Published November 23, 2016
So the Pistons are going to give Detroit another shot.
The first one clanked off the rim.
It dawned on me that not only are we rearing a generation of millennials who don’t remember when the Pistons played at Cobo Arena, a lot of them don’t even recall the team’s time in the Silverdome. Truth.
The Pistons, to them, are the Palace, and no place else. Of course, nothing happened before they were born anyway, don’t you know.
Forget the days in the cavernous, ill-suited Silverdome, where the temps were chilly, the lighting was awful and the roof occasionally leaked. A couple times the roof gave in entirely, and the team had to play elsewhere, like at Joe Louis Arena—even back at Cobo on one occasion.
No, this isn’t about the Silverdome years (1978-88), when the Pistons would sometimes get shoved out by a motocross or a monster truck show or a concert. All those mini-evictions led to owner Bill Davidson to say screw it, I’m going to build my own basketball Palace.
The Pistons have long been the vagabond team in town.
They came to Detroit in 1957 from Fort Wayne, and in those days they shared Olympia Stadium with the Red Wings, who weren’t exactly benevolent landlords. The Pistons were treated like a redheaded stepchild, which led to owner Fred Zollner moving the franchise to shiny new Cobo Arena in 1961.
But the arena was a mere extension of Cobo Hall proper, which hosted tons of conventions, trade shows and the like. Basketball was an afterthought, and eventually concerts and other special events forced the Pistons to compete for floor space in their supposed “own” arena, when the Hall portion of the complex was deemed to be inappropriate.
Basketball was—and still is—number four in a four-sport town in Detroit, and only the highly curious came to see the Pistons toil in Cobo in the 1960s and ’70s. It didn’t help that the team was rarely competitive in the NBA.
Even stars like Dave DeBusschere, Dave Bing and Bob Lanier failed to move the meter, attendance-wise. A good crowd was around 7,000. A HUGE crowd was around 10 K. But most were in the 2-4,000 range.
Undaunted, owner Davidson was committed to Detroit—sort of. He picked up stakes and moved his team 45 minutes north. The Lions had done it three years earlier, so why not give it a shot?
Davidson knew the Pistons would again be secondary tenants in the Silverdome. He knew that they would be low on the totem pole when the latest rock group came to town or the big motorcycles needed a place to play. But Mr. D was so eager to get out of Cobo—and the city of Detroit—that he made the move to Pontiac anyway.
In the Dome, the Pistons could give away tickets—a ploy they used in the Cobo days as well—and boast of crowds in the 20, 30 thousand ranges. And higher.
The team became successful on the court in the mid-1980s and the Pistons didn’t have to give tickets away anymore. And they, frankly, outgrew the Silverdome.
The Palace was, and still is, a state-of-the-art facility. Other cities have used it as a model for their new arenas. The biggest hook was the placement of some of the power suites at mezzanine level, instead of in the nose bleed section, like at Joe Louis Arena.
I was never one to buy into the theory that if the Pistons were to move back downtown, it would make all that much of a difference for them financially. Detroit is a frontrunner’s town when it comes to pro basketball. If the team is winning, the crowds show up a little bit. But if the product on the court is a losing one, forget it.
I still believe that.
But if the Pistons want to give Detroit another shot, go right ahead. They didn’t have to build their own building this time, so there’s that.
I’m not opposed to the move. The city is vibrant and the corridor where the four teams play is one of the hottest in all of America, when it comes to big cities.
But the Pistons better win.
When the Pistons moved to Pontiac in 1978, the team was headed into a tailspin. They made the playoffs every year between 1974 and 1977, but their last year at Cobo saw a 38-44 record in a season in which the coach got fired. Then the Pistons hired Dick Vitale in May of 1978 and the nosedive continued unabated, with Dickie V greasing the skids.
For a new team moving into a new facility, the Pistons couldn’t have picked a worse time. The 1979-80 Pistons went 16-66. They were awful in their first three years in the Dome, which kept the marketing department hopping. The bleeding stopped when Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka arrived in 1981.
This version of the Pistons are moving back into Detroit at a much better time in terms of the health of the franchise, than when they headed north in 1978. Despite the early stumbling this season, boss Stan Van Gundy has the team on a good track, considering what he took over in May 2014.
But they’d better keep it up.
The move back into Detroit will be a boon, initially. And it should be. The Pistons ought to be congratulated for contributing to the rebirth of the city—as long as we’re not talking about neighborhoods here.
But if they don’t win, the shiniest arena in the world won’t help them.
Fans in Detroit won’t walk across the street to see a losing NBA team. That’s been proven. But they’ll fill Ford Field to see a team that has one playoff win in 59 years. Go figure.
The Pistons are back in Detroit, starting next season. Good for them. Good for the city. Not sure what this means for Palace employees, but there always needs to be collateral damage, I guess, in the name of big bucks.
But the Pistons better win. And keep winning.