Home in the Dome

As Pistons awakened, ‘crazy carmakers’ packed the Silverdome

The Pontiac Silverdome served as backdrop to shining moments in Bad Boys history.
Andrew D. Bernstein /NBAE/Getty Images
They’re staging events at the Silverdome again. Not many, not yet. The occasional soccer game, monster truck rally or concert. That’s good. The place was neglected by its caretakers even in its heyday, but the Silverdome had good bones. It was a great place to watch a football game, one of the best anywhere. When the Lions were good – not often enough – there wasn’t a home-field advantage anywhere in the NFL any better. Back in the old days, before smoking was outlawed, cigarette and cigar smoke would hover under the Teflon-coated fiberglass roof, up among the third-deck’s leather-lunged fans, from where the boos would swirl down with thunderous force when the Lions were bad.

Wrestlemania had its finest hour in the Silverdome. The pope’s visit to the huge bubble at the corner of Interstate 75 and M-59 drew the world’s attention. The agricultural geniuses at Michigan State figured out how to keep real grass alive indoors long enough for the Silverdome to host the 1994 World Cup where Brazilian, Swedish and Russian fans stood gaping at the marvel the place really was.

There’s a lot of history in the Silverdome for a place barely 40 years old, too much to throw away without giving it a few more chances. The Pistons gave the Dome some of its best moments, too.

It hosted three NBA Finals games in the Pistons’ final Silverdome season, when Magic Johnson and the Lakers were closing in on the last NBA title of their era. It’s where Magic planted Isiah in the paint with a forearm shiver, letting the world know their brotherly love stopped at the pregame kiss.

In the early days, with the Pistons still struggling to find their niche in Detroit after managing just 14 home playoff dates in 17 years at Cobo Arena, they practically gave tickets away. The Pistons had a deal with Marathon – fill up your tank and get tickets for a buck. The Pistons got killed on the deal – the Silverdome got all money from parking and concessions – but they were desperate to cultivate fans.

Ironically, it was the success of that Marathon tie-in – and the rise of the Pistons as an NBA power – that hastened their exit from the Silverdome. Well, that and the narrow-mindedness of the Silverdome board, whose members would grouse about having to pay a few extra dozen parking lot attendants and concessionaires on the nights when 40,000 or more would swarm the place to see Chuck Daly’s budding young powerhouse. That money would be returned to them a hundredfold, of course, which defied every standard of rational thinking.

When Pistons executives would relay the Silverdome board’s concerns to Bill Davidson, he thought his people were surely mistaken. So they urged him to attend a board meeting with them once. Upon hearing the staggering news for himself – indeed, the Silverdome’s overseers expected the Pistons to foot the bill for a few dozen low-wage earners on game nights that kept the turnstiles whirring, even though it was the Dome that kept nickel they spent on those visits – Mr. D made the decision to build The Palace before the door swung shut behind him as he left the meeting.

But those were some wild nights at the Silverdome. Ten times from 1985 until they left following the 1988 Finals the Pistons brought 40,000-plus to the Silverdome. On Valentine’s Day 1987, 52,745 came out to see the Pistons play Dr. J and Philadelphia. The following Jan. 29, on a Friday night, the Pistons set the NBA record that won’t be broken unless somebody starts playing in a football stadium again: 61,983 came out to see the Pistons whip Boston 125-108.

John Salley started calling Pistons fans at the Silverdome “60,000 crazy carmakers.” And they were crazy. And they managed the unthinkable: They turned that huge football stadium into a cozy, intimidating basketball environment.

The Pistons moved to The Palace and never looked back. It was a great building when it opened that summer of 1988 and it remains so today, still the place considered a must-visit for anyone building a new arena. When the Pistons have been in the thick of title contention, there’s no better home crowd in the NBA – trust me, I’ve heard enough opposing players and coaches say as much to believe it’s not just hollow praise.

But the Silverdome had its charms, even when they made it something its forefathers never envisioned it to be: a home for Detroit’s NBA Pistons.