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On Pro Basketball: Detroit and the Pistons Are One Again

By the late 1970s, a decade after horrific riots, the Pistons had fallen on hard competitive times, along with the city, and out they went to a charmless football dome in distant Pontiac, Mich., and later to the basketball-specific Palace of Auburn Hills.

A team in a sport played increasingly by young black men fled the city while hockey’s white-as-ice Red Wings stored their gloves and sticks in a downtown arena named for Joe Louis.

Mike Abdenour, the Pistons’ trainer since 1975, except for a three-year run with the Philadelphia 76ers, grew up on Detroit’s East Side, occasionally riding the bus with his brother to Cobo.

“The tickets cost $5,” he said, and that is why, he reasoned, Bill Davidson, the owner who moved the team, couldn’t be blamed for doing so when ticket prices began to rapidly rise leaguewide, along with salaries.

The fan base in the city could no longer afford to support the Pistons, Abdenour said, adding that the Red Wing crowds were already largely suburban, fiercely loyal and undeterred by ticket costs.


Bing was the major of Detroit from from 2009 to 2013 and spoke of luring the Pistons back. “There’s so much going on and I don’t think the Pistons wanted to be on the outside looking in,” he said.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

That’s one rationale. For his part, Bing recalled Davidson not getting along with Coleman Young, Detroit’s mayor at the time.

Too young to wonder or to worry about why one team left and the other stayed was Tom Gores, an adolescent Pistons fan and future owner of the team. At the time, he was about to embark on his own high school basketball career a little more than an hour away, in a small Michigan town a few miles northeast of Flint.

Gores went on to become a billionaire creator of the Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity, and in 2011 he bought the Pistons from the Davidson family (after Bill Davidson’s death in 2009) for a now-bargain $325 million.

In an interview, he said the racial incongruity of the Pistons’ uprooting was not something that jumped out at him as he grew older. “To be honest, I’ve never really thought about it that way,’’ he said.

Still, it was Gores who announced last month that the Pistons would end their 39-year self-exile from Detroit next season by becoming co-tenants with the Red Wings in the new Little Caesars Arena. With the N.F.L.’s Lions back downtown since 2002, and baseball’s Tigers having never left, the Pistons’ return will situate four major professional teams within blocks of one another, with Gores targeting a Major League Soccer franchise as a potential fifth.

On the phone, Gores, 52, said: “I think everybody felt that without the Pistons it just wasn’t complete. We were the missing family member.”

Family business mattered, too. The Palace has not exactly been packed in recent years, in large part because the Pistons haven’t been very good.

When Bing was mayor, from 2009 to 2013, he spoke of luring the Pistons back, but his tenure ended with the largest municipal bankruptcy debt filing in United States history. Times have changed, mostly in terms of downtown commercial development.

“There’s so much going on and I don’t think the Pistons wanted to be on the outside looking in,” he said.

Naturally, and justifiably, some have voiced objections to the hundreds of millions in bond subsidies floated by the Detroit Downtown Development Authority to help finance the arena and, in addition, make it basketball-ready.

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