For much of their 33-year existence in the NBA, the Detroit Pistons stumbled and bumbled along like Otis the town drunk. "Detroit was the place G.M.'s and coaches used to threaten players with," says Piston assistant coach Brendan Suhr. "You know, 'Shape up or I'll move your butt to Detroit.' "
"Now we're the team that everyone wants to play for," says Piston captain Isiah Thomas. "It used to be the Lakers or Boston. But now it's the Pistons, no doubt about it."
Would your good friend Earvin Johnson, captain of the Lakers, agree with that, Isiah? Thomas smiles and says, "He wouldn't have any choice but to agree. It's simple fact."
November 5, 1990
And so it is; Detroit has become the model NBA franchise. Last season the Pistons won their second consecutive league championship and cleared an estimated $14 million in profits. They have even scrubbed and polished their image to befit their state-of-the-art suburban home, The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is a 45-minute drive from downtown Detroit. In short, all but the most unforgiving critics of the erstwhile Bad Boys now must acknowledge that, while the Pistons are still a little physical at times, their success of late has been built on talent, teamwork and tenacity.
Ah, happiness in Greater Detroit, right? So let's have the obligatory words of praise from Coleman Young, the mayor of Detroit. Take it away, Your Honor:
"I have resentment toward the Pistons, absolutely. I've been to exactly one Piston game since they left town [in 1978], and I've not been to The Palace at all. I don't expect I'll ever go." Young slammed his fist down on his office desk and continued, "I interpret the Pistons' leaving the city as almost a hostile act."
Whoa, there's a script changer, eh? In this time of plenty, the Pistons seem to have everything save a close, personal relationship with the city whose name they bear. This was not the first pro sports franchise to relocate to the suburbs, nor will it be the last. But because the Pistons' recent achievements stand in such stark contrast to the city of Detroit's bevy of social and economic woes, and because the mayor has been so critical of the team, the club's decision to leave downtown embodies all sorts of sociological issues, including city versus suburbs, black versus white and poor versus affluent.
As one might suspect, sociological issues do not weigh heavily on the minds of most Piston players, who have drunk deeply from the cup of suburban success. Oh, to be young and a Piston. Just playing in The Palace is no small reward. And as for road games, the Pistons climb onto their luxurious team plane, Roundball One, and head to their next destination. No late-night room service or early-morning wake-up calls for them.
Most of the players live in one of the tony suburbs near The Palace—West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester Hills or Southfield—all of which are far removed from Detroit's inner-city turmoil. They play for a coach, Chuck Daly, who pushes them hard but not too hard, and who is also qualified to decide if the subtle stripe in a player's shirt matches the shade of his new silk lie.
In the background is an increasingly beneficent owner, William Davidson, who after last season's NBA Finals flew team members and their significant others to the Bahamas, but who will not be found in the locker room after games, clapping his players on the back and introducing them to his cousin Sarah's hairdresser's husband. Finally, when McCartney or Michael Jackson or Madonna or, for that matter, the WWF Superstars of Wrestling, play The Palace, there is no shortage of Piston fans inviting their heroes to sip champagne in a private Palace suite.
Everyone wants to touch success, and in recent years the Pistons have brought triumph and honor to the Motor City area, where the football Lions and the baseball Tigers have fallen on hard times. Even Mayor Young would have to admit this much: The Pistons have traveled a lot farther than 30 miles, the distance from the old Cobo Arena downtown to The Palace.
Davidson, 67, a former end at Michigan (business administration degree) who earned a law degree at Wayne State, did not become the fourth-richest man in Michigan by being majority owner of the Pistons. Davidson built his half-billion-dollar empire by turning around floundering companies, but the Pistons eluded his Midas touch. He and 11 other investors—Davidson owns about 60% of the team—bought the franchise in 1974 for $8.1 million and thrashed around in red ink for 12 years. However, that was to be expected. "Historically," says Davidson, who bought the team from Fred Zollner 17 years after Zollner moved the franchise from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Detroit, "the Pistons were one of the most unsuccessful franchises in history."
In the 21 seasons the Pistons played in downtown Detroit—the first four at the University of Detroit Fieldhouse and Olympia Stadium, the last 17 at Cobo—they had a winning record in only three. Their top yearly attendance average was 7,492 in 1974-75, the final season legendary Pistons Dave Bing and Bob Lanier played together. "It was strictly a minor league operation, almost an antiteam, an albatross," says Piston CEO Tom Wilson, who joined the team in 1978, in time for its last season at Cobo.
Adds Harry Hutt, the Pistons' vice-president of marketing and broadcasting, "The club's idea of marketing in those days was to print a brochure, mail it and hope the phone would ring."
Still, there was something special about Cobo, an intimacy, a connection with the essence of the game (Kareem Abdul-Jab-bar, no fan of fans, once called those in Cobo the most knowledgeable in the league) and, above all, a kind of bad-dude charm. Former Piston guard John Mengelt remembers the night he was tangling with an opponent near the baseline when a fan pulled aside his coat to reveal a small pistol. "Yo," he said to Mengelt's combatant, "leave my man Mengelt alone."
