It wasn’t just the rows of luxury suites or the location in northern Oakland County. It wasn’t the celebrities sitting courtside or the innovative design. Fans have their own special memories of going to The Palace of Auburn Hills, but the players themselves had their own recollections that show a different side of the building that would house three championship teams.
From the back-to-back championship years in 1989-90 and the third in 2004, The Palace has a special place for some of the key players. As the Pistons finish their final games at The Palace and prepare to head to their new home at Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit, the nostalgia is starting to set in.
“It was very exciting playing (at The Palace). Every time I walked in, I got those pregame jitters, palms get sweaty and it feels like game,” said former center Ben Wallace, who was the backbone of the 2004 “Goin’ to Work” squad. “When I was here, the fans made it easier for us to come in and relax and play basketball and we made it almost impossible to come in here and play.”
“It was difficult for other teams to win because of the fan support,” said Rick Mahorn, a forward on the ’89 championship team and current Pistons radio analyst. “They always embraced us and our hard-working attitude.”
In their inaugural season at The Palace, the Pistons had a 37-4 record in 1988-89 and followed with a 35-6 mark the next year.
“It was the first time we had a home that was ours. Every other team had their own building. This was our own spot, our home, what we protect,” said Isiah Thomas, captain of the “Bad Boys” teams of the 80s and 90s. “Our house became very symbolic for our fans. You don’t win here; you don’t play well here — you just come here to get beat. And that’s what we tried to do.”
Through the three championship seasons and several more trips to the postseason and the conference finals, the players had their own special memories on and off the court. But one of the fresher ones came for Hamilton this season, when his No. 32 jersey was retired and raised to the rafters.
“For me, it’s bigger than basketball. (My kids) never got an opportunity to experience the sellouts here, when we were winning each and every year and the championship and things like that,” Hamilton said. “For me, the biggest reward of all is bringing my kids in this building, seeing what Daddy did each and every day, understanding how Daddy went to work, understanding the fans and Detroit and everything about this city.”
Throughout this final season, the Pistons have brought back several of their luminaries to share their best memories of playing in The Palace and donning the Pistons’ red, white and blue. It’s been a good trip down nostalgia lane, bringing back all the heartfelt emotions in a venue that’s packed plenty in less than 30 years — ancient, compared to the new-school arenas around the league.
For Thomas, the Hall of Famer and franchise’s all-time leading scorer, it’s not just the on-court accomplishments, but also the relationships he built with the staff — from the front office to the ushers and security.
“There’s so many great memories here — and not just basketball memories, but people memories. To me, those are the things that always stick out in terms of the generations of fans that watched us play here and shared memories here,” Thomas said. “We had some great games and some great moments. We’re just closing one chapter and starting another.
“It’s an exciting time going back downtown to Detroit. This place is really special to all of us.”