What memories will Detroit’s new arena create?
The official announcement came last week, that the Pistons would move into a new building in downtown Detroit, the Little Caesars Arena, in time for next season. The arena will house both the Pistons and the NHL’s Red Wings, and will mark the end of almost 30 years for the Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills, more than 30 miles from Detroit.
For the first time in more than 40 years, all four major pro sports teams will be playing back within the city limits: the NFL’s Lions moved to Ford Field in 2002 and MLB’s Tigers moved to Comerica Park in 2000. The move of the Pistons, as every move to a new building promises, is supposed to bring lots of temporary and permanent jobs to local citizens, as the continued renaissance of Detroit continues -- a project in which the Pistons, and owner Tom Gores, have played and play a major role.
Through his Vice Chairman of Palace Sports and Entertainment, Arn Tellem, the former uber agent, Gores created a channel with the Illitch family, which owns the Red Wings. Tellem helped broker a deal with the Illitches, which will almost certainly involve a regional sports network down the road as well as sharing the new building.
It’s important not to parachute in and make sweeping judgments about where Detroit is, and who is most responsible for its renaissance -- or who will benefit from it most. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has also been intimately involved with the rebuilding of Detroit, buying millions of dollars worth of property downtown. There’s no doubting the economic impact of Gilbert bringing his primary business, Quicken Loans -- and his thousands of employees -- from the Detroit suburbs to downtown a few years ago.
The Pistons’ move to Auburn Hills in 1989 helped usher in the modern age of the league. Detroit had already left the city, moving to the Silverdome to play in 1978, and set Finals records for attendance in 1988 against the Los Angeles Lakers. But the Palace was something different altogether. It was designed for, and patronized by, the wealthy of Oakland County and the nearby environs, not guys like “Leon the Barber,” the famed heckler back in the day at Cobo Arena (though Leon did sit behind opposing benches at the Palace for a while).
Or, as John Salley, one of the Bad Boys Pistons, famously put it: “we used to play in front of the auto workers. Now we play in front of the auto executives.”
But it remained one of the league’s loudest buildings, and home-court advantages, for many years. And it was the site of some of the league’s most important moments. I wasn’t present at the Brawl in 2004 between the Pistons, the Indiana Pacers and several fans in attendance -- the most important night in the Palace’s history and one of the worst in NBA history. But there were many, many nights in that building, watching Hall of Famers like Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Larry Brown excel in some of the most pressure-packed moments.
These are just a few of those moments.
No. 1: June 8, 1989
Game 2, NBA Finals -- Pistons vs. Lakers
The Pistons were, figuratively, frothing at the mouth for a title.
They’d been at it for the last five years. They’d suffered through the 1987 Eastern Conference finals, a series they believed was there, only to watch Game 5 peter away after Larry Bird’s last-second steal of Isiah Thomas’ inbounds pass, and the game-winning Dennis Johnson layup that followed. Then, in Game 7, they’d seen Vinnie Johnson and Adrian Dantley knock each other out in the fourth quarter, colliding for a loose ball. A gut-wrenching loss soon followed.
The following year, Detroit beat Boston to get to The Finals, and thought the NBA championship was theirs. Up 3-2 over Los Angeles in The Finals, they led Game 6 with seconds left, when Bill Laimbeer -- otherwise guilty for most of his career -- was whistled for a dubious foul on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; the Captain knocked in both free throws, and the Lakers stole one to tie things up. They won a close Game 7 two nights later, and Joe Dumars and Dantley spent an hour in the Forum’s showers afterward, spent and crying and not able to move off of their respective spots on the floor.
By ’89, the Pistons were done crying.
They snarled their way to The Finals again, where they met the two-time defending champion Lakers. Pat Riley had guaranteed his aging team would win a second straight title the year before -- and it did, with his players using their anger at him for making such a crazy pronouncement as fuel. But Riley was ready to go one better the next year; he got a trademark for a phrase that no one had ever heard before: “ThreePeat.” And for most of that season, the Lakers looked like they’d do just that, cruising to 57 regular season wins, followed by an 11-0 romp through the Western Conference playoffs to return to The Finals for a third straight season. I’d never seen a team look so thoroughly dominant, so uncaring about who it played in the playoffs.
