For 24 seasons in Detroit, they were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
The Pistons were dropped on the Motor City’s doorstep in 1957, via Fort Wayne, Indiana.
They were Fred Zollner’s Pistons in those days, and in their earlier days in Fort Wayne, the uniforms said so, right on the front: ZOLLNER PISTONS.
Zollner—they called him The Z—brought his kicking, screaming baby to Detroit and ever since, the Pistons have been the fourth most popular team in town.
But worse than being unpopular, the Pistons were inept, incompetent and in a constant state of disarray, from 1957 to 1981.
They played playoff games in high school gyms because the Olympia, where they were second tier tenants, was booked. They finally opened Cobo Arena in the early-1960s but it was a struggle to attract more than a few thousand curious souls every night.
They once hired their radio announcer to be the GM. They made a 24 year-old player the coach. They changed coaches like underwear. They misfired in the draft. They got rooked in trades consistently. If there was a fork in the road, the Pistons took the wrong path, every time.
They finally got a decent coach in 1969 when they hired Bill Van Breda Kolff away from the Lakers, but VBK was mystified by the way management did things and the way the players responded to him, so he quit 10 games into his third season.
The Pistons actually had a Coach of the Year in 1974—Ray Scott—but two years later Ray was removed, the victim of a coup d’etat initiated by his own assistant, Herb Brown.
The Pistons hired Dickie Vitale in 1978 and gave him the keys to the kingdom. Dickie lasted 18 months, yet in that time frame, he managed to ruin the Pistons and build the Boston Celtics.
But all that changed—finally—in 1981.
The roots of the change came in 1979, when the Pistons—taking Vitale’s advice—hired an honest to goodness basketball man, Jack McCloskey, to run the team.
Two years later, McCloskey drafted Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka in the first round.
Two years after that, McCloskey brought in a little-known, one-time NBA loser named Chuck Daly to coach.
The Pistons were finally on their way. No longer were they laughing stocks—they became two-time champions in 1989-90.
Yet they were still the fourth most popular team in town. But that’s fine. Detroit was never, and never will be, an NBA town.
So you can forgive the Pistons if they are now retiring numbers like they’re the Yankees.
For a quarter century, the Pistons had nothing to celebrate. Nothing.
After those first 25 years, until Isiah led his team to deep playoff runs in the late-1980s, the only thing the Pistons could look back on fondly was a first round, 2-1 series victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in 1976, sealed by Chris Ford’s steal late in Game 3.
That was it.
But now the Palace rafters are getting crowded. Again, the Pistons can be forgiven.
Five numbers from the 1989-90 Bad Boys days are up there (Thomas’ no. 11, Joe Dumars’ no. 4, Vinnie Johnson’s no. 15, Bill Laimbeer’s no. 40 and Dennis Rodman’s no. 10).
They joined David Bing’s no. 21 and Bob Lanier’s no. 16. Daly is in the rafters, too, as is McCloskey.
Now the Pistons have moved on to honoring players from the 2004 championship team that came a whisker away from capturing the 2005 title as well.
Ben Wallace’s no. 3 went up a few weeks ago, and last night Chauncey Billups’ no. 1 was retired.
Fine. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, when it comes to 1989-90 vs. 2004.
It’s also being reported that Richard Hamilton’s no. 32 is slated for retirement, perhaps next season.
I suppose if you can retire Vinnie’s number, which I always found to be suspect, then I guess Hamilton’s can go up, as well.
It’s getting crowded in those Palace rafters, but let the Pistons indulge themselves.
Their first 25 years in Detroit were bereft of any salient, tangible team accomplishment.
The past 30 have been filled with wonderful memories, some painful, i.e. Game 6 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals and Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals.
But three championships have been won and there have been a few other close calls. Billups, Wallace, Hamilton et al made six straight trips to the Conference Finals. Isiah’s group made five straight trips.
So this all should be celebrated. No question.
I don’t subscribe to the theory that only players who are in their sport’s respective Hall of Fame deserve to have their number retired by any team they played for. That’s a lousy sentence but you understand what I mean.
My feeling is that if a franchise chooses to recognize a player’s contribution to that particular organization by way of retiring a number, then so be it. I may not agree with it—there have been many questionable number retirements by various teams in all sports—but if they want to do it, fine.
My only concern with Hamilton’s honor is, what do you do about Tayshaun Prince?
Where does it end?
The Pistons retired Vinnie Johnson’s number, and I was never on board with that. Vinnie was rarely even a starting player. Granted, he was canned heat off the bench, but bench players shouldn’t have their numbers retired.
I don’t have a real issue with Hamilton, although he acted petulantly near the end of his Pistons career. But he also can be excused partially because the Pistons were a mess in those days. Rodman wasn’t a choir boy, either.
But what about Prince?
Prince exemplified the Pistons’ defense in his day, though I always felt it was a little overblown locally. Rodman was known for his defense and rebounding, as was Wallace.
So what about Prince?
Is it weird to recognize Billups, Wallace and Hamilton but leave out Prince, who played for the Pistons longer than all of them?
This is the slippery slope you can ride when you start retiring numbers left and right.
But once again, let the Pistons indulge. They’re still playing catch up.