SB Nation

Jim Cavan | October 30, 2013

Motor City's yearning

How the Pistons became a team apart from Detroit, and the prospects of an eventual return to a city attempting to revitalize itself

PART I: This Is Their Home

Thirty concrete miles north of Detroit along Interstate 75, beyond the city bustle, before Flint and Saginaw and the intermittently wild offerings of all points "Up North," you find Auburn Hills -- population 20,000, Chrysler’s headquarters and, since 1988, home of the three-time world champion Pistons.

In less than three decades, this once quiet hamlet has been transformed, from wood-knolled afterthought to critical economic engine amidst the chassis of suburban enclaves about the Detroit River's urban epicenter. To be sure, part of the town's bucolic past remains, in the two-lane streets of quaint developments and churches and the rolling woodlands hinting at a one-time namesake. But such pockets are becoming increasingly isolated, as the humbled but still humming auto industry, buttressed by an attendant cadre of increasingly global suppliers, unfolds apace.

What compelled William Davidson, late and lauded former owner, to bring the Pistons here?

Pistonswilliam_davidson_mediumWilliam Davidson with his '04 title-winning team. (Getty Images)

Driving through Auburn Hills -- the scores of hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers brightly lit buoys astride an asphalt sea -- it's hard not to wonder: What exactly compelled William Davidson, late and lauded former owner, to bring the Pistons here? What about this town, suspended above the tumult of Motown, might a franchise find worth nailing down stakes? Was it simply a matter of cheap land, low taxes, and a small town eager for recognition? Were Davidson and the Auburn Hills brass simply ahead of the curve, privy to a changing ownership landscape where professional franchises needed no longer depend upon a built-in urban infrastructure and public largesse?

To help me answer these and other questions, I'm invited on a tour of Auburn Hills by City Manager Pete Auger -- Michigan native, ex-cop, 6'5" stock Midwest-common as smiles and nasally vowels. We meet at Auger's City Hall office, situated within a stately municipal campus of charmingly incongruous buildings alongside winding brick paths. From here, he invites me on a 45-minute traipse through the miles of warehouses and two-story factories, tawny housing developments and newly brick-buttressed downtown that pepper the townscape.

Five years ago, right before Auger would assume his current role, the city's prospects -- like those of many of its neighbors -- were shaky. Few regions had been more thoroughly devastated by the collapse of the housing market and subsequent economic meltdown than Metro Detroit, and not even the sturdiest of suburban outposts were immune to the ripple effects. By the time the city had narrowed down its list of candidates, Auger's platform was unmistakable.

"My position was you can do one of two things at this point," Auger recalls. "You can batten the hatches, manage your decline and ride out the storm. Or you can take this opportunity to build the next evolution of the city. And the City Council chose the latter."

Auger's pro-growth perspective encapsulates the Auburn Hills experience -- from incorporation to critical hub in less than three decades, a daytime workforce population four times that of the permanent residency; and a commitment to what Auger calls "radical hospitality." That might sound like boilerplate Chamber-speak, but the implications, vis-à-vis the Pistons in particular, are profound: By targeting the upper management of Chrysler, AT&T, or any of the dozens of other companies that call Auburn Hills home, the team avoids relying too heavily on fans making the haul up from Detroit and points south and west. And as that business base assumes -- like the game itself -- an increasingly international makeup, the prospects for a more consistent attendance base are only heightened.

Not surprisingly, Auger is quick to praise the bygone tenure of Bill Davidson, attributing the late owner's intimate involvement with the team and its adopted city to the proximity of his financial cornerstone, Guardian Glass. He commends Davidson for "not being one of those absentee owners you see so often with other teams." More specifically, Auger touts his city's commitment to private enterprise and business-friendly policies for first wooing Davidson in the first place, while taking a gentle jab at the whole notion of publicly-financed stadiums.

"I think ownership has value. When you own something, you take care of it and maintain it," he says. "When an authority or a public entity owns it, who takes care of it? Who's responsible for long-term growth, versus short-term gratification? That aspect of [ownership] having control over their own destiny, and over their own success and failure, plays into the American work ethic, where their skin's on the line every day."

you'd be hard-pressed to conjure a near-future scenario where the Pistons tuck tail back to the big city.

In Tom Gores, CEO of Platinum Equity, Auger sees an owner committed to bolstering "the Piston brand" -- shorthand for the seemingly symbiotic public-private relationship fostered over the last quarter-century. Indeed, with millions in renovations recently completed and a slew still slated, you'd be hard-pressed to conjure a near-future scenario where the Pistons tuck tail back to the big city. Even the simple suggestion that the team has somehow found itself in a kind of permanent exile -- plucked up like a helpless cub from a den -- raises Auger's bristles.

"This has been the Pistons' home longer than anywhere else in their history. When people say it has to go home, well, this is home. This is their home."

And, if the city's renaissance becomes a reality, why would the Pistons eschew their Detroit roots?

