No one should be writing this story, and you shouldn’t be reading it. This narrative should not exist for one simple reason: The Palace of Auburn Hills should not exist — at least not in the way we have come to know it.
The Palace should have been an abject failure, run into the ground by ambitious but well-intentioned people who, truth be told, really didn’t know what they were doing. It should be an abandoned site. A mushy, ruinous pit. A parking lot overgrown with weeds. A crumbling structure, or perhaps one already done in by the wrecking ball. A faded memory and the subject of our ridicule and scorn.
“Oh, that?” we might tell the kids in the backseat as we whiz past the Lapeer Road exit on I-75. “That used to be where the Pistons played. They called it The Palace.”
Of course, it’s none of that.
t was, it is and it remains — at least for a while longer — the Palace of Auburn Hills, the home of the Detroit Pistons that will turn 29 on Aug. 13 but still looks like a teenager. Like an ingénue who burst onto the scene and has kept her good looks while growing old with grace and poise, the Palace should be celebrated for the rich life it has lived heading into its final Pistons game tonight.
Sure, it has been home to the Pistons, who launched the stadium with a bang by winning NBA championships in their first two seasons there. Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand performed there. Ron Artest brawled there. Gordie Howe skated his last shift there.
But we can’t forget about the building itself. We shouldn’t say farewell without remembering that, long ago, this structure set a shining example of what a sports arena should be. It’s an architectural triumph that has been copied the world over.
The funny thing is that it never should have turned out this well. Tom Wilson, the former longtime Pistons president and chief executive who was in charge of the whole project more than 30 years ago, conceded that “we had an architect that had never designed a (stadium), a builder who had never built one and a developer who’d probably been to one sporting event in his life. So that mix, you talk about destined to fail, that mix has no chance to pull this thing off.”
So why didn’t it fail?
The short answer: Bill Davidson. The long answer: The Pistons’ late owner was smart enough to know what he didn’t know.
“I think part of his genius was letting other people do it,” Wilson said. “He said, ‘At my age, I don’t know anything about this business. I don’t want to learn it. I’m going to count on you guys to sort of get it done.’ He turned it over to us, and we had a very small team of people.”
Zeke and the pirates
When Davidson bought the Pistons from original owner Fred Zollner in 1974, the team played at 11,000-seat Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit.
“At Cobo, you were coming to the games with the same 5,000 intimate friends that you had every night,” said Mike Abdenour, the Pistons’ director of team operations who started as the team trainer in 1975. “Cobo was unique from the standpoint that it had its own vibe.
“The fashion show always began at the six-minute mark of the first quarter: Who was walking into the building and sitting in those very expensive $7 courtside seats at the time. It was like a place to be seen.”
But not for much longer. Davidson moved the Pistons in 1978 to the gargantuan Pontiac Silverdome, which seated 80,311.
“And then I think Mr. Davidson’s vision was, you know, it’s got to be a little bit better,” Abdenour said. “And to his credit and a lot of guts on his part, moving to the Silverdome, that was a strong move because now you’re in a literally vast expanse. We weren’t necessarily treated like second-class citizens because the Lions were the main focus.
“But it’s amazing. When we started winning, when we started bringing bodies into that place, the feeling of second-class citizenship kind of went away. Not that we were co-equals with the Lions, but we knew what was happening 41 times a year when things were starting to really, really get good.”
And the crowds were getting really, really big. The Pistons drafted Isiah Thomas with the second overall pick in 1981, launching the Bad Boy era as attendance climbed each year.
But for all the Silverdome’s size, it restricted the Pistons’ business potential. The city of Pontiac owned the building, which meant the Pistons were mere tenants — and not even the main tenants, thanks to the Detroit Lions.
After leaving Ft. Wayne, Ind., in 1957, the Pistons had gone from Olympia to Cobo to the Silverdome and, because of a fateful snowstorm, briefly Joe Louis Arena. And the Pistons still hadn’t owned their own home in Detroit after nearly three decades.
Thomas offered possibly the most politic and artful answer when asked if the Silverdome had ever felt like home.
