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When you shook Dr. Benjamin Paolucci’s hand, you could tell he was a former athlete. Brendan Suhr, who was an assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons from 1988-92, recalled his strong, but soft hands.
Paolucci, a team physician with the Pistons from the early 1970s until his retirement in 2015, died at the age of 84, the team announced Wednesday. He was an integral part of the organization during both of its championship eras — the Bad Boys Pistons that won titles in 1989 and 1990, and the Goin’ To Work team that won it all in 2004.
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He was a standout football player who had a brief stint with the Detroit Lions, and his talent as a physician, as well as his ability to relate to athletes on a personal level, made him a beloved and key figure in the organization for more than four decades.
“I always said people with soft hands had a soft heart,” Suhr said. “And he had great empathy at the same time. He really was a person that, he was like having an extra coach around. He knew the players, he knew what they were thinking, the way they were feeling, that you get from being a former athlete at a high level.”
“I know Chuck (Daly) would want me to say this about him, he considered him a real team person on our staff,” he continued. “Really trusted as a teammate of ours and someone that the players absolutely loved.”
Paolucci, a Cleveland native who was raised in Detroit, played football at Cass Tech and Wayne State and was inducted into the latter's athletic Hall of Fame in 1992. He graduated with a bachelor's in chemistry in 1958 and was selected by the Detroit Lions in the eighth round of the 1958 NFL draft. He spent two seasons with the Lions as a defensive lineman.
Following a six-month stint with the Army in 1960, Paolucci attended medical school at the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine and Michigan State's College of Osteopathic Medicine. He then became a general surgeon, beginning his own private practice and working with several local hospitals before joining the Pistons.
But his love for playing sports persisted, longtime Pistons athletic trainer and current director of team operations Mike Abdenour said. Paolucci worked out constantly and would play handball at Belle Isle and Palmer Park after finishing his medical responsibilities for the day.
As a doctor, Paolucci could empathize with how his players felt and was willing to make medical judgement calls by drawing on his experiences as a football player.
“Anybody who plays handball, that’s a pretty strenuous thing,” Abdenour said. “He was pushing himself and the other guys were pushing him. He understood what it was to be an athlete and he brought that sense of ‘hey, I understand what’s happening. Yeah, I know the injury you have. We can treat it this way. Or we can do something else.’ He was so open-minded to a lot of things. That’s where his success came from.”
Paolucci had close ties with several of the greatest players in Pistons history, including Isiah Thomas and Bob Lanier. Abdenour recalled Thomas’ legendary performance in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, when he scored 25 points in the third quarter despite severely spraining his ankle midway through the period.
There was a lot of discussion about how the team should approach the injury, Abdenour said. Ultimately, they devised a way for Thomas to play Game 6 and Game 7 without further damaging his ankle.
“It was things like that,” Abdenour said. “He was so flexible in his thinking and his procedures that made him the physician he was, but all more importantly, he was a better man than all of that.”
Longtime Pistons play-by-play commentator George Blaha recalled Paolucci’s close friendship with Hall-of-Fame center Lanier, who played for the Pistons from 1970-80. After games, Paolucci and his wife, Jeanne, would often go to dinner with Lanier at Joe Muer’s Seafood.
Lanier suffered several injuries in his career, and the Pistons drafted him first overall as he was rehabbing from knee surgery. He became a star in Detroit, and his trust in Paolucci’s was a key reason behind his career success, Blaha said.
“His confidence in Dr. Paolucci and his trust in Dr. Paolucci, I think, helped him push himself to the limit to play at the top of his game because he knew there was somebody there who understood what he had to do and wasn’t going to ask him to do something that would cause further injury,” Blaha said.
“I don’t think there could be anybody who did for their teams in the same way Dr. Paolucci did for the Pistons, because of his athletic background and because of his friendly manner and because he was such a fan in his own way,” Blaha continued. “He wanted what was best for our players and they knew that, and that made a big, big difference. Big difference. And 40 years-worth of that can do a lot."
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Pistons doc Ben Paolucci could reach athletes; he once was one