"Exactly why they're here now: Because it makes sense for their business model," Auger says. "It has to make sense to be profitable as a business. Otherwise it won't work. And that's our largest challenge with subsidized stadiums: You're competing with one of our taxpayers, and you have an advantage, because you're using other people's money. Red Wings, you want to build a new stadium? That's great -- it's a great game. So build a stadium!"

Toward the end of our sojourn, Auger wheels the Jeep into one of the Palace's principal entrances, closed off today by a large yellow gate. A full 27 years after the first shovel split soil, the Palace still cuts quite the view, its diamond-patterned brick and gleaming glass atrium -- part of the most recent string of renovations -- standing in handsome relief against the slate gray sky. Less elegant is the Auburn Hills landfill, located directly to the north behind the Palace. Even from a marginal distance, the mound, with tiny bulldozers rolling up its embankments like a toddler's toys, is hard to miss.

I didn't ask about the landfill, mostly because I didn't think it was all that important. But there's certainly a poeticism to it all: This tremendous totem to one man's vision -- a butte of basketball brains and business balls -- flanked by a constant olfactory reminder that, even out where times are good and the streets are safe, you can't outrun all the city's dead debris.

PART II: The Laws of Flight

Eighty-two. A number that rings friendly to fans of the NBA -- the set, serotonin-surging signifier for campaigns just around the corner, and the trusty in-season check on emotions to either extreme. In this respect, the Detroit Pistons are like any other NBA team: Saddled with equal parts doubt and hope and set in the knowledge that, whatever shores the ship steers toward, they'll have 82 tries to right it.

But in the pre-dawn dark of July 23, 1967, no one expected 82. Meaning none among the Detroit Police detail bent on busting the speakeasy still running strong at just shy of 4 a.m. above a nondescript printing shop on the Corner of Clairmount and 12th. A few hours earlier, the then-sober doorman had denied entry to a small, suspicious looking undercover contingent. But they soon returned, this time managing to mix in with a late-arriving group. On the other side of the door, 82 people gathered to welcome home a pair of GIs on leave from Vietnam -- a few cold ones after a sweltering summer day. Rather than shut the party down and arrest the proprietors, police chose instead to apprehend all in attendance, filing them out piecemeal and in full view of a fast-growing crowd. A fleet of paddy wagons, conscripted from neighboring precincts, arrived to transport the detained down to central booking.

Accounts of what happened next -- or anyway, the events' degrees -- depend largely upon what witness you ask. But a few facts appear historically cemented: A broken bottle, hurled at the cops by the club owner's son; a frenzy whipped; pockets of looting centered principally around the predominantly black neighborhood near West Grand Boulevard; countless storefronts shattered, 2,000 buildings burned, a governor-decreed "state of insurrection"; the state police and National Guard; tens of millions of dollars in damages; 7,000 arrested; 189 injured; and 43 dead -- 33 of them African-American.

Pistonsriot_mediumRiot prisoners in 1967. (Courtesy Wystan, Flickr Creative Commons)

Detroit's four-day rage became the largest, most destructive, and costliest in U.S. history.

Eight months before the slaying of Martin Luther King ignited a string of conflagrations across the country, Detroit's four-day rage became the largest, most destructive, and costliest in U.S. history -- in, bodies, bounty and social breadth --rivaled only by the New York City Draft Riots more than a century earlier. Upon taking stock of the damage, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh lamented, "Today we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes. We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot. It was not enough."

In the decades that followed, Detroit would see its population more than halved -- from a 1.8 million in 1950 to a hamlet over 700,000 in 2012 -- by a heady combination of corruption, fast-fading industrial might and festering racial tensions. One could almost be forgiven fingers pointed, whatever the target, upon hearing the more macabre details of the city's demise: The record-breaking bankruptcy, hour-long 911 waits, roving throngs of abandoned dogs, morgues where the bodies go unclaimed and only the smell escapes.

As with many of the urban flare-ups that peppered 1960s, what happened in the four hellish days and nights between July 23 and 27th, 1967 has become something of a convenient rhetorical crutch; a way to both peg responsibility for Detroit's woes to a singular incendiary incident and, more cynical still, rationalize the resulting socioeconomic chasms as all but insurmountable. Really, the seeds of suburban migration had been sown long before. A recent investigation by the Detroit Free Press proves just how consistent the demographic shifts had been:

All cities spread out postwar into the farmland at their perimeters. Automakers and road builders eager to sell cars, home builders eager to sell new houses, village mayors eager for new taxes -- all promoted suburban growth. So did the federal government with its subsidies and tax incentives. Eager for elbow room, families in crowded cities like Detroit and Cleveland and St. Louis began moving to the new communities. The process of spreading out hasn't stopped yet.

Discriminatory practices, such as redlining -- denying minority buyers mortgages and access to homes in white neighborhoods -- made the process in Detroit and many other cities an ugly one. Unscrupulous real estate agents encouraged white flight by stoking some whites' fears of black people moving in next door. Rancor ran deep ...

Even by the late 1950s, the signs of strain were showing in industrial cities. Population and housing values peaked in Detroit in the 1950s and began their long and seemingly unstoppable decline. The urban riots of the 1960s, including Detroit's, accelerated the process.