“Absolutely,” he said with a chuckle. “That was part of the Bad Boys’ mystique as pirates. Every place, we made it our house.”
The perfect storm
On March 4, 1985, a snowstorm brought down the roof of the Silverdome and gave rise to an idea that would inspire the Palace.
While the roof was being repaired, the Pistons were forced to play their final 15 games of their season at Joe Louis Arena.
During one game, Wilson walked around the Joe’s concourse with John Ciszewski, a sales executive with the Pistons. Wilson asked Ciszewski a question that changed the sports world forever.
“You know what I don’t understand?” Wilson asked. “Why don’t people put suites here as opposed to putting them way up in the rafters? I mean, these people are paying premium dollars. Why don’t you let them see the event? Why don’t we look at it differently?”
There is simply no way to overstate the importance of Wilson’s simple question. What his question led to was, in the world of sports arenas, no less significant than Isaac Newton getting clonked on the head by an apple.
But before the concourse-level suites came, the Pistons needed an arena. The next question Davidson and Wilson had to ask themselves was, “What kind of arena do we want?”
You have to remember that when the Pistons started thinking about building the Palace, arenas largely were publicly funded money pits. They also were cheaply built, ugly, unimaginative blocks of cement — much like what the Sacramento Kings devised when they built Arco Arena, which they managed to make worse recently by renaming it Sleep Train Arena.
“So we were really looking, when we sat down, at copying what Sacramento had done,” Wilson said. “They built a really kind of low-end arena for $10 million to $15 million. We thought, well, if we spend 20 to 25 (million), we should be able to build a nice place. And that would be fine.
“And Mr. Davidson didn’t want to build anything mediocre. He said, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it and let’s figure out how to make it work.’ ”
Davidson and Wilson didn’t have any grand plans to build a cutting-edge stadium. He actually had a rather simple directive.
“What was really important to Bill was that he have a home for his basketball team,” Wilson said. “Like a really, really nice home for his basketball team. And that was the biggest driver for him.”
His basketball team wasn’t disappointed.
“It was our house,” said former forward Rick Mahorn. “It was something that started from ownership. Bill Davidson had the vision of saying, ‘OK, I’m tired of being a renter. I’m going to own something and build a brand.’ ”
Davidson also was smart enough to hire good people, trust them and stay out of their way.
“And the great thing about Bill,” Wilson recalled, “is he said, ‘I don’t know anything about arenas. So you guys design it. The only thing I ask is that you design it in such a way that you’re not coming back and asking me for a check every two months because we couldn’t make it work.’
“So what that led us to do was sort of completely change the industry, because in those days arenas were just money pits.”
The millions mount
The original budget, Wilson said, was $50 million. That still would have put the Palace in line with some of the nicer arenas that were being built at the time, like the Charlotte Coliseum and Miami Arena.
But $50 million was an early estimate that accounted for just 100 suites: 52 on the club level that started at Row 16 and 48 more suites nine rows up. And, as anyone who has ever remodeled their house knows, final costs rarely end up resembling an estimate.
Skybox suites added another $10 million to $15 million. One of the first versions of the Jumbotron was used and soon things seem to get better everywhere in the stadium during planning.
“So we just upgraded everything as we went along,” Wilson said. “Better restaurant, better facility, better everything. And with each change, the price got a little higher, but the building got a little better. And we promised when we kind of came out of the block, this is going to be the finest building that you’ve ever seen. And I don’t think we failed.”
The Palace wound up costing $80 million, Wilson said. Some estimates peg the number closer to $90 million.
The bank of Davidson
Davidson, along with fellow investors Bob Sosnick and David Hermelin, chose to privately finance the Palace for two reasons: Control and expedience.
“I think from Bill’s standpoint he was very much the kind of person that he just didn’t want to answer to anybody else,” Wilson said. “If there was a problem, he just wanted to fix it. He didn’t want to go to boards, he didn’t want to report to somebody, he didn’t want a process to take months and months and months. He just wanted to fix things.”
