Professional basketball player, coach, broadcaster
A power forward on the Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" squads that terrorized National Basketball League opponents in the late 1980s, Rick Mahorn had a long career in the game he was told as a high school student that he was not good enough to play professionally. Although he had a justified reputation for rough behavior on the basketball court, Mahorn was described by friends as warm and supportive away from the game. An intelligent and articulate basketball thinker, Mahorn enjoyed a successful career as a coach and broadcaster after he retired from playing in 1999, at the age of 40.
Lacked Athletic Ability as Youth
Derrick Allen Mahorn was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on September 21, 1958. Mahorn's father, Owen, a milk plant dispatch manager, abandoned the family when Mahorn was eight months old. With his mother, Alice, supporting the family by doing domestic work in the city's mansions, Mahorn was raised partly by his older brother, Owen Jr., who showed basketball talent early and later joined the varsity squad at Fairfield University. There were few signs, however, that Rick Mahorn had an athletic career ahead of him. As a child he was chubby and often came out on the losing end of scraps with his older brother.
The situation changed, however, when Mahorn grew from six feet one to six feet seven over the space of a few months as a 16-year-old and kept growing up to his adult height of six feet eight and a half inches. He played football (as a tight end and defensive end) at Hartford's Weaver High School and then made the basketball team in his senior year. College scholarship offers were more numerous for football than for basketball, but Mahorn stuck with the sport in which he liked to compete with his older brother in one-on-one matches, finally starting to win them during his sophomore year of college. "That was the sweetest feeling in the world," he recalled to Sports Illustrated after he achieved professional stardom. "Now I'm living Owen's dream. He doesn't know he could never be as proud of me as I am of him."
Mahorn decided to focus on basketball even though he did not receive a scholarship from the school he wanted—the University of Connecticut, with its powerhouse basketball squads. Coaches there told Mahorn he did not have the skills to compete at a Division I school, so he enrolled at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), a historically African-American school in Virginia, with its Division II basketball team. "When I ended up going to Hampton, I was discouraged," Mahorn told John Brennan of New Jersey's Bergen County Record. "But it ended up being a blessing. It was a way to let me know that my skills weren't up to par." His mother urged him to focus on his educational goals, and he graduated from Hampton with a B.S. degree in business administration in 1980.
Drafted by Bullets
While he focused on his studies, he also improved his basketball skills. But Mahorn told Brennan, "I never thought about playing in the NBA." The National Basketball Association took notice of him, however, when he led all Division II players in rebounds during the 1979-80 season. The Washington Bullets selected Mahorn in the second round of the 1980 draft, making him the first Hampton Institute player ever drafted by an NBA team. Mahorn made his NBA debut in 1981 with the Bullets, getting into 52 games that year. Until 1992, when he took a year off to play basketball in Europe, he exceeded that total as a starter who played in nearly all his team's outings.
The legend of Mahorn as enforcer or on-court thug began to grow during his years with the Bullets as the team signed another big forward, six feet eleven, 275-pound Jeff Ruland. A sportscaster dubbed the pair McFilthy and McNasty, with Mahorn in the latter role. "If anybody is my beef brother, bruise brother, whatever, it's Ruland," Mahorn told Sports Illustrated. "We had the same kind of dog—black Dobermans. Our kids were the same age. His license plate was GTM 677. And by coincidence, mine was GTM 877. We were the same kind." The offspring Mahorn referred to was his daughter Moyah, whom he called (according to Sports Illustrated) "my heart, my light, my life." He later married, and he and his wife Donyale raised three more children.
Mahorn's game quickly improved after his rookie year with the Bullets, and he posted a career-best average of 12.2 points per game in the 1982 season. Through 1984 he was a consistent performer who averaged around ten points per game and was a formidable defensive presence in the center of the foul lane. In 1985 his offensive production dropped slightly as he averaged just 6.3 points per game, and he was traded in June of that year to the Detroit Pistons. "I was shocked," he told Sports Illustrated. "I learned the game from [Bullets center] Wes Unseld, alongside Jeff Ruland. I felt at home in Washington." Unseld told the magazine that Mahorn "had endeared himself to me. Ninety-nine percent of the guys don't want the job Rick has. A lot of people have problems with the way he plays. I have no problem with it. If you come in there weak, Rick will make you pay."
As it turned out, Mahorn's aggressive style of play found a good home in Detroit. It didn't take Mahorn long to announce his highly physical presence on the court. In 1987 he sent star Boston Celtics shooter Larry Bird scooting across the floor of the Pistons arena with a sharp hip bump. The 1989 season was a banner year of on-court Mahorn violence: he was fined $5,000 for elbowing Cleveland Cavaliers guard Mark Price in the head, and that was just one of three fines levied against him that year, at a total cost of $11,000. He had regular run-ins on the court, one of them involving the entire Chicago Bulls squad.