But before Game 1, in the midst of a typical rugged Riley practice, starting shooting guard Byron Scott, the team’s third-leading scorer and best outside shooter (almost 40 percent on threes), tore his hamstring, and was declared out for The Finals. It was a blow, but the Lakers were still “Showtime”, and even after losing Game 1, they were still confident they were the better team.
In the third quarter of Game 2 at the Palace, the Lakers led 75-73. Salley blocked a Mychal Thompson shot, and Detroit got out on the fast break. Johnson took off in pursuit, but just past midcourt, he grabbed his hamstring with his left hand, and slowed up. Detroit scored, and L.A. called time; Gary Vitti, the Lakers’ athletic trainer, came onto the court; Magic’s face was contorted in pain and anger and disbelief. He never looked like that on the floor. But he knew, immediately, that his hammy was shredded. He missed the rest of Game 2, which Detroit won down the stretch, and though he tried to play in Game 3 in L.A., he was helpless and it was pointless. The Pistons swept the Lakers to win the title.
No. 2: June 3, 1990
Game 7, Eastern Conference finals -- Pistons vs. Bulls
About 10 minutes before tipoff, I was in my seat courtside at the Palace, having flown in from Portland the night before after coming the Trail Blazers’ playoff win over San Antonio. Flew through storms so bad (pretty sure lightning hit the plane at one point) that we had to land somewhere in Ohio, I think, before continuing to Detroit. Finally got to Auburn Hills around 3 a.m. Sunday morning; tipoff was at noon.
Anyway, it was about 10 minutes before tipoff, and the Bulls were ready to finally finish off the Pistons, who’d knocked them out of the playoffs the previous two seasons. The year before, Detroit won Game 6 in Chicago to clinch the Eastern Conference finals series -- after Bill Laimbeer elbowed Scottie Pippen in the head and knocked him out, a minute after tipoff. The hatred -- true hatred -- the teams had for each other made this one of the great rivalries in sports. To Pistons assistant coach Brendan Malone, who had devised the “Jordan Rules” to help try and keep Michael Jordan contained, and with every success Detroit had holding Jordan at bay, the Rules took on some mystical, magical quality -- a secret plan devised in NASA labs, by Stephen Hawking.
The Jordan Rules were simple, actually. Dumars, the primary defender, would do everything he could to make Jordan work for his points -- and Dumars was one of the best on-ball defenders ever. But when Jordan went by him, the real Rules were activated -- knock the living hell out of Jordan when he drove to the rim. If he elevated -- as he was wont to do -- knock him out of the sky. Pound him. Punish him. Wear him down.
But in Game 6, less than 48 hours earlier, Jordan had been his usual otherworldly self, going for 29 points in an 18-point rout of Detroit in Chicago. Jordan was so ready to finally vanquish the one team that had his number, kept him from flying, beat him when it mattered. The Bulls had learned from the Celtics, then learned from the Pistons. It was time to school their masters.
Except, here came Mark Pfeil, the Bulls’ longtime athletic trainer. My seat was very close to the Bulls’ bench. (In those days, writers got courtside seats). Pfeil walked over to Phil Jackson, the Bulls’ coach, and whispered something to him.
Jackson’s face grew agitated.
”Scottie!” Jackson yelled at Scottie Pippen, the Bulls’ young star forward, who had catapulted Chicago into contender status with his amazing combination of full-court defensive abilities and ball-handing and passing wizardry. With Pippen, Jordan didn’t have to exhaust himself guarding the opposition’s best offensive player, and he didn’t have to kill himself to bring the ball up against pressure.
Pfeil had told Jackson that Pippen was complaining about migraine headaches. And, indeed, Pippen looked ashen.
He would play, but went just 1 of 10 from the floor. With Pippen a shell of himself, the Pistons took control of the game in the second quarter and strangled the life out of Chicago for a third straight postseason, advancing to The Finals with a 94-73 win. Jordan was almost rendered mute by Pippen’s performance; the Pistons, in their locker room, were profanely mocking Pippen’s toughness. But the game was as much about the Pistons’ incredible defense. They weren’t the result of some gimmicky name; Detroit’s D was stifling, five guys on a string, not allowing anyone to get open, ever.
“It was beautiful,” Isiah Thomas said. And it was the best of the Bad Boys.
