtains? And make them look right? Going there gave me an appreciation of clothes—when to wear gabardine, when to wear silk, and don't wear linen, because it wrinkles easily."

On Saturdays, Salley would take other trips with his mother. Quillie was a Methodist, but Mazie was a Jehovah's Witness, and she raised their children in her faith. Saturday morning was the time for field service. Salley would dress in his best clothes, which formerly had been Jerry's best clothes, and spread the word. For a while he was embarrassed when his mother would march into a Jewish neighborhood and begin handing the Watchtower to people who weren't interested, but before long he was doing it himself.

"People say, 'How do you speak so easily?' " says Salley. "My beg mother taught me. My mother taught me about eye contact, about how to persuade people. We'd go to Kingdom Hall [the Jehovah's Witnesses' meeting-house] and have to speak. Then everyone would criticize your talk. My mother was so nice. Sometimes people I'd approach would be rude, and I'd get mad. She'd say that the man probably was nice but was having a bad day."

Salley returned from the morning excursions, took off his shirt and tie, and headed for the Bay View basketball court. He was always the late arrival. The games an at eight or nine, and the other players would be tired. He would have to persuade them to keep playing. He would play until 10:00 at night if he could. By then the game would have been whittled down to one-on-one against his cousin Russell. The light would be bad. The rims had no nets. The arguments about whether a shot had gone through the hoop would run forever.

Basketball was the grand community activity. Who didn't want to play basketball? Basketball was sport and culture and entertainment and future.

The game became substantially easier for Salley between the 10th and 11th grades. In two summer months he grew from 6'2" to 6'6". He had to take naps he was so tired, just from growing. His bones ached. He was euphoric. Suddenly he was a member of a New York City high school all-star team. He was 6'9". 170 pounds, skinny as a breadstick, by the time he was a senior at Canarsie.

"A lot of people said I'd go nowhere." says Salley. "I remember all of that. My mother always told me that when people downgrade you, don't say anything. Go out and prove them wrong."

He did that at Georgia Tech, where he enrolled in 1982. He grew two more inches. He added some bulk. He started for four ACC seasons, every game. He fell in love with Atlanta, which he describes as "this chocolate city with black people occupying all these important jobs, running the city." Mazie had made him an avid reader by requiring him to read for an hour every day, and his circle of books grew wider. He became a student of African culture. He was determined to graduate, even if he had to return to school a week after the 1988 NBA finals and sit down in lecture halls again. At the end of that summer session, he got his degree in industrial management.

The Pistons picked him in the first round, 11th overall, in the 1986 draft, mostly because he was the tallest player on their list who was still available. They viewed him as a project. He didn't know that. He arrived in Detroit with the flamboyance of the uninitiated. Wasn't this the NBA? His first questions were about cars, clothes and endorsements. Where's the payoff? He arrived in a cloud.

"I had so much to learn," says Salley. "Dennis Rodman came in so humble, just trying to make the team. I was saying. 'Do they sell Rolls-Royces around here?' The first night of training camp—the first night—Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer came to my room to set me straight. They said, 'Hey, there's three guys at your position [power forward ]. You're just one of three guys.' Adrian Dantley was my roommate. He said there are two things you have to remember about being with the Pistons. One is that you're here by yourself. Even though this is a team game, you're here by yourself. The second is that the Pistons are [general manager] Jack McCloskey, [coach] Chuck Daly, Isiah and Bill, and then everybody else.

"AD taught me everything—how to eat, how to pack. I went on the first road trip with about four suitcases. He had this one little bag. He said, 'We're going to four different cities. You can wear the same stuff twice. Nobody's going to know.' Eating. We called room service in the afternoon. I ordered a burger, fries, a milk shake. He ordered soup, half a sandwich, water, juice. I was dying by the end of the game. He was just rolling along. I learned about eating, real quick."

Salley's role with the Pistons developed immediately. He became part of the X factor, reserve strength: seven or eight points a night, five rebounds, a couple of blocked shots. He and Rodman would enter games midway through the first quarter. They were a couple of booster rockets, accelerating the pace of the action. Jumping. Jamming. Blocking shots. Playing defense. The opposition got no rest. The X factor became more and more important as Detroit advanced, step by step, in three years to that championship celebration in Los Angeles last June.

Salley became the team wit. His humor is characterized by winks and nods, little impressions and a sardonic wit. He told the press assembled for the 1989 NBA Finals that this was a good opportunity to try out his act. "I'm getting so popular," he said after Game 1, "that even those guys with the white sheets and hoods look up and say, 'Hey, there's John Salley. Hi, John.' "

Not shy. Never shy. Salley would talk into a tin can tied to a piece of string if he could be assured a listener was at the other end. He became friends with Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee. The big-time NBA life he expected arrived in pieces. He became a TV spokesman for Plymouth and Chrysler. He picked up a weekly radio gig. He made a clothing deal. He started a line of eyeglasses. He made the money of a champion. He said he wanted to be a lounge act. He said he wanted to be a movie star.

