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For much of their 33-year existence in the NBA, the Detroit Pistons stumbled and bumbled along like Otis the town drunk. "Detroit was the place G.M.'s and coaches used to threaten players with," says Piston assistant coach Brendan Suhr. "You know, 'Shape up or I'll move your butt to Detroit.' "
"Now we're the team that everyone wants to play for," says Piston captain Isiah Thomas. "It used to be the Lakers or Boston. But now it's the Pistons, no doubt about it."
Would your good friend Earvin Johnson, captain of the Lakers, agree with that, Isiah? Thomas smiles and says, "He wouldn't have any choice but to agree. It's simple fact."
And so it is; Detroit has become the model NBA franchise. Last season the Pistons won their second consecutive league championship and cleared an estimated $14 million in profits. They have even scrubbed and polished their image to befit their state-of-the-art suburban home, The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is a 45-minute drive from downtown Detroit. In short, all but the most unforgiving critics of the erstwhile Bad Boys now must acknowledge that, while the Pistons are still a little physical at times, their success of late has been built on talent, teamwork and tenacity.
Ah, happiness in Greater Detroit, right? So let's have the obligatory words of praise from Coleman Young, the mayor of Detroit. Take it away, Your Honor:
"I have resentment toward the Pistons, absolutely. I've been to exactly one Piston game since they left town [in 1978], and I've not been to The Palace at all. I don't expect I'll ever go." Young slammed his fist down on his office desk and continued, "I interpret the Pistons' leaving the city as almost a hostile act."
Whoa, there's a script changer, eh? In this time of plenty, the Pistons seem to have everything save a close, personal relationship with the city whose name they bear. This was not the first pro sports franchise to relocate to the suburbs, nor will it be the last. But because the Pistons' recent achievements stand in such stark contrast to the city of Detroit's bevy of social and economic woes, and because the mayor has been so critical of the team, the club's decision to leave downtown embodies all sorts of sociological issues, including city versus suburbs, black versus white and poor versus affluent.
As one might suspect, sociological issues do not weigh heavily on the minds of most Piston players, who have drunk deeply from the cup of suburban success. Oh, to be young and a Piston. Just playing in The Palace is no small reward. And as for road games, the Pistons climb onto their luxurious team plane, Roundball One, and head to their next destination. No late-night room service or early-morning wake-up calls for them.
Most of the players live in one of the tony suburbs near The Palace—West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester Hills or Southfield—all of which are far removed from Detroit's inner-city turmoil. They play for a coach, Chuck Daly, who pushes them hard but not too hard, and who is also qualified to decide if the subtle stripe in a player's shirt matches the shade of his new silk lie.