How Motor City Cruise, Wayne State partnership realizes third piece of Tom Gores’ vision for Detroit Pistons move downtown

Vince Ellis
Special for Pistons.com

The Motor City Cruise lost the G League franchise’s first game at Wayne State Fieldhouse on Thursday night.

A near sellout crowd witnessed the occasion that saw the Wisconsin Herd use a late push to take a 121-116 victory. Second-year guard Saben Lee’s 33 points weren’t enough to stop the Cruise from falling to 1-1 on the young season.

Cruise general manager Rob Murphy welcomed fans and Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver – along with G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim – witnessed the minor league’s introduction to Detroit. Detroit hip-hop artist Sada Baby performed at halftime. Pistons Hall of Famer Ben Wallace was seated courtside.

The occasion also represented the third piece of Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores’ decision to move the franchise back to downtown Detroit, the next chapter in the journey that began when the Pistons decided to return to downtown Detroit after spending nearly 30 years in northern Oakland County.

The full commitment came in three steps, all negotiated under the supervision of Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem.

First, the Pistons would play home games at Little Caesars Arena. Second, the Pistons would build a new headquarters that would house basketball and business operations. The last step was to bring a G League franchise to Detroit to offer an improved developmental experience for young players while also bringing an affordable entertainment option for city residents.

And from the reaction of the crowd, city residents appreciate the new pro sports team.

 “Five years ago we announced an ambitious plan that would not only move the Pistons downtown, it would serve as a new catalyst for revitalization throughout the city and the region,” Gores said in a released statement. “The Motor City Cruise and the new facility at Wayne State represent another important milestone that delivers on that vision.”

Providing a solution for a significant problem

Wayne State has sponsored basketball since 1918, but never had a true facility. The Matthaei Center was built in 1965 as part of Detroit’s bid to host the 1968 Summer Olympics. It was to host gymnastics, but when the bid failed, the university housed the basketball program there.

“It was never intended as a basketball facility, but that's what it became,” Wayne State athletic director Ron Fournier said. “So when you ask the question why the need, the bigger question is why the wait? How many other institutions across the country have built basketball arenas in the last 104 years and we've just been waiting for one?”

But small college athletic departments seeking approval for dollars for athletic facilities is a daunting path.

“The athletic budget at Wayne State is about $5 million dollars,” Fournier said. “We have got to be a little more creative with how we manage things.”

When Fournier saw the Pistons were moving back to downtown Detroit, he saw an opportunity. He cold called the Pistons to ask if they would be interested in helping Wayne State build a facility.

The Pistons were in the process of examining its G League options. An affiliate agreement was in place with the Grand Rapids Drive, but closer options were being explored. G League franchises serve as a place where an NBA team’s young prospects get needed experience. The closer the G League team, the easier it is from a logistical standpoint. From practices to playing experience to rehab assignments, proximity makes things more efficient.

Olympia Entertainment and Detroit city government were the partners in moving downtown; Henry Ford Health System provided the partnership to build the corporate headquarters. Wayne State fit the bill when it came to the G League.

“With Tom and Arn, they're always looking at opportunities to partner, whether that's with community partners, philanthropic partners, private or public,” Pistons executive vice president of operations Josh Bartelstein said. “Then that's what they task us on is figuring out how to move the franchise forward.”

After a negotiation, the two sides announced an agreement to build a $25 million facility on the western edge of Wayne State’s athletic fields.  Wayne State would pay for it with $22 million in bonds and $3 million in fundraising. The Pistons signed a lease paying nearly $900,000 in yearly rent.

“Without the support of the Pistons, the arrangement doesn't happen,” Fournier said. “In higher education today, with budget cuts and reductions in higher education funding, you're not going to find $25 million under a mattress. That's just not going to happen, so the partnership is what made it happen.

“That was the foundation for the agreement.”

What’s comes next?

The Pistons purchased a G League franchise in the summer of 2020. The Pistons sponsored a franchise naming contest and Gores, and his wife, Holly, picked the winning entry of Motor City Cruise.

A short distance from LCA and the Henry Ford-Detroit Pistons Performance Center, the 3,000-seat, 70,000-square-foot facility features one main court that can be divided into two courts; five locker rooms; coach's office, film room and conference room. The floor is sunken, meaning when fans enter the facility, they take steps downward to seating. There are many LED screens and there are three clubs: two on the concourse and another behind the Cruise bench.

“Anywhere you sit, it feels intimate,” Bartelstein said. “It's loud. There's great acoustics. You're going to get to see a great show.”

The Wayne State men’s basketball team opened the facility earlier this month with a game against Michigan, and the G League investment is already paying off for the Pistons.

Highly touted rookie Cade Cunningham suffered an ankle injury early in training camp, forcing him to miss the first five games of the Pistons’ season. After recovering, he needed to practice against real competition to return to playing shape. The Pistons were on the road, but he was able to remain in Detroit and practice with the G League team.

After a slow start, Cunningham has excelled the last few games, which includes a 20-point scoring outburst in helping the Pistons win Wednesday night at Houston.

But it goes beyond helping the Pistons win. Gores and the franchise want to be a positive force for the city and investing in partnerships with organizations like Wayne State and Henry Ford can help accomplish those goals. Tellem said you can expect Pistons support for Wayne State with internships, mentoring programs and providing pipelines to hire Wayne State graduates.

Tellem hints that more is to come in the New Center and Midtown neighborhoods. “We’re looking at bigger projects now where we’re going to continue to partner and look at how we can develop this area together,” he said. “This will be the springboard for future action, and there are some exciting things being discussed where we will continue to develop this area in a meaningful way that’s going to help us and benefit the city.”