Dominion Energy, Virginia Sports Hall of Fame Spotlight: Rick Mahorn
For Mahorn, hoops success really began at ‘The Institute’
Hall of Fame Class of 2017
A recent caller to Rick Mahornwanted to inquire about his pending induction into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. And since the Connecticut native’s days before and after college were spent outside the Commonwealth, his obvious in-state connection was during his NAIA and NCAA days at Hampton University, right?
“I didn’t go to Hampton University,” Mahorn said, among chuckles. “I went to Hampton Institute. I’m proud of that. It was the Institute then … I was and always will be a Hampton Pirate – and I’m proud of that – but I am an ‘Instituted Pirate,’ not a ‘Universitied Pirate.'”
So, who’s to argue with one of the former Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys?”
His stellar career at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute preceded a school name change to Hampton University in 1984. From 1977-78 through 1979-80, Mahorn grew from 6 feet 7 to 6-10 and in those three years (sophomore through senior) established why he one day would be a fixture inside on National Basketball Association floors.
It also a large part of why Mahorn, 59, is among an eight-person Virginia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2018 that will be inducted April 7 at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts at the Town Center in Virginia Beach.
In his freshman season at HI, Mahorn averaged 5.6 points and 6.0 rebounds. The following three seasons, Mahorn blossomed into much more of a force than his late HI coach, Hank Ford, thought he would become. Over those three seasons, Mahorn averaged 24.8 points and 14.3 rebounds.
Can you say All-CIAA? Can you say All-America? Can you say the 35th overall pick in the 1980 NBA Draft – second round – by the Washington Bullets?
Mahorn didn’t see any of that coming. The man who is a decade into working as an analyst on the Pistons’ radio network – after several years in pro coaching in the CBA, NBA and WNBA – said he didn’t even see it when he got into it.
“In no way was I a great basketball player in high school, in Hartford,” Mahorn said. “But I was fortunate in that my senior year, we went to the state final (Class LL; Weaver High fell to Lee, 80-77), and I was recruited by Coach Hank Ford, bless his soul. It’s not like I had a bunch of offers.
“He talked about Hampton Institute. I’d never heard of it. I had no idea it was a historically black college. The only historically black colleges I had heard of were Tuskegee and Howard. I’m up in Connecticut. I go down to Hampton to campus and no one is there (on a visit), so I don’t know it’s a historically black college.
“Then I heard one of the students there mention my high school nickname back then – ‘Too Tall.’ And I thought I might know some people there. Finally, I go down for orientation and it was like, ‘Whoa!’ But it was great. The Institute was great.”
Another Virginia Sports Hall of Famer, Dave Robbins, had the task of coaching against Mahorn, whose 2,418 career points are 342 more than anyone else has produced in the Hampton record book.
“At Hampton, Rick wasn’t nasty like they said he was with the Pistons’ ‘Bad Boys,'” said Robbins, who coached Virginia Union to 713 victories in 30 seasons and three NCAA Division II titles, and faced Mahorn during the Pirate star’s final two seasons in the CIAA. “He was a very skilled big man, knew how to play the game. We were very fortunate to beat them one year (Mahorn’s junior season, an 89-83 semifinal in 1979) in the CIAA Tournament.
“I remember Rick sat down and had breakfast with us the morning after the CIAA Tournament — Jim Battle (former VUU athletic director) and I with Rick and one of his buddies. Years back, people asked me who was the better player, Rick or Charles Oakley (who starred at Union and became a first-round NBA draft pick and had a 19-season pro career). “I wouldn’t answer. Charles didn’t come in (to Virginia Union) until 1981-82 and Rick was in the NBA by then.
“I know people have said that Rick didn’t become the player he was until he got to Hampton. Well, a lot of times, a big kid can be a late bloomer. They are growing and still trying to find their game. Give credit to his coach, Hank Ford, who saw something there and was smart enough to recruit Rick. If I’d been (in the CIAA then) and known about Rick, I promise you I’d have recruited him in a heartbeat. He was a man-child.”
