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Shrink City
Steve Rushin
April 29, 2002
Its population in decline and its fans wracked by anxiety, Detroit is desperate for a winner
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April 29, 2002

Shrink City

Its population in decline and its fans wracked by anxiety, Detroit is desperate for a winner

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Of the many challenges facing America since Sept. 11, this may be the least important: It is now exceedingly difficult, if not downright impossible, to enter an arena with an octopus in your trousers.

But if you live in Detroit, whose population shriveled to fewer than one million in the last U.S. census, the crackdown on concealed cephalopods is of consequence, one more blow to civic self-esteem. "It's really hard now to get octopuses into this place," said 50-year-old Rick Barnes, standing in the highest row of Joe Louis Arena, as the Red Wings were losing last Friday night. "And that's too bad." Too bad, because a rain of octopi on the ice at JLA was one of the few proud sports traditions remaining in Detroit, whose Tigers started this season 0-11, making them slightly better than the Lions, who started last season 0-12.

Sure, the Wings' roster is filled with future Hall of Famers, they're coached by a current Hall of Famer, and they had the league's best record in the regular season. Yet until Sunday's 3-1 victory over the Canucks, the Wings hadn't won a game in April and, even then, remained in danger of being wet-vacked from the first round of the NHL playoffs for the second consecutive year.

When Kmart announced not long ago that it would pull its sponsorship of all Detroit's professional teams, Jay Leno asked, "How embarrassing is that? Kmart thinks you're a loser."

What's troubling is not that Detroit, in the 1990s, lost more citizens than any U.S. city save Baltimore. It's that one of those citizens was Barry Sanders. For beyond the four-ton sculpture of a black fist downtown, or the 86-foot-tall Uniroyal tire off I-94, or poet laureates Eminem (Kill You) and Kid Rock (Blow Me), Detroit's civic icons are its athletes. "Since I've been here," says Wings captain Steve Yzerman, who played his first game in Detroit in 1983, "I've witnessed the Tigers win a World Series, the Pistons win two titles and us win two Stanley Cups. And every time, it gave the city a buzz, a sense of pride. It makes people feel good about where they're from."

But now? Greg Martin doesn't feel good about where he's from. Except for a brief sojourn in Chicago and a year's exile in northern Michigan, the 42-year-old prosthetics-and-orthotics salesman has spent his life in Detroit, working to build a better city: Half of all strippers in the metropolis, he estimates, wear his breast implants. And yet, "If they blew up this city tomorrow," he said while booing the Wings on Friday night, "it wouldn't be front-page news nationally. Page 3 or 4, maybe."

Detroit remained intact on Saturday, though the Tigers gave up 12 runs and lost in Chicago, and the Lions drafted Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington, not the first choice of president Matt Millen but reportedly that of the Lions' owners, William Clay Ford Sr. and Jr. After Bill Jr. was named CEO of the Ford Motor Co. last fall, he said he'd be forced to spend less time with his football team. "Unless," he added, "they need me to play quarterback. And the way things are going...." It was that kind of year for Junior, whose company has spent $3 billion recalling defective Firestone tires from its Explorer SUVs.

So there was much at stake on Sunday—hours after the Tigers gave up eight runs in the first inning at Comiskey Park—when the Pistons set out to win an NBA playoff game for the first time in three years. Again clad in Bad Boy blue and red, the Pistons are the toast of southeast Michigan. Bob Seger showed up at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Sunday night. Thomas Hearns had either the world's largest piece of lint on his lapel or wore—could it be? Yes, it is!—a fur-trimmed suit coat.

Countless kids wore wigs resembling the explosion-at-Bikini-Atoll Afro favored by Detroit forward Ben Wallace. The Pistons promptly spanked the Raptors 85-63. The crowd was so in need of collective catharsis that few faulted them for the jet-engine-loud jeering that had drowned out O Canada before tip-off. "It was a little distasteful," said Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse, "but the fans have stuck up for us all season, so I'm going to stick up for them tonight and say that they were just booing Toronto."

That's the spirit. Detroit is taking lemons and making lemonade. This fall the Lions will move into a beautiful new $315 million downtown stadium. Ford Field will have an artificial playing surface composed, in large part, of recycled rubber.

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