Sunday, May 07, 2006

Cobo Was Pistons' Palace Long Before Auburn Hills

The Pistons, we are told, just performed before their 129th consecutive sellout at the Palace of Auburn Hills. And this time they really are telling the truth. I don’t see too many seats where there should be fannies, and we’re talking about a 21,000+ capacity.

It wasn’t always that way, though – telling the truth about game attendance. The Pistons didn’t count so good back in the day.

“What year are we in?,” one of the old P.A. announcers once asked Jerry Green of the Detroit News.

“1967,” Green replied, puzzled.

“Tonight’s attendance,” the P.A. guy boomed into his microphone, “One thousand, nine-hundred and sixty-seven.”

At least, that’s the way Jerry recalls it.

I don’t doubt him, because when the Pistons slogged around in the muck of apathy in Detroit, trying to sell pro basketball to the denizens, Cobo Arena – their spiffy new digs on the city’s riverfront – was a great place to go, if you needed to study for a test, or wanted some peace and quiet away from the spouse and kidlets.

Cobo Arena

It wasn’t that the team didn’t try to draw even the most curious to their product. They left free vouchers at a lot of the fast fry chicken joints and burger biggie holes around town. The Pistons, so desperate for living, breathing humans, didn’t always care if the folks who came to see them paid any admission for the privilege.

Most of the time, the people stayed away. Like Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, you can’t stop them.”

And Pistons fans couldn’t be stopped from not coming to Cobo. A crowd of 5,000 was considered something to shout about. This is circa the mid-1960’s.

But after the team drafted a guard named Dave Bing, then added a big, brooding center named Bob Lanier, folks started to notice their pro basketball club. A brutal, angry, seven-game playoff series with the Chicago Bulls in 1974 helped stick the pin into Detroit on the NBA’s map. Crowds that came close to touching 10,000 were becoming more and more frequent. Still, it would take about three of those 1970’s crowds to fill the Palace once.

Pro basketball has long been thought of as a New York game. Or a Philadelphia game. Or a Boston game. It has never, truly, been a Detroit game. Recent success aside, when the Pistons were suiting up dreadful ballclubs throughout their history – including some recent bad teams of the 1990’s – seats at the Palace, or the Silverdome, or very definitely Cobo Arena, were plentiful. And this from a town that can’t get enough of a football team that hasn’t won the Big One in nearly 50 years. Even meaningless exhibition games achieve sell-out status at Ford Field.

There was supposed to be a “popping” sound. But with the crowd typically small, it was more of a “puff.”

Yet Cobo – that big, round black building nestled between the RenCen and Joe Louis Arena – was actually a pretty good place to watch basketball. The sight lines were pleasing, the intimacy was there, and of course you could always get a ticket. It may not mean anything to today’s fans, with their Ben Wallace afros, but the roster of players who played in Cobo as they made their way through the NBA is impressive: Wilt Chamberlain; Bill Russell; Elgin Baylor; Oscar Robertson; Lew Alcindor, All these, and many more, ran up and down Cobo’s hardwood floor at one time or another from 1960-1978. It’s not thought of in that way, though, as Tiger Stadium or Olympia Stadium are – old sports Taj Majals whose interiors were invaded by legends of their respective sports. But it’s no less true. Sports fans around here may not have cared very much, but Cobo Arena has history. Just not very many people bothered to come out to see it happen.

Dancing Gus did, however.

He was Gus Sinaris, a legitimate vendor at Cobo, and he was tagged Dancing Gus because of his act he often performed during timeouts, peaking in its popularity during the 1973-74 season, in which the Pistons went 52-30 – big-time winners for the first time in their inglorious history.

Gus, a large, roly-poly man with a smushed-in nose and a perpetual 5:00 shadow, would set his wares down between aisles and wiggle and jiggle his candy stripe-uniformed barrel of a body to the timeout music, while the scoreboard above center court screamed in big, lighted letters: DANCE FOR US, GUS!!

I once saw Gus do his thing in Cobo’s upper level, perilously close to the balcony railing. As the crowd roared, Gus boogied a little too close to the short barrier, and darn near toppled over onto the folks below. There was a collective gasp, then cheering as it was apparent that Gus was, indeed, still alive and well in the aisle. I’m sure it wasn’t the first nor last time Dancing Gus almost became Broken Gus.

The Pistons also broke out a mascot called the Magic Cylinder that season. Inside was equipment manager Jerry Dziedzic. Outside of him was a large, heavy, foam and rubber knock-off of an engine’s piston. Pretty clever, huh?

“We had the Magic Cylinder one season,” Dziedzic told Green in a book about the Pistons that was published in 1991. “Then we retired it into the Mascot Hall of Fame.”

Once, the team tried Turkey Pop Gun Night, around Thanksgiving time. Fans were given paper and cardboard muskets, and were told to, on cue from the P.A. announcer, snap them in unison. There was supposed to be a “popping” sound. But with the crowd typically small, it was more of a “puff.”

