‘The right move’: Pistons returning to Detroit

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit -- Professional basketball is set to call the City of Detroit home for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Pistons owner Tom Gores is flanked by Christopher Ilitch and Adam Silver.

With a unanimous go-ahead on Tuesday from the Downtown Development Authority, owners of the Detroit Pistons and Detroit Red Wings announced an agreement that starting with the 2017-18 seasons, the teams will share the new Little Caesars Arena.

Team officials spent Tuesday morning draping the new parking garage adjacent to the arena construction site with Pistons photos, and a banner reading, in big, white letters on a black backdrop, "Detroit Basketball."

Pistons owner Tom Gores and Ilitch Holdings CEO Chris Ilitch met the media later Tuesday afternoon, along with Mayor Mike Duggan and NBA commissioner Adam Silver, before a crowd of hundreds of VIPs at Detroit Cass Technical High School.

"It's time," Gores said at the start of the press conference, which was preceded, fittingly, by the playing of Etta James' "At Last." "This is the right move."

Ethan Davidson: Dad wanted to move Pistons back downtown

With the move, Detroit will become the only North American city with four major professional sports teams within four blocks of each other, in a city center.

Pending approval early next year from the Detroit City Council and the Michigan Strategic Fund, this will be the Pistons' final season at The Palace of Auburn Hills, a still-sparkling venue that opened in 1988, and has seen Gores pour millions into renovations since he bought the Pistons, Palace and DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston in 2011 -- two years after Pistons owner Bill Davidson died, and left the team to his widow, Karen.

Rendering of the inside of Little Caesars Arena after the proposed Pistons move.

But Gores, a Flint native and Michigan State alumnus who made his billions in the global private equity sphere, always had an eye on Detroit before and after buying the Pistons. In June 2015, he hired sports-agent/power broker Arn Tellem to coordinate the early effort to move the Pistons back downtown.

"We want to be all in on Detroit," Tellem said at the DDA meeting ahead of the press conference. "We want to do right by the city and community here."

The Pistons last played full-time in Detroit in 1978, before Davidson moved the team, first to the Pontiac Silverdome, and then to The Palace.

The Pistons also will move their corporate headquarters downtown and will build a practice facility, to open in 2018. One possible site for the practice facility is directly north of the arena, on top of a proposed parking deck. The city would own the parking deck, and the Pistons would pay up to $55 million for the practice facility.

There was no immediate word on the terms of a lease at Little Caesars Arena; Tellem said the Pistons' lease would be the same length as the Red Wings' -- multiple decades. The DDA will own the new arena. Ground broke on the Red Wings' new arena -- which will replace Joe Louis Arena, opened in 1979 -- in September 2014, and is estimated to cost nearly $800 million by the time it opens next year, just down Woodward Avenue from the other two pro sports arenas, Comerica Park and Ford Field.

The DDA OK'd another $35 million to $40 million in construction costs to amend the arena to comply with the Pistons' needs. In addition, the Pistons' history will be on display at Little Caesars Arena, with Gores tapping Bill Davidson's son, Ethan, to serve as Pistons curator.

Ethan Davidson told The News his Dad would've been happy with Tuesday's announcement, and had been discussing a move back to the city shortly before his death.

Tellem estimated as many as 2,000 jobs could be created by the move, from construction work to the spillover effect on the community's bars and restaurants. Gores said his staff will talk to Palace employees about their futures.

As part of the agreement, the Pistons also plan to build youth recreation facilities, host youth basketball clinics, and donate 20,000 free tickets to city residents. The DDA estimates there are 60 basketball courts spread over 40 parks in serious disarray. As part of the agreement, the Pistons will pay $2.5 million to upgrade all the courts to "first-class" standards.

"We're delighted not to just move to the city," said Tellem, "but commit to all these community benefits."

Said Ilitch, who represented his family (Mike and Marian Ilitch were not present): "I see us building a very bright future for our community, together."

The Pistons and Red Wings each play 41 home games a season. Capacity at Little Caesars Arena is expected to be around 21,000 for basketball, 20,000 for hockey and it will vary for concerts and other special events.

Silver said the Pistons moving back downtown enhances their chances of getting an NBA All-Star Game in the not-so-distant future. The Palace never hosted an NBA All-Star Game.

There was no immediate word on the plans for The Palace or its uber-valuable land, other than Gores saying there are a number of possibilities -- including possible redevelopment. Gores had been in discussions to sell it to Oakland County, but those talks didn't progress to a deal.

Several dignitaries were on hand for the press conference, including for Pistons great and Detroit mayor David Bing.

Duggan said after he was elected mayor in 2013, he had a long conversation with Chris Ilitch, who presented Duggan with a litany of projects his organization was working on, or had plans to start working on. At the end of the discussion, Ilitch said to Duggan: "Is there anything I can do for you."

"One thing," Duggan replied. "I want the Pistons."


Twitter @tonypaul1984