A good example that demonstrated the wisdom in this choice was the problem with having only about 10 entrance and exit lanes when the Palace opened.
“We couldn’t get people in, we couldn’t get people out,” Wilson said. “So the first games we had with the Pistons were a disaster. So we knew we had to change them.”
Instead of meeting with a zoning board, the Pistons approached Auburn Hills mayor Bob Grusnick, who told the Pistons not to worry about obtaining a permit. By the time the team got back from a West Coach trip, more lanes had been added and a permit was soon secured.
Hey, it was the ’80s. Auburn Hills had barely become an incorporated city in 1983. So, yes, this is how things were done.
A vision ... on 10 cases of beer
Having a friendly partner who could fast-track permits wasn’t the only advantage the Pistons had by putting their arena in Auburn Hills.
“You look at how difficult it is in a major city to get things done,” Wilson said. “There’s always restrictions and there are always historical problems and things like that and issues. And we called Bob Grusnick, who was the mayor out there. We’d just done renderings of the building. We hadn’t run this by anybody. Everything was being done in a clandestine manner.
“We said, ‘We’d like to show you what we’re thinking of doing in your city.’
“So they didn’t have any city offices. He said, ‘Come on out to my place of business.’ So we did. And his place of business was a party store. And we went to the back of the party store and on 10 cases of beer we unrolled the renderings of what would become the Palace of Auburn Hills.
“And he sort of said, ‘Geez, I love this. Let’s make it happen. Call my assistant.’ ”
With help from Grusnick and the city, things moved quickly. The Pistons announced their plans to build the arena on June 6, 1986, and broke ground that summer. Two years later, it opened.
“Very little red tape, or at least they made the red tape kind of a soft pink,” Wilson said. “And we were able to move quicker than you were able to move maybe anywhere. Certainly in any major American city it would have taken a lot longer: Years of negotiations and things like that.”
The suite sweet life
David Richards is a soft-spoken man. He is quiet and careful with his words, which makes it seem like he’s telling you a secret. And in a way he is as he stands over a thick book of original blueprints for the Palace.
Richards is the chief operating officer for Rossetti, the architecture firm in Detroit that designed the Palace. Richards was closely involved with the project and as he flipped through the thick book at Rossetti’s downtown offices, he seemed to recall something about every blueprint. He explained a part of the stands that lift up.
“We call it an elephant door,” he said, “specifically so an elephant and a rider can get in and out of the building during the circus.”
The seats were an important focus of the design.
“We made the individual rows wider than pretty much every other building,” he said. “We wanted to establish a new standard so that there’s a little bit more leg room.
“The use of the padded seats is something that is, once again, a unique sort of thing. Many, many buildings had the plastic-shell seats. A lot of building were still built with benches.”
Richards flipped through the book and found the blueprint he wanted. For all intents and purposes, it may as well be a modern-day Rosetta Stone for stadiums, a key for unlocking the secret, hidden riches every arena contained but that no one realized.
“If you want to talk about things that had not been done before,” Richards said, “the Palace did some very, very unique things. I think probably the one that’s most well-known is putting suites in Row 16, and absolutely the first to do that. The first to bring those right down to the sweetest part of the building, and something that’s proven to be very, very popular and something virtually every building now tries to do. We didn’t know you couldn’t do it, and we found a way.”
Wilson’s nascent idea for the lower-level suites in March 1985 eventually became a mandate.
“A year or two later,” Wilson said, “when we decided to go forward, that’s really when we said, ‘Look, we’ve got to be able to put them on the concourse. There’s got to be some way to do that.’ ”
Wilson said Rossetti, to its credit, pushed back initially because the lower suites would create a lot of problems, such as changing sight lines. But Wilson pushed right back. Rossetti had never designed an arena, but neither had Wilson. It was an entirely theoretical argument, until Wilson whipped out a napkin and drew a rough sketch of what he was thinking. Napkin scribbles are one thing. Architectural schematics are another. But it was a start.
Then the breakthrough happened. Wilson and Richards were part of a group that went on a fact-finding tour of newer stadiums. Neither Wilson nor Richards could recall the actual arena where it happened, but they remembered they were all sitting together.