Historical nuance aside, it's difficult to discount the racial and generational gashes exacted by the riot's aftermath. For far too many, 1967 represents the moment when trust -- between black and white, young and old, capital and labor -- was broken for good. That discrimination existed well before one late night raid on a minority-run speakeasy; that the city's well-documented role as a place of relative racial harmony amounted to a lesser among evils; that it's difficult to build a tax base where pensioned manufacturing becomes usurped by a low-paying service; that healing only begins when "back then" becomes "wasn't that long ago" -- these are just a few of the difficult discursive threads that Detroit has yet to tease out.

Of 122 professional teams that make up North America's major sports, none are further afield from their namesake city than the Pistons.

For now, "rebuild" has replaced "reconcile" as the prevailing mantra. Over the last decade-and-a-half, sweeping efforts to resurrect Detroit's once mighty downtown have continued in fits and starts. Central to the controversial plan has been the building of two new stadiums, Ford Field and Comerica Park -- both largely publicly financed -- closer to Joe Louis Arena and the Detroit River waterfront. Ditto the construction of the Motor City and Greektown Casinos, two hotly contested mega-projects launched under the auspices of an economic jumpstart. The logic, though debatable, was enticingly simple: Jobs where jobs were needed most, wages notwithstanding. All the while, after decades of fortunes ranging from futility to plucky failure, the Detroit Pistons were busy building their own legacy free from the complex politics and tumult of Motown's madding crowds.

This much is known: Of the 122 professional teams that make up North America's four major sports, none are further afield from their namesake city than the Pistons. Another fact: Bill Davidson remains the only owner in NBA history to finance a new arena entirely with private funds -- $70 million for a facility that proved a sports-entertainment game-changer, and one which most laud as state-of-the-art even today.

Far murkier is how such a legendary basketball breeding ground could have its team spirited away, first as a high-rent tenant, then to a city incorporated just six years before. Was Davidson's decision to one predicated on simple economics? Politics? Shifting demographics? Some combination of the three? Now that the team is under new ownership -- sold following Davidson's death in 2009 -- what prospects, if any, are there for an eventual return to Detroit? Should there be any?

Finally, and perhaps most complex of all: What does the team's exurban exodus, unfurled in a marketing mash of Bad Boys black and "Motor City" alternates, reveal about the identity politics of sports in the 21st century?

For a city decades deep in loss and repeatedly unjustly left for dead, answers -- any answers -- can only help.

PART III: The Rising Son

If Auburn Hills represents the new-moneyed flashpoint of Detroit's capital flight, Birmingham is the old gilt guard -- a totem to decades of industrial muscle-flexing mobility and a popular haven for the Big Three's white collared gentry. In a region where subdivided development has long been the order, Birmingham maintains an unmistakably East Coast aura: Well-worn brick buildings, winding downtown roads and a preponderance of restaurants, bars and boutique shops that make the town's motto -- "A Walkable Community" -- sound overly coy.

Here, in one of the city's tony pocket neighborhoods, lives Ethan Davidson, son of the late William Davidson and current treasurer of his father's eponymous foundation. After years spent in the service of his second passion -- a blues-roots musical career that begat a series of albums and a staggering 900 live shows in six years -- Ethan returned to Michigan in 2005 to help spearhead the new organization, launched posthumously at the elder Davidson's request. He also took on the additional, largely ceremonial position of team historian, in the process putting a forgotten era more squarely into the franchise spotlight.

"At the time we were right in the middle of expanding the practice facility, and I remember thinking: Why not delve a little deeper into the team history?" Davidson recalls. "I thought there should be a Pistons Hall of Fame. Now, my Dad had done a Greatest Players of the Detroit Era, but we'd never really brought the Fort Wayne Era into the picture."

Though his father would pass away before the Pistons Hall of Fame was completed, Davidson's stately 1920s stone manor includes a miniature rendering of the exhibit, complete with a wood-paneled half court, scaled-down banners and player portraits spanning the entirety of the team's history, from George Yardley to Rasheed Wallace. From our perch one-half flight up from the court, it's hard not to appreciate the room's intergenerational air: The father's Springfield-enshrined legacy, the son's totemic homage, and the grandkids' Playskool universe packed into the floor's gleaming corners.

Pistonsthomas_mediumIsiah Thomas. (Getty Images)

"In a way it was the secret weapon behind the two championships and that whole incredible run."

If anyone can be said to have "grown up with" a team, it's Ethan Davidson. He was just five years old when William first purchased the Pistons in 1974. The price? Six million dollars, all for a team that, in the estimation of former owner Fred Zollner, hadn't turned a profit in 17 years (the team sold for $325 million in 2011). He remembers hearing his dad talk about the resistance he'd met when he moved the team out of the city. "Davidson's Folly," they called it. He recalls the decade they spent playing second fiddle at the Pontiac Silverdome, the hulking 82,000-seat former home of the Lions, where for years the Piston locker room doubled as storage for parking lot snowplows.

Most of all, Ethan Davidson remembers the thrill of watching a young contender, thwarted first by the Celtics and then by the Lakers, finally put it all together. And in year one of the new digs, no less.