Bing, still the reigning Mr. Piston even though he was traded in 1975, after Davidson wouldn't discuss a contract renegotiation, feels strongly about Cobo. "Guys playing today make a lot more money than we did," says Bing. "But they'll never know what they missed not playing at Cobo."
Davidson, a bottom-line man, saw nothing charming about empty seats, however, so in '78 he packed up his Pistons for the Pontiac Silverdome, which is 30 miles north of downtown Detroit. The Lions had preceded him there by three years. Davidson knows the scars of leaving Detroit may never heal, but he remains convinced that it had to be done.
"Detroit is a case of where downtown is not central to anything," he said recently, sitting still for a rare interview, in his office at Guardian Industries in suburban Northville. "For 80 percent of the fans in the Detroit metropolitan area, the suburbs are more convenient."
Balderdash, says Young. "The center of any area is the place where the freeways converge," he says, "and around here that point is downtown Detroit. Look, the Pistons did not draw as well as they would have liked downtown because they had a history of second-rate teams. Don't tell me about drawing, because the Red Wings fill up Joe Louis Arena."
Indeed, despite the fact that they haven't won a Stanley Cup in 35 years, the Red Wings have averaged an impressive 16,679 per regular-season game since 1979, when they moved into 19,275-seat Joe Louis, which is next to Cobo on the Detroit River. The Pistons do not deny that the Red Wings are successful downtown, but they don't consider that situation applicable to them. The Wings play to an audience culled not only from longtime hockey fans downtown but also from those in Windsor, Ontario, just minutes across the river. The Pistons, by and large, were never able to tap into that Canadian audience, nor to turn around the reality that Detroit is much more a hockey town than a basketball town.
At any rate, the Pistons at the Silverdome were, at first, the same joke in a different venue. "You know Johnny Carson's Art Fern character, the guy who sells anything at any price?" says Hutt. "That was us. 'You got no money for a season ticket? Don't worry about it. We don't care. We have partial season ticket plans, we have partial-partial season ticket plans, we have half-partial-partial season ticket plans. Just buy something!' "
The Pistons tried every manner of dog-and-pony show, and nothing worked, largely because, to quote a certain mayor, the product was still second-rate—Detroit went 30-52, 16-66 and 21-61 in its first three years in Pontiac.
Those early days in Pontiac were also the days of Dick Vitale, who was hired as coach in 1978. Vitale had just finished resurrecting the University of Detroit basketball program. He was probably the city's best-known sports figure and undeniably its most energetic. Small problem: He was in way, way over his head in the pros. "He evaluated names, not talent," says Davidson.
Which is why on Sept. 6, 1979—the date Davidson calls "my lowest moment as an owner"—Vitale made what is known as The McAdoo Deal. Detroit gave Boston two first-round picks in the 1980 draft, plus free agent M.L. Carr, for Bob McAdoo. The Celtics eventually landed Kevin McHale and Robert Parish with those draft choices, while the Pistons got a complaining, oft-injured ball hog who played in just 64 games in two seasons before being waived.
Davidson had seen enough. He fired Vitale after the Pistons got off to a 4-8 start in 1979-80. Shortly thereafter, he hired Jack McCloskey, an assistant to Indiana Pacer coach Slick Leonard at the time, as general manager. That was probably the one single move that turned around the Pistons. But a lot of other things fell into place too.
McCloskey's two first-round picks in the 1981 draft, Thomas and Kelly Tripucka, proved to be, as Wilson says, "players you could hitch your marketing wagon to." They made the Pistons better. Daly came along before the 1983-84 season and started to work his seamless magic. Joe Dumars (1985) and John Salley and Dennis Rodman (both 1986) arrived in shrewd back-to-back McCloskey drafts and, suddenly, Pontiac, Mich., was one of basketball's hot spots. "The Pistons had the best marketing plan in the world," says Suhr. "They won."
However, they weren't completely happy playing at the Silverdome. It seems they were saddled with what Wilson called "the worst lease in basketball." Moreover, they played in an 80,000-seat arena in which even a large crowd could be swallowed up by the Moby Dick size of the place. "You could easily lose the energy level in there," says Thomas.
To management, returning downtown was not a viable option. Forced out of the Silverdome by a collapsed roof near the end of the 1984-85 season, the Pistons played one regular-season game at Cobo and nine regular-season and five playoff games at Joe Louis. Two were sellouts, but the rest were not terribly successful. "We knew then that we could never go back," says one Piston insider.
