DETROIT – For the longest time, I’ve joked that my brother, Ryan, needed his own reality show. No matter where he was, something interesting happened.
If he wasn’t running into Justin Verlander and the rest of the Detroit Tigers pitching staff on the golf course in Florida, or John Daly at The Masters, he was befriending guys with yachts and memberships at exclusive golf courses. And I can’t even talk about his Vegas trips!
But it wasn’t just celebrity sightings. It was also the everyday folks he would run into that had some sort of amazing back story. So imagine my shock when he told me 17 years ago that he just played golf with the guy who took Adrian Dantley’s shoes in the 1988 NBA Finals. He gave me half the story behind it and I just chalked it up to another lost episode of “The Life of Ryan” on VH1.
He kept playing golf with this guy, who I only knew of as “Crafty” -- a good golfer whose best friend was our eye doctor. Suddenly they were all playing golf every Tuesday during the summer, and I would just hear the stories after the fact.
Fast forward several years, after one of their golf trips, Ryan needed me to drop off Crafty’s clubs to him in Clarkston on my way back home.
“I finally get to meet the infamous Crafty,” I thought.
He invited me in and showed me around his place, including the basement. If you’re a golfer, it was like walking into a little slice of heaven. Forget the pictures all over the walls from every famous course in America -- including Augusta and Pebble Beach -- there was also his collection of Scotty Cameron putters, an autographed poster of Jack Nicklaus, a picture of when he (and of course my brother) met Nick Faldo at The Masters, and on and on.
As I was making my way to his authentic six-seat bar, something on his mantle caught my eye. It was a huge pair of basketball shoes, and it dawned on me that these must be Dantley’s shoes from the story I’d heard several years before.
All I had to do was point, and before I could even ask, Crafty launched into the story about how he came to end up with Adrian Dantley’s New Balance sneakers. I got every detail about the how he and three friends found themselves in the Detroit Pistons’ locker room after an NBA Finals game as the media conducted interviews.
When he described how he saw all these shoes that looked destined for the scrap heap, I could totally understand why he might grab them on the way out. But then, to hear his horror to find out the next day they had some orthotics in them and it had become headline news everywhere, well, I was entranced. In fact, there was a Detroit Free Press article framed along with the shoes.
By the way, Crafty knows how to tell a story. By the time I got to hear it, he’d told it hundreds of times and it didn’t disappoint. From his 30-second phone conversation with Dantley to get the orthotics back to him, to how he didn’t leave a trail by using the Munsters address on the bill of lading, which Pat O’Brien completely missed when he told the story on national television during Game 6.
There was also this air of mystique to it, because for the next decade, no one outside the family and friends who were there talked about it for fear of getting a knock on the door.
It was incredible to me, a lifelong Pistons fan who remembered every detail of those Pistons teams from 1987-90.
Finally, the reporter in me snapped to attention and I asked if he would ever tell the story publicly. For several reasons, the answer was definitively, “No.” The two times a family member prodded him to tell a stranger, thinking they thought would get a kick out of it, the reaction varied between disdain to near anger. Plus, he didn’t want to glorify a moment of thievery.
That was five years ago. I started seeing and talking to Crafty a little bit more since then, and I would often joke around and say, “Let me know when you’re ready to tell that story.” But we’d never be serious about it.
Then, a couple years ago, he started really considering it. I even called the Pistons to make sure they had no problem with it (they didn’t), researched all the newspaper articles that appeared about the shoe theft (of which there were dozens), and tracked down Dantley’s contact info.
But soon after, Crafty thought about it and decided, “Why take a chance?” I honestly couldn’t blame him. I couldn’t guarantee how people would react to finding out the identity of the guy who snatched Dantley’s shoes. Forget that he returned the orthotics in time for Game 6 and the fact so much time had passed that most people didn’t even remember it because of so much other drama that followed in that series.
Isiah Thomas’ heat check on a sprained ankle in the third quarter of Game 6 was legendary, and of course, everyone remembers the phantom foul on Bill Laimbeer in the fourth quarter that likely cost the Pistons the championship.
But in the social media age, who knows what reactions may come? Crafty and his family have businesses to consider, as do his friends who were with him that day. So I let it go and was resigned to the reality that this amazing story may never be told.
Then, last December, when we texted about something unrelated, Crafty sent the magic words: “OK, fine. If Dantley is OK with it, I’ll do it.”
What happened next was a blur. Bob Ellis, our new general manager at Local 4, had just taken the reins, and having roots in Detroit sports, he loved the idea. He even suggested that I travel to interview Dantley and take Crafty with me for the reunion!
Now it all hinged on A.D. I called him and we spoke for several minutes, and finally he asked, “Do you really want to fly out here just to interview me about those orthotics?”
“Well, yeah,” I said.
“Well, OK then.”
The trip was a success, as you’ll see in the story. The fun part was digging up old sports file tape from the WDIV tape room -- which is like walking back into the 80s and 90s. Thanks to Sean Forsyth, our resident jack of all trades, for locating ancient sports highlights. I was able to get my hands on the Dantley interview from the tarmac, an interview in the locker room with Bernie (keep your ears peeled for his voice), and a few games from that series that we have in their entirety on three-quarter-inch tape because we rolled on the back haul. (By the way, anyone who recognizes the phrase “rolled on the back haul” knows just how long ago this was.)
Now, a month later, as the story is about to air, there is still a genuine for those involved in this story about how it will be received. Crafty’s friends who were with him that day were scheduled to be a part of the story, but they backed out due to concerns about potential backlash. They also encouraged him to decline.
I hope viewers, Pistons fans and everyone else views it as I do: A mistake like so many of us have made in our lives, but one he was able to rectify in time to not cause any harm. That makes it more of a funny footnote in history and an amazing story.
It’s one that now has a new ending and will most certainly be discussed on the golf course next summer.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes snippet of the conversation: