The Palace, still a jewel, forever changed the way the NBA ran its business

AUBURN HILLS – The Red Wings are leaving Joe Louis Arena because it was an outdated and ill-conceived arena the day it opened 38 years ago to critical disdain. The Pistons are leaving The Palace even though it remains among the NBA’s jewels in its 29th season.

“This building being so far ahead of its time and still one of the nicest buildings in the league, among the oldest, I think it’s a great tribute to Bill Davidson, the foresight he had,” Stan Van Gundy said as the clock ticks down on the Pistons’ time in the place that’s been their home longer than any other. “Really, all the buildings that have come after have been influenced by this building.”

He’s not kidding. Van Gundy entered the NBA with the Miami Heat, who came into the league as an expansion team in 1988 calling the newly constructed Miami Arena home. It was abandoned in 10 years, rendered instantly obsolete – along with Charlotte Coliseum, built for the expansion Charlotte Hornets the same year and long since replaced, as well – by The Palace’s unveiling.

But there’s a parallel between the Pistons moving into The Palace at Davidson’s behest and their leaving it now in a decision driven by the man who purchased the franchise from the Davidson family, Tom Gores.

Nine times out of 10 when a professional sports team leaves one arena for another, it’s about the money. But that’s not the case with the Pistons taking leave of The Palace for Little Caesars Arena. That’s all about Gores’ conviction that his mission to use the platform of Pistons ownership as an agent of positive change for not only Detroit but the region and all of Michigan can be best served by being part of Detroit’s revitalization. And, in fact, money wasn’t the driving force for Davidson to leave the Silverdome and build The Palace.

The Palace came to be for a variety of reasons, a confluence of factors that contained a common element: the Silverdome kept proving its incompetence and incompatibility.

The tipping point came when then-Pistons president Tom Wilson, who’d repeatedly expressed his frustration in negotiating terms of the Pistons-Silverdome agreement to Davidson, told his owner about the Silverdome executive committee’s intransigence and urged him to attend a meeting to see for himself.

As a wildly successful businessman who’d taken private the family flagship, Guardian Glass, Davidson didn’t believe Wilson’s version of Silverdome demands. The Pistons weren’t selling many tickets to the cavernous football stadium, where supply far outstripped demand, so they struck a marketing deal with Marathon Oil whereby customers could get four free tickets for filling their gas tank.

The only revenue the Pistons got from the deal was $1 a ticket from Marathon. They weren’t doing it to swell their coffers but to make the Silverdome feel like a real home court for their team and give fans for whom pro sports were inaccessible an entry point to see an exciting, young team led by Isiah Thomas. The city-owned Silverdome got every penny from parking and concessions on those nights of Marathon promotions and every other night, too – yet balked at having to hire a few extra staffers to man the parking lot and concession stands.

“They would make 15 grand on parking and probably 30 grand on concessions – a 40- or 50-thousand dollar night – and they complained about the thousand-dollar expense it might have cost them to make it happen,” Wilson said.

So Davidson attended a meeting, heard the argument he couldn’t fathom, and came to a decision that did nothing short of revolutionize NBA economics.

“As we walked out of the meeting, down a narrow little hallway that led to the conference room, he said, ‘That’s it. We’re going. I heard it. I didn’t believe it. Now I believe it. And I can’t believe it. So let’s go.”

The Pistons had left Cobo Arena downtown in 1978 – again, not about money but because Davidson no longer felt safe taking his two young children to games during Detroit’s strife-filled days – and in the intervening decade, Joe Louis Arena was built as new home to the Red Wings. Joe Louis, in a rather direct way, had a huge influence on the decision to go ahead and build The Palace.

When two Pistons games a year apart had to be moved out of the Silverdome – one when its Teflon-coated Fiberglas roof collapsed under the weight of a spring snowstorm and the other when a tractor pull was scheduled to prevent the Pistons from hosting a playoff game – the seeds planted by the Silverdome board’s obstinate negotiating stance began to germinate.

In a 1984 playoff game with the Knicks – the one where Isiah Thomas scored 16 points in 90 seconds to force overtime but Bernard King carried the Knicks to the win in a deciding Game 5 – Wilson became convinced that the Pistons needed to call a real basketball arena home, not an expansive football stadium.