“We’d been on tour and we began to take a break,” Richards said. “We’re sitting at about Row 16. And that’s where somebody said, ‘Why can’t we have a suite right here?’ And I think it may have been (firm founder) Gino Rossetti. It may have been Tom Wilson. It may have been everybody at once saying, ‘If we’re going to put in suites, let’s put them right here. It’s the best place in the building. Why wouldn’t somebody that had that feature, that amenity, want the best?’ ”
Everyone began to see the same picture from the same place.
“Then they went away and came back a week later,” Wilson said, “and said, ‘You know what? I think this can work. If you want to do it, it’s expensive, but I think it can work.’ ”
Rossetti’s idea was to integrate the lower-level suites as seamlessly as it could into the design of the arena in a way that would satisfy form and function.
“We did this with the intent that the seating bowl looks continuous and it felt continuous,” Richards said. “We did it specifically so that we didn’t have a vertical wall of glass reflecting concert sound back and around. We had people seated in front of (the suite) that were absorbing sound, rather than it reflected. So the sound was better in the building.”
The concession to design Rossetti made was to create a step up from the suites to the actual seats. In modern design, concourse suites jut out conspicuously. But the Palace’s club-level suites are set back and tucked underneath the upper-level seats to retain the aesthetic of a bowl and only the seats protrude into the arena.
“It really makes it feel like a unified experience,” Richards said, “like everyone’s there together sharing that experience.”
When it was done, the Palace had 52 lower-level suites that started at Row 16. It had 48 more suites that started at Row 25. And it had another 80 skybox suites. Wilson went to each level of the suites and took a look. The vision was complete and it was astounding, even to the man who first saw it. He knew that he and Davidson and Rossetti and the whole team had built more than great new suites. They had created a new world.
“You just knew the world was going to change when you saw this and when you sat in them and you compared them,” Wilson said. “You go to the 16 rows. Then you go to the (25th row suites). The (25th row) looks pretty good. But then you go to the top and you realize that’s where the world was and now this is the where the world is going.
“It was just like you just bought a suite for the best seat in the house, literally the best seat in the house. I don’t think there was any question the arena world would never be the same. And that’s proven to be the case.”
Of course, the lower-level suites would have meant nothing if the Pistons couldn’t sell them. So, how do you sell something no one has ever seen or heard of before?
“All the family shows signed 10-year deals to play downtown,” Wilson said. “So the ice shows, the circuses all stayed downtown. So you’re selling suites to what? You’re selling it to a dream or a hope or a vision — and the Pistons. And that’s all you had.”
Not quite. The Palace also had Wilson, with his determination, his silver-tongued salesman’s pitch, and his intestinal fortitude.
“We made a list of 40 or 50 people that would be good prospects for suites and probably when the dust settled five of them bought,” he said. “So we were out scrambling trying to sell a new idea and a new concept to a whole new audience that had never had suites before or had entertained the way we were telling them they could entertain.”
And that was the good news.
“Remember, we were building this when interest rates were 17-18%, so it was costing a fortune,” Wilson said. “In addition to being a crazy idea, we were also doing it at the worst conceivable time economically in the country. It was really going against the wind.”
When Wilson and his sales team got the first domino to fall, the rest soon followed.
“There were automotive coatings and there were seven companies that made them,” Wilson said. “And we got turned down by six of them. We were calling everybody.
“We went to, I think it was Akzo at the time. They were the last one and they agreed to buy. So we went back to the top of the list. You call up DuPont and you say, ‘Would you be interested in looking at a suite?’
"‘No. We already said no.’
"‘Well, let me tell you what Akzo’s doing with theirs.’
"‘Oh, Akzo’s got one?’"
And so it went. Once they had Akzo, they had DuPont. Once they had Akzo and DuPont, they had everyone.
“Eventually all seven or eight of them bought; different levels, different prices and everything like that,” Wilson said. “But they couldn’t let somebody get a leg up.”
