Casey welcomes Hearns, encourages Pistons' pride in Motor City

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
The Pistons pose for a shot with guest visitor Thomas Hearns.

Auburn Hills — Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey was an integral part of the Toronto Raptors’ turnaround, through their “We the North” campaign.

Casey could be on the verge of another rebranding effort, as the Pistons look to establish a new identity. He’s six weeks into his first season in Detroit, but Casey already sees the connection between some of the city’s sports icons and the brand of basketball he wants to play.

In the past few weeks, the Pistons have had a visit from former Detroit mayor Dave Bing, an NBA Hall of Fame player with the team in the 1960s and ‘70s, and from former boxing champion Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns

Bringing Hearns to speak after a practice was an effort to infuse some swagger into the Pistons and give them an appreciation for Detroit’s rich heritage of motivation and work ethic.

“He’s a Detroit legend. That’s what I want to try to do: bring as many people here who represent the city of Detroit and give our guys a sense of understanding and pride,” Casey said Thursday. “Detroit is about hard work — the grind, the grit.

The Bad Boys era of the Pistons of the 1980’s helped give the Pistons an identity during their heyday — and though there is no copying that moniker or the “Goin’ to Work” era of the 2004 team, having an appreciation for what Detroiters mean is a step in the right direction.

“Even though the game has changed since the Bad Boys … it’s still about the grind, the grit, the edge they played with. Not one night, not one possession, but every night, every possession,” Casey said. “That’s what we’re trying to build and that’s why we brought the Hitman in and Dave Bing talked about — that pride that you have in representing the city of Detroit and state of Michigan.

“It’s so important. It’s not something you can wave a magic wand at and guys are going to get it. It’s going to be a constant message of what we’re trying to represent and establish and be like.”

Blake Griffin, who is becoming the face of the franchise in this season’s surprising 11-7 start, sees the benefit of having some of the city’s icons, especially in a time the sports landscape has changed so much.

In an era of free agency, there aren’t as many familiar stars and even Griffin, who arrived in January, has had to learn about the city — but in that short time, has come to appreciate the Detroit sports fan base.

“It is important for us as guys because a lot of times now, you get so many guys from so many different places and travel all over the country and you’re friends with everybody and it’s easy to disconnect yourself from the fan base and the city,” Griffin said. “It’s what Casey is trying to do. This city appreciates hard work and teams that play hard. That’s part of the identity we want to have.

“I said at the beginning of the season that this city will support a team that comes out and plays as hard as they can and gives everything every night. They’re smart enough to know that not every team is going to win every game, but if you give them the product they can be proud of, they’ll support it.”

Embracing the Cobra

Hearns’ ubiquitous reputation in Detroit wasn’t as obvious for the Pistons — many of whom had never even seen one of his fights on video, given that his last bout was at The Palace in 2006. After hearing him talk, they had respect for the journey that Hearns made to become a world champion and found ways to relate his struggle to their own.

“I didn’t even know who Tommy Hearns was until meeting him. I wasn’t a big boxing fan but (I respect) the mark he left on this city and mark on this team, just about his will and fight,” guard Reggie Bullock admitted. “It’s a great individual story to hear what he went through in his life and the things he went through to become the person he is today.

“There are a lot of similarities in what you went through in your regular neighborhood growing up. Hearing those same types of stories is great to see the will and fight somebody puts through to get to where they are today.”

The turnaround effort is applicable to the Pistons’ first quarter of their season, as they’ve shown some moxie in staying above .500 and countering their losing skids with winning streaks. It’s similar to Casey’s seven years with the Raptors.

He didn’t try to use a similar approach in bringing in Toronto celebrities but sees this as a unique trait for Detroit.

“Here, it’s about the grit and grind and the former success the city and team have had, with three championships,” Casey said. “There, we started from scratch. Here, we have a base to come from: guys like Rick Mahorn, (Bill) Laimbeer. Those guys are still here and around the organization.

“I would’ve used (the icons) if I had it in other places. Here, we have a great history of basketball and sports in this city and a great fan base. What we have to do is get back to that fan base and give them a reason to come out and be supportive.”

Looking back

For Griffin, coming to a franchise that had a championship history was a benefit, something that is palpable every day in practice and in talking to die

hard fans. In his time with the Clippers, Griffin had some success, but nothing like the Pistons have had.

He’s looking to help get back to those glory days.

“Franchises like this and ones that have won a lot have a standard — and that doesn’t go away. There are people here from the Bad Boys era; that mentality is what you want to keep around,” Griffin said. “It’s important to guys that when you come to practice every day, you look up and see all the retired jerseys the division and conference championships and obviously the three (NBA championship banners) and you know this is a place that knows how to get it done.”

Bulls at Pistons

Tip-off: 7 Friday, Little Caesars Arena

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Outlook: The Pistons (11-7) are surging, with five wins in their last six games. The Bulls (5-17) are reeling, having lost four straight and eight of their last nine. Luke Kennard (shoulder sprain) was assigned to the Grand Rapids Drive for Friday’s game.