Niyo: Start the clock on moving Pistons downtown

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills – They’ve come too far to not go back now.

Same goes for the city they once left behind, the one in the midst of its own comeback at the moment.

So as the final plans for this Pistons homecoming in Detroit get hashed out here in the coming weeks — or days, perhaps — it seemed fitting Friday night that the public-address system at The Palace brought back another blast from the past.

“The Final Countdown” drew some roars from the Palace crowd, as the anthem from the Pistons’ “Bad Boys” championship era — on hiatus in recent years — blared once more during pregame introductions before the home opener against the Orlando Magic.

And why not? Because as owner Tom Gores all but admitted moments earlier in a brief press conference, this one — a record-setting 108-82 rout for the Pistons — likely was the last one of those at The Palace.

After months of speculation, and plenty of discussion about earnest talks between Gores and his Platinum Equity group and the Ilitch family about a possible move downtown to join the Red Wings in their new Little Ceasars Arena, the Pistons owner left little doubt Friday night where this is all headed.

“I’m very close to a deal,” he said.

And while there are still details to be finalized — the length of a lease agreement possibly among them — it doesn’t sound like there’s a genuine deal-breaker up in the air.

“I never look at deals that way,” Gores said. “But again, just to be direct with you guys, we’ve had very good conversations with the Ilitches.”

‘A lot going on’

Nor does it sound as if there’s going to be much lag time once both parties decide to make it official, this reunion many never thought possible. The Red Wings and Pistons together again? Come on, not that long ago, you couldn’t even get them to put the other team’s results on the scoreboard at their respective arenas.

But now?

“I think if we’re gonna do it,” Gores nodded, “it’s gonna be soon.”

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And when asked if a Pistons move likely would be effective next season, concurrent with the Red Wings playing their first season in the new Midtown arena, Gores paused only for a split-second before answering, “That would be fair to say, yep.”

Yep, it’s happening, folks. Barring something dramatic at this point — and that’s always a possibility, even in a deal of this magnitude — the Pistons are headed back where they belong. And where Gores and his management team desperately want to be, reconnecting with the franchise’s roots but also tapping into the explosive growth near the center of Detroit’s urban renewal.

“I think that’s something that everybody would like,” Gores said, adding later that “there’s a lot going on down there.”

A lot more than there was in the late-1970s, certainly, when then-owner Bill Davidson pulled up stakes and left behind Cobo Arena and Detroit for Oakland County, first in a raucous pit stop at the Pontiac Silverdome and later in the state-of-the-art facility he built next to his Guardian Industries headquarters.

The Pistons won championships here and played to sold-out crowds for years. But not long after Davidson died in 2009, the music all but stopped. And as the team fell into ownership limbo, it also fell into disrepair — and dysfunction — on the court.

The resulting playoff drought — one the Pistons mercifully ended last spring — only made things worse when it came to fan support. This franchise has ranked in the bottom six in attendance in the NBA the last five seasons, and their 16,515 average crowd last season represented just 74.8 percent of capacity at the oversized Palace — fourth-worst in the league.

Respecting the old home

Gores and his team have made improvements to the Palace — pumping more than $40 million into arena upgrades — even as they overhauled the hardwood product, hiring Stan Van Gundy to run the basketball operations and then pushing the luxury tax with the payroll this season.

But there’s only so much they can do here, especially knowing the party’s going on downtown, demographically and otherwise. With the Sacramento Kings moving into their new downtown arena this fall, it leaves Detroit as the only one of the NBA’s 30 teams still playing in a suburban venue, and a distant one at that, surrounded by few other entertainment options.

What’s more, only Madison Square Garden — world-famous home to the New York Knicks — and Golden State’s Oracle Arena are older than the Palace, which opened in August 1988. But MSG underwent a $1 billion renovation that was completed a few years ago, and Golden State is planning to move into a new, privately-funded arena in San Francisco in 2019. Even Milwaukee’s Bradley Center, which opened a couple months after the Palace, is being replaced. In June, the city broke ground for a new arena that’ll open there in 2018.

Gores has said repeatedly he wants to “appreciate” the Palace, and all that went into building the memories it still harbors. He also made a point to note Davidson’s widow, Karen, and son Ethan were expected to be in attendance Friday night.

“I think we should take it in, I think we should enjoy The Palace,” he said. “And for this arena to be as lively and as functional as it is, so many years later, it’s pretty incredible.”

But so is this opportunity, the way he sees it. It’s why he brought super-agent Arn Tellem aboard last year, and why he partnered with Dan Gilbert — another billionaire NBA owner — to try to bring a Major League Soccer team to Detroit, and why he started writing checks left and right elsewhere in the city.

There are plenty more that will need to be written to make this all happen. The arena blueprints might already have been changed — Gores said Friday that’s not an issue — but there’s still a major land swap needed to build a practice facility for the Pistons.

Then there are larger — and more lucrative — questions about just how this joint endeavor might look down the road, whether it’s a merger of entertainment divisions, or a new TV rights deal or cable network for the sports properties, or even a possible ownership change involving one of the teams.

At the same time, there’s also the not-so-small matter of what to do with this Palace — and the fans that call this area home — they’d be leaving behind.

“This has been a real community,” Gores said. “And I want them to feel the same wherever we’re playing.”

But just in case there was any doubt about where he envisions the Pistons’ future, Gores, who was courtside in his retro Pistons t-shirt Friday night and tossing souvenirs to fans during timeouts, made it clear which way he’s leaning.

“Look, we’re serious,” he said. “We’re serious about making this move.”

So, finally, it seems, we can start the countdown.