The first thing he bought as a rookie, when he earned about $400,000, was a car for Quillie. He asked Quillie what his favorite color was. Quillie said he didn't have a favorite color. Salley bought him a blue Lincoln. Quillie stuck a bumper sticker on the back that read, DON'T LAUGH, IT'S PAID FOR. Quillie said his new favorite color was blue.

Salley's second major purchase, in his second year, was a dream house in Atlanta for his parents. He had it built. His folks, both retired, moved out of the Bay View Projects and into the seven-bedroom house in a cul-de-sac.

The third purchase.... Stevie Wonder presumably did not like the vibrations. Haifa dozen other potential buyers decided they weren't interested either. Salley toured the house and was interested immediately. A big house. No, a huge house. The doorways were so large he didn't have to duck. The papers were signed in August. The sale price, according to real estate records, was $500,000.

"It was a real bargain," says Salley, who this year will earn an estimated $400,000 (he's in the fourth year of a five-year contract worth $2 million). "Wouldn't you say I got a bargain, Ernie?"

Scarano had left the dining room and returned with the new uniforms the staff will wear. The pants are black. The shirts are red, with each person's name and SALLEY RESIDENCE embroidered in black script. The shoes will be sneakers. A Chaka Khan video is on the screen of the portable TV. Lunch is finished. "You got a bargain, John," says Scarano. "If you were Catholic, you'd have to go to confession for stealing."

In the front hall Salley has hung a large portrait of Rosa Parks, the Detroit woman who refused to go to the back of that bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. The kitchen has been redone in white. The work on the rest of the house is proceeding. Scarano has stayed with the new administration. His checks come from Salley's company, Sal-Sal Enterprises. Salley is attempting to have the house declared a landmark.

His cousin, Sabrina, who lives in the house, thinks the place may be haunted, but everyone else disagrees. Sabrina asks why she hears doors close during the night and why her television is always tuned to a different channel from the one she had last watched. No one has an answer. Salley said he recently won custody of his 21-month-old daughter, Giovanna, who had been living in New Orleans with her mother. Scarano says she is the first baby inside the house since it was built, in 1926.

Quivari, Michael and Lucile work for Scarano. Jill, who has four kids and owns a gym, helps out. Fat Cat is the neighborhood security man. There are always trucks in the circular driveway out back. There always is activity.

Salley says he hopes that he can become a starter this season, but the Pistons feel he is more important to them coming off the bench. Salley disagrees. "It's time," he says. "If it's not now, it's never. Enough of that coming off the bench. There's opportunity [with former starting forward Rick Mahorn now gone to the Philadelphia 76ers]. Everyone says, 'You can last a lot longer if you don't play a lot of minutes.' Oh, yeah? How long did Kareem last? How many minutes did he play? This is the year to do it. I have a contract coming up next season. They're paying guys $2.5 million a year to play basketball. I want to do it."

The conversation is being held in the master bedroom, formerly the Cardinal's library, where Salley sleeps in a water bed. He is watched by the stained-glass images of the Twelve Apostles. A fireplace dominates the room.

"I worked hard during the summer," says Salley. "I rested for about two weeks after we won, then I went back to work. I want to score points [he averaged 8.9 in the playoffs last season]. I worked on my shot. I know how it works. Isiah and Joe Dumars get you the ball if you put it in. If you don't put it in, you're not going to get the ball. I'm going to put it in."

The season approaches. The man of the house must go to work. He is dressing as he talks, getting ready to go to a banquet to meet his basketball public. He takes his clothes from the drawers and cabinets of the sacristy, which is between his bedroom and the chapel. Labels remain on some of the cabinets. There is a cabinet for relics, a cabinet for the chalice, a cabinet for altar wine. In one corner of the room is a tiny sink in which the holy water was disposed of. Salley walks past the sink, holding a necktie.

"What do you think, Ernie?" he asks.

"Nice, John," says Scarano.

The public awaits.

PHOTOJODI BURENWHAT USED TO BE THE CARDINAL'S LIBRARY IS NOW A BEDROOM FOR TWO RARE BIRDS, SALLEY AND JO-JO PHOTONATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOSBEFORE HE PALMED THE CHAMPIONSHIP TROPHY AT THE END OF THE '89 PLAYOFFS, SALLEY TRIED OUT HIS COMEDY ACT AND... PHOTOANDREW BERNSTEIN/NBA...SHOWED LAKERS SUCH AS A.C. GREEN THAT THE PISTONS ALWAYS HAD AN X FACTOR IN RESERVE PHOTOJODI BURENSALLEY'S DETROIT HOUSE IS A FAR CRY FROM THE BROOKLYN HOUSING PROJECT IN WHICH HE GREW UP PHOTOCRAIG PORTER/DETROIT FREE PRESSHALL NEEDED A BIT OF A BOOST TO SEE EYE-TO-EYE WITH LOOK-ALIKE SALLEY WHEN JOHN VISITED THE SET OF ARSENIO'S SHOW
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)