No. 3: June 5, 1990
Game 1, NBA Finals -- Pistons vs. Trail Blazers
Two distinct pregame memories:
1. Chuck Daly, one of the great clothes horses, in a black charcoal pinstripe suit. All the brothers on press row lost their minds;
2. Ken Calvert, the Pistons’ PA announcer, introducing the young, unknown pregame entertainment: “please welcome … Columbia recording artist … Mariah Carey … for the singing of America The Beautiful.”
Yeah, that Mariah Carey. We all stopped looking at Chuck’s suit.
No. 4: June 15, 2004
Game 5, NBA Finals -- Pistons vs. Lakers
The Lakers had put together a super team -- a Super Duper team -- with Karl Malone and Gary Payton joining Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant for the 2003-04 season. L.A. was just a year removed from winning three straight NBA titles (no word if Riles cashed in on the ThreePeat). Shaq and Kobe were feuding, to be sure, but the Lakers rolled through the playoffs, and were heavy favorites against Larry Brown’s Pistons -- a team that had become a great defensive unit after the midseason acquisition of Rasheed Wallace from Atlanta. But Brown’s team was a team, a sum of the parts unit if there ever was one, with Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton in the backcourt, and the Wallaces, Ben and Rasheed, up front, with youngster Tayshaun Prince. And Brown believed if his team would stick together, the Lakers would come apart.
The Pistons upset the Lakers in L.A. in Game 1, then gave away Game 2 in the final seconds. They came home for the next three games, in the Palace; absolutely no one expected them to win them all. But they routed the Lakers in Game 3, then took Game 4 -- when the Lakers, inexplicably, went away from Shaq, who’d scored 17 points in the first 20 minutes and looked like he was good for 50. That allowed Detroit to catch its breath, and pull away late to take a 3-1 series lead.
Game 5 was a hot summer night in Detroit, with 22,076 sweaty folks ready to celebrate the Pistons’ first title in 14 years. By that time, another local DJ, John Mason, was doing the PA at the Palace, and he’d created his own unique style for introducing the players. By that time, the Lakers were coming unglued, just like Brown predicted. Game 5 was a rout, a celebration of team over individuals, with Billups -- the guard who’d bounced around for five years and four different teams, finishing up a Finals MVP turn, while Ben Wallace inhaled 22 boards.
The Pistons routed the Lakers on that hot summer night, running them off the floor in front of their delirious crowd, to win a Finals title for the first time at home. Brown, and his team, was as good as his word.
No. 5: June 19, 2005
Game 5, NBA Finals -- Pistons vs. Spurs
Detroit was itching to defend its championship, even as its coach, Larry Brown, was talking to the Cavaliers about their vacant head coaching job -- something former owner Bill Davidson didn’t know about at the time. And after losing the first two games of The Finals in San Antonio, the Pistons came back to win Games 3 and 4, and had one more at the Palace before returning to Texas.
Game 5 was a back and forth heavyweight fight. Neither team led by more than four in the fourth quarter; the lead ping-ponged back and forth until Billups tied the game at 89 with less than a minute left in regulation. The game went into overtime after Tim Duncan missed a putback at the buzzer.
Detroit went up by four with less than two minutes left in overtime. But Robert Horry -- “Big Shot Bob,” for his numerous playoff heroics over the years in Houston and Los Angeles, was now in San Antonio, a veteran who could be calm when everything around him wasn’t. He’d already scored 16 points in the second half, 13 in the fourth quarter. Now, with the season on the line, he shot-faked and drove the paint for a leaning left-handed dunk with 1:25 left to bring the Spurs within two. And the score stayed there for another excruciating 80 seconds, with both teams missing point blank looks.
The Spurs called time with 9.5 seconds left. Horry inbounded to Manu Ginobili, who was guarded by Prince. Prince had cut off the baseline; Ginobili couldn’t drive. But Rasheed Wallace left Horry, for some reason, to go double-team Ginobili in the corner. Ginobili made the easiest play in basketball -- pass the ball back to the inbounder.
Who was Horry.
Who was wide open.
Who was behind the three-point line.
Who didn’t miss.
That wasn’t what I remember most, though. I remember an hour later, after working both locker rooms, and going back toward the press room. That’s when I ran into the Pistons’ executive, who may or may not have seen me. He seemed to be talking more to himself than to me.
