Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Detroit Still Lags as a Basketball Town

Detroit never has, never will be, a basketball town.

At times it can be a great football town. Witness the multiple sell-outs at Ford Field for a team that has been, by far, the worst in the NFL for the past 10 years.

Detroit is also a city that calls itself Hockeytown, the ultimate in metropolitan-wide hubris. But it's hard to deny that status, what with Joe Louis Arena tightly packed on most nights.

The true old-timers will tell you that Detroit is none of those---that it's a baseball town, and one of the best in America. Again, hard to deny, when 30,000+ file through the turnstiles in a summer when half the town is out of work, practically.

Baseball goes farther back in history than any of the sports in Detroit; we're talking the late-19th century, for goodness sakes.

Detroit---the city of Cobb and Heilmann and Greenberg and Gehringer. Of Kaline and Cash and Lolich and Horton. And so on.

Detroit could be any of those three things: Football city; Hockeytown; Baseball city.

What it is not, is much of a basketball burg.

The Pistons, ever since landing on Detroit's doorstep in a basket with a note signed by Fort Wayne, Indiana, has lagged behind its three sports brethren in town.

The Pistons wouldn't have made it through the 1960s if it wasn't for freebies distributed at the local fast food joints and other retailers. They wouldn't have made it through the '70s if it wasn't for Dave Bing and Bob Lanier.

And they wouldn't have made it into the Palace if it hadn't been for the inflated attendance figures at the Silverdome, a facility that enabled the Pistons to again hand out freebies and heavily discounted tickets so that they could boast ridiculous crowds like 50,000 for an NBA game.

The fans cheered the Pistons fiercely in the Bad Boys days of the late-1980s, early-1990s, and they went mad for them during the championship run of 2004 and the near-miss of 2005.

But the Pistons are unlike the three other major teams in town, in that they typically don't get the love when they're down.

The Pistons were a sideshow in the 1960s, playing in sparkling new Cobo Arena before crowds that hovered around 3,000 or so a night. Then they moved to the Silverdome in 1978, probably a necessity at the time, so they could play in a facility that could hold tens of thousands of curious onlookers---thus exposing more folks to the wonders of the NBA.

The Pistons play in a beautiful arena---the Palace was ahead of its time when it was built in 1988---but they are, once again, the redheaded stepchild of Detroit sports.

Detroit isn't a basketball town. What it is, is a frontrunner town when it comes to pro hoops.

Win, and the people will show up. Lose, and they won't. They never have.

The Pistons have never been supported in their down years like the Lions, Red Wings and Tigers have. Not even close.

Yes, the Red Wings were moribund when Mike Ilitch bought them in 1982. But that was only after a stretch in which the team failed to make the playoffs in 11 of the 12 previous years. It took a long time for the Red Wings to lose fan support.

It traditionally has taken the Pistons about a year, maybe two, to see a dramatic downturn in attendance when they've struggled to string together some wins.

I was at Game 3 of the 2004 Finals against the Lakers, and I've never been in an area as loud as the Palace was that night. And I was at JLA in April 1984 when Isiah Thomas made us go bonkers with 16 points in 90 seconds against the Knicks in the playoffs.

I was also at the last game at Olympia Stadium, the roof of which I thought was going to collapse after Greg Joly scored on an end-to-end rush late in the third period to tie a game the Red Wings had once trailed in, 4-0.

But neither of those legendary nights compared to the deafening noise that engulfed the Palace on that June evening in 2004.

The Pistons played the Atlanta Hawks last night at the Palace and the arena, by all accounts, was a nice place to go to get some homework done, or to get caught up on your reading.

Detroit isn't a basketball town, and it's not just because the team plays way up in freaking Auburn Hills, which doesn't help attendance on a cold, snowy night when any team not named the Celtics, Lakers or Heat are visiting.

Detroit isn't New York. Or Philadelphia. Or Boston---cities where pro basketball wasn't invented, but where it sure was refined and made legitimate.

Detroit loves pro basketball when its team is winning. When the Pistons aren't, then the people around here will always find something better to do.

It's been like that since 1957, when the Pistons switched cities.

Yet I see the Lions sell out when they've won but six of their past 51 games. I've seen crowds at Comerica Park that weren't befitting the Tigers' lack of success on the field.

The Red Wings have been good forever, but even the 17-win team of 1985-86 could draw some crowds.

Pro basketball has never really been a good fit for Detroit, for whatever reason. It's had its moments, but those moments have come when the Pistons were an on-court delight.

Now that the Pistons have returned to losing ways, you're seeing the true degree of which they're supported in Detroit.

That is to say, not very much.

The next owner ought to move them back into the city. It couldn't hurt. But it's not a slam dunk to say that it will help, either.

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