A win-win: Pistons get a G League team, Detroit gets another avenue to opportunity

Dwane Casey loves the idea of having the Pistons field a G League team a 3-point shot away from its NBA parent. Troy Weaver, the team’s new general manager, comes to the job from Oklahoma City, where the G League franchise played home games literally across the street from the Thunder’s Chesapeake Energy Arena. Weaver, too, is thrilled with the built-in advantages for a front office of having the G League franchise operating under the same corporate umbrella and in such proximity.

And those, overwhelmingly, are valid enough reasons for the move the Pistons signaled a few years ago and Wednesday made a reality – the purchase of the Northern Arizona Suns from the Phoenix Suns with the intention of having the team, still to be named, play home games starting in 2021-22 at a new arena under construction on the campus of Wayne State University.

But wait, as they say on TV – there’s more.

The purchase of a G League franchise relocated to Detroit is the logical extension of the vision Pistons owner Tom Gores enunciated on the day he bought the franchise nine years ago – and one he put most dramatically into action in 2016 with the announcement that the Pistons, after 40 years in the northern suburbs, would be returning to their roots in Detroit.

At the same time that Casey, Weaver and Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem were holding a virtual press conference Wednesday afternoon to discuss the G League news, the Pistons announced they were partnering with the foundations of former Pistons owner Bill Davidson and former Buffalo Bills owner and Detroit native Ralph Wilson to host eight weeks of free activities at five Detroit parks amid a summer when that type of thing is more precious than ever.

It's not only in the splashy moves – moving the Pistons downtown, bringing a G League team to Detroit – but in the ones that generate fewer headlines but mean every bit as much at a grass-roots level that a professional sports franchise can fulfill its commitment to civic engagement. Nothing is more grass roots than the 60 city basketball courts the Pistons have already or are in the process of saving from disrepair and turning them into polished jewels.

Many give the whole “community trust” thing not much more than lip service, but the Pistons under Gores have been models of community activism. That accelerated with the recruitment of Tellem, who spent a long career as a pre-eminent agent representing scores of baseball and NBA players, as vice chairman.

Tellem has a holistic perspective of the coming placement of a G League franchise on Wayne State’s campus, where the new arena will also serve as home to the university’s athletic teams.

Yes, he is fully on board with the logic Casey and Weaver see in having a G League team in the city. Young players can practice with the Pistons in the morning, play a G League game that night and be back at Pistons practice the next day. Veterans can get a rehab practice in with the G League team if the Pistons are on the road. Young players will have access to elite medical treatments and training facilities. Development coaches don’t have to accompany a young player across the state for a few days or a week at a time, being available to help the players under their charge at both levels.

But Tellem is equally enthused about the opportunities he sees for touching Wayne State’s students and giving them invaluable real-life experiences with the G League team.

“We saw the G League team as a great opportunity to amplify our efforts in the community and our partnership with Wayne State,” he said. “Wayne State is one of the great urban universities in our country with such a rich history of distinguished alumni. We’re looking forward to having internships with Wayne State students and thrilled about the partnership.”

Students interested in pursuing careers in the many fields that intersect at the hub of a professional sports enterprise – marketing, sales, physical therapy, community relations, physical training, coaching, broadcasting, video production, etc., etc., etc. – are going to have a vibrant laboratory at their disposal with the placement of a G League team on their campus.

When the Pistons were devising plans for their Henry Ford Pistons Performance Center, Tellem sought ways to make it not a walled compound but a place that invited community participation. He spoke Wednesday about how the Pistons have connected the dots from the PPC in the New Center area to the Wayne State campus a short walk south to Little Caesars Arena at the heart of District Detroit another stone’s throw away.

“When we looked to move the team downtown, there were three parts I discussed with Tom as part of our vision,” Tellem said, ticking off making Little Caesars the home arena, bringing the new practice center and team headquarters to life and housing a G League team in the city.

“We have, starting with Tom, who’s really been the inspiration here, we have assembled a great front office,” Tellem said. “We already had a great coaching staff and we have all the facilities, to me, that are unparalleled with a great arena, practice facility and now a new G League arena in Detroit. I think we have the premier facilities of any team in the league.”

The headline from Wednesday’s news was that the Pistons bought a G League team and the first paragraph of the story is how that enhances the development of their young players to benefit the franchise. But there’s more to the story. Down at the grass-roots level, it’s a story about how a professional sports team honors its commitment to the city it calls home.