“How the (bleep) could we leave him open?,” he asked. “How the (bleep) could we leave him open? How the (bleep) could we leave him open?”
For all I know, he may still be wandering the halls of the Palace, muttering to himself.
… AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER
All hands, and feet, on deck. From John Ferensen:
The NBA scheduled 13 games the night before Thanksgiving, and a rare full slate of 15 games on Black Friday. With the league abandoning Thanksgiving Day games a few years back, do you think Black Friday has a chance to become an NBA tradition where almost all (if not all) 30 teams play? Seems like a good opportunity with no NFL and very few (if any) meaningful college football games to compete against. Make it an all day event with a few games on NBATV, perhaps?
Good question, John. I, too, was pleased to see everyone in action last Friday; that had not happened on post-Thanksgiving Friday since the league’s last Thanksgiving Day games in 2010, and it’s unusual at any point in the schedule. I suppose anything, with a little marketing, can be made into a tradition -- Thanksgiving, after all, was basically a creation of a magazine editor, Sarah Joseph Hale. It would be simple, I’d think, for the league to tie a post-Thanksgiving NBA Day (not sure you’d want to call it “Black Friday”) involving all 30 teams to the notion of giving thanks by giving back in some sort of service-oriented way, just as teams that play on the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday often engage with their communities above and beyond their normal commitments.
Power Couples. From Brian Dwyer:
Which tandem has the bigger upside for the future: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons or Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns?
Wow, tough question, Brian. I haven’t seen Simmons play an NBA game yet. My guess is he’ll be great, but I need to withhold judgment until he’s actually on the court. But for the purposes of your question, let’s assume he’ll be what everyone thinks -- a dynamic, great-passing point forward who will also score plenty, Lamar Odom 2.0. I think I still prefer Minnesota’s duo. Here’s why: Towns is so spectacular already, and he shows no limitations to his growth. Wiggins has really exploded this season, too. He seems so much more comfortable in his own skin. I think (don’t know) that having Karl-Anthony there makes things so much easier for Andrew. Andrew is a reluctant speaker; KAT seems so comfortable with the media and willing to talk. That means so much for some guys, who just prefer to let their play speak for them (like, uh, this). And until Embiid shows he can play 30+ minutes every night without injury or incident, I just can’t give my full support, even though his skill set is every bit as impressive as KAT’s.
Pluses and minuses. From Jonathan Hirsch:
What's your biggest surprise NBA team positive or negative so far this season from what you originally were thinking during preseason?
Negative is easy: Dallas. I really am surprised how bad the Mavs are; I had them as a probable playoff team going into the season, figuring that Harrison Barnes would show that he had a lot more offensive game there than in Golden State (he has) and that Andrew Bogut’s presence in the middle would help shore up the Mavs’ defense (it hasn’t). Dirk being out hurts, no doubt, but that doesn’t explain how Dallas has fallen through the floor defensively; the Mavs are last in the league in 3-point percentage allowed (40.2 percent!), 29th in field goal percentage allowed (42.3 percent) and are 17th in defensive rating (104.0 points per 100 possessions). And those are impossible numbers to overcome when you’re so bad on offense. Got that one completely wrong. As for a positive surprise, I’ll admit: I didn’t think much of what the Bulls did in the offseason. Like everyone else, I didn’t think they’d shoot it near well enough from outside to be able to score very much. But Dwyane Wade has been terrific (and, more important, healthy) so far, and Jimmy Butler is playing at an extremely high and efficient level. Chicago has a great offensive rating despite being middle of the pack in all the shooting categories. (The Bulls do get after it on the glass, though.) Mirotic and McDermott have been terrific off the bench, too.
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(Last week’s averages in parenthesis)
1) LeBron James (25.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 12.3 apg, .491 FG, .864 FT): Along with everything else he’s doing this season, he’s averaging 9.7 assists -- more per game than John Wall or Chris Paul or Kyle Lowry or Rajon Rondo -- which is just ridiculous.
2) Kawhi Leonard (24.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.3 apg, .486 FG, .840 FT): No one is as happy to see a healthy Tony Parker putting people into the spin cycle again as the Claw, who can now settle into a more non-dominant but efficient role on offense.