The suites were doing their job and generating the influx of money the Palace needed to cover it debt and ensure financial success.
“In our case,” Wilson said, “we had 52 suites down there paying premium prices, in those days. Just the dollars that were generated from that alone could cover most of your debt service, or a lot of your debt service.”
The name game
You may have heard the story of how the Pistons named the Palace. They held a competition for fans to suggest names and received about 100,000 entries. About 1,600 suggested the Palace.
The Pistons planned to announce the winning arena name on live television during halftime of their game against the Boston Celtics at the Silverdome on Dec. 4, 1987. They also randomly picked five people who had suggested the Palace for a drawing for lifetime tickets to every event at the Palace, which Jonathan Binder, a 20-year-old Michigan student from Flint, won.
But that’s just part of the story. Two of the key parts of the Palace’s name were decided by Davidson and the city. It was actually Davidson who picked the name from the fans’ suggestions.
“He loved the Palace,” Wilson said, “because it brought great memories of being in New York and playing the Palace was always the greatest thing in the early, early days in vaudeville. So he thought it was a magical name.”
As for the “of Auburn Hills” part of the name, that was a concession.
“That was the one thing they insisted on and that was sort of our give,” Wilson said. “But they were amazing to work with.”
The Palace of Auburn Hills was jeered from the start. Maybe the fans just didn’t realize it could have been so much worse with something like the Sleeping Train Palace of Guaranteed Rate.
The Palace opened with Sting’s concert on Aug. 13, 1988. But there was no question from the outset who the main tenant was.
The Pistons finally had a home and Rossetti wanted the outside of the building to make a simple, geometric statement about that fact, even if it was a subtle one.
“I know you’ve seen it a thousand times,” Richards said with a smile, “and it never occurred to you.”
The building’s exterior design is a basketball going through a hoop. If you look closely, the crisscross pattern of the brown bricks gets smaller at the bottom to suggest the narrowing of the net and a ball moving through it.
Rossetti gave lots of thought into the fan experience. The firm designed more extensive women’s restrooms. It padded every seat to absorb sound and greatly improve acoustics, especially for concerts. They also put in a cutting-edge perforated metal deck in the roof to absorb even more sound.
Even though basketball would rule the arena, the acoustic improvement — especially after coming from the Silverdome — was extremely important for fans and for luring music acts like Sting, and Michael Jackson, who sold out three performances that October.
“I remember going in we kept telling everybody, ‘This is going to be the best acoustics in any building anywhere,’ ” Wilson said. “And you’re kind of hoping it’s true because you’ve been saying it for so long.
“And I walked in, they were setting up for Sting, which was the opening show on Aug. 13, and I went out to the sound guy and said, ‘OK, just curious. Tell me about the building.’ And he said, ‘I knew the minute I walked into the building you had fabric seats and that this going to be a different experience. This is the finest place I’ve ever been.’ And then you just sort of smile and think, ‘Gee, we told the truth.’ ”
The funny thing is that the Palace almost missed its opening night. Rossetti had designed an equipment grid that could be lowered from the roof to within 10 feet of the ground. It eliminated the need for riggers to affix lights and tresses from dangerous heights. But Sting’s riggers weren’t familiar or comfortable with the grid.
“Sting’s riggers determined it was unsafe and they were about to cancel the show,” Richards said. “Finally I’m in a room and I had to take personal responsibility for the safety of Sting on the stage. I told them, ‘I’m personally responsible for him.’ Which is just silly because especially then, personally, it didn’t amount to much. I even offered: ‘I’ll go on stage with you.’ He was wise enough that he didn’t need that.”
These boys weren't bad
For all of the Pistons’ itinerant excellence at the Silverdome and elsewhere, they had no trouble settling in and feeling right at home right away when they played their first home game at the Palace, when they opened with a 94-85 win over the Charlotte Hornets on their way to an 8-0 start and, of course, the franchise’s first NBA championship that season.
“It was a big part of the Pistons’ identity,” Thomas said, “and a part of my identity in terms of an arena being associated with a certain team and a certain player. It was our house, and we treated it that way. This was ours. This was our palace. This was our house. This was our building.
