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Indeed, despite the fact that they haven't won a Stanley Cup in 35 years, the Red Wings have averaged an impressive 16,679 per regular-season game since 1979, when they moved into 19,275-seat Joe Louis, which is next to Cobo on the Detroit River. The Pistons do not deny that the Red Wings are successful downtown, but they don't consider that situation applicable to them. The Wings play to an audience culled not only from longtime hockey fans downtown but also from those in Windsor, Ontario, just minutes across the river. The Pistons, by and large, were never able to tap into that Canadian audience, nor to turn around the reality that Detroit is much more a hockey town than a basketball town.
At any rate, the Pistons at the Silverdome were, at first, the same joke in a different venue. "You know Johnny Carson's Art Fern character, the guy who sells anything at any price?" says Hutt. "That was us. 'You got no money for a season ticket? Don't worry about it. We don't care. We have partial season ticket plans, we have partial-partial season ticket plans, we have half-partial-partial season ticket plans. Just buy something!' "
The Pistons tried every manner of dog-and-pony show, and nothing worked, largely because, to quote a certain mayor, the product was still second-rate—Detroit went 30-52, 16-66 and 21-61 in its first three years in Pontiac.
Those early days in Pontiac were also the days of Dick Vitale, who was hired as coach in 1978. Vitale had just finished resurrecting the University of Detroit basketball program. He was probably the city's best-known sports figure and undeniably its most energetic. Small problem: He was in way, way over his head in the pros. "He evaluated names, not talent," says Davidson.
Which is why on Sept. 6, 1979—the date Davidson calls "my lowest moment as an owner"—Vitale made what is known as The McAdoo Deal. Detroit gave Boston two first-round picks in the 1980 draft, plus free agent M.L. Carr, for Bob McAdoo. The Celtics eventually landed Kevin McHale and Robert Parish with those draft choices, while the Pistons got a complaining, oft-injured ball hog who played in just 64 games in two seasons before being waived.
Davidson had seen enough. He fired Vitale after the Pistons got off to a 4-8 start in 1979-80. Shortly thereafter, he hired Jack McCloskey, an assistant to Indiana Pacer coach Slick Leonard at the time, as general manager. That was probably the one single move that turned around the Pistons. But a lot of other things fell into place too.
McCloskey's two first-round picks in the 1981 draft, Thomas and Kelly Tripucka, proved to be, as Wilson says, "players you could hitch your marketing wagon to." They made the Pistons better. Daly came along before the 1983-84 season and started to work his seamless magic. Joe Dumars (1985) and John Salley and Dennis Rodman (both 1986) arrived in shrewd back-to-back McCloskey drafts and, suddenly, Pontiac, Mich., was one of basketball's hot spots. "The Pistons had the best marketing plan in the world," says Suhr. "They won."
However, they weren't completely happy playing at the Silverdome. It seems they were saddled with what Wilson called "the worst lease in basketball." Moreover, they played in an 80,000-seat arena in which even a large crowd could be swallowed up by the Moby Dick size of the place. "You could easily lose the energy level in there," says Thomas.
To management, returning downtown was not a viable option. Forced out of the Silverdome by a collapsed roof near the end of the 1984-85 season, the Pistons played one regular-season game at Cobo and nine regular-season and five playoff games at Joe Louis. Two were sellouts, but the rest were not terribly successful. "We knew then that we could never go back," says one Piston insider.
The Pistons, who would go back to the Silverdome for three more seasons, did get one thing out of their brief return downtown—a remembrance of how nice it is to play in an intimate setting. Wilson theorizes that the seeds to build the 21,454-seat Palace were planted in Davidson's mind during the team's brief stint at Cobo and Joe Louis. Davidson says his decision had more to do with a cumulative dissatisfaction with the Silver-dome, along with a conversation he had with Thomas after the 1986 season. The Atlanta Hawks had just eliminated the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs, and Thomas was pessimistic about the team's future. "We have no tradition, no heritage, no nothing here," he told Davidson. "For us to be successful, it's got to mean something to be a Piston."