by Ryan Pretzer
Part 1 of “Farewell, Fort Wayne” covered the genesis of the Pistons franchise, its founder and owner, Fred Zollner, and the team’s pre-NBA success under head coach Charlie Eckman. Part 2 begins with the Pistons’ first game in Detroit - 50 years ago Tuesday.
The Detroit Pistons’ first game was played downtown at Olympia on Oct. 23, 1957. The result, a 105-94 loss to the Boston Celtics, was the first of eight losses to the powerhouse Celtics that season. The Pistons would go 33-39, and Eckman was relieved as head coach. There were highlights, however. The Pistons had three All-Stars in 1958 - George Yardley, Gene Shue and Dick McGuire. Yardley became the first truly Detroit Pistons star, becoming the first NBA player to break the 2,000-point mark in a season.
"They had one real good player," said the Pistons official game scorer in the 1950s, Morrie Moorawnick, referring to Yardley. "But other teams had three or four good players."
Shue and center Walter Dukes started the 1960 All-Star game, the only time two Pistons have done so together. Their individual excellence, however, was no match for the brilliant Lakers, who didn’t let a move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960 disrupt a four-year streak of knocking the Pistons out of the playoffs from 1959-62.
Individual stars continued to shine for Detroit in the mid-1960s, such as Bailey Howell, Don Ohl and Dave DeBusschere, whose ill-fated turn as player-coach from 1964-67 prevented both the Pistons and their young star from reaching their full potential. In DeBusschere's final season as coach, a rookie point guard named Dave Bing joined the team.
“They were a bottom dweller because obviously they didn’t have a lot of talent," Bing recalled. "I came here and our first coach was a player-coach, Dave DeBusschere, who was only 26 years old, which was a mistake because Dave was still finding himself as an outstanding player, and having the additional responsibilities on him to coach the team kept him, I think, from developing as a player."
Bing’s followed up his 1967 Rookie of the Year campaign to join DeBusschere as an All-Star in 1968. The Pistons also returned to the playoffs. "We started to get an identity, I think, because we made the playoffs," Bing said of the '68 team. "DeBusschere was still on the team at that point, and we lost in six games to Boston, who went on to win the world championship."
DeBusschere was traded to New York the next season in a move that netted DeBusschere and the Knicks two NBA titles in the 1970s. The Pistons would not see the playoffs again for six years. “I think we realized we were not as good as the Lakers, not as good as the Celtics. Those were the teams that perennially played for the championship,” Bing said. “We were still trying to build.” The DeBusschere trade, however, had brought them back to square one. The Pistons closed the 1960s with out a single season above .500. "The city, like most cities, patronizes winners," Moorawnick said. He remembers adding a fourth digit to attendance figures when the team was drawing fewer than 1,000 fans a night. "They were happy with the team but they didn't show their happiness with buying tickets.”
Begin with Z
In 1952, the Pistons became the first team to travel by private plane. Zollner's DC-3, a.k.a. “The Flying Z,” was no Roundball One, to be sure, but it raised the bar for accommodating an ever more rigorous traveling regimen. Even when Bing joined the team 15 years later, the Pistons were still the envy of the league, according to the Hall of Famer.
"It wasn’t as good as the regular commercial planes, but because it was private and you only had to deal with people from the organization, you could set your own time as to when you’re going to leave. All of those were plusses," Bing said. "But it didn’t compare to a regular commercial flight."
Like a return flight aboard The Flying Z, the Pistons' journey to Detroit had endured its share of turbulence. A promising start in the NBL turned to a struggle on several fronts in the NBA. Zollner, such an active participant in the NBA and Pistons' early history, became a distant figure as he stayed in Fort Wayne to run his industry. "He paid the bills and he stayed away. He was a perfect owner for the players and coaches," Moorawnick said. "He only got involved when it was extremely necessary."
In some circles, Zollner's detachment became viewed as apathy. Since the Pistons joined the NBA, he had only two long-ago finals appearances and a handful of All-Stars who couldn't compete against teams so accomplished their reputations have been woven into the NBA mystique.
But Zollner's contributions should not be minimized. He is solely responsible for the Pistons moniker, one of the distinct team names in all of sports. And he remains the only member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame whose last name begins with “Z.”
Zollner, the man honored by the league as "Mr. Pro Basketball," was no longer the Pistons owner when he passed away in 1982. He didn’t live to see the greatest fruits of his labor, an organization that has led the NBA in attendance multiple times and won three NBA championships.
But the Pistons will always begin with Z.