“And even our fans felt that way, in terms of there were signs that were put up there that said, ‘This is our house.’ We took pride in not losing in our house.”
The Bad Boys were well on their way to being good before they arrived at the Palace. But when they got their own home, a strong identity and culture was formed around the team and its fans.
“It was always fun just because the fans appreciated what we did,” Mahorn said. “And when you win and fans appreciated that you embodied what Detroit was all about, hard work, it was always fun."
Abdenour recalls those heady early days when the Palace was equal parts basketball and party atmosphere. There was a “Flamingo Suite,” which used fishing line to send Styrofoam cutouts of players dressed in jersey to another suite called Rodman’s Roost, which would unfurl a 20-foot banner in honor of the rebounding machine known as Dennis Rodman.
“That became part of the fabric of the whole organization,” Abdenour said of the arena’s carnival atmosphere. “That became part of what that group was all about and that became part of what the Palace was all about.”
The Bad Boys won back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90, but both championships were clinched on the road. The organization had a clever consolation by offering Palace Vision. When the Pistons played their NBA Finals games on the road, fans could pay $2 for a ticket to watch the game on the stadium’s video boards.
Diane Ferranti, the Pistons’ longtime vice president of game operations, was the director of Palace Vision during her first season working for the Pistons in 1988-89.
“And literally you could not get a ticket,” she said. “There were 22,000 people packed into that arena to watch it on the video board. It was absolutely insane. I don’t think we ever anticipated that 22,000 people are going to show up to watch it on TV in the building, but they did.”
Home or away, it didn’t matter to Thomas. It’s hard to believe any player wouldn’t want to win a title in front of his fans.
But it’s almost believable to hear Thomas, famous for his pugilistic tenacity, say he preferred to spoil someone else’s day.
“It went along with our mystique,” Thomas said, glee in his voice. “We wanted to beat you in your building and celebrate in front of your fans. That was kind of who we were.”
Thomas said he still feels like he’s part of Detroit, part of the family when we returns. He started as a pirate and then became a pioneer. These days, he’s just proud to have been a Piston who played in his Palace.
“It was truly the model for how a small-market franchise can be successful in the NBA and the Palace being one of the most decorated and innovative buildings at that time when it came out,” he said. “Everything from the arena to the pride in playing to the way we traveled to the hotels that we stayed in and the team that we had, it was a pioneering team and a pioneering palace.”
Goin' to work, winning at home
The Bad Boys won their titles in Los Angeles in ’89 and in Portland in ’90. It would take an unlikely group of non-superstars, known as the Goin' to Work group, to finally win the championship at home in 2004.
The Goin' to Work team was famous for its collective strength and forward Tayshaun Prince, while speaking of the team itself easily could have been speaking about the entire organization, whose entire game operations staff adopted the Goin' to Work attitude.
“The way that the team was built and the way that we did things, they always said that it wasn’t a one-person show,” Prince said. “We all did it together. We all had to do our part to achieve big things.
“Obviously wonderful memories in this building, wonderful memories on the road. But definitely, definitely will miss being in this place, being in this arena. The most important thing is we did special things in here, and we will never forget it.”
Chauncey Billups, the heart of the team and the 2004 NBA Finals MVP, was optimistic about the team’s impeding move downtown to Little Caesars Arena, and maybe even a touch jealous that the never got to play in Detroit. But nothing, he said, would ever replace the Palace.
“We all know my and the rest of my teammates’ affinity for the Palace,” Billups said. “It’s a special place for us. It breaks my heart that it’s closing and going away.”
Before there was a Palace or even a Silverdome, Wilson was a kid growing up on Six Mile in Detroit. He took the Woodward bus to watch the Pistons play at Cobo. So the first championship in ’89 was a moment of transcendence. But as the leader of an organization, Wilson felt something different with the “magic of winning at home” in 2004, when the Pistons beat the mighty Lakers with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
“I just remember looking around the roped-off area and seeing so many of our staff with tears in their eyes because they’d all worked hard,” he said. “We’ve been down for a few years and then you come back slowly and then to sort of celebrate the unlikely. We did beat a team with four Hall of Famers starting for them.”
