Detroit — When Ahmed AlJorani moved from Baghdad to Farmington Hills in 2007, he found community and energy with the Pistons, as the local NBA team was riding high as perennial championship contenders.
Over a decade later, a community of diehards has deteriorated and a trip downtown to Little Caesars Arena is usually devoid of the juice fans once found at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
“When I moved here it was a good era. It was amazing, everybody was cheering for the Pistons,” said AlJorani before Tuesday’s home regular season finale, his blue No. 33 Jonas Jerebko jersey proof he’s suffered through lean times. “It’s always been entertaining, but the basketball wasn’t that great.”
The Pistons return to the playoffs Sunday at Milwaukee for the first time in three seasons, seeking their first playoff win since 2008, when “April In The D” was stuck in your head all spring and Barack Obama was a just a candidate for the presidency.
To get there, the Pistons overcame a 22-point deficit against Memphis on Tuesday, then resoundingly survived a near do-or-die game Wednesday in New York to finish a perfectly average 41-41 and squeeze into the playoffs.
Was it a clutch week to fulfill a preliminary promise laid out by first-year head coach Dwane Casey in his charge of resuscitating a once-proud franchise?
Or, a playoff berth tainted by a weak Eastern Conference, a token setup for a four-game beatdown from the Bucks?
Maybe a little of both, and it depends on who you talk to.
Whether momentous or mirage, NBA fandom has undergone a cultural shift since Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups owned the East.
The old franchise arc of incremental improvements and culture corrections are no longer absolute signs a team is headed in the right direction. Tanking, winning by losing and boosting your draft status, is the preferred path for many, especially younger fans.
These days, the Detroit fan base is split.
Even Wednesday morning, with a win that night clinching a playoff spot, an informal Twitter poll by the “Jamie and Stoney” radio show on 97.1 The Ticket showed 36 percent of nearly 2,000 voters preferring the Pistons lose.
“There’s a lot of fans that want to see the playoffs, it’s been forever since they’ve seen the playoffs, why wouldn’t you want to see the playoffs, right? It’s the spirit of sports,” said Jeff Riger, a reporter and host on The Ticket. “There are other fans who absolutely don’t want to see the playoffs because of a couple reasons: A, They’re mad that they didn’t decide to tank, or B, they believe this will be a message that they need to blow it up.”
Transcendent superstars like Kevin Durant and LeBron James are the only ones left standing these days, they argue, and the days of the uniquely selfless collection of spare parts, like the last Pistons championship era, are over.
The debate, which hits a crescendo every year around February’s trade deadline, is about the only passion topic for callers about the Pistons, Riger said.
“I think fans are resigned to the fact that it’s not going to work,” Riger said. “I think there’s a lot of anger.”
The Pistons have finished over .500 once in 11 years, losing many casual fans. Despite LCA being only in year two, the Pistons are 24th of 30 NBA teams in attendance, averaging 16.486 fans, according to ESPN.com — 78.5 percent capacity, last in the league.
While the Red Wings and Tigers have dutifully submitted to painful rebuilds, owner Tom Gores and the front office have pushed forward, believing an All-NBA player like Blake Griffin and All-Star in Andre Drummond can be centerpieces for a meaningful ascent.
Drummond, in his seventh year but only 25, has been around for a string of disappointments but has a strong faction of allies among the fan base.
Joe Sinke of Grand Rapids, known as @joe_truck on Twitter, has been a driver of the Drummond bandwagon in online circles.
“He’s like a cheat code,” Sinke said, citing his rebounding prowess. “It just upsets me when people so badly want to hate on somebody or dislike somebody, that they can’t even appreciate them.”
For years, Sinke has wore his Pistons fandom on his sleeve, writing previews and recaps on nearly every game on Reddit and other blogs, interacting daily with fans on Twitter, and hosting a regular podcast called Hashtag Pistons with blogger Ku Khahil of Clinton Township.
Sinke, a Grand Rapids Community College student, will soon also be wearing his fandom on his back.
Detroit Bad Boys, a website covering the team as part of the SB Nation network, recently conducted March Madness style bracket of #PistonsTwitter members to find a “champion.”
Sinke unleashed his Reddit readers on the polls, unearthed years-old bad “takes” from opponents, and even combed an underbelly of political Twitter trolls to assist.
He thus admits his title is tainted but plans to make good on a campaign promise to get “2019 Pistons Twitter Champion” tattooed on his back.
Sinke, 24, has an August appointment booked with Lansing artist Mike Riina — who Sinke has never met but has become friends online with on #PistonsTwitter.
Sinke said he plans to drive across the state for a game next week, meeting with a fellow group of online diehards who found a community keeping the Pistons faith.
“The Pistons don’t realistically stand much of a chance,” Sinke said. “But screw it, it’s fun to make the playoffs. It’s more fun than tanking. So yeah, I’m happy about it.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.
Pistons vs. Bucks
Game 1: Pistons at Bucks, Sunday, 7 p.m. (FSD Plus, 97.1 FM)
Game 2: Pistons at Bucks, Wednesday, 8 p.m. (FSD, 950 AM)
Game 3: Bucks at Pistons, April 20, 8 p.m. (FSD, 97.1 FM)
Game 4: Bucks at Pistons, April 22, 8 p.m. (FSD, 950 AM)
* Game 5: Pistons at Bucks, April 24
* Game 6: Bucks at Pistons, April 26
* Game 7: Pistons at Bucks, April 28
* - if necessary