Obviously, Ford saw something in Mahorn that others didn’t. Mahorn didn’t see it himself.
“One summer in high school, between my sophomore and junior years, I grew from 5-11 to 6-7,” Mahorn said. “Yeah, that’s a lot. And when I first joined the team at Hampton, I wasn’t fundamentally sound. As I looked at that, I wanted to play basketball, but I was lucky get away from Connecticut and be able to do it.
“A lot of it wasn’t size, it was development, or lack of it. Coach Ford’s assistant, Robert Wilson – I still call him my ‘Pop’ – he made me work every day. I had no layup skills. I couldn’t shoot a jumpshot. My left hand, I didn’t know how to use it.
“A whole lot – most – of the credit for what I did after goes to Hank Ford and Robert Wilson. I didn’t like Coach Ford because it was the things he wanted, but it was Pop who was making me do it. Coach Ford and I butted heads. But I learned, and I got there by being the first there and the last to leave.”
Mahornplayed 18 seasons in the NBA, with Washington, Detroit, Philadelphia, New Jersey and the Pistons and 76ers for a second stint. Only 18 players in NBA history have played in more seasons than Mahorn, who joined Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman and Vinnie Johnson on the Pistons’ 1988-89 NBA championship team that swept the Los Angeles Lakers in four games in the ’89 Finals.
That was Mahorn’s ninth pro season.
“When I was at Hampton, I never really thought of the NBA,” Mahorn said. “The only thing I knew was I was getting to do a sport I enjoyed. I didn’t realize I could play in the NBA. My aspirations then were to complete college and get a job, trust me.
“I didn’t even realize much that I could play in the NBA once I got into it, much less (play) 18 seasons. I remember laughing one morning in San Francisco, when (the Bullets) were out there. It’s my second year in the NBA and we went there after just losing to the Celtics.
“I’m sitting there reading a newspaper, and they’re talking in there about me. I’m thinking, ‘Really?’ I do know when I was drafted there were some people who said I’d never play. Marty Blake, the scout, said I was a ‘project’ and I,d never make it. But I did, and the credit goes to my college coaches, like I said.”
Mahorn averaged 6.9 points and 6.2 rebounds in his NBA career. His teams reached the playoffs 13 times in his 18 seasons. Including the postseason, Mahorn played in 1,223 NBA games. And the Pistons’ legendary broadcaster, George Blaha, called Mahorn the “BaddestBad Boy of Them All” for his physical play.
“The Pistons, winning the title, that’s the highlight of my basketball career,” Mahorn said. “I never won a title with my high school teams and never won one at the college level, although we had some good teams (Hampton was 68-23 in Mahorn’s final three seasons). So, when we won in ’89, it was like a weight was lifted off my back. I really wanted to winone. It was the one thing missing.”
Mahorn and his wife, Donyale, have been married 27 years, and the Pirates’ legendary big man has four daughters and two sons, ages ranging from 18 to 35. He still travels the long NBA season, still employing his knowledge of hoops and “The League,” but these days using his voice rather than his muscle to prosper in the game he still loves.
“It is a different game now,” said Mahorn, who was speaking from New York to call a Pistons’ game at Brooklyn. “It’s more free-flowing. It’s a great product. The players are taller and they’re faster. It’s more wide-open. And it’s about the three-ball. When we played, the three was just a weapon. Now, it’s a necessity.”
Five of the top six rebounding games in HI annals are Mahorn’s. Three of the top four scoring seasons in Hampton hoops history belong to him, too. He scored 48 in a Feb. 22, 1980 game against St. Augustine’s. It’s still the school record.
Yes, this so-called “BaddestBad Boy” was reallygood.
Retired award-winning sportswriter and columnist Jack Bogaczyk is a 2017 inductee to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. He spent more than 45 years in the sportswriting business, including 27 years at The Roanoke Times.
The 2018 Spotlight Series is presented by Dominion Energy. The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame welcomes Dominion Energy as a proud partner for 2018 Induction Weekend.