"I think the team really felt like they had their own private space that really belonged to them," Davidson says. "And I think it did help, no question about it. In a way it was the secret weapon behind the two championships and that whole incredible run."

An on-site practice facility, cutting-edge training equipment, private jetliner (a first), lower-level suites, locker room mercifully free of enormous maintenance equipment -- whether the Palace's groundbreaking amenities played a quantifiable role in the team's success is difficult to say. But it certainly didn't hurt. Whatever's said about his motivations for moving the Pistons in the first place, few owners have been as committed to investing in creature comforts -- for fan and player both -- as Bill Davidson.

"In a lot of ways, he changed the way basketball -- and to a similar extent hockey -- is presented," Ethan Davidson says. "Even arenas being built today have been influenced by what he did 25 years ago."

It was that kind of visionary acumen that helped Davidson amass a lifetime net worth of over $3 billion, enough to buy not only the Pistons, but the WNBA's Detroit Shock and the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning as well. Still, despite the vast family fortune, Karen Davidson -- without the kind of leverage that Guardian Glass had afforded her late husband -- sold the team in 2011 to the investment group headed by Tom Gores. For his part, and despite unsubstantiated rumblings of an eventual move back to Detroit, Ethan Davidson, who says he still occasionally travels with the team, surmises the franchise remains in capable hands.

"Tom and his team have treated me like family," he says. "Whatever they decide to do, I'm sure it will be a decision that makes sense for the future of the team."

The Pistons' Davidson Era might be over, but his foundation is picking up where William -- renowned for philanthropic efforts ranging from poverty in Detroit to ancient architectural renovations in Israel -- left off. According to a court filing submitted by the family earlier this year, the foundation awarded close to $46 million in philanthropic grants in 2012, many of them for projects and partnerships based in Detroit.

A recent Free Press feature highlights just how ambitious the Davidson Foundation, now with more than $1 billion at its disposal, intends to be: They've already allocated $1 million apiece to the Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan Symphony Orchestra and Michigan Opera Theater. And that's just the start, thanks to a law requiring that five percent of the foundation's assets be spent annually. Meaning upwards of $50 million a year in forthcoming grants, projects, and initiatives, much of which the foundation has said will be spent on Detroit's educational and cultural revitalization.

"if you told me we could have basketball and hockey in a new downtown arena, I think that would be phenomenal."

When it comes to the future of the Pistons, Davidson admits the foundation can't "do anything to make a sporting reality happen [in Detroit]." Still, Davidson's inherent fondness for his home state's most iconic city suggests even he, the son of the man who risked all to free a struggling team from the pitfalls and the pressures of its city's painful decay, wouldn't mind seeing a prodigal return.

"Look," he says, "I love the Palace. I was working there when we were building the place, you know? I've slept in that building. I have a special affinity for it. But 20 years from now, who knows? The more activity you have down there, the better. So sure, if you told me we could have basketball and hockey in a new downtown arena -- especially if we didn't have to have the taxpayers pay for it -- I think that would be phenomenal."

PART IV: From Broadway to Spaceship

It was the quaint, little ritual for many a Michigan kid: Trying to spot the Silverdome's bulbous white roof out in the middle distance driving in either direction down I-75. But for whatever reason, safety or sheer lack of practice, probably, I couldn't spot the stadium while making my way up to Auburn Hills to meet with Pete Auger.

Only when we approached the intersection of Opdyke and Featherstone, on the Pontiac-Auburn Hills border, did it hit me: The Silverdome's trademark cap was no longer, taken down following a brutal January snowstorm heavy with whipping winds.

"Do they still use it for anything, even occasionally?" I asked Auger.

"Occasionally," he said.

True, the Detroit Mechanix, one of the eight teams that make up the American Ultimate Disc League, had called the Silverdome home for their 2012 season. During the preceding 10 years, following the Lions' move downtown and into the brand new, publicly-financed Ford Field, the stadium's temporary inhabitants were as infrequent as they were culturally far-flung: Minor-league hockey teams and Jehovah's Witnesses, motor sports and marching bands. Despite receiving an $18 million offer from United Assurance Company Ltd. earlier that year, the city of Pontiac chose instead to put the stadium -- by then costing the municipality upwards of $1.5 million in annual maintenance -- up for auction in 2008, with no minimum bid.

Pistonsdome_mediumThe Silverdome. (Courtesy Dave Hogg, Flickr Creative Commons)

this wasn't supposed to be the fate: Sold for the price of a McMansion to a guy from Toronto.

The stadium was eventually sold to a Canadian real estate developer. The winning bid: $550,000, or about one percent of the Silverdome's initial 1975 construction cost (0.002 percent, if you take the inflation-adjusted construction costs of $238 million). Naturally, national news outlets swarmed the story, advancing it as a microcosm of the jarring market tumult that had befallen the region. For a stadium that hosted a Super Bowl, college bowl games and high school state championships, countless monster truck rallies, concerts and trade shows, four World Cup teams, and one 23-year attendance record -- 93,000-plus for Wrestlemania III in 1987 -- this wasn't supposed to be the fate: Sold for the price of a McMansion to a guy from Toronto.

