Opening Tip

Did Palace’s 1988 opener help lead to Dream Team’s existence?

Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas took part in the first basketball game played at The Palace.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images
There are firsts and then there are absolute firsts. Most historians would cite Nov. 5, 1988 as the first game at The Palace, when the Pistons opened what would become their first championship season – an absolute first of the highest order – with a 94-85 win over the expansion Charlotte Hornets.

But while that was the first Pistons game, that wasn’t the first basketball game at The Palace.

(And, no, it’s not a trick question. The answer isn’t the first home preseason game, either. The Pistons wanted their regular-season opener to be their first game at The Palace with all of the attendant fanfare. So they played all of their preseason games on the road that year, even the ones designated as “home” games.)

The first basketball game came more than two months earlier, shortly after the August 13 public unveiling of the building with a Police concert. It was August 21, 1988 when the U.S. Olympic basketball team, about to head to South Korea for the Summer Games, played the fifth of an eight-game tour against rosters of NBA players across the country. And when all was said and done, what happened that day might have been the beginning of the end for the idea that collegiate amateurs could represent the United States in future Olympic games.

The Olympians were 4-0 when they came to The Palace for a Sunday afternoon game. By happenstance, I drove up Perry Street that day through Pontiac as it becomes Lapeer Road trailing Jack McCloskey and his wife, Leslie, and we arrived in the parking lot at the same time. He was beaming, as you might expect, the general manager of a team on the verge of big things about to move a budding powerhouse into what would soon be seen as the NBA’s showplace.

The roster of NBA players, as you also might expect, was heavy on Pistons for that game against the Olympians.

Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars made up the starting backcourt and, yes, Vinnie Johnson was coming off the bench. One other backcourt sub was coming off a rookie season in which he showed some promise: Reggie Miller. Up front, ex-Piston Earl Cureton was joined by two of Miller’s Indiana Pacers teammates, Chuck Person and Herb Williams, as well as Pistons Dennis Rodman and John Salley, plus Roy Tarpley, the Detroiter who’d played at Michigan.

It was as close as Isiah and Joe D would ever get to the Olympics. Isiah’s shot was scrubbed by the United States boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games when he was coming off his freshman season at Indiana; Joe D was cut from the 1984 team – along with Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Karl Malone – by Bobby Knight. (Yeah, I know, the Dream Team ignored them both. That’s another story.)

Given that they were playing the guts of the future two-time NBA champions, augmented by a handful of really good players, it’s no big surprise that those Olympians left The Palace with their first loss, 90-83. They would finish the tour 6-2. Under Georgetown coach John Thompson, they went to Seoul as mild favorites to win gold – mostly because history suggested they should have been. The United States had won every basketball men’s gold since it became an Olympic sport in 1936 except for the 1972 swindle in Munich – a game that everyone except Dave Blatt, apparently, believes was stolen from the Americans – and the ’80 boycott year.

But the world was catching up. The Americans lost to the Soviets in the semifinals and settled for bronze.

In retrospect, it’s probably no mystery why the Americans lost. They really didn’t have a point guard. Lots of talented scorers on the perimeter and good big men – David Robinson and Danny Manning, for starters, plus Charles Smith and a young Alonzo Mourning, who hadn’t yet played for Georgetown – but Bimbo Coles was the only point guard on the roster. And those who remember Coles from his long NBA career know he wasn’t a classic floor leader or a truly dynamic player. The strength of the team was its wing players, which included two Michigan kids – Traverse City’s Dan Majerle, who averaged 14.1 points a game to lead the team in scoring, and Flint’s Jeff Grayer – to go with Mitch Richmond, Hersey Hawkins and Stacey Augmon.

That was it for sending our college kids to the world’s basketball stage, of course. The notion that our amateurs could beat everybody else’s professionals no longer held. Anybody at The Palace for the first basketball game it ever hosted might have been able to spot the warning signs for themselves.