This Comedian Takes a Back Seat to No One

I suppose the exact moment that John (Spider) Salley of the Detroit Pistons snatched the lead from Mychal Thompson of the Lakers in the National Basketball Assn.'s funniest man competition occurred between practice sessions Monday, when Salley sneaked up from behind and pulled down Magic Johnson’s trunks. It had style. It had substance. It had verve, and it took nerve. As goofy gags go, it had just the right texture--part “Animal House,” part Soupy Sales.

It also could have consequences.

“He might have to pay for that one,” Thompson said. “You do that stuff to a Magic Johnson or a Larry Bird, they’ll make you pay later.” Better pay attention, Salley. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t pull the mask of the Lone Ranger and you never, never, never de-pants Magic.

Nevertheless, up to now, I always have nominated Thompson as the funniest character in pro basketball, the front-liner with the one-liners, because this is the Laker who wears a lamp shade on his head instead of goggles. This is one funny forward. He’s fast on his feet. He’s spontaneous. Most of these NBA guys . . . well, as Fred Allen once said of Jack Benny, they couldn’t ad-lib a belch after a Hungarian meal. Mychal Thompson, though, is my kind of guy. He’s the funniest thing out of the Bahamas since yo mama. The NBA ought to put a clock on him, because he gets a laugh every 24 seconds.


Take Monday, when he found out Isiah Thomas was hurting and had to miss Detroit’s practice before Game 4 of the NBA Finals. “Oh, he’s OK,” Thompson said. “He’s just a young pup. Give him a can of puppy chow and he’ll be right back.”

This was roughly 10 minutes after the opening act. Salley, the second-year stand-up comic from Georgia Tech, kept everybody in more stitches than a basketball has. His best bit might have been the one about Wilt Chamberlain playing polo. Salley heard about this for the first time last week in Los Angeles, when he finally got to meet old Wilt.

“Picture that. Wilt playin’ polo,” Salley said. “Yeah. He’s on a Clydesdale, right? He’s helpin’ the horse run. You know. He’s just up there straddlin’ it, with his feet hittin’ the ground. Looks down at the horse and says: ‘Hey, I’m just on you because it’s the rules.’ ”

Good thing the Silverdome is a big room, because Salley and Thompson need the space. Salley actually suggests they go do Vegas together. Play Caesars. Work up a lounge act. Test out new material next week at some of the comedy clubs in Hollywood, if the Lakers and Pistons should get back to Inglewood for a Game 6. Maybe drive over to Burbank and do the Carson show. Our next guests are both over 6 feet 10 inches tall, and these two guys are absolutely crazy. Please welcome . . .

“Johnny needs me,” Salley said, fingering the spider charm on the gold chain around his neck. “But I don’t want to be on David Letterman. He had Isiah on, and had him scared out of his wits. Kept askin’ him about Bobby Knight and all that stuff. He also had Tommy Hearns on, and got him so nervous, he had poor Tommy talkin’ backward. I’d have to kill David Letterman if the man ever messed with me like that.”

Salley could always entertain Johnny and Dave by yanking their trousers down, or by showing them the spider tattoo on his upper left thigh, the one he has to pinch up the fabric of his own trunks to reveal. “Only chicks usually get to see this,” Salley confided--and ta-da, there it was, the black widow he had inked onto his body last November over at Red’s Tattoos in Warren, just outside Detroit, on one of those typical days when the Spiderman couldn’t think of anything better to do.

Salley has insults for all occasions. Compared to him, Don Rickles is Mother Teresa. He started leafing through a basketball magazine while he talked, and suddenly said: “Look, here’s something amazing: A picture of Billy Thompson playing!”

That’s Billy Thompson, the ever-injured Laker forward, not Mychal Thompson, the ever-popular Laker forward. That’s OK, though. Give Salley another minute. He’ll get around to Mychal.

Salley loves being a character of the game. He lives for it. He says his favorite comedians are Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters, because, “They’re both psycho.”

He’s also partial to Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, and went to Sam Kinison’s house last trip to Los Angeles, and doesn’t blame teammate Chuck Nevitt a bit for spending most of Game 2 talking to Billy Crystal instead of watching the game.

Salley loves L.A., where the movie stars come out at night. Eventually he wants to drive out there in his pearl ’62 T-Bird with the red upholstery and settle down. Meet ladies and make jokes. That’s his aim in life. “Just tell me one thing--is L.A. still gonna be there?” Salley asked. “I felt one of them earthquakes. Pretty soon all you cats are gonna be floatin’ in the sea, headin’ toward Atlantis.”

You should know that I bumped into Salley on the way into the Silverdome, or he into me. He bumped me on purpose, then asked to see my pass. Later, he wondered where I was from. I told him Los Angeles.

“Nice tan,” he said, and moved on to something else.

I asked what he expected to be doing five years beyond the NBA.

“How old will I be?” Salley asked.

“Well, Kareem’s 41. You’ll be 46,” I said, because I had to say something. That’s a straight man’s job.

“Lookin’ at 20-year-old women,” Salley said. “That’s what I’ll be doing. ‘Come here, little girl. I got some candy. Come here, I used to be a big-time basketball star. Look at my clippings.’ I’ll be big in L.A., even when I’m old. Like Wilt.”

OK. The big question.

Who’s funnier, you or Mychal Thompson?

“Me,” Salley snapped. “He’s not even from this country. How funny can he be? The only thing he’s got on me is The Improv and The Comedy Store. He probably goes there and steals all his lines. My lines are original. They’re all thought up in my bathroom, in front of my mirror every morning. Funny people are usually rich or crazy, and I’m both.”

Yoo hoo, Mychal.

Salley says he’s funnier than you.

“He does, does he? Well, he is funnier,” Thompson said. “He’s younger. He’s got a younger mind. At least we’ve got Frank Layden in our conference. The Western Conference is funnier than the Eastern Conference. Who else is funny in the Eastern Conference?”

Well, Salley says he shows women a good time, but all you do is watch wrestling with them on TV.

“True,” Thompson said. “At my age, you’ve got to give the girls an alternative. Salley’s like a young stallion. He belongs in a barn in Kentucky.”

OK, Mychal, but you’re still pretty funny.

“Hey, when you come from a Third World country, you gotta have a sense of humor,” Thompson said. “When you’re sitting there in the Bahamas and the only thing you can get on TV is a Cuban station, you gotta make up your own jokes.”

The Laker forward says Robin Williams is his favorite, too, but he also laughs whenever he hears Rodney Dangerfield, Redd Foxx “and Frank Layden and Ralph Kramden, who are the same person.”

And John Salley?

Vegas dates together?

“OK with me,” Thompson said. “I’ll be the funny man, and he’ll be the straight man. I’ll be Lewis, and he’ll be Martin.

“No, wait. He can be Costello, and I’ll be Abbott. That way I get to slap him.”

With that, Thompson nearly took back the lead. Across the Silverdome at this very minute, though, Salley de-pantsed Magic in mid-interview.

“OK, we’ll see who laughs last,” Thompson said. “You know what they say. He who laughs last . . . “


” . . . is the one with the most money.”