Posted Oct 25 2009 3:52PM
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Charles Thomas fished a ticket stub from his pocket that showed a face value of $90. That's what he and his wife Stephanie paid, times four, to watch an NBA preseason game between the Washington Wizards and the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday night at Van Andel Arena. An unemployed machine operator from Muskegon, Thomas knew the price, and the sacrifice, down to the penny.
He wasn't complaining, mind you. No one forced him to shell out big bucks for the Pistons' seventh consecutive October visit to Grand Rapids. Except maybe Stephanie.
"If we lived in Detroit, she'd have season tickets," Thomas said from their nearly-Nicholson seats, one row off the court, about an hour before tipoff. "We try to get to Detroit and take in a couple games a year. We usually make a weekend of it and go down on her birthday or my birthday."
Just like the nation's economic woes have forced a "new normal" on a lot of household incomes, there might have to be a new "usual" for the Thomases. "We had a massive layoff about two months ago," said Charles, who worked at Engine Power Components in Muskegon, about 35 miles northwest of Grand Rapids. "When I started working there, we had about 300 employees. Now there's only about 90. They've still got a couple contracts there, but a lot of them went overseas. Or to Mexico, out of the country. Like John Deere, some Chevy, Harley-Davidson ... "
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Charles is drawing unemployment benefits while looking for work. Stephanie has a job that is stable, for now. But this is Michigan, Ground Zero for the U.S. recession that, regardless of what the economists say, seems permanent and unforgiving to many. Unemployment figures updated Wednesday show that 15.3 percent of the state's workers cannot find jobs. Michigan has lost more than 300,000 of them in the past year.
So if it sounds like the NBA was pushing its luck scheduling a preseason game in a smaller market in these financially strapped times -- given the league's ticket prices and perceptions about the players' salaries and lifestyles -- that charge would hold more or less anywhere within Michigan's borders. For both tune-up games and for the ones that count from late autumn through the spring.
When once-grand, now-distressed homes in downtown Detroit can be bought for four figures, when the city gets featured not just on Time magazine but on Sports Illustrated as a symbol of hard times, there is more than enough pain to go around.
"It really makes you appreciate these fans who are coming out," Pistons president of basketball Joe Dumars said after his team's 101-98 loss on Oct. 13 before a crowd of 9,378. In years past, the Pistons sold out their visits to Grand Rapids; this time, a late comeback and narrow defeat at least entertained those who showed up.
"On Sunday night, we had almost a full house for a preseason game [at The Palace of Auburn Hills against Atlanta]," Dumars said. "I was looking around, thinking, 'Y'know what, you've got to really take your hat off to these people.' Because it is Ground Zero, you're absolutely right. We have big-time appreciation for them."
Told about the Thomases' plight and purchase, Dumars seemed genuinely touched. "How'd he get the tickets? Wow," the Pistons boss said. "That's a heck of a story. Isn't that something?"
Matt Dobek, the team's vice president of public relations, noted that Grand Rapids is faring a little better than other Michigan locales because it relies more heavily on the furniture industry, Amway (co-founders Jay Van Andel and Rich DeVos grew up in Grand Rapids) and the Meijer food chain. Detroit has been crippled by the automobilie industries' failings and all its ripple effects. Within a few miles of The Palace, Dobek said, warehouses and factories of auto component suppliers that went up five or six years ago sit vacant, their parking lots empty on what used to be work days.
"They're gone," he said. "They just dried up. And [those companies] were season-ticket holders." If they happened to purchase suites, only to go belly-up, the Pistons can line up with other creditors waiting to get paid.
"The Lions already have felt it. The Red Wings are feeling it," Dobek said of the financial crunch. "The Tigers were in the playoff hunt so it wasn't as obvious, but next year they might really feel it. It didn't hurt us as much last year because when it really hit, we already had our money for season tickets. Now going forward, it's tough."
With longtime Pistons owner Bill Davidson passing away in March, the franchise is counting on his heirs to remain as committed through the downturn. One positive, Dobek said, is that The Palace is owned outright and was upgraded after the championship in 2004, enough to stay viable for many years.
Grand Rapids looks upgraded, too. Just this week, locals learned that a medical research program had been lured by Michigan State away from the University of Cincinnati to study Parkinson's disease, toting a $6.2 million federal grant to inject into the local economy. The MSU College of Human Medicine is moving from East Lansing to Grand Rapids in 2010, and the research lab will be housed at the expanding Van Andel Institute.
Jay Van Andel suffered from Parkinson's when he died at age 80 in 2004. The institute that bears his name -- same as the city's downtown arena -- was founded in 1996. (DeVos, his partner, is the owner of the Orlando Magic.)
The Meijer grocery empire also plays a key role in the local economy. It has worked with the Pistons to stage the preseason games, while donating tickets to schools and to Gilda's Club, the foundation created to honor former Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner, a Detroit native. It provides help to families of cancer patients.
"It's just incredible what Grand Rapids is doing of late. From the arts festival to seven years straight of bringing the Pistons here," said Dan McFarland, a marketing specialist for Meijer. "This is a chance to have the feel of a professional team right in their hometown. Grand Rapids was hit pretty hard by the economy, but we're basically a family here."
Still, the family is hurting. Muskegon, where the Thomases live, has 15.8 percent unemployment, slightly worse than the state's average. On the same day that the news broke about Grand Rapids' medical-research expansion, officials in Muskegon learned that WindTronics LLC, a wind-turbine company whose technology for residential use was developed in that city, will build its $5.4 million assembly plant -- with a projected 174 jobs -- in Windsor, Ontario.
The decision was swayed by a $2.7 million provincial grant, which beat Michigan's offer of a $500,000 loan and 10 years of tax concessions. The one consolation is that nearly all of WindTronics' component suppliers will remain in Michigan, with its turbines assembled in Ontario.
Washington coach Flip Saunders, who coached Detroit for three seasons, has fond memories of Grand Rapids from his visits as a CBA coach. He recalls a passionate fan base for basketball, but admits that selling sports of any sort is tough right now.
"When you lose jobs and you're hurting financially, you have to make decisions," Saunders said. "The No. 1 decision is pay your mortgage and your heat. Entertainment money is a little more down the line. But I think the league is going to try to do what they can to maintain interest."
That was the two teams' modest misson Tuesday. "With how bad the economy is, we appreciate [the turnout]," Pistons swingman Richard Hamilton said. "That's why we go out there and try to put a show on for them. We try to make them forget maybe how bad stuff is going right now and just entertain 'em, so when they leave they're smiling."
Kari Lowe and her father George, also of Muskegon, watched from a baseline section. His job as a repairman of small-engine mowers, chainsaws and other tools has been safe -- "People are repairing instead of replacing," he said -- but the family caught a break on game tickets. "These were a present from my grandma," said Kari, a senior at Oakridge High. "Without her, we wouldn't be here."
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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