DETROIT – In 1988, the Detroit Pistons had finally vanquished the Boston Celtics to get to the NBA Finals, but to win the franchise’s first title, they would have to get through Michigan’s favorite son: Magic Johnson and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
“I thought that we were very confident basketball team,” former Detroit Pistons star Adrian Dantley said. “I think all the guys felt that they could win the series and was pretty pumped up.”
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Jason Colthorp blog: How I met ‘Crafty,’ the Detroit Pistons fan who stole Adrian Dantley’s shoes
The Pistons stunned the Lakers with a Game 1 win in Los Angeles. Dantley was unstoppable, scoring 34 points.
“If I can recall, I think that almost every shot I took I made,” Dantley said. “I think it was 14 for 16 from the floor, and we ended up winning that that first game. That was pretty exciting.”
But the Lakers bounced back to win Game 2 with Johnson scoring 23 points, and then they took the first matchup in Detroit after Johnson put up 18 points and 14 assists.
“Every time we hit the floor is basically -- we’re going for a championship, and it’s take name and numbers time now,” Johnson said at the time.
The Pistons evened the series with a win in Game 4.
“It was a good series,” Dantley said.
Dantley was in his second season with the Pistons. He led the team in scoring three of the first four Finals games.
Not only was Game 5 pivotal in determining the series, it was the last Pistons game at the old Pontiac Silverdome. It drew the most fans in NBA Finals history -- a record that still stands to this day.
Dantley came through again, leading the Pistons to a victory with a team-high 25 points.
But in the moments after Game 5, Dantley’s size 13.5 sneakers disappeared, and with them, much of the excitement that came with being one game away from a championship. The reason: inside the shoes were specially made orthotics.
“It was strange, you know?” Dantley said. “I mean, I panicked once I found out I didn’t have my orthotics up and I was going crazy.”
Dantley did an interview to reveal that someone had gone into the locker room and taken his shoes and orthotics. He asked whoever it was to mail the orthotics to the airport Marriott in Los Angeles.
“I think we put out a report on national T.V. and everything, telling anyone who who had gotten my shoes that I need those orthotics,” Dantley said. “I used to have back problems, real serious back problems, when I was in Utah. So I couldn’t figure out, you know, why my back was hurting so much.
“I was going to a chiropractor on a regular basis, and he would adjust me, and I was playing a game and my back was still hurt. He said, ‘I think I know what the problem is. One of your legs is just a little shorter than the other.’ So therefore, when I got the orthotics, I have no problem since with my back.”
These days, Dantley lives with his family in Silver Springs, Maryland, close to where he grew up. He keeps busy as a crossing guard for the local school and officiates youth basketball games.
He said he still needs those orthotics to do all of that.
If he had to play without the orthotics in Game 6, Dantley said he would have had a hard time.
“Oh, I would’ve had a bad game,” Dantley said. “I would’ve played, but I wouldn’t have been able to play well.”
Meet Steve Craft
Pistons fan Steve Craft said he remembers when you could get a free ticket with a tank of gas.
“I’ve always been a Pistons fan since I was a kid,” Craft said. “The days of Dave Bing and Bob Lanier, George Trapp, watching those guys play with my father at Cobo Hall.”
In 1988, free tickets were long gone, and for the playoffs -- forget it.
“Leading up to that series, everybody was so excited because, you know, we had to battle through the Celtics and beat the Celtics and we had to get through the Lakers and this was our time to get to the Lakers,” Dantley said. “We just knew we were going to win that series.”
Craft had been a season ticket holder long enough that he and his friends were on a first-name basis with Silverdome staff members and could pretty much go anywhere.
“We would stand by this rope and the Pistons would come by and we’d always high five them, shake their hands, tell them good game, and that’s where we went right after (Game 5),” Craft said. “We went and stood by this rope, and as they went by, we slapped them high five.”
What happened after Game 5
He said the Game 5 atmosphere was electric. But the real story began after the final buzzer.