That's not how John Salley cares to remember it. Salley, the Pistons' first-round pick in 1986 and a formidable reserve for the back-to-back Championship-winning Bad Boys of the late ‘80s, arrived in Detroit just weeks after Bill Davidson had broken ground on the soon-to-be Palace. And while most retrospectives will point to the Silverdome's awkward basketball setup and barebones accommodations as potholes on the road to smoother cruising, Salley's is a recollection steeped in something sweeter.

"Playing inside the Silverdome was amazing," he says, over the phone and with his trademark, bone-dry wit. "It was cold. But stepping up on that stage, in an arena where everyone can afford a ticket, in the corner of a football stadium, it was all about getting on that stage. Remember Dennis [Rodman] getting sued for diving after the ball? It was like being on Broadway, man. You can't explain it."

Salley, now six years into a vegan lifestyle that has spawned a second career of sorts -- "Wellness Advocate," PETA champion and the face behind Vegan Vine Wines -- likened the Silverdome's fervor to Michigan Stadium, that vaunted Mecca of 110,000-plus 50 miles to the south in Ann Arbor.

"it was this roar, like being right next to an airplane."

Pistonssalley_mediumJohn Salley. (Getty Images)

"All [the fans] had to do was buy a coffee can, not even a $5 ticket," he recalls, before citing one, especially rancorous playoff encounter. "And it was this roar, like being right next to an airplane. And to play in that game, to beat the Celtics, and to watch them walk off the court, the great Larry Bird with Danny Ainge in tow, the defeated giants. I'll never forget that."

The Pistons would go on to lose to the Lakers in the Finals, a punishing seven-game series remembered as much for L.A.'s fifth ‘80s title as Isiah Thomas' mesmerizing 25-point ankle-shredded fourth quarter in a 103-102 Game 6 loss. The next year, the Pistons would officially christen its sparkling new digs -- five short miles and three turns down the road from the Silverdome -- by bringing home the franchise's first championship hardware since winning the World Professional Basketball tournament in 1946.

That the Pistons were able to exorcise decades of demons by virtue of improved day-to-day amenities might sound like an oversimplification, particularly in light of the team's already blossoming chemistry. But for Salley, the advantages of home -- theirs and only theirs, and the best and brightest ever built -- were paramount.

"The Silverdome has those memories for me," Salley says. "But then, being ahead of the game the next year, having the private jet so we didn't have to spend the night in places, didn't have to go through all the different energies of the airport, the delayed flights -- that was the difference."

As with others, Salley's recollection of Davidson was one an owner as concerned with bells and whistles as bottom lines. In Salley's words, "He owned the basketball team, and he treated it as such." Even today, the hallmarks of Davidson's crown jewel remain industry exemplars: 22,076 seats (still the most in the NBA); nearly 200 luxury suites, consistently leased even in lean times; and more than $10 million in upgrades, tweaks, and amenities designed to maintain relevance even when buildings of a similar vintage -- Joe Louis Arena being one -- stall to aesthetic stale. Even 20 years on, Salley recalls a venue a cut above the competition, and a tough, swarming team to match.

"At the time, there was no arena that could touch the Palace," he says. "Eighty million dollars, man. I remember we were putting speakers under the stands. I mean, even the ability to do that was amazing. It was just a great facility. Even when you walk in, you feel like a champion. It felt like it was a place that was just waiting for us to win, and that's exactly what it did."

That's not to say Salley's was a solely suburban existence, however. He and Rick Mahorn, arguably the baddest of the Bad Boys, were two of the only Pistons to make their home within Detroit's City limits. Even after being traded to the Heat ahead of the '92-'93 season, Salley would make the occasional visit back to Motown, marveling always at the town's top-tier sports moxie.

"I love the city," he says. "I went down to Ford Field for the Super Bowl. I went to a Red Wings game, and it's always unbelievable to see how the city responds, and how it is downtown when the money's actually coming into downtown. And I think if we'd had that, it would've been an unbelievable look."

Still, Salley is fast to couple his fondness for Detroit with a string of caveats: That it doesn't really matter where you play if you're a professional athlete -- "In Sacramento, you were basically in a cow pasture" -- because, at the end of the day, "you're there to put on a show."

That, for as earnest as Detroit's rebuilding efforts have been, "if the people don't have jobs and the city can't afford to keep the lights on, how are you going to light up an arena? Just having the people down there doesn't guarantee attendance."

"It looked like a spaceship, powerful and pretty."

Pistonspalace_mediumOutside of The Palace. (USA Today Images)

That the Palace's persistent beauty -- "It looked like a spaceship, coming up 75, powerful and pretty" -- has earned it the inside track.

That there was and remains something admirable in Bill Davidson's batshit-crazy gambit: "Just to think about that being built out there, building where you have space. It was that whole build it and they will come mentality, and he did."

