‘Thunder’ looks back



Terry Tyler had a long NBA career playing for the Detroit Pistons, Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks during his 11 seasons in the league.

However, he believes he left his biggest mark on Dick Vitale Court, named in 2011 for the man to whom he feels most indebted.

Vitale coached him at U of D, as it was known during Tyler’s time as a Titan.

The university is where the bubbly, lovable big man established his passion for the game and his desire to win. 

It didn’t hurt that Vitale, a man full of passion and desire, mentored – and even dogged – him and his star teammate John Long at times during intense, two- and three-hour practices. 

It made both Tyler and Long realize that they had to work for what they wanted. 

And if they didn’t, the ultra-competitive Vitale would make sure that the dynamic duo, nicknamed “Lightning” (Long) and “Thunder” (Tyler), would have a seat on the bench right beside him. 

Nothing came easy during the electrifying big man’s four years at the university, and in the process, Tyler became mentally and physically ready for taking the next step in his basketball career.

The next step for Tyler – playing in the NBA – kept him close to home, as he was drafted in the second round of the 1978 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons, who, at the time, played at the Pontiac Silverdome. 

It reunited him with his college head coach Vitale, who was a first year NBA head man, and his college buddy Long. 

To Tyler, it meant he had to prove himself all over again, something made easier by his familiarity with Vitale and Long.

“We (Long and Tyler) didn’t want to embarrass U of D and the people that helped us reach the NBA,” Tyler said. 

And, boy, the two of them definitely avoided causing embarrassment.

Tyler played for seven seasons with the Pistons, including all 82 games in each season, and Long played for eight seasons in his first of three stints with the Pistons. The second included being a member on the famous Bad Boys 1989 championship team.

Perry Farrell of the Detroit Free Press, who has covered the Pistons off and on since 1990, recalls Tyler fondly during his days in Detroit.  

“He could jump out of the building,” Farrell said. 

His leaping ability was on par with that of Doug Anderson, 2013 UDM graduate and ’13 State Farm College Slam Dunk champion, according to Farrell.

Playing with the Pistons in the late 1970s and early 1980s meant losing bad and losing often. (The Motor City franchise won a total of 67 games during Tyler’s first three seasons in the league.)

However, it didn’t diminish Tyler’s confidence. 

Instead, it taught the 2001 Detroit Titans Hall of Fame inductee the importance of playing through the thick and thin, one of the main reasons why playing a full season became second nature to him. 

Basketball wasn’t just about money, said. Tyler. The game provided him a “safe haven,” he said.

Thus, he said, it wasn’t the money that drew him away from the Pistons after the 1984-85 campaign and to the Sacramento Kings.

Instead, it was the chance to gain more playing time – an opportunity that he believes was made possible by playing alongside Pistons legend and NBA Hall of Famer Isiah “Zeke” Thomas.

Thomas, the two-time NBA champion, made him a better basketball player. 

“With Isiah, I did my best to squeeze as much knowledge and resources out of him,” Tyler said.

Thomas left him with an even stronger work ethic, which Tyler wanted to teach to young basketball players who aspired to reach the same level of success. 

It’s why Tyler got into coaching, first as an assistant at Notre Dame 1995-98 and then as head men’s basketball coach at Eastern New Mexico, a Division II school, for two seasons. 

“Coaching was my way of giving back to the game,” Tyler noted.

After losing his job at ENM, he realized that serving young men in another aspect of life – an aspect of life that transcends sports – was his true calling.

He is a juvenile correctional officer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

“I’m in a good place right now, turning young men’s and women’s lives around,” Tyler said.

Fitting for a man who has finished every phone call this reporter has had with him with the same phrase: “God bless you.”