On January 18, Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores met with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who was in the Motor City to help Gores do a little bit of promotional work. Mr. Silver also took in the Pistons game that evening.
As a result, to no one’s surprise, rumors began swirling that Gores and Silver would also broach the possibility of the Pistons moving to downtown Detroit. Gores didn’t deny that the two were discussing various business issues, but didn’t get into specifics.
Talk of the Pistons’ relocation heated up when Gores hired Arn Tellem as vice chairman of Palace Sports and Entertainment back in mid-summer. Tellem became a one-man task force to sound out the feasibility of returning the team to the city it had once called home.
Actually, the Pistons haven’t called Detroit home for a long, long time. Not since they fled Cobo Arena for the cavernous Pontiac Silverdome back in 1978.
The Palace of Auburn Hills remains one of the finest arenas in the country. It opened in 1988, making it old by NBA standards. But it was a trendsetter when it was built, and recent renovations have kept it on the cutting edge. It is a great place to watch a basketball game.
When Gores purchased the Pistons (and the Palace) in 2011, he insisted that his team wasn’t going anywhere. Most of his customer base was in Oakland County, he claimed.
But construction is moving right along for the new Red Wings arena in Midtown (despite that annoying problem of a few historic buildings getting in the way), and that has changed the dynamic for Gores and the Pistons.
He can argue that the Palace is where he wants to remain, and as long as the Red Wings play in that dump by the river, he can say it with a straight face.
But here is Gores’s quandary: Once that beautiful new Red Wings arena opens up with all its bells and whistles and revenue-generating amenities, it will suddenly become the hot place to be in this town.
And just as suddenly, the Palace will lose a lot of its luster by comparison.
I don’t know what is going on in Tom Gores’s head. But if he is as shrewd a businessman as I believe him to be, there’s no way he can be comfortable with the prospect of the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings all playing downtown in beautiful facilities that are only a stone’s throw from each other.
Gores is the guy who loves the classic Chevy Camaro he keeps in his driveway. Until his next door neighbor buys a new Ferrari.
Will he work out an arrangement with Mike Ilitch that would allow the Pistons to play in the new arena? Or will he build his own basketball venue somewhere downtown?
Either way, the Pistons’ days in Auburn Hills appear to be numbered.
The question is how soon. Five years? Ten years?
Having each of the four sports franchises playing downtown would be fabulous for Detroit fans and the economy of this troubled city.
The Pistons right now are at the bottom of the pecking order among Detroit’s four major pro sports teams. But that is largely the result of putting out an inferior product for the last eight years.
But anybody who says this isn’t a good basketball town should have been at the Palace the other night when they retired Ben Wallace’s number and the Pistons trounced the seemingly unbeatable Golden State Warriors. The place rocked like it hadn’t in years. Detroit still loves the Bad Boys and the Goin’ to Work Pistons of 2003-04. The fans will love the Pistons again. But Gores must put together a winner.
The Pistons belong downtown. They are Detroit’s team, just like the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings. If Gores wants to move his team to the city, he faces an uphill battle of political chicanery, financial shell games, and endless red tape. Just ask Mr. Ilitch.
There are people who want the Pistons to stay in Oakland County. They don’t want to fork over any more public money for playgrounds for the rich, when the Palace is just fine.
So if Gores wants to build his own arena, it is going to have to be done with private funds. The best scenario would have been for the Pistons and Red Wings to partner up on the new arena, but that opportunity is gone. If Gores wants to play in Ilitch’s house, it is going to be as a tenant, and I can’t envision Gores settling for that.
The tea leaves suggest Mr. Gores wants the Pistons to have their own arena downtown.
Can he get it done?