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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chuck, Joe, Isiah, Lam: All Brothers in Arms... with Matt

Here is my brief, helpless post-funeral salute to my good friend, Matt Dobek.  It comes about a week and two days after I heard the terrible news which shocked us all to a 'lump-in-your-throat, stop-in-your-tracks stand still.  I felt particularly terrible as I hadn't spoken to Matt since hearing of his unfair firing by the former employer this past May. In the week that has passed since his death, I've quickly realized that none of it matters.

Not a thing. Not the firing, nor the fact that a lot of us didn't know or understand the state of mind that Matt was in during his final days. It doesn't matter, now.  He's gone and there's not a damn thing any of us can do about it. And, that is why this is so damn sad and why it'll stick with us for a long, long time.

I met Matt, appropriately, in an NBA media hospitality room at the old Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia.  For you trivia buffs, that is the same hotel in which the Legionnaire's Disease was first reported in summer of '76.  I met Matt in late May, 1983, as he was joining the Pistons right after his very first job as an SID at Wayne State University.  It was about a year after he had interned for then-Pistons PR man, Bill Kriefeldt, when the team played at the big, bad Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan.

Kreifeldt, too, as history would have it, was let go -- abruptly -- by the Pistons organization and had been asked to work the 1983 NBA Finals as the Eastern Conference PR rep. to assist with "beers and buses," as I used to say.  Dobek was stepping into a tough situation in Detroit.  His predecessor was well-liked and very well thought of by the small but growing corps of media that covered the NBA beat.  Matt was the new kid on the block when Menudo was king of pop and Ronald Reagan was POTUS. Dobek, as we all called him, would have to stand on his own two feet and establish himself as a good PR guy in the league that was about to take-off on a soaring, upwardly mobile ride to the bigtime.

I had been with the league office for only two years, starting as an intern from St. John's, I might add, and I was tipping-off a string of some 135 consecutive NBA Finals games.  As per usual, I enjoyed taking the new, younger PR guys aside and letting them know they had a friend and ally in the NBA league office. All of the PR assistants and a lot of the interns did a great deal of work and we, at the league office, often relied on the young PR assistants to help out when a local story merited national attention or when the likes of the coveted CBS Sports "Game of the Month" came along or the crack USA Network crew, or later ESPN, then TBS, then TNT-then ESPN (again) would be rolling into a town near them.

Matt and I hit it off pretty damn nicely while he quickly earned his stripes with all of the media and NBA PR Directors, even the Kreifeldt contemporaries who gave Matt a rightful chance to prove himself.  Plus, soon afterward, Kriefeldt hooked up with the Utah Jazz and all was well in the Land of PRs. The up & coming Pistons (Isiah, Laimbeer and Kelly Tripucka) were early fodder for the likes of the Celtics, 76ers or Bucks for a year or so. But a remarkable Pistons vs. Knicks, circa 1984 fifth and deciding game of a first-round series put the soon-to-be-bad-boys on the NBA map for the rest of the decade, an impressive feat since the club was competing in the league playoffs for the first time since 1977.

As the Pistons edged their way up in the eastern standings during the year which would end with yet another Boston win in a memorable 1987 Boston Garden & Vinnie Johnson-Adrian Dantley head-bumping clash. Dobek gained the respect of Coach Chuck Daly, along with all of the players and front office types. In 1988, the two teams would meet again and I remember the battles over Memorial Day Weekend in Pontiac.  I also remember walking into the Silverdome at some ungodly hour to prepare for a 1pm holiday tip and the cleaning crew of the Dome had yet to pay a visit after Saturday night's Monster Truck-a-palooza or something. The place reeked of stale beer and garbage and Matt Dobek had to deal with it.  But, the Pistons would finally defeat the Celtics that year, winning two games at the old Boston Garden and closing it out in the last-ever NBA game at the Silverdome.  One of my favorite memories of Matt came after total pandemonium broke-out amongst 60,000 "crazy car-makers, as John Salley called them, when Detroit took the Eastern Confference Finals series in six games with a 95-90 victory over the rival Celts and it was time for some post game interviews.  

