Graham: Mourning The Palace, since no one else will
Saying goodbye to the Auburn Hills arena, whose time hasn’t yet passed although decision makers say otherwise
The Palace of Auburn Hills never lost its luster.
It was a grand arena when it opened in 1988, and it’s a grand arena today. Wide concourses, clean floors, comfortable seats, sterling sight lines, manageable parking. Owners never let it fall apart and constantly pumped money back into it; it was state of the art then, and it’s state of the art now. It has a perpetual gleam in its proverbial eye.
However, forces that have nothing to do with its viability have deemed that its time is up, so now it’s being yanked from its rightful place like a passenger on board a United Airlines flight. Time to go, no use arguing.
And while Joe Louis Arena, a downtown dump whose time had long since passed, was given a grand, season-long send-off, The Palace closing is being treated with the indifference of a new Pitbull single. The Pistons played their final game there Monday, and after the final buzzer, fans shuffled out of the arena with a shrug of the shoulders, almost confused by the lack of commemoration of nearly 30 years of history.
I can’t remember the first time I went to The Palace. It was either the Ringling Bros. Circus or a New Kids on the Block concert, both in 1989 when I was in sixth grade. I’ve been going there steadily ever since, for basketball games, concerts, even a pro wrestling event or two, and have never had a bad experience in the stately brick manor off of Interstate 75.
The memories are vivid. I remember sitting in the upper deck and watching Michael Jordan play during a regular season Pistons-Bulls game and booing him even though I was in awe of him (and was probably wearing a pair of his sneakers), because the rivalry was heated and that’s what you’re supposed to do. I remember emerging from a No Doubt concert soaked in sweat and swearing that Gwen Stefani made eye contact with me during the show. I saw the whole crowd on the floor rush to the stage like an emoji of a wave when Big Sean brought out Kanye West as a surprise guest during his concert.
I saw Bruce Springsteen at The Palace during his reunion tour with the E Street Band and on at least three subsequent tours. I saw Jay Z, I saw West, and I saw Jay Z with West. I’ve seen just about every touring arena act in the last 20 years there at least once: Tina Turner, Beastie Boys, the Smashing Pumpkins, Michael Buble, Panic! at the Disco, Pink, Avril Lavigne, Foo Fighters, Guns N’ Roses, Bob Seger, One Direction, Green Day, Miley Cyrus (as Hannah Montana), Miley Cyrus (as Miley Cyrus), Justin Timberlake, Justin Timberlake with Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Kings of Leon, Demi Lovato, Maroon 5, Billy Joel and Elton John, Coldplay, Usher, Nine Inch Nails, Justin Bieber, Drake, Beyoncé, Pitbull (with Enrique Iglesias), Pitbull (with Ke$ha), Bruno Mars, Janet Jackson, Weezer, the Weeknd, AC/DC, Lil Wayne, Britney Spears, Bon Jovi, Muse, John Mayer, Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood, Sade, Adele, Roger Waters, Kid Rock, Van Halen, Skrillex, U2. That’s just off the top of my head.
Venues come and go, that’s understood, and there’s no use crying over a building because it’s not going to cry back. But The Palace was special, and that is thanks in large part to its staff, who was always friendly and accommodating, and had seemingly taken a page out of the Disney handbook where guests are to be treated as royalty.
Ticket-takers had warm, honest smiles. Ushers were friendly and helpful, and seemed pleased to be working. For some it was a second job. I remember talking to an usher, a 50ish woman from Lake Orion, when the Pistons played the Golden State Warriors in December. She loved the gig because it got her out of the house at night and put her in the same room with superstars like Adele, whose concert she could hear even if she wasn’t necessarily watching the stage. As her position migrates south in the fall with the opening of Little Caesars Arena, she won’t be following it.
The lack of ceremony around The Palace’s closing probably has to do with history and geography. Tiger Stadium and Joe Louis Arena were storied downtown sports meccas where fathers and sons built memories together. They were Detroit when Detroit wasn’t cool, and both of them had seen their better days when it was time to finally say goodbye. Auburn Hills was never cool and will never be cool; there’s nothing to do there except go to The Palace and jump back on the highway. And while it’s one of the oldest arenas in the NBA, The Palace isn’t old enough to be considered historic, and doesn’t have any of the grit or wear we associate with age.
The future of the building is unclear. No closing date has been set, and there are concerts booked there through September. It could stay and continue to host concert acts, but its final act will probably be a meeting with a wrecking ball sooner than later.
So that’s it. It’s not going out on its own terms, the fight is being called with its back turned. It’s a sad way to go out, but at least it’s going out on top.