In 1968, the Pistons, coached by Donnis Butcher, went up against the daunted Celtics in the playoffs. And after three games, the Pistons held a 2-1 advantage, thanks to an upset in Boston in Game 3. So in front of one of the loudest, craziest, and largest crowds in Cobo Arena history, the Pistons played Game 4 against the Celtics and…got their asses kicked. They lost the series two games later. And in typical fashion, fans who weren’t in attendance may not even have known about that Game 4, thanks to a long newspaper strike. Certainly they couldn’t have been listening on the radio. You think the attendance figures were bad?

Ask a Pistons fan born after 1970 about Cobo Arena, and you might get something like, “Isn’t that where some cool concerts have been held?,” or, “Isn’t that where Nancy Kerrigan got whacked in the knee?”

Well, yeah. It’s also where this writer was chased halfway around the perimeter of its hockey rink configuration by Brad “Motor City Smitty” Smith, who wanted a piece of me. If you missed that column, e-mail me and I’ll enlighten you sometime.

But it was also the home of the Pistons. Served the team well, too, for 18 seasons. Even if it was mostly an empty Palace in those days.


Chas Hogan said...

Gus was also a long time fixture at Tiger Stadium and Olympia. All the concession contracts around town in those days were held by Sportsservice Inc, who employed all the same workers in several facilities (Hotel, Restaurant, and Foodservice Workers, Local 25). I knew Gus well working in the commissaries for 7 years in the 1970s.

Gus's flattened nose was the result of an earlier career in boxing. He was also slightly punchy and hard of hearing, which were sometimes mistakenly attrributed to alchohol. Years in an auto plant may have contributed to the hearing problem. He would often borrow a few dollars before the game to get his first load of dogs, then usually forgot about the loan by the end of the game. But he always paid up without argument when reminded. He'd also ask for a new loan the next day, and had forgotten my name from the day before. I probably reminded him of my name almost every game day for 7 years.

Gus could enjoy his share of drink on occasion, and his boxing stamina never left him. I once saw him at a Riverfront Greek festival, lumbering along with 4-5 of Detroit's finest draped over him in some vain effort to subdue him. When he saw me his eyes twinkled and he laughed, then shook off the cops like a dog shaking off water.

Gus was a Detroit icon for many years before I knew him, and for several years after he left town. To people who attended home games, he was probably better known than half the players. Gus was more than a vendor, he was part of the show. Gus was an event.

Greg Eno said...

Thanks for the memories, Chas! Very cool!

Anonymous said...

Gus was often only show at Cobo and the last 13 years there I sat in TierC,Sec.4,Row D ,Seat 1.Season tickets were about 100 bucks but well worth it. We controlled that place and if you were a BUM ( Tresvant,Olsen, Eberhard, Norwood and Herb Brown )you know we were up there. Henry Dickerson once tried to get up to us in pre-game but couldn't find his way to the balcony.Gus never vended at Cobo. He worked his day job at Chrysler and then came to games. If he drank (infrequently ) he would totally lose it and he was one cheap guy. He brought his boy Jimmy (Cock-Robin )who was miscast in Gus' show when he got older. Jimmy also vended at the Ballpark. We have so many Gus stories and Cobo stories to fill a book. Ask Curt Slvester, Charlie Vincent or George Eichorn and they will tell you all about the 'BALCONY BUMS"

Greg Eno said...

Good stuff, anonymous!!

Anonymous said...

Gus couldn't remember his own name let alone someone else's. One summer we took Gus out of town with us during softball season. Bobby ( Nat'l USSSA Hall of Fame member) and I hooked up with this zany, but very good team from St. Clair Shores. Bobby and I were Downrivwer guys but we liked the bizarre antics of this team. We went to a place called Lakeshore House and I thought Gus might be a treat for everyone. I don't remember a great deal of the night, but I know Gus was a big hit with everyone so we adopted him as mascot. We won a tournament early that year, and then shaved Gus's head (Bic disposables, no shaving cream )which looked like a big tomato when we were done. He was terrified by lobsters, so one night in Milwaukee we puchased a live lobster in the hotel restaurant. Several guys took turns chasing Gus around the hotel with lobster in tow. . He was a mess and feared that live lobster immensely. Finally, we had a raffle later in the summer and the drawing took place at a residence in the Shores. Gus showed up, got drunk and then, just before the drawing,Guus pulled out about $500 worth of ticket stubs. They were purchased for the most part by Tiger players ( Thompson, Fidrych, Kemp , et ). When our sponsor asked for the money, Gus started crying and said " I spent it all". Our sponsor proceed to rough up Gus.It was hilarious and even though he stole our money,the story was so funny that we were rolling on the ground in hysterical laughter. Gus is a monumental goof. but we loved him just the same.