The Pistons, who would go back to the Silverdome for three more seasons, did get one thing out of their brief return downtown—a remembrance of how nice it is to play in an intimate setting. Wilson theorizes that the seeds to build the 21,454-seat Palace were planted in Davidson's mind during the team's brief stint at Cobo and Joe Louis. Davidson says his decision had more to do with a cumulative dissatisfaction with the Silver-dome, along with a conversation he had with Thomas after the 1986 season. The Atlanta Hawks had just eliminated the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs, and Thomas was pessimistic about the team's future. "We have no tradition, no heritage, no nothing here," he told Davidson. "For us to be successful, it's got to mean something to be a Piston."
Davidson took those words to heart. "Isiah made the point that you have to make players want to be here, to have the kind of franchise that good players want to come to," says Davidson. "Our conversation was general in nature, but it led to my doing some specific things, like the plane and the arena."
Coincidence or not, the Pistons are 2 for 2 in the NBA Finals since they began playing at The Palace in 1988. The financial success of the $80 million arena is based primarily on its 180 luxury suites. They are leased on a multiyear basis for between $30,000 and $120,000. The Palace can command such sums because the suites are closer to the court than skyboxes, and because dozens of other events (concerts, wrestling matches, tennis matches, circuses, trade shows, rodeos) are included in the price. The yearly revenue of between $11 million and $12 million generated by the suites not only covers the debt service on the building but also is larger than the ticket revenues for about half the teams in the NBA. No doubt about it—the luxury suites, primarily the brainchild of Wilson, were a stroke of marketing genius and a shortcut to profitability.
The Palace's $2 million television studio, which is far more sophisticated than that in any other arena, can be counted on for about $1.5 million a year in rental fees. The Pistons' Great Stuff stores, which sell souvenirs and clothing for all Detroit sports teams, are located in four upscale suburban malls, and they are good for between $250,000 and $500,000 in annual profits, not to mention priceless p.r. The Pistons also make money because they own their own printing franchise.
The $14 million generated by this miniempire last year is believed to be the second-largest one-year profit (behind Boston) by a team in NBA history, and there's no reason to suspect that it won't be exceeded this season. Michael Megna of American Appraisal Associates in Milwaukee, a leading appraiser of sports teams, estimates the Pistons' worth at $100 million, slightly less than that of the Celtics, Lakers, Knicks and Bulls. How respected are the Pistons around Detr.... O.K., around the suburbs? Well, the Lions turned their marketing and promotion over to them this season.
Yet, as the Pistons grow cozier and cozier in their suburban Palace, their ties to Detroit grow more and more tenuous. Only the Richfield Coliseum, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., where the Washington Bullets reside, are as far removed from the cities that those teams represent as The Palace is from Detroit. Yes, the trend in arenas and stadiums is toward the kind of luxury seating featured at The Palace, and it will be included in NBA arenas planned for Seattle, Phoenix and Chicago. All three of these arenas will have close-to-the-court luxury boxes—as do the brand-new Bradley Center in Milwaukee and the Target Center in Minneapolis—though on a smaller scale than The Palace's. But none will be so distinctly suburban.
And make no mistake about it, the Piston crowd, which is overwhelmingly white, is a suburban crowd. It comes to ogle the long-legged Tuxedo Girls, who escort celebrity shooters to the free throw line, it cheers the dot race on The Palace-Vision scoreboard as loudly as it cheers the Pistons, and it leaves early to beat the traffic. The Palace has about it an ambience of manufactured excitement. On the other hand, every one of the Pistons' 102 games at The Palace has been a sellout.
For most Piston players, performing outside of Detroit is a nonissue. "I'm a suburban kind of guy, anyway," says center Bill Laimbeer (page 136). Thomas and Salley, however, are not suburban kind of guys, and the weight of maintaining relations with the city seems to have fallen upon their shoulders. "I hear it from both sides," says Salley, who participates in many inner-city programs and is the only Piston who lives within the Detroit city limits, albeit in a 62-room mansion. "I hear, 'Hey, John, you guys are great,' and I also hear, 'Yo, Homes, whatcha' play way out there for?' I tell them, 'I'm just a soldier in the war.' Look, it's not a major factor in my life, and I obviously can't do anything about where we play. But I look at the crowd and I sometimes wish it were a little more mixed, that some of the real city people got to see us play."
Thomas is the Piston most strongly associated with Mayor Young and downtown causes. "I still feel a responsibility to the city because the people there built this franchise," Thomas says. "I was raised with a strong sense of community, and our community, as a Piston, very much includes downtown Detroit.
"The decision to leave the city, I'm convinced, was not for any reasons of black and white, but for sheer economics. I know the mayor and I know Bill Davidson, and they are more alike than they can ever realize. It would be nice if all parties could have their way, but that's going to be tough."
Impossible is more like it. Whether you call it white flight or sound business sense, the fact remains that no team in sports has made more of its move to the suburbs than the Pistons. "I'm frankly torn," says longtime Piston broadcaster George Blaha, "because I loved those days at Cobo; they were really special." He shakes his head and continues, "But when I walk into that Palace, it's hard to miss the old days too much."