Gordie's last shift
There were plenty of wonderful moments at the Palace.
The Detroit Shock went from being the WNBA’s worst team in 2002 to winning the first of three championships in 2003.
“Biggest memory was ’03,” said former Shock player Cheryl Ford, “when I came in and the team went from worst to first. And the crowds, our fans here, we had standing room only, and it was the best feeling ever.”
There’s one event that stands out for its historical implications, even if it was a publicity stunt to its fullest. But hey, this is Hockeytown. And Gordie Howe was Mr. Hockey. So who exactly is going to object to Howe lacing them up and taking the ice one last time to become the first person to play hockey professionally in six decades?
Nobody, that’s who. And if you disagreed, Mr. Hockey’s elbows would have been happy to end any argument.
So Howe signed a special contract with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League and on Oct. 3, 1997, he played his last shift. Howe was 69 and he was on the ice for one shift that lasted 46 seconds at the Palace, where the Vipers played.
Ferranti’s job that night was to wait with Howe before the game and cue him to take the ice for his introduction.
“I was a stage manager at the time,” Ferranti said. “So I remember standing in the Zamboni tunnel while they did his introduction and it was literally just Gordie Howe and me, and I was overwhelmed by that.
“And one of our season-ticket holders took a photo of me. It didn’t really sink in till later, but took a photo of me standing there with Gordie in his Vipers uniform looking at me. And it was my job to say, ‘OK, Gordie, it’s time for you to take the ice.’ And I remember being overwhelmed at that moment with just the emotion of it. That was a pretty big moment.”
Imagine that. The man who embodied his sport, a giant among the giants of Detroit sports and as beloved a figure as this city has ever seen, and Ferranti got to tell him when it was time to say good-bye. Moments don’t get any bigger.
It has never been easy in Detroit, has it? The hard work, the weather, the factories, the crime, the auto industry, race relations, politics, the recession, you name it. The city has survived it all for 315 years and counting.
But it has always been hard work. If there’s a secret to why the Palace has remained pristine and a marvel, it’s hard work. The organization, which has spent over $141.5 million in renovations since it opened, has made sure to keep the Palace up. Under Tom Gores’ stewardship alone, since he bought the team in 2011, the Palace has had $40 million in upgrades.
“I’ve always believed our franchise is a community asset,” Gores said in an email to the Free Press. “We all have incredible memories from the Palace going back almost 30 years. We own those as a community, and they are an important part of our history. Those memories will stay with us forever. The success of the arena for so long is a testament to the vision of Bill Davidson and his family. They put their heart and soul into the building and created a place that stood the test of time for nearly three decades.”
So what happens now? The answer isn’t clear. The Pistons still need formal approval to leave the Palace and move to LCA during a vote at the NBA Board of Governors’ meeting this summer. The arena still will host plenty of big events this year. Bruno Mars will perform in August and the final event scheduled is a Tim McGraw and Faith Hill concert Sept. 8.
After that, no one knows. The Palace could be torn down, the land sold and redeveloped. Or it could stand, possibly viable with just a handful of events each month.
If the Palace goes, it will be hard to bid it farewell. For everyone.
“You always want one more good-bye,” Thomas said. “I think all of us as Pistons, regardless of the situation, we never want it to end. Any time any of us get a chance to come back to Detroit in any kind of way, we jump on it. Like, ‘Isiah, will you come make an appearance at this elementary school in Port Huron?’
“Yes! What’s the date?”
But maybe Thomas, and the rest of us, should let the Palace go. Let it depart with its dignity and remember it as it once was: the home of the Detroit Pistons, and not a place we might whiz past and consider, even for a brief moment, to recall with pity or scorn. That place? Let me tell you about that place. Let me tell you about some bad boys. And men who went to work. And women who shocked the world. And a man they called Mr. Hockey. Let me tell you about that place. They called it the Palace of Auburn Hills.