And yet, that leap of faith, from the tragic facts etched about the bones of a city both bankrupt and bereft of real second chances, to a recognition of redemption, was one that Salley couldn't help but conjure, albeit in heroic hindsight:

"If we'd been lucky enough to be a part of that growth that's been happening, that building, maybe the city wouldn't be in the financial state it's in."

PART V: A Hassle-Free Revolution

Of all things Michigan I miss most, mornings like this might top the list: Chronically gray, threatening rain, but in a way that secures and warms rather than chills. On this especially cloudy Sunday, I decide to head into Detroit by way of Woodward Avenue, an iconic artery extending from downtown north through a series of stately suburbs and ending in Pontiac, another once proud automotive hub now ensconced in similar struggles with its fast-shifting postindustrial identity. Just weeks before, the road had played host to the Woodward Dream Cruise, an annual showcase of Big Three classics, muscle cars, hot rods and other four-wheeled ephemera drawing upwards of 1.5 million visitors and 40,000 cars annually.

Where once rose the brick and concrete molars of America's sturdiest postwar jaw, now stand myriad bombed-out pockets.

Woodward has been the site of street races, sanctioned and unsanctioned, since the mid 19th century, but today the lanes are quiet, with most of the traffic nestled against church and storefront curbs. You get your first glimpse of Detroit's sparse Spartan skyline as you crest 8 Mile Road, one of the many east-west numbered byways running sequentially south to north throughout the metro corridor. Past the old Michigan State Fairgrounds, once hopping, now a mesa of cracked concrete and sprouting weeds. Through Highland Park, now a dozen years removed from a crippling economic breakdown that resulted in a state takeover -- Detroit's precursor in miniature -- and the home of Ford's now derelict flagship auto plant.

Here the blight becomes more noticeable: The liquor stores and check-cashing joints minor measles masking the tumors of destruction and neglect out in the city's vast interior. Where once rose the brick and concrete molars of America's sturdiest postwar jaw, now stand myriad bombed-out pockets, strings of broken British teeth strewn atop a metro moonscape large enough to fit all of Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco. Literally tens of thousands of one-time homes, now tombs for squatters and murder victims either left to rot or burned with the building itself.

Pistonscorktown_mediumCorktown. (Courtesy Sam Beebe, Flickr Creative Commons)

Into Midtown, where the Detroit Institute of Arts -- lately the subject of its own financial saga -- stands gleaming and stately in architectural pride against the ennui. Around Comerica Park and the teems of fans arrived early for the 1 p.m. first pitch, taking a right past Hockeytown Café and the vaunted Fox Theatre, cornerstones of the city's new entertainment hub. A couple quick rights to double back northwest, you're in Corktown, Detroit's oldest official neighborhood and a more clandestine magnet for the city's rehabilitation efforts. Through long stretches of chain-link fences, the grounds of old Tiger Stadium -- that classic steel bandbox of so many legendary players and teams -- sleep empty, waiting now only for the next winter's freeze.

I'm here to meet PJ Ryder, proprietor of PJ's Lager House, a near century-old Corktown staple, first a bakery and restaurant, then a beer garden the instant Prohibition was repealed, now trafficking in loud music, local food and a quintessentially Motown verve. The house calendar is perpetually packed with acts local, regional and national alike (The White Stripes were once observant fixtures), but right now the order is pregame brunch and Bloody Marys. Of the many adornments hung astride the pub's dimly-lit green walls, one stands out in somber relief: A sign dedicating the adjoining club to Jerome Patrick Cavanagh, mayor of the city from 1962 to 1970 and a rising, Rooseveltian star in the Democratic Party, before the riots and their aftermath forever derailed his legacy.

The owner's look might scream Detroit Rock City, clad tall in a black T-shirt, white soul patch and ponytailed matching hair, a young pushing-60, but Ryder counts sports equally close to the soul. He speaks of growing up right outside town during the first wave of suburban migration, lamenting about the previous generation. "When they moved out of Detroit, they weren't coming back." While attending University of Detroit Jesuit High School, where he ran track and cross country, Ryder would carpool with friends straight from practice and down to Cobo Hall, to take in Dave Bing, Bob Lanier and the rest of the talent-laden by middling Piston squads of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Pistonslagerhouse_mediumPJ's Lager House. (Courtesy Jodelli, Flickr Creative Commons)

Today, as we talk beneath a makeshift shelter out in the restaurant's spare back patio, Ryder looks forward to a squad ripe with talent, if lacking in proper polish. A full five seasons removed from the team's last Conference Finals trip -- they made seven consecutive East Finals in total, winning it all in 2004 -- the Pistons appear poised to make recent string of sub-.500 campaigns and requisite sparsely packed stands a thing of the past. But from Ryder's perspective, a Detroit return might render moot such fair-weather fandom.

"People will go and see a Lions team that maybe isn't that good, or a Tigers team that isn't that good, because they're downtown," Ryder says. "And I think the same applies for the Pistons. Really, if you live downtown, or close to downtown, the idea of getting in your car and driving 30 or 35 miles, particularly with today's drinking and driving laws, people don't want to do that. No one wants to have a few drinks in Auburn Hills, then hop on 75 and have to drive through the gauntlet of Royal Oak and Ferndale where they're pretty damn tough on that. You have to plan going to see the Pistons. And it's a long day."