The players wanted to celebrate and were already undressing near their second-floor lockers up an awkward staircase in the bowels of the Dome, but Matt marched into the locker and started barking out orders to the tune of "Get your asses dressed again.  "Lam, I need you to do home radio; Isiah, your doing Pat O'Brien and CBS; Vinnie, I need you, too.  Mahorn, get dressed, we're opening up the locker for the media!"

My jaw dropped as I brought Isiah Thomas to a relatively quiet area to do a live postgame interview with "CBS' At the Half host O'Brien and Matt grabbed a few players and headed back to the trenches. Matt had some serious clout and he was doing his job like a pro under pressure.  Of course, later on that night, we had some downtime with friends, Pistons front office workers and their entourage when we made our way over to Giannopolous' bar in the 'burbs of Auburn Hills, MI.
As time passed by, we spent more and more time in Detroit.  From the Troy Hilton to the Somerset inn where we played some pretty mean "pop-a-shot" and a variation of the game, called "Natural Fruit Pop-a-Shot." From the Finals vs. the LA Lakers in '88 to "Back-to-Back" titles over the Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers in '89 and '90.  We watched the Troy Marriott being built, brick-by-brick, thank God. From victory parades that ended with team-leader Rick Mahorn tossed to the expansion draft wolves to the 1992 Tournament of the Americas in Portland to the Barcelona Olympics to the 1993 NBA Draft where a capacity crowd cheered Michigan's Chris Webber, Matt Dobek was there and he was getting the job done - whether it be with the Pistons or assisting Coach Daly with his USA Basketball duties or assisting the league office set-up for the Draft.  Matt was there and he was damn good.

Off the court, we often found time to get a cold beer, take in a Tigers game (old Tigers Stadium) or make our way to see a horse race or two.

At Barcelona in 1992, we sat side-by-side at the Opening Ceremonies and shook our heads in wonder and amazement after Antonio Rebollo, aka "the paralympic archer," shot the arrow over the stadium wall to light the Olympic Flame.  This, of course, came after many a cerveza, resulting in a Matt Dobek sprint down Barcelona's famed Montjuic without a men's room in sight. Matt had to go and Cerveza San Miguel waits for no man.

We laughed and laughed.  And, it seems like yesterday.
I liked it better back then.

I liked it better when there were "only" 13 or 33 channels, too.
I liked it better when Connors played McEnroe at the Open,
and when "The Garden" had red seats, orange, yellow, green and blue seats.
I liked it better when Zink did the announcin' and Harry did the dancin'.
Kareem did the sky-hookin' and Earl the Pearl was spinnin' as a Baltimore Bullet.

I liked it better when there were at least two papers in every town and people actually read them.
I liked it when we went to the Old Miami near the Cass corridor.
Shelby and Corky at our sides, too.
I liked it better when Alex Sachare tossed his water on Mark Pray and the slice of lemon stuck on his sport coat like a boutonniere on the groom. (mistakenly, I might add).
I liked it better when we cruised San Antonio and Matt whipped out his cell phone at 3am to call Coach Daly, stating, "Don't worry, he'll be up."

I liked it better when Matt Dobek was alive and well and living near Auburn Hills, Michigan.


Here's to Matt and The Bad Boys:

"These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
Some day you'll return to
Your valleys and your farms
And you'll no longer burn
To be brothers in arms.

"Through these fields of destruction
Baptism of fire
I've watched all your suffering
As the battles raged higher
And though they did hurt me so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me
My brothers in arms.

"There's so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones.

"Now the sun's gone to hell
And the moon's riding high
Let me bid you farewell
Every man has to die
But it's written in the starlight
And every line on your palm
We're fools to make war
On our brothers in arms"    -- Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits

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