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Shrink City Its population in decline and its fans wracked by anxiety, Detroit is desperate for a winner

April 29, 2002
April 29, 2002

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April 29, 2002

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Shrink City Its population in decline and its fans wracked by anxiety, Detroit is desperate for a winner

Of the many challenges facing America since Sept. 11, this may
be the least important: It is now exceedingly difficult, if not
downright impossible, to enter an arena with an octopus in your
trousers.

This is an article from the April 29, 2002 issue Original Layout

But if you live in Detroit, whose population shriveled to fewer
than one million in the last U.S. census, the crackdown on
concealed cephalopods is of consequence, one more blow to civic
self-esteem. "It's really hard now to get octopuses into this
place," said 50-year-old Rick Barnes, standing in the highest
row of Joe Louis Arena, as the Red Wings were losing last Friday
night. "And that's too bad." Too bad, because a rain of octopi
on the ice at JLA was one of the few proud sports traditions
remaining in Detroit, whose Tigers started this season 0-11,
making them slightly better than the Lions, who started last
season 0-12.

Sure, the Wings' roster is filled with future Hall of Famers,
they're coached by a current Hall of Famer, and they had the
league's best record in the regular season. Yet until Sunday's
3-1 victory over the Canucks, the Wings hadn't won a game in
April and, even then, remained in danger of being wet-vacked
from the first round of the NHL playoffs for the second
consecutive year.

When Kmart announced not long ago that it would pull its
sponsorship of all Detroit's professional teams, Jay Leno asked,
"How embarrassing is that? Kmart thinks you're a loser."

What's troubling is not that Detroit, in the 1990s, lost more
citizens than any U.S. city save Baltimore. It's that one of
those citizens was Barry Sanders. For beyond the four-ton
sculpture of a black fist downtown, or the 86-foot-tall Uniroyal
tire off I-94, or poet laureates Eminem (Kill You) and Kid Rock
(Blow Me), Detroit's civic icons are its athletes. "Since I've
been here," says Wings captain Steve Yzerman, who played his
first game in Detroit in 1983, "I've witnessed the Tigers win a
World Series, the Pistons win two titles and us win two Stanley
Cups. And every time, it gave the city a buzz, a sense of pride.
It makes people feel good about where they're from."

But now? Greg Martin doesn't feel good about where he's from.
Except for a brief sojourn in Chicago and a year's exile in
northern Michigan, the 42-year-old prosthetics-and-orthotics
salesman has spent his life in Detroit, working to build a
better city: Half of all strippers in the metropolis, he
estimates, wear his breast implants. And yet, "If they blew up
this city tomorrow," he said while booing the Wings on Friday
night, "it wouldn't be front-page news nationally. Page 3 or 4,
maybe."

Detroit remained intact on Saturday, though the Tigers gave up
12 runs and lost in Chicago, and the Lions drafted Oregon
quarterback Joey Harrington, not the first choice of president
Matt Millen but reportedly that of the Lions' owners, William
Clay Ford Sr. and Jr. After Bill Jr. was named CEO of the Ford
Motor Co. last fall, he said he'd be forced to spend less time
with his football team. "Unless," he added, "they need me to
play quarterback. And the way things are going...." It was that
kind of year for Junior, whose company has spent $3 billion
recalling defective Firestone tires from its Explorer SUVs.

So there was much at stake on Sunday--hours after the Tigers
gave up eight runs in the first inning at Comiskey Park--when
the Pistons set out to win an NBA playoff game for the first
time in three years. Again clad in Bad Boy blue and red, the
Pistons are the toast of southeast Michigan. Bob Seger showed up
at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Sunday night. Thomas Hearns had
either the world's largest piece of lint on his lapel or
wore--could it be? Yes, it is!--a fur-trimmed suit coat.

Countless kids wore wigs resembling the
explosion-at-Bikini-Atoll Afro favored by Detroit forward Ben
Wallace. The Pistons promptly spanked the Raptors 85-63. The
crowd was so in need of collective catharsis that few faulted
them for the jet-engine-loud jeering that had drowned out O
Canada before tip-off. "It was a little distasteful," said
Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse, "but the fans have stuck up for
us all season, so I'm going to stick up for them tonight and say
that they were just booing Toronto."

That's the spirit. Detroit is taking lemons and making lemonade.
This fall the Lions will move into a beautiful new $315 million
downtown stadium. Ford Field will have an artificial playing
surface composed, in large part, of recycled rubber.

Recycled tire rubber. The Lions will play, as God is our
witness, on thousands of recalled Firestone tires.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ZOHAR LAZAR