Niyo: Pistons built a Palace, now they’re moving on

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Joe Dumars, left, and Isiah Thomas led the Pistons to back-to-back titles in 1989-90, the sixth time in NBA history a team repeated.

Auburn Hills — All they wanted was a home of their own.

But once they got it, after all those years of searching, they wanted to make sure everyone knew it was theirs.

The Pistons built a Palace, and then they went ahead and crowned themselves. Because they knew if they didn’t, who would? They were from Detroit, after all, not NBA royalty from Los Angeles or Boston.

And the way Isiah Thomas saw it, it didn’t matter that the Pistons had left the city proper behind two decades earlier in search of a better deal, or a bigger venue. No, what mattered was that feeling of ownership. They certainly didn’t have that feeling sharing the cavernous Silverdome with the Detroit Lions.

“I can just remember driving down Woodward, playoff time, sun shining,” Thomas said recently, the smile on his face and the sound of his voice teaming up to take you back with him to the spring of 1989. “You’d pull up at The Palace, get out of your car and … it was the first time we had a home that was ours, that we weren’t sharing with anyone. Every other team, they’d had their own building. But this was our spot, this was our home.”

And if the sign out front didn’t say it, the noise inside sure did.

“Our house became very symbolic for our fans,” he said. “You don’t win here, you don’t play well here — you just come here to get beat. And that’s what we tried to do.”

Ahead of its time

That’s what they did, actually, christening their new home with back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and ’90, the “Bad Boys” bringing the league to its knees with a distinctly blue-collar version of basketball.

“The timing of this building was impeccable,” Thomas laughed.

Palace royalty: Pistons raised banners, expectations

And that it was also ahead of its time — a privately financed, state-of-the-art facility that became a blueprint for other sports and entertainment venues around the country — is just one more reason that this is so difficult now. The idea that it’s time to leave, time to go.

“I mean, it’s a building that has stood the test of time,” Thomas said, “and if not for the unique opportunity and unique circumstances that are happening in Detroit, I don’t know if this would be happening here.”

But it is, and already the Pistons have begun the difficult chore of packing up nearly 30 years full of memories from The Palace and carrying them downtown, where they’ll go back to sharing a home again — this time with the Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena.

They’ve held special halftime ceremonies to honor some of the Pistons’ legends who held court here and the rivalries they stoked, a “Best of Seven” series that stirred up all kinds of memories for the fans who used to pack the place. And while the arena’s ultimate fate isn’t yet known, owner Tom Gores has insisted, this landmark home that the late Bill Davidson built won’t be left to rot like the Pontiac Silverdome.

“Even if you’re moving, you still take care of it,” Gores said last fall, “and you respect it.”

And how could you not, remembering the heydays?

The franchise claims a pair of sellout streaks: 245 consecutive games starting with the Pistons’ Palace debut on Nov. 5, 1988 — Kelly Tripucka scored the first bucket — and then 259 in a row from 2004-09 as the Pistons won their third NBA title and finished off a run of six straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals.

There were some lean years in between, as the Pistons went more than a decade without a playoff series victory and fell out of fashion — literally — with those teal jerseys and flaming horse heads.

But after one of the original Bad Boys, Joe Dumars, took the helm as team president in the early 2000s, they found their way again, turning a defection (Grant Hill) into a revival of sorts. And the “Goin’ to Work” Pistons, a collection of talented castoffs from elsewhere, came together much like the championship roster that preceded them.

Pistons: Rousing fan support made Palace memorable

“We all know this was the house that the Bad Boys built,” said Ben Wallace, the undrafted, undersized center whose toughness and tenacity gave the team — and its fans — an identity that was lost. “But we came in and owned it. We didn’t just come in here and take it for granted that this great team played here and did such great things. We came in and we owned it, and we made it our home. …

“I played in a lot of other arenas, played a lot of home games in those arenas. But it never felt like home.”

When stars get dirty

At The Palace, they felt it even before they walked in the building. Wallace, a four-time NBA defensive player of the year whose blown-out afro became a full-blown marketing campaign, recalls pulling into the parking lot before Game 4 of the Pistons five-game “sweep” of the heavily favored Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals.

“I got out of my truck and I see a group of guys — it was about 15 guys — and they were dressed out in the ‘Fear the Fro’ starter kit,” Wallace said. “You know, they had the wigs on, they had the headbands, they had the long armbands. It was a special feeling that these fans really appreciated you.”

The Pistons have begun the chore of packing up nearly 30 years full of memories from The Palace of Auburn Hills.

What they appreciated most, though, was the selflessness the team displayed. “Best five alive!” they’d yell in the pregame huddle, and they meant it. A team without superstars?

“We were all superstars in our head,” said Rip Hamilton, the frenetic shooting guard who joined “Mr. Big Shot” — Chauncey “Buh-buh-buh Billups,” as P.A. announcer John Mason would say — to form a dynamic backcourt. “And when you’re talking about superstars, a lot of superstars don’t want to sacrifice, a lot of superstars don’t want to get their hands dirty. What we were willing to do was get our hands dirty.”

The fans did, too, as Erik Spoelstra, the Miami Heat coach who was an assistant on the visitors’ bench for back-to-back clashes in the conference finals in ’05-06, recalls.

“There was nothing like that,” he said of The Palace atmosphere during the playoffs. “I mean, there are some buildings that are just different. That crowd was ready. They were loud, they were nasty. Those were fun battles.”

Great moments

None were quite so much fun as the 2004 Finals, though, when the Pistons stunned the Lakers, who’d won three straight titles from 2000-03 and boasted a lineup featuring four future Hall of Famers.

“Nobody gave us a chance,” said Wallace, who went head-to-head with Shaquille O’Neal, refusing to back down. “People said we shouldn’t show up, no way you can beat the Lakers. … But the undertone in the locker room was like, ‘These people are crazy. They don’t have a clue. The Lakers don’t know what they’re in for.’

The Palace set standard for future arenas

“We had the city on our back and we had all these chips on our shoulders. And we just wanted to prove to the world, man, and we came out and we did it. That’s what made that championship so special, man.”

But that’s also what makes this “bittersweet,” Wallace noted last week, as he returned for one last Palace salute during the Pistons’ home game against Miami. (“Every time I walk into this building,” he said, “I get those jitters and the palms start sweating.”)

Same goes for the ringleader of the original Bad Boys, who admitted to getting weepy again when he came back to say farewell in February.

“There’s so many great memories here,” Thomas said. “And not just basketball memories, but people memories. To me, those are the things that always stick out, in terms of the generations of fans that watched us play here, shared memories here. You know, we had some great games and great moments.

“It’s just closing one chapter and opening another, and it’s an exciting time going back downtown to Detroit. But this place is special, to all of us.”

Special because it was theirs, he said, and everyone knew it.