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HOLY COW, WHAT DIGS!
Leigh Montville
November 06, 1989
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
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November 06, 1989

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

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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.

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