Remembering the Pistons’ First Game in Detroit

On October 23, 1957, two months before the Detroit Lions won their last world championship, 10,000 curious fans at Olympia Stadium were first introduced to Detroit Pistons basketball in the second game of an NBA double header.

There could not have been a more inauspicious inauguration for the transplanted franchise from Fort Wayne, Indiana that for the next quarter of a century had only three winning seasons, horrible attendance, and did not average 10,000 fans until the Isiah Thomas era.

After sitting through the first game until 9:20 PM and seeing the New York Knicks beat the St. Louis Hawks 112-95, impatient fans helped shorten the opening ceremony prior to the Pistons-Celtics tip off following introductions of Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams, Lions’ captain Joe Schmidt, Tiger GM John McHale, and Red Wings GM Jack Adams.

“My recollection of that first game at the Olympia is that everything was in place for a great event but that it turned into a mess,” said Gene Shue one of the Pistons’ starting guards that night who spoke with me for a Detroit Free Press article fifty years later.

“There were so many delays during the game because the floor was slippery from the ice below it, a problem that often happened at Olympia. I didn’t like playing there because it was a large building with small crowds and you were always freezing your butt off,” said Shue who was relieved when the team moved to Cobo Arena in 1961.

The Pistons led the Celtics for most of the contest, but their hopes of an opening win went slip sliding away as Boston’s Bill Russell dominated the game while Detroit’s first basketball superstar, high scoring forward George Yardley, and seven foot center Walter Dukes fouled out midway through the final period.

By the time the game ended with a 105-94 Boston victory at five minutes after midnight, reportedly half of the weary crowd had already left.

“I know the Pistons gave away more tickets then they sold in that first season,” the late Morrie Moorawnick told me three years ago. As an official scorer or statistician he witnessed nearly every Piston home game since that first contest.

“At one point the Pistons even hired Bill Veeck to help promote the team and we know what a salesman he was,” said Moorawnick. “Sometimes there would be a bigger crowd at the end of the game because Veeck brought in acts like Duke Ellington and his Orchestra and Count Basie for a post game show. People would come in late and watch the end of the game, just to see the shows.”

After a 9-16 start in the Detroit Pistons’ first season, owner Fred Zollner fired coach Charley Eckman and hired his former player Red Rocha to coach.

Gene Shue remembered it well.

“Charley got a call from Zollner who told him, ‘I’ll think we’ll make a change in your department.’ Charley thought about it for a second and realized he was the only one in the department,” Shue said with a chuckle. “I was really disappointed because Charley never really had a fair shot in Detroit.”

The Pistons finished their first year in Detroit with a 33-39 record in a season highlighted by the play of George Yardley, who led the NBA with 27.8 points per game while becoming the first player to score 2,000 points in a season. (2001 total) The team lost the Western Conference Finals to the St. Louis Hawks four games to one and would have to wait until the “Bad Boys” 31 years later for their first world championship.

From left to right: Detroit Piston players Walter Dukes, Gene Shue, Harry Gallatin, Sweetwater Clifton, and Coach Charley Eckman in 1957 at the Olympia Stadium box office.