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Palace Coup
Jack McCallum
November 05, 1990
Out in suburbia the Detroit Pistons have it all—titles and affluence—but there's bitterness downtown
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November 05, 1990

Palace Coup

Out in suburbia the Detroit Pistons have it all—titles and affluence—but there's bitterness downtown

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In the background is an increasingly beneficent owner, William Davidson, who after last season's NBA Finals flew team members and their significant others to the Bahamas, but who will not be found in the locker room after games, clapping his players on the back and introducing them to his cousin Sarah's hairdresser's husband. Finally, when McCartney or Michael Jackson or Madonna or, for that matter, the WWF Superstars of Wrestling, play The Palace, there is no shortage of Piston fans inviting their heroes to sip champagne in a private Palace suite.

Everyone wants to touch success, and in recent years the Pistons have brought triumph and honor to the Motor City area, where the football Lions and the baseball Tigers have fallen on hard times. Even Mayor Young would have to admit this much: The Pistons have traveled a lot farther than 30 miles, the distance from the old Cobo Arena downtown to The Palace.

Davidson, 67, a former end at Michigan (business administration degree) who earned a law degree at Wayne State, did not become the fourth-richest man in Michigan by being majority owner of the Pistons. Davidson built his half-billion-dollar empire by turning around floundering companies, but the Pistons eluded his Midas touch. He and 11 other investors—Davidson owns about 60% of the team—bought the franchise in 1974 for $8.1 million and thrashed around in red ink for 12 years. However, that was to be expected. "Historically," says Davidson, who bought the team from Fred Zollner 17 years after Zollner moved the franchise from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Detroit, "the Pistons were one of the most unsuccessful franchises in history."

In the 21 seasons the Pistons played in downtown Detroit—the first four at the University of Detroit Fieldhouse and Olympia Stadium, the last 17 at Cobo—they had a winning record in only three. Their top yearly attendance average was 7,492 in 1974-75, the final season legendary Pistons Dave Bing and Bob Lanier played together. "It was strictly a minor league operation, almost an antiteam, an albatross," says Piston CEO Tom Wilson, who joined the team in 1978, in time for its last season at Cobo.

Adds Harry Hutt, the Pistons' vice-president of marketing and broadcasting, "The club's idea of marketing in those days was to print a brochure, mail it and hope the phone would ring."

Still, there was something special about Cobo, an intimacy, a connection with the essence of the game (Kareem Abdul-Jab-bar, no fan of fans, once called those in Cobo the most knowledgeable in the league) and, above all, a kind of bad-dude charm. Former Piston guard John Mengelt remembers the night he was tangling with an opponent near the baseline when a fan pulled aside his coat to reveal a small pistol. "Yo," he said to Mengelt's combatant, "leave my man Mengelt alone."

Bing, still the reigning Mr. Piston even though he was traded in 1975, after Davidson wouldn't discuss a contract renegotiation, feels strongly about Cobo. "Guys playing today make a lot more money than we did," says Bing. "But they'll never know what they missed not playing at Cobo."

Davidson, a bottom-line man, saw nothing charming about empty seats, however, so in '78 he packed up his Pistons for the Pontiac Silverdome, which is 30 miles north of downtown Detroit. The Lions had preceded him there by three years. Davidson knows the scars of leaving Detroit may never heal, but he remains convinced that it had to be done.

"Detroit is a case of where downtown is not central to anything," he said recently, sitting still for a rare interview, in his office at Guardian Industries in suburban Northville. "For 80 percent of the fans in the Detroit metropolitan area, the suburbs are more convenient."

Balderdash, says Young. "The center of any area is the place where the freeways converge," he says, "and around here that point is downtown Detroit. Look, the Pistons did not draw as well as they would have liked downtown because they had a history of second-rate teams. Don't tell me about drawing, because the Red Wings fill up Joe Louis Arena."

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