"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."