Cobo Arena, that appendage of Cobo Hall that is as round-shaped as the basketball that was used inside of it, was a place for the curious and the die-hard.
With only a few thousand customers in the stands—and not all of them the paying kind—you could hear the thump-thump of the leather ball pounding on the basketball floor as David Bing brought the sphere into the frontcourt.
The squeaks of the canvas high-top shoes could be heard in the balcony with no straining of the ears.
The ten Redwoods moved about on the floor, putting on an almost personal show for the paltry crowd of patrons.
But this was real NBA action. The games actually counted in the standings. And the Pistons could only put away about one in the win column for every two that went in the other one, hence the small crowds.
This was Detroit Pistons basketball, circa the 1960s, though Bing didn’t arrive from Syracuse University until 1966. Didn’t matter. The players changed, but the records didn’t.
And the crowds were routinely tiny in the then-new Cobo Arena.
It was a time when apathy ran rampant for the Pistons. The records were awful, the personnel decisions about the same. Coaches came and went with alarming regularity.
It was a two-years-and-out kind of thing. Being Pistons coach was tantamount to taking a 24-month walk on a plank.
It was an era of pro basketball in Detroit that, once the success of the late-1980s and early-to-mid-2000s occurred, I thought were gone forever.
I was wrong.
They say everything that was once in fashion comes back in vogue again.
Some 50 years after the Pistons played Cobo Arena—think basketball in the round—in the most intimate of NBA settings, i.e. to empty houses, the days of sparse crowds, bad basketball and the coaching carousel have returned.
This is how they do it nowadays at the Palace, which has turned into Cobo Arena North. The ten Redwoods do their thing on the floor while the empty seats separate folks like RFD codes. The fans know what plays are being called, finding out the same time as the players, as the coach barks them out.
The Pistons have returned to their roots, and not in a good way.
They change coaches every couple of years, just like the old days. The win/loss records are heinous, just like the 1960s. The players squabble and complain about the coach behind his back—also a Pistons staple from the LBJ administration.
But what’s worse, what should be making current owner Tom Gores’ chest hair stand on end, is the Pistons are hemorrhaging their fanbase.
Apathy has returned.
The Pistons are once again relegated to fourth place in a four-team town.
The interest in the Pistons, in Detroit, has always—and I mean always—been directly proportional to the team’s success. It has been, and probably always will be, a front-runner’s town when it comes to pro basketball.
There isn’t blind devotion to the Pistons as there is with the other teams in Detroit.
The Lions haven’t won a championship since Eisenhower was president, yet they have to turn people away at Ford Field. I challenge you to name the last time a Lions home game was blacked out for local television.
The Red Wings enjoyed a solid fanbase even during the slapstick of the 