When the Pistons played at Olympia Stadium

Coach Charles Eckman runs five of his players through drills in 1957 as the team prepared for their first season in Detroit.

Coach Charles Eckman runs five of his players through drills in 1957 as the team prepared for their first season in Detroit. From left to right: Eckman, Walter Dukes (#23), Phil Jordan (#16), Harry Gallatin (#10), Dick McGuire (#15), and Chuck Noble (#5)

When Fred Zollner made the decision to move his Ft. Wayne Pistons to the Motor City in 1957, there was a lot of head scratching among his fellow NBA owners.

It wasn’t that Detroit wasn’t considered a great sports town.

After all, the Tigers, despite being a second-division club for nearly a decade, continued to be a huge summertime draw.

The powerhouse Lions had set attendance records at Briggs Stadium.

As for the Red Wings, they had a devoted following, and played to packed houses at Olympia Stadium on a consistent basis.

The problem was that the National Basketball Association was still the ugly stepchild of sports. Never highly promoted, it was considered a niche entertainment, not yet worthy of a bigger stage. Sure, there were the Knicks in New York, the Celtics in Boston, and the Warriors in Philadelphia. But the NBA was also struggling along in less-populated outposts like Syracuse, Rochester, and Fort Wayne (until Zollner moved).

Professional basketball had been attempted in Detroit before, and had flopped.

The Detroit Falcons had played in the old Basketball Association of America in the 1946-47 season. In the team’s only year of existence, they played at Olympia Stadium, incurred an estimated $50,000 in financial losses, and lost 40 of 60 games.

That same season, the Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League debuted at Olympia, played one year, posted a 4-40 record, and finished $30,000 in the red. The National Basketball League was a notch below the NBA, featuring teams like the Toledo Jeeps, the Oshkosh All-Stars, and the Anderson Duffy Packers. The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were one of the strongest teams in the NBL, despite playing their games in a high school gym. The NBL merged with the NBA in August of 1949; the Detroit Gems moved to Minneapolis to become the Lakers, who 12 years later moved to Los Angeles.

It was Zollner, in fact, who brokered the merger of the two leagues while sitting at the comfort of his kitchen table. Yes, pro basketball was a much smaller, intimate industry back then.

Following the merger, the Ft. Wayne Pistons continued to be successful, but Zollner wanted out of Indiana. He finally made the move to the Motor City after the 1956-57 season.

“We had gone as far as we could with the team at Fort Wayne,” he pointed out. Attendance had been in decline. Why did he choose Detroit? “I wanted to get into a major league city. Detroit is an excellent sports center. It has major league teams in every other sport and I felt sure it would go for big-time basketball.”

But where would Zollner’s new Detroit Pistons play?

His first choice was the arena in the University of Detroit Memorial Building. In his view, it was the perfect size (it seated 9,000). It was in a good location. It had ample parking.

But most importantly, the Pistons would have the advantage of being able to practice regularly on the U of D court.

But when Zollner made a strong radio, television, and promotional tie-in with a local brewery, the idea of playing home games at a university was no longer an option.

Zollner had to settle for Olympia, which proved to be cost prohibitive. Because of the expense of assembling and taking down the basketball court, the Pistons could only afford to schedule less than half a dozen home practices all season.

But Zollner made the best of the situation. In an open letter to fans in Detroit, he wrote: “This is a clean, rugged sport, played by superbly developed athletes of intelligence. I hope that you’ll enjoy seeing these great stars playing under the modern rules (in the) ideal playing conditions at Olympia Stadium.”

A crowd of 10,965 fans welcomed the Pistons for their opener at the red brick barn on Grand River on October 23, 1957. The star-studded Boston Celtics won, 105-94.

The Pistons first season in Detroit was not a huge success, on the court or off.

It was a veteran team, without any promising rookies, totally lacking in color or personality.

They drafted a 22-year-old guard named Bill Ebben, an engineering student at U of D. He had established career scoring records at the school, but he told the Pistons he wanted to get his degree before playing in the pros. That was okay with the Pistons, but when they got off to a slow start, they pressured Ebben to get on the court at Olympia. He signed, but didn’t play much. After only eight games, he was given his release.

The Pistons’ best player was the 29-year-old jump-shooting forward George Yardley, who started every game and led the team in field goal percentage (.414). But Yardley wasn’t very charismatic, and lacked gate appeal, which was what Detroit desperately needed.

Center Walter Dukes, forwards Harry Gallatin and Sweetwater Clifton, point guard Tricky Dick McGuire, and shooting guard Gene Shue were other prominent Pistons that year.

The flamboyant, free-wheeling, and outspoken Charles Eckman started the season as head coach. During a post-game radio interview, Eckman was asked his feelings about that night’s game, which Detroit had lost.

“We just stunk the joint out,” was his honest reply.

That didn’t sit well with Zollner, naturally. He let Eckman go, with his team sputtering along with a 9-16 mark. Zollner brought in Red Rocha, a native of Hilo, Hawaii. The Pistons played much better, at 24-23, under Rocha’s more stable, subdued personality.

But even before the season was over, nobody knew whether or not the Pistons were going to stay in Detroit for the long haul. “I know we have to have a winner before we can expect real success in Detroit,” Zollner admitted. “No one likes to leave a place of entertainment with a let-down feeling and that’s what you have when the home club loses. We have to win for the people who come to see us.”

Without much in the way of promotional efforts, there were plenty of empty seats for Pistons games that first year at Olympia. About halfway through the season, the team did announce it would hold an occasional Ladies Night, when female customers could purchase reserved seats for only 50 cents.

Detroit finished with a record of 33-39, good for second place in the NBA’s Western Division behind the St. Louis Hawks. That qualified them for the playoffs. They won the Western Division Semifinals two games to none over the Cincinnati Royals. But they lost the Western Division Finals to the Hawks, four games to one.

Financially, the Pistons lost about $100,000 that first season at Olympia.

Better times would come, but they were still far, far in the future.