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Pistons playing in city is Tom Gores' dream

Terry Foster
The Detroit News
Tom Gores said he launched his project only after deciding the Pistons were on the right path.

Pistons owner Tom Gores launched Project "Big Math," a sweeping idea for change and economic growth for the city of Detroit and state of Michigan, when he hired agent Arn Tellem last week as vice chairman of Palace Sports and Entertainment.

One of Tellem's first agenda items when he takes over Aug. 3 is to explore bringing the Pistons downtown from Auburn Hills. That likely would mean a meeting with Chris Ilitch and Mike Ilitch from Olympia Entertainment, which has launched a $650 million arena and business project.

"We will put Arn in charge of helping us analyze how we can talk to the other business leaders," Gores said. "We are going to charter Arn to study that (moving downtown). It will be one of his first things."

The Pistons have two viable options. They can move into the new Red Wings arena, which is scheduled to open in 2017, and share it with Olympia Entertainment. There is also a Hail Mary option to tear down the half-built Wayne County Jail and build an arena in conjunction with Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert.

Gilbert owns the NBA's Cavaliers, who play in Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland. He is pushing for Gores to move the Pistons to downtown Detroit.

"It's hard to compete not being in an urban corridor," Gilbert told The Detroit News last week. "You have to sell more than just the game. You have to sell the entire experience, and you can't get that in a field (in Auburn Hills). You gotta get that in an urban corridor, where there are restaurants or casinos or other entertainment venues."

If the Pistons move, The Palace would not close. It would remain as a special-events and concert venue.

The team played at Cobo Arena until 1978, when owner Bill Davidson moved the franchise to the Pontiac Silverdome rather than join the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. The Pistons also played games at Olympia Stadium just outside of downtown.

Former Detroit Northern basketball star and NBA player Derrick Coleman applauds a move downtown and hopes the Pistons go orward with the idea.

"I think that would be huge for the city with everything that is going on downtown with the Tigers, the Lions and Red Wings," Coleman said. "Every time I am with Dave (Bing) he tells me how he played at Cobo Arena. And I remember when the dome on the Silverdome collapses and Isiah (Thomas) and Bernard King played at Joe Louis Arena. The atmosphere was crazy."

Olympia Entertainment president Tom Wilson said in a statement that he is willing to work with Gores in future business ventures.

"With The District Detroit, we're planning and building a vibrant, walkable and active sports and entertainment district that will feature events throughout the year across numerous venues and public spaces. We appreciate what Tom Gores and the Pistons organization have accomplished, and we're absolutely open to any partnerships that bring exciting, unique events to Detroit and its fans."

Gilbert said he has met with Gores and Gores said he hopes they have more discussions about downtown projects.

"I've gotten to know him a little bit, a handful of meetings, he seems like a good guy. (The Palace) is a nice building," Gilbert said. "I assume the one being built down here will be able to have the option to have a second team. I always thought it would've been smart for the governor, the Pistons and the Red Wings to talk. Maybe they have. I'm not in those meetings."

Project Big Math isn't just about sports and entertainment. It is about unification of the community and the power brokers that guide Detroit, which includes racing czar Roger Penske, Gilbert, Olympia Entertainment and Gores' Platinum Equity.

Gores and his people talked about Detroit being a big canvas that is mostly blank. However, they see opportunities to join Gilbert and Ilitch, who own many of the key pieces downtown. But Gores' vision is not just about collecting property and collecting rent.

He said he wants to build playgrounds and gyms for young people to play in and keep them out of the streets. He wants to expand education opportunities and further assists places like the Jalen Rose Academy. He wants to build business and neighborhoods.

"It is very exciting and we are made for that," Gores said. "We are business people and there is a big chance to help the community, economically and financially. There are a lot of parts here but there is something magical that this business can do to impact people in the community and that is a very big part as to why Arn came aboard. He wanted to take it to another level."

Gores is worth at least $2.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He grew up in Flint and attended Michigan State University. Even though he lived in Southern California the Michigan vibe never left him.

Now Gores wants to impact his hometown of Flint, Detroit and the state of Michigan.

Gores said he launched Big Math only after he was convinced Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy was on the right path with the team. He only hired Tellem after getting the green light from Van Gundy.

"The first part is we have to get the floor right and if we don't get the floor right, we can't talk the talk or walk the walk," Gores said. "We are all about how our players play and hard work. That is the beginning of the vision."


Detroit was once a thriving community built off automotive labor. It boasted a population as high as 1.8 million. Now it is less than half that. Riots, a crumbling economy and racial division rocked the city. It became a city of divisions.

Tom Gores: "It is a huge project. We are dealing with tons of history. We have to pull everybody together."

Blacks versus whites, city versus suburbs. Business leaders wouldn't cooperate. One of the biggest divides in sports featured former Pistons owner Davidson and current Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.

Now Gores wants to bridge the divide and work together with Gilbert and the Ilitch family.

"As the new guy on the block it is incumbent upon us to make that happen," Gores said. "We have spoken to the Ilitches and they have been very nice. They are quality people and there is more that Dan and I can do. It is incumbent for us to bring it all together. I do believe we can. Sometimes it helps to be the new kid on the block because there is less history. We can't be in the same house working against each other."

Gores wants Tellem to have a boots-on-the-ground mentality. He plans to meet with power brokers, community leaders and small business owners to get a lay of the land.

"There is so much detail and that is why, quite honestly, we need someone in charge of that," Gores said. "It is a huge project. We are dealing with tons of history. We have to pull everybody together. When you look at downtown, there is a jail in the middle of everything. There are things that don't make sense. Our focus with Arn is we want to dig in. We need to affect change and the only way we can do that is if we have somebody on the ground every day pounding their hands on the table. How are we going to make change? Arn is going to help us on the strategic side to pull all these things together."

Gores' Platinum partner Mark Barnhill said history could be made. No city in America has been as devastated as Detroit. There are huge plots of abandoned land and crumbling buildings. The right vision can turn this city around.

"This is an unprecedented opportunity," Barnhill said. "There is nowhere in history with an opportunity like this in this kind of urban area. We love a good turnaround story. That is what we do. Now that we are in the middle of this we see this as a great opportunity. Tom is a High Math kind of guy. He has the ability to see something bigger here and he has the opportunity to move in a massive scale to not just participate and turn around a company but to turn around a city and affect hundreds of thousands of lives. That is a high responsibility and high inspiration to be able to plunge into this."

Gores knows mistakes might be made. He might be criticized for certain things. But he is eager and willing to put both feet into this project.

"I could not live with myself if I did not do this," Gores said. "I want to deliver. I don't know when it is going to be good enough, but I want to deliver and one way to do that is to bring great people and ideas to the city. We can't do it alone. We have to bring people in that believe in Detroit. And I assure you that I won't let you down.";

Bob Wojnowski contributed to this report