Mahorn acquired the nickname Ricky Mayhem, and Atlanta Hawks player Dominique Wilkins recalled to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that "[i]f you took the ball down the middle against Ricky, you knew you were gonna get whacked." Many players defended Mahorn's style. One was New York Knickerbockers center Patrick Ewing, a Mahorn opponent since the days when both were college players. "He's a great defender," Ewing told Sports Illustrated. "He knows all the tricks. He can push you out, then pull the chair and make you fall flat on your butt. Until this day, when I play Rick Mahorn, I know it's going to be a war." Mahorn himself simply told the same magazine that "I can play. I wouldn't have been in this league for nine years if I couldn't play. Thug this, enforcer that. I take 48 minutes very seriously, that's all."
At a Glance …
Born September 21, 1958, in Hartford, CT; married Donyale; children: four. Education: Hampton Institute (now Hampton Univ.), BS, business administration, 1980.
Washington Bullets, professional basketball forward, 1980-85; Detroit Pistons, professional basketball forward, 1986-89, 1996-98; Philadelphia 76ers, professional basketball forward, 1989-91, 1999; Il Messagero (Italy), professional basketball forward, 1991-92; Virtus Roma (Italy), professional basketball forward, 1992; New Jersey Nets, professional basketball forward, 1993-96; Rockford Lightning, Continental Basketball Association, coach, 2000; Atlanta Hawks, assistant coach, 2001-02; WDFN radio, Detroit, broadcaster, 2005-; Detroit Shock, WNBA, assistant coach, 2005-.
NBA All-Defensive Second Team, 1990; Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, inducted into John B. McLendon Jr. Hall of Fame, 2003.
Office—c/o Detroit Shock, The Palace of Auburn Hills, 4 Championship Dr., Auburn Hills, MI 48326.
In Detroit, Mahorn found another on-court partner in toughness: Pistons center Bill Laimbeer. The combination was a potent one; fans flocked to the Pistons' new Palace of Auburn Hills arena to see the "Bad Boys" in action, and in 1989 the team put any doubts to rest by cruising to an NBA championship. That year Mahorn was sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the league's expansion draft but quickly moved to the Philadelphia 76ers, where he was teamed with power forward Charles Barkley. Mahorn's salary ballooned from $600,000 in 1989 to an estimated $965,000 in 1990 and $1,330,000 in 1991. In 1990 he made the NBA's All-Defensive second team, and he played in four postseason all-star games over the course of his career.
Maintained Athleticism Longer than Most
Well past the point where the games of most NBA big men have begun to slow down, Mahorn's remained viable and consistent. He played in Italy for the Virtus Roma and Il Messagero clubs in 1992 and was then signed to the New Jersey Nets, remaining with that club from 1993 until 1996. He returned to the Pistons from 1996 to 1998 and closed out his career with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1999, receiving a million-dollar salary at age 40. Over 13 seasons he appeared in 1,117 games, averaging 6.9 points and 4.6 defensive rebounds per game. His achievements on the court were honored with an induction, in 2003, into the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association's John B. McLendon Jr. Hall of Fame.
Mahorn quickly set his sights on a basketball coaching career. Paying his dues as coach of the Rockford Lightning in the minor-league Continental Basketball Association for a year (and leading the team to a conference title), he was hired in the fall of 2000 as an assistant coach by the Atlanta Hawks. "I was in Washington when Rick was there," Miami Heat assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik observed to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "You could see at that age he was going to be a coach. Even when he was a rookie out of Hampton, you could tell by his demeanor on the practice court. Rick had ideas, and he understood the game, and older guys paid attention."
Considered for the post of Pistons head coach in 2001 but passed over in favor of Rick Carlisle, Mahorn finally succeeded in returning to the city whose rough-and-tumble personality fit his own. He served as color analyst for Pistons games broadcast on radio station WDFN, and in 2005 he became assistant coach of the Detroit Shock team in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). The job reunited Mahorn with Bill Laimbeer, who served as head coach, and the pair proved as potent on the sidelines as they had been on the court: the Shock were WNBA champions in 2006.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 29, 2000, p. E5.
Grand Rapids Press, April 25, 2001, p. C1.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), March 17, 1996, p. S7.
Sports Illustrated, April 10, 1989, p. 66.
"Coach Bio: Rick Mahorn," Detroit Shock,www.wnba.com/shock (March 3, 2007).
"Rick Mahorn," Basketball Reference,www.basketball-reference.com/players/m/mahorri01.html (March 3, 2007).
"Rick Mahorn," National Basketball Association, www.nba.com (March 3, 2007).
—James M. Manheim