Still, Ryder says he understands why Davidson, whom he credits with "doing more for Detroit than the average person will ever know," chose to pack it in and head north all those years ago. To say that the game has changed -- in style, in star power, and in global appeal -- would be an understatement. In 1978, the year Davidson first moved the team to Pontiac, the NBA boasted but three internationally-born players. By opening night of the 2013 season, that number had grown to 84, representing 37 different countries. Where Pete Auger sees the increasingly international makeup of Auburn Hills as evidence of the team's safe keeping, Ryder spots a chance to amend what, with hindsight, seems a miscalculation.

"[Davidson] made a decision that made a lot of sense at the time," Ryder says. "Most of the downtown was going through its death at that point, as opposed to being revitalized like it is now."

Revitilized. It's a word you hear a lot around here. Both in the city proper and out in the mall-studded grids, where Baby Boomers lament the loss of Friday night cruises and where their children, cautioned always to avoid Detroit altogether, pine for big-city respites. As someone who bucked his own generation's exurban instincts, Ryder sees in Detroit's Gen-Y upstarts a restless, rejuvenation-ready critical mass.

"At a certain point you say to yourself, you know what? I want to go somewhere where they're having fun."

"Kids are getting bored with the suburbs, and they're going to get bored with the police state that the suburbs have become," Ryder exclaims. "And at a certain point you say to yourself, you know what? I want to go somewhere where they're having fun. And I think that's one of the big reasons why young people are coming downtown now more than ever. It's not because they want to be anarchists and tear the place down, but they want to have some fun and not worry too much about being hassled."

Ryder's enthusiasm underscores a critical rebuttal to the seemingly omnipresent national media narrative of Detroit-as-American-Baghdad: It's easy to cherry-pick disaster within 142 square miles; much harder to see into the many buildings where brains and brawn are busy shaping the city's hassle-free future. Where abandoned land becomes urban farms, empty factories, art galleries and whole neighborhoods their own hyper-local ecosystems.

"So many people are moving back into the city," says Steve Vasilovski, part of a large group of 20-somethings here at PJ's to take in a swift round of drinks ahead of the Tigers game. "And I grew up in the burbs. But everyone's moving out here now. It's awesome."

Vasilovski lives in Royal Oak, about 15 miles north of Detroit. But two of his friends recently moved into a refurbished brick apartment building right around the corner from PJ's. Asked whether the area's plucky new influx would be willing to support a return of the Pistons, Vasilovski, who doesn't count himself much of a basketball fan, is unequivocal.

"I think it'd be crazy if they came down here," he says. "They'd be welcome 100 percent. There are a lot of politics involved, obviously, but I think it would be great for the city."

it's not a matter of if the Pistons ever come back so much as when.

A fomenting downtown population, a re-engaged youth, and an urban game etched deep within the city's concrete skin. For Ryder, it's not a matter of if the Pistons ever come back so much as when and -- more difficult still -- how.

"There are four Detroit teams, and one of them is the Pistons, even if they're playing somewhere else," Ryder says. "If Detroit continues to come back, sooner or later that's going to seem pretty isolated. We're going to know Detroit's really made a big change when someone comes in and buys up enough land to support a major-league sports complex. We can't support that right now, but we're getting there."

With the city still reeling from July's bankruptcy announcement, and rumors of a new, publicly-financed Red Wings arena being met with considerable pushback, it's hard to surmise what future, if any, the Pistons have in their surrogate metropolis. One thing is certain: Tom Gores has the money, and the connections, to make a new arena happen, and to do it without further straining the city's already threadbare purse strings. Far less clear is whether a team decades removed from their one-time home -- a team robust with gold and glory earned for the city, but somewhere else entirely -- could marshal a new Motown following.

PART VI: Opening the Doors

"With the riots going on, the city was in turmoil," Sam Washington recalls. "Everything was shut down, including schools, things like that. So we're at home -- I had two brothers -- and we're right across the street from St. Cecilia's. And kids our age, kids a little older, they had nothing to do. So my dad said, you know what? I'm gonna open up the gym, give these guys something to do. So he opened the doors, rolled the balls out, and we started playing."

"The Saint," as it's called today, is many things. Basketball Mecca. Nonprofit organization. Sports sanctuary. Clinic of fundamentals. Family heraldry. Highlight factory. Fosterer of community. Many other descriptors which, taken together, outstrip the gym's simple brick façade. Situated on a nondescript side street near the city's center, the Saint is to Detroit what Rucker is to New York; Venice Beach to Los Angeles; Jackson Park to Chicago; Barry Farms to D.C. This is where Jalen Rose fought Steve Smith; where Ice Man first learned to freeze; where Dave Bing homed his game while holding out for a better tender; where many legends crafted and thousands more got better. It's the where, what, and how of Detroit basketball: Magic Johnson, George Gervin, Jalen Rose, Glenn Rice, Willie Burton, Steve Smith, Sam Vincent, Derrick Coleman.

