Pistons' Election Day drive a highlight of organization's involvement in community

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
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Detroit — In June, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson had a grand idea about how to jump-start voter engagement, education and awareness ahead of the general election.

It doesn’t hurt to dream big.

Everything came together Tuesday morning, as Benson inserted her ballot envelope into the dropbox and closed the door.

That was it; voting was that simple.

Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence is pictured with Arn Tellem and Dwane Casey on Tuesday.

Benson, along with Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem and head coach Dwane Casey, took part in a small ceremony to demonstrate the ease of dropping off absentee ballots on Election Day.  Having a drop box in front of the Pistons’ practice facility in midtown Detroit was just one of the ways in which the team helped make voting easier during the pandemic.

The practice facility also served as a receiving board Tuesday night, securing many of the votes from precincts around the city. In addition, about 150 Pistons employees assisted as poll workers.

Benson wanted the Pistons to be the first pro sports team to get fully engaged and Tellem was on board almost immediately.

“I didn't think he would say yes to everything we asked for. He did, which was really amazing. We came up with a laundry list of things like — and this was long before anyone had thought of using an arena as a polling place or asking teams to lend to their personnel as poll workers,” Benson said Tuesday. “We just shot for the moon and said would you be willing to use the Performance Center, and Little Caesars Arena?

“Could we have some folks who get Coach Casey and others involved, and they said yes to everything and then once I realized the robustness of what we had been talking about, we knew it could be a model for other teams.”

More sports teams got involved, including the Atlanta Hawks and the Los Angeles Dodgers and More Than a Vote, an advocacy group composed of athletes and entertainers, including LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes, Damian Lillard and CC Sabathia.

The Pistons have been involved in voter registration and education and went beyond doing public-service announcements to make an impact on the metro Detroit area, giving a different face to the push for voting.

“When we began these conversations early in June, I said this is not the year to just put a sign up and do a PSA,” Benson said. “This is what I told the More Than a Vote folks as well — this is the year to actually get in the game, to combat voter suppression, do voter education work, get in the arena, literally, and make the arenas available for voting.”

Tellem acknowledged that this is one of the most important elections in his lifetime and that he wanted to do more than sports teams had done in the past. The partnership with Benson was about not just using the Pistons’ name, but putting in additional resources — including giving their employees an off day on Tuesday — was an effort to transform the way they think about elections.

“We haven't just talked the game — we've walked the talk. We have over 150 employees that are serving as poll workers today. I don't think any organization can say that anywhere,” Tellem said. “I'm proud that it's been everybody in the organization that really has been involved and engaged and wanting to do our best for this community.”

Fueling effort

Benson, Casey and Tellem made another stop Tuesday at a voting precinct at Northwest Activities Center in Detroit, part of the Pistons’ effort to offer meal trucks at a few of the busiest polling locations around the city.

They talked to workers outside, interacted with voters and encouraged first-time voters.

For Casey, it’s vitally important to be part of the process and continue the Pistons’ efforts, which have become part of the team culture, from team owner Tom Gores down to the players and other employees.

“They didn't have to encourage me hard because I'm 63 years old. My grandparents weren't allowed to vote; my great-grandparents weren't allowed to vote, so when I had the opportunity to have a voice and impact in this election, it became personal,” Casey said. “Not only did encourage us, but we encouraged the players to be informed of who you're voting for and why you're voting for and to be involved — and I think that's throughout the entire NBA, which I think is a beautiful thing for our players, our organization.

“This is personal and professional.”

Benson said she hopes the momentum built through this election cycle can continue to future elections and the engagement will make more people interested in the process.

The Pistons were the forerunners in the process and along with the Lions, Red Wings and Tigers, were the prototype for other cities around the country.

“I can't underscore that Detroit was the first metro area in the country that had every sports team stepping up to serve and ensure that we had safe elections this year,” Benson said. “That was entirely because of the leadership in the Pistons.”

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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