3) Kevin Durant (24.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 6.3 apg, .583 FG, .870 FT): Bidding to rejoin “Club 180” -- shooting at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent from the foul line -- a feat which has only been achieved by three other players in league history: Stephen Curry, Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki. Durant last did it in the 2012-13 season. KD is shooting 57.4 percent overall (!), 44.6 percent on 3-pointers (!!) and 83.8 percent from the line.
4) James Harden (29.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 11.5 apg, .429 FG, .865 FT): The Beard invites GQ in for a spell.
5) Russell Westbrook (29.5 ppg, 11 rpg, 13.8 apg, .389 FG, .837 FT): Posted 44th regular season triple-double Saturday in win over Detroit, which tied him -- for about 16 hours -- with LeBron James for sixth place on the all-time list. (James posted a triple double in Philly on Sunday afternoon to move back ahead of Westbrook.)
Dropped out: DeMar DeRozan
BY THE NUMBERS
19 -- Days since the Mavericks last won a game. Dallas ended its eight-game losing streak, the franchise’s longest in almost 19 years (the Mavs dropped 15 straight early in the 1997-98 season), with a win Sunday over New Orleans.
612 -- Days between the last time the 76ers won two games in a row, which Philly did last Monday after beating Miami. The Sixers hadn’t won two in a row before then since March 18 and 20 of 2015. Their record in between the two tiny win streaks: 13-94.
12 -- NBA seasons for veteran guard Kevin Martin, who officially announced his retirement Friday. K-Mart was a productive scorer on a lot of bad Sacramento Kings teams last decade, but never seemed to find a fit or keep his health after leaving Sacramento and playing for better teams in Houston and Oklahoma City.
I’M FEELIN’ …
1) How powerful it was to be in the East Room of the White House last Tuesday to see the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the highest honor a civilian can receive -- get their awards, including Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Consider: there is Jordan, always the Alpha Male of Alpha Males, getting his lifetime achievement award, basically. And there is Kareem, who scored more points than Jordan, won just as many titles, won more league MVP awards, and has successfully navigated a second career as an author and historian. Maybe the only guy other than Bill Russell who can look Jordan eye-to-eye and say ‘I’ll put my career up against yours.” And be right. The same could have happened between Robert Redford and Robert DeNiro, between Margaret Hamilton (who helped create the software for the Apollo command modules) and Richard Garwin (a PhD whose contributions led to the development of MRI technology, laser printing and other innovations), between Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen. This was the best of the best of the best, all in one room with President Barack Obama. And their emotions upon receiving the awards were real, as they had to be. It was a joy to be there with them.
2) Hey … these look more like the Pacers I thought would contend in the East this season -- even without Paul George.
3) Reminder to self:there are more people with good in their hearts than there are trolling on Twitter.
4) Don’t think the East is very good this year, but mediocrity leads to more teams staying alive in the playoff chase longer. Last-place Philly is just four games out in the loss column from the No. 8. This isn’t necessarily a good thing -- it just is.
NOT FEELIN’ …
1) My heart goes out to Channing Frye, who has, unbelievably, lost his mother and now his father within a month’s time. There are no words that could possibly give him comfort, to be sure, but hopefully he knows that all in the NBA community are thinking of him.
2) Praying for Steve Francis, seriously. I hope this ends well and that he gets the help he needs. He is not a bad person.
3) No good solution here; I get both points of view on this. But I know, from being around the 76ers last weekend, that the 24-minute limit this season is non-negotiable. This will almost certainly happen again this season.
4) I’m smart enough to realize that I don’t know everything, and that while I believe San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has started an important discussion in this country about police brutality with his pregame kneeling, he should have acknowledged he didn’t know everything about Fidel Castro’s Cuba when discussing it with my buddy Armando Salguero, the Miami Herald sportswriter and Cuban immigrant. In light of Castro’s death Friday, it is especially important that African-Americans don’t try “blacksplaining” Castro to Cuban families; we are, correctly, angered when told how we are supposed to feel about issues by people who don’t look like us or who haven’t experienced what we have. But, Armando also should have acknowledged that the U.S. criminal justice system doesn’t just incarcerate murderers or otherwise obviously guilty people, and that our country indeed has separated families of color for centuries for often nefarious reasons. We all do better when we admit that others may know more than we do about some things, and we can learn from them. A simple “I respect what you’ve said, and I’ll take the time to read up further on the points you’ve made” from both may have ended this more amicably.
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