“So after that game was over, and we are sitting standing there, and all of a sudden, all this media circles us because we’d been standing there for three years after a game and now, all of a sudden, you’re around 100-200 people that are the media because this is a big deal,” Craft said. “You’re going, ‘Wow, we’re just engulfed by all these media people.’ Then they rolled up this big door and said, ‘Hey, the media can come in.’ So I looked at my buddies and I said, ‘Guess we’re going in the locker room.’ So we just follow the media and all of a sudden, boom, we were in the locker room with the players getting interviewed after their big Game 5 win.
“That was bizarre. It was like -- it was surreal. I looked over and saw a stool sitting there next to Isiah Thomas. I went over there and sat on a stool and a reporter was interviewing Isiah Thomas. I’m sitting right next to him.
“On the way out, we went by a locker that didn’t have a door on the front. It was just a wide open locker and there had to be 30 pairs of shoes in there. So I thought, Well, might as well note the occasion with a pair of shoes.’ So I just reached in and grabbed a pair of shoes and kept walking like I owned them, and just walked right out and people said, ‘See you later.’”
Calling Adrian Dantley
Craft said it took about 24 hours before he realized what he’d grabbed wasn’t just a harmless souvenir. He heard that the team was asking for the return of the shoes -- no questions asked.
“So I called information and got a phone number for a Marriott out in L.A., called the phone number, called the Marriott, and I said, ‘Can I have Adrian Dantley’s room?’ They said, ‘Yep, sure, no problem.’, So then Rick Mahorn answered the phone, and I said, ‘Is Adrian there?’ He said, ‘No, he’s not.’ And I said, ‘Well, I have his shoes,’ and he says, ‘Hang on a minute.’
“And Adrian Dantley picks up the phone and said, ‘This is Adrian.’ I said, ‘Mr. Dantley, I did something really stupid last night. I snuck into the locker room and took a pair of shoes and I have your orthotics.’”
Jason Colthorp asked Dantley about that phone call.
“I can remember, vaguely I remember,” Dantley said. “He said he had my orthotics and I was just happy. I was just happy that he had that. He didn’t throw them away.”
“He said, you know, ‘Keep the shoes. I just want the orthotic,’” Craft said. “I said, ‘Whoa, no, no, no, I’m not keeping any of this stuff. I’ll send it all back to you.’ And he was very insistent. He said, ‘You need to have those shoes. Keep them. I just want the orthotics.’”
“I just said, ‘Hey, I’m glad you kept them,’” Dantley said. “Somehow, he got them to me and then I was OK. I had them in my hands. I felt great.”
Craft said he express mailed the orthotics to Dantley from the airport and they got back to him in time.
At this point, the orthotic was on a plane headed for Los Angeles. Dantley was relieved and Craft felt like he’d righted his wrong and was in the clear. But that wasn’t entirely the case.
“The news comes on at 11 o’clock,” Craft said. “It was a lead story on Channels 2, 4 and 7 in the area, and I’m, like, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I do?’ Everybody was talking about it. One of the reporters had Adrian Dantley poolside talking about and he said, ‘Yeah, I talked to the guy tonight. I’m gonna get him back in the morning so everything will be good.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, no.’
“I was waiting for someone to knock at the door, for sure. The next morning, I wake up and I go get (the newspaper) -- back when they get delivered the newspaper to your driveway. I pull the newspaper up off the driveway and look at it, it says, ‘Have you seen this shoe? If so call the Pistons.’ I’m, like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
Just in case anyone in America missed the story in their local newspaper, it was mentioned again during the Game 6 broadcast.