And on and on, to the tune of three banners, each with hundreds of names, which the younger Washington had tailored for the gym's quaint Hall of Fame. But back in 1967, this soon-to-be Shangri La served as a sanctuary of a humbler kind. With the riot's fires still fresh and a smoldering city starting to shutter and board, Sam Washington walked across the curfew-governed streets, lit the lights, and threw open the doors.

241822_472579429437052_525049172_o_mediumExterior of St Cecilia's Gym. (Facebook)

"he gave kids something to do, and took their mind off all the crazy things that were happening."

"He was saying, I'm going to protect my environment -- the school, the gym," says Washington of his late father. "If it's closed, you might have somebody try and come in and loot or destroy the school. But by being open, he gave kids something to do, and took their mind off all the crazy things that were happening."

The elder Washington, who passed away in 1988 at the age of 54, was far from a one-sport spark plug, however. "Whatever the season -- football, baseball, basketball -- he coached them all," says his son, now in his third year as the gym's director. Before the days of AAU and high school round-robins, Sam Sr. would gather up his best and brightest -- some of whom had "never been past 8 Mile before" -- and head out of state to face teams as nearby as Ohio and as far flung as Brooklyn, eventually going to court over the right to host tournaments and other events.

Before long, the Saint's vaunted summer leagues had begun attracting bigger and brighter talent. Guys like George Gervin, who used the Saint to sharpen his game after being booted out of Eastern Michigan University, "Before the world knew who he was," Washington waxes. The gym's reputation got an even bigger boost when, in 1974, Piston's star Dave Bing made it his personal practice facility during the famed guard's much publicized contract dispute. In a clever gambit that has his son chuckling even today, Washington convinced the team to put part of Bing's fines toward a brand new court for his now bustling gym.

By the mid 1970s, the Saint was quickly cementing its legend status, becoming an oft-used scouting ground for a young University of Detroit coach named Dick Vitale. Some days, the crowds, already all but on top of the action inside the gym, would spill out front to the tune of hundreds. "Throughout the state, that's how everyone felt: You have to go to St. Cecilia to prove yourself," Washington says. "That's why Magic would come out from Lansing to play here. You might be playing during the week, working on your game, but on the weekend, you were here."

It may have attracted its share of hardwood stars, but Washington says the Saint's true charm was its power as a community magnet. Long before the days of team PR departments and injury paranoia, the Pistons, like much of their NBA brethren, cultivated a fan accessibility that would seem unfathomable today. Washington recalls taking the bus down to Cobo Hall well before tipoff, to watch Walt Frazier pull street clothes-clad into the neighboring Hotel Pontchartrain. More importantly, he remembers summer weekend after summer weekend spent waiting to see which pilgrims -- pros, local products, very often both -- would stroll through the Saint's doors, looking for a basketball baptism.

"NBA players knew they had to be in shape, otherwise they'd get embarrassed out there," he says.

457076_472577962770532_2131342053_o_mediumSam Washington. (Facebook)

"Them coming back, I think it would give a tie to our city."

Even after Bill Davidson brought the Pistons north in 1978, St. Cecilia's continued to serve as a hoops hotbed staple, with youth programs, high school tournaments and pro-laden summer leagues filling up much of the calendar. But the distance -- of geography, of economics, of time -- was bound to take its toll. As the team rooted further into Auburn Hills, and the age of million-dollar contracts turned freelance runs into risk-laden liabilities, the Saint's crowds became more contained, and seldom spilled out to the sidewalk.

"That's why a lot of kids would come to St. Cecilia's -- to see the Pistons," Washington says, his voice dropping an octave or two. "When they moved, a lot of kids couldn't afford to go out to the Silverdome or the Palace. But you got to see these players up close at the Saint. They would sign autographs, hang out with you in the parking lot. For free! That's the fraternity that we had. Them coming back, I think it would give a tie to our city," he says. "They'd be seen more, even if they weren't living here. Then maybe they would want to come back to the Saint."

Every now and again a star will swing by, although the cameo is typically observational, rather than participatory. Whether having the Pistons back in the city would change that dynamic, in turn bringing back the magic of a packed house on a summer Saturday, it's impossible to say. Perhaps the player-fan divide has grown too great. Maybe the franchise's relationship with the city is what it will always be: Ceremonial, occasionally celebratory, but at a distance deemed sensible and safe.

All the while, names stay woven to the banners, as shuffling squeaks of sneakered feet still fill the Saint's prep showcases and morning open courts. A son returns, determined to recapture and rebuild in a city aching for both. And a father's legacy, scrawled permanently atop the court now named for him -- "Where stars are made, not born" -- rings true today as it did all those years ago, back when the fires first raged and few dared open their doors, save to flee forever.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Tile Photo: James, Flickr Creative Commons

About the Author

Jim Cavan is a contributing editor at and a freelance writer whose work has appeared at the New York Times,, Grantland, and The Classical, among others. His first book, co-written with a team of fellow bloggers, is We'll Always Have Linsanity: Strange Takes on the Strangest Season in Knicks History. Follow him @JPCavan.