Detroit and Pistons are one again

Published Dec. 13, 2016

Motown is not going back to Detroit but the Pistons are. This recent news, capping a standup year of NBA social activism and outspokenness, was soul-cleansing music to Dave Bing's ears.

"The return of the franchise with the moniker of Detroit that wasn't in Detroit," said Bing, who spent nine years of his 12-season, Hall of Fame career with the Pistons — when they were part of the city — before becoming a business leader there and eventually the mayor.

When Bing, a 6-foot-3 guard, was launching feathery jumpers for the Pistons in the old Cobo Arena on Washington and Jefferson avenues, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, Detroit was as much a celebrity magnet as more renowned league sites in Los Angeles and New York.

The coastal elites may still believe that they alone fostered the hot-ticket marriage of entertainment and sports, but let's allow Bing to drop a few enlightening names.

"I already knew Marvin Gaye because we grew up in the same neighborhood in D.C.," he said in a telephone interview. "But the Four Tops were at the games, the Temptations, Diana Ross. It was a fashion show every night."

By the late 1970s, a decade after horrific riots, the Pistons had fallen on hard competitive times, along with the city, and out they went to a charmless football dome in distant Pontiac, Michigan, and later to the basketball-specific Palace of Auburn Hills.

A team in a sport played increasingly by young black men fled the city while hockey's white-as-ice Red Wings stored their gloves and sticks in a downtown arena named for Joe Louis.

Mike Abdenour, the Pistons' trainer since 1975, except for a three-year run with the Philadelphia 76ers, grew up on Detroit's East Side, occasionally riding the bus with his brother to Cobo.

"The tickets cost $5," he said, and that is why, he reasoned, Bill Davidson, the owner who moved the team, couldn't be blamed for doing so when ticket prices began to rapidly rise leaguewide, along with salaries.

The fan base in the city could no longer afford to support the Pistons, Abdenour said, adding that the Red Wing crowds were already largely suburban, fiercely loyal and undeterred by ticket costs.

That's one rationale. For his part, Bing recalled Davidson (who owned the Lightning through Palace Sports from the summer of 1999 to July 2008, when he sold to Oren Koules' OK Hockey) not getting along with Coleman Young, Detroit's mayor at the time.

Too young to wonder or to worry about why one team left and the other stayed was Tom Gores, an adolescent Pistons fan and future owner of the team. At the time, he was about to embark on his own high school basketball career a little more than an hour away, in a small Michigan town a few miles northeast of Flint.

Gores went on to become a billionaire creator of the Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity, and in 2011 he bought the Pistons from the Davidson family (after Bill Davidson's death in 2009) for a now-bargain $325 million.

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In an interview, he said the racial incongruity of the Pistons' uprooting was not something that jumped out at him as he grew older. "To be honest, I've never really thought about it that way,'' he said.

Still, it was Gores who announced last month that the Pistons would end their 39-year self-exile from Detroit next season by becoming co-tenants with the Red Wings in the new Little Caesars Arena. With the NFL's Lions back downtown since 2002, and baseball's Tigers having never left, the Pistons' return will situate four major professional teams within blocks of one another, with Gores targeting a Major League Soccer franchise as a potential fifth.

On the phone, Gores, 52, said: "I think everybody felt that without the Pistons it just wasn't complete. We were the missing family member."

Family business mattered, too. The Palace has not exactly been packed in recent years, in large part because the Pistons haven't been very good.

When Bing was mayor, from 2009 to 2013, he spoke of luring the Pistons back, but his tenure ended with the largest municipal bankruptcy debt filing in U.S. history. Times have changed, mostly in terms of downtown commercial development.

"There's so much going on and I don't think the Pistons wanted to be on the outside looking in," he said.

Naturally, and justifiably, some have voiced objections to the hundreds of millions in bond subsidies floated by the Detroit Downtown Development Authority to help finance the arena and, in addition, make it basketball-ready.

Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, argued that the investment would be worth it, tangibly and otherwise.

The Pistons, he wrote in an email, "would be contributing greatly to the economic revitalization of the city as well as its civic psyche" and would be "the continuation of a trend we've seen around the country of professional sports teams moving back into downtown areas, positively impacting urban development."

Depending on the financial arrangements, sometimes, yes. Other times, no. And depending upon the point of view (talk to the opposing factions in Brooklyn about Barclays Center), yes and no.

Even the choice of locality can be complex. The Golden State Warriors, for example, want to become more citified in upscale San Francisco, but defenders of their longtime home along an interstate on the outskirts of Oakland argue that would be a betrayal of a diverse and vociferous fan base that has supported the team through far more bad times than good.

So, too, did the suburban crowds in Auburn Hills, where the Pistons won championships in 1989, 1990 and 2004.

"Lots of great things happened at the Palace," said Gores, who is still trying to determine the fate of a building also remembered for a disturbing occasion when push came to shove and caused leaguewide shame.

That would be the so-called Malice at the Palace in 2004, when Ron Artest and some of his Indiana Pacers teammates brawled in the stands with belligerently provocative Pistons fans.

Bing, then the owner of a large steel company, said the mayhem resulted in "Detroit getting a black eye when it had nothing to do with it." The Pistons' franchise got a lesson in civics and the pitfalls of myopic upward mobility.

Now 73, Bing runs a mentoring program in Detroit, matching at-risk boys with adult men, a few of whom played for the Pistons.

"But I'm one of the few guys left who actually played at Cobo," he said.

He wondered if his interviewer had ever covered a game at what is now a convention hall known as the Cobo Center. He was told, yes, in early 1978. The place was a classic hothouse of condensed fan frenzy. But the reporter told Bing that his most memorable game in Detroit over a long reporting career was not at Cobo, or in the suburbs.

It was in April 1984, a decisive Game 5 of a first-round New York Knicks-Pistons playoff series, moved downtown to Joe Louis Arena because the Pontiac Silverdome was previously booked. On a night made steamy by faulty ventilation, Isiah Thomas scored a remarkable 16 points for the Pistons in a 1-minute-33-second span to force overtime, before Bernard King, averaging 43 points for the series and playing with the flu, won it for the Knicks.

Never before had they played pro basketball at Joe Louis Arena, and never was it more obvious that the Pistons shouldn't have left Detroit.

No one ever believed that more than Bing.

"It's the city game," he said. "And this is long overdue."