“Let’s cut to Game 5 now,” reporter Pat O’Brien said. “After the game and the excitement of the game, the shoe was stolen. They put out an APB on the shoe because this is the only shoe he can wear -- newspapers, radios, police, the Hawaii Five-O. Everybody was looking for the shoe this morning. At six o’clock, the guy who stole the shoe called him and said, ‘I’ve got the shoe.’ Yesterday morning at six o’clock. He sent the shoe. It arrived late last night. Adrian says keep the shoe send the orthotics, but I gotta tell you, the guy put his return address on the package. I don’t think you’re getting a thank-you note.”
So why did Craft put a return address on the package if he wanted to disappear from the story?
“They said, ‘You’ve got to fill out this bill of labeling,’” Craft said. “You had to put your name and your address on your label. Oh no, no, I’m not going to do that. And the lady said, ‘Well, we’re not gonna ship your package as long as it’s not on there.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ So I made up a name, and then I put down the address 1313 Mockingbird Lane, Waterford, Michigan.
“I was watching the game and he said to me, like, you don’t even get to joke. It was Herman Munster’s address. I mean, come on. You’ve got to pick up on that. You’d think someone like Pat O’Brien would have picked up on it. But he didn’t. So I thought that was kind of funny.”
Craft said the secret was only known by about 10 people for a decade, and for the 24 years after it happened, the size 13.5 New Balance sneakers have sat on display in his basement.
The only people who had heard the story were those who saw the shoes and asked about them.
Craft once tried to clear the air with Dantley when the former star visited the Palace as an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets, but he never made contact.
“Would you like another chance to try and meet him?” Jason asked.
“Yeah, I’d like to meet him and tell him, ‘Hey, I’m sorry.’ Same thing I put in the note that (I didn’t mean any) harm. Apologize that I caused him any grief,” Craft said.
“Maybe we can arrange that,” Jason said.
“That would be pretty wild,” Craft said.
So Jason and Craft got on a plane and flew to meet Dantley.
Craft meets Dantley
“What would you say if I told you he would like to apologize?” Jason asked. “He’s actually here with us and wants to come say hi and apologize for that all these years later.”
“Oh, I would be shocked,” Dantley said.
“He’s out in the car,” Jason said.
“Oh, really?” Dantley said.
“Mr. Dantley, It’s taken me 35 years to come and apologize,” Craft said.
“Apologize for what?” Dantley asked. “I’m just glad you didn’t throw (the orthotics) away. That’s what I was just telling him.”
Dantley showed Craft the same orthotics that had been mailed to him in Los Angeles so many years ago.
“That’s it right there?” Craft asked.
“Over 35 years,” Dantley said. “These are the ones I’ve been wearing since I was 26 years old.”
They talked about what they remembered during the situation.
“You said, ‘Keep the shoes,” and I was, like, ‘Oh no no,’” Craft said. “I don’t want any of this stuff because I was thinking I was in big trouble, you know. But you were adamant that I kept those shoes.”
“Yeah I wasn’t going to wear them anymore,” Dantley laughed.
“Would you like to see them?” Craft asked.
“Oh yeah, yeah -- they’re probably New Balance,” Dantley said.
“They’ve been on display at my house for 25 years,” Craft said. “Unlike your 15-year career, I had a 15-minute career.”
“Yep, yep, I remember these,” Dantley said.
Craft handed him a newspaper clipping from the morning after Game 5.
“So when I woke up the next morning, I got the newspaper out of the driveway and there was that in the upper right corner: ‘Have you seen these shoes?’” Craft said. “I thought the police were going to come knocking on my door any minute.
“I had friends in like 10 cities across the country send me newspaper articles about it.”
“‘Sneak thief gets AD’s sneakers,’” Dantley read. “So you were a young guy when you got those shoes?”
“Yes I was,” Craft said. “Pretty crazy time in my life. That was for sure. But like I said, I meant no harm.”
“No, no foul,” Dantley said.
“Yeah, the story is a legend in my family,” Craft said. “I’m glad that you -- when Jason asked me to do this, I said ‘Sure, provided he doesn’t want to punch me in the face.’”
Dantley even autographed the shoes for Craft, and now, they’re back on the mantle.