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Wojo: Pistons step out of ageless Palace to start new era

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — The building doesn’t look its age, not even close. The Palace was ahead of its time 28 years ago, and it’s hard to believe it’s now past its time. The brick exterior still looks new, and the gigantic video screens are practically new.

And yet somewhere after The Palace’s grand opening, sometime after the Bad Boys and the Goin’ to Work Pistons and the three championships, something was lost — an identity. That’s why on Monday night, the Pistons played one more game, then shut down The Palace as an NBA home. To be clear, the arena never eroded, but the connection to the city did.

The Pistons are hopping on I-75 and moving back downtown, where basketball — the city game — is historically played.  And while it’s a shame to leave a building still so livable, the Pistons knew they needed new life. Unlike the celebratory nostalgia witnessed the day before at Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings closed out a 38-year run, this felt more like an amicable, necessary business transaction.

If the Joe was the neighborhood bar where everyone knew each other and the beer spilled freely, The Palace was the steakhouse with the cloth napkins. Oh, there were plenty of heartfelt cheers as the Pistons played their final home game, a 105-101 loss to the Washington Wizards. There were echoes of 1989 and 1990, and also of 2004, when The Palace noise reached its peak during the Pistons’ stunning thrashing of the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Fans say they will hold on to Pistons, Palace memories

The buildup to the finale was understated and the ending matched it. P.A. announcer John Mason implored the fans to follow the team to Detroit, an uplifting video played and it was over. Fans milled in the stands for an hour or so but there was nothing left to see, or really, to say.

Much like the disappointing season, this was more anticipation than fulfillment. Just before tip-off, the crowd roared when a familiar face strode from the darkness onto the court to deliver the game ball.

Bad Boys reunion

Behind the sunglasses and his standard bejeweled glitter, Dennis Rodman was back with a wave and grin.

So were Isiah Thomas, John Salley, James Edwards and Rick Mahorn, part of the group that christened The Palace with back-to-back championships, bringing the Bad Boy edge that gave the franchise its identity. When Thomas was shown on the big screen, he jumped and pumped his fist while unleashing one of his trademark laughs. Could it really be virtually 23 years to the day since he limped off the floor for the final time as a player with a torn Achilles?

“It’s bittersweet,” Thomas said. “But for those of us who have been around for a long time, this is (former mayor) Coleman Young’s dream come true. He always fought for the Lions, Pistons, Red Wings and Tigers to be downtown in one area. Everyone always understood the power of that. They say timing is everything, and where the city is right now, it needs its sports teams to give it that energy.”

And frankly, the Pistons need the energy in return. There were bursts of it Monday night, and the cheers grew when the ’04 champs were shown — Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince. That team carved its own identity 14 years after the first batch of winners. But in between the two eras, the Pistons went through a decade of malaise, trying fancy teal uniforms and rebuilding around a different kind of star in Grant Hill, while unleashing an endless string of failed coaches.

Gulf between goodbyes

That’s a major reason the differences between The Palace farewell and the Joe farewell were so stark.

The Pistons won three titles here, only one fewer than the Wings won at the Joe. But while the Wings made the playoffs 25 straight years, the Pistons lost their competitive connection in the '90s, and stagnated again after the last of six straight Eastern Conference finals in 2008. And when that happened, the distance to the far northern suburb became too far to overcome.

Parting The Palace: More party than sorrow

The erosion began before Tom Gores bought the team in 2011, and when the Ilitches launched Little Caesars Arena and District Detroit, it was the right time for the Pistons to reconnect. Gores said it on Nov. 22 last year, when he announced the team was joining the Wings in the new arena. That didn’t leave much time, not even a full season, to prepare for the final night, another reason The Palace farewell felt muted.

Tom Wilson was the longtime president and CEO of the Pistons, and since 2010, has served in a similar capacity with the Wings. He has seen both sides, and understands the contrast.

“I’ve always viewed this (Palace) as kind of a Disneyland, because it aspired to a different standard than the old arenas,” Wilson said. “This changed the arena world. But maybe it was too antiseptic, looking back at it. Whereas the Joe is Detroit, gritty, beat up a little bit, lots of hard times, it just seemed more kind of real.”

There will be no splitting the authenticity when the teams share the new arena. And after this empty spring, both could use the boost. Following a mini-rebound with a playoff appearance last season, the Pistons dove, and now hope for an invigorating do-over.

“While it’s an ending of sorts, I think for our organization, the exciting thing is it’s a beginning,” Stan Van Gundy said. “When the Pistons first came to Detroit, they were downtown. And guys like Dave Bing, who had a great career here and was a great businessman and mayor, people like that have been waiting for us to move downtown. We’re excited for the next step. Everything about these last couple of games and the last night is about looking forward, not back.”

There were a few tears as longtime fans, ushers and arena workers forced achy smiles during the finale.

There were nice video tributes and a halftime display of the franchise’s glittering championship trophies with the former players, but no speeches. And when it was over and the lights went down, there was a logistical impossibility — somehow the ending seemed premature, and also right on time.