“It turned out to be the best game I’d ever seen. It was electric,” he said. “Twenty-thousand people, 95 degrees in there, no air conditioning, but it was electric. It was spectacular.”

The following year, Wilson and fellow Pistons executive John Ciszewski – now each part of the team instrumental in the planning of Little Caesars Arena – were walking around the concourse separating the upper and lower bowls of Joe Louis when one wondered aloud why no one had ever placed suites at that prime location instead of the upper ring.

All the elements to compel the construction of a new home for the Pistons were in place: the motivation provided by the Silverdome’s demands, the desire to play in a basketball arena and the idea – advantageously placed suites – that could generate the revenue necessary to support a privately financed arena.

And that last part – a privately financed arena – was a game changer, virtually unheard of at the time and still exceedingly rare. Wilson was originally given a budget of $50 million by Davidson with suite leases critical to covering the costs. They moved slowly at first – major targets Ford and General Motors declined – but when Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, an immensely visible and popular businessman, signed on momentum swelled.

Davidson – who shook hands on a deal to buy the team from original Pistons owner Fred Zollner, whose Fort Wayne, Ind., business produced, of course, pistons for the automotive industry, as the two walked along the ocean near their Golden Beach, Fla., summer homes – was roundly thought to be crazy by even his friends for privately financing The Palace.

“His friends begged him not to do it,” Wilson said. “(Theater mogul) Joey Nederlander called me and begged me to persuade him to back out, he’s going to go broke. His friends would say, ‘Hey, we know he knows what he’s doing, but with this, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ ”

The original design called for two levels of suites, the most expensive – priced for a then-audacious $120,000 a year, or three times what suites at the Silverdome were fetching – midway up the lower bowl and a second ring atop the lower bowl. When the inventory sold out while the arena was still under construction, the decision – made on literally the last day possible to accommodate design changes – to add a third ring atop the upper bowl was made at a cost of another $5 million to $10 million. The Palace was built with 180 suites, far and away the most of any arena to date.

The architect, Detroit-based Rosetti – currently enlisted to design the new Pistons’ practice facility and team headquarters downtown – was more amenable to crazy ideas like suites in the middle of the lower bowl, perhaps, because it was the firm’s first foray into sports and arena design. Rosetti was chosen by the Pistons and Davidson at the suggestion of Detroit-based developer Robert Sosnick, a longtime Davidson friend who became a partner in building The Palace.

The Palace was under construction while the team was in ascension. The finishing touches were being put on it as the team was pushing the Lakers to seven games in the 1988 NBA Finals. With the bottom line looking more promising as every suite was leased, Wilson’s budget swelled from $50 million to $90 million.

“The building got bigger, the building got nicer, the suites got better, the scoreboard got more outrageous,” Wilson said. “Once we sort of figured out how we could cobble this thing together, Mr. Davidson wanted something he could be proud of and the team could be proud of.”

When Davison was elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2008, there was much on his resume to recommend his induction. But – make no mistake – his creation, The Palace, was right atop the list.

“It will be his legacy,” Wilson said. “A lot of the incredibly critical issues he took on with the NBA – all his work on the collective bargaining agreement and his support of David Stern in the early days – might have a more lasting impact on the game. But that was where he was one among a group of owners, a leader among them, but still among a group. This was all individual. And nobody else would have done it.”

The building opened in 1988 with the first event a Sting concert on August 13. The first basketball game came later that month when the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, featuring Michigan natives Dan Majerle of Traverse City and Jeff Grayer of Flint and a high school kid out of Virginia named Alonzo Mourning, played a team of NBA stars including Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.

In the Pistons’ maiden season, they won the first NBA title in franchise history, then did it again in 1990. Both of those championships were clinched on the road. In 2004, the Pistons beat the Lakers in Game 5 to douse The Palace in champagne. Thirteen years later – 29 years after it opened and revolutionized the business of the NBA – it gets a final curtain call tonight though its functionality and aesthetic appeal remains fully intact.

“We could’ve played here for as long as we needed to,” Van Gundy said. “It was more a great desire to be downtown, but the building itself has served the Pistons organization extremely well. For the people who have been here the whole time, there should be a great sense of pride in what Bill Davidson did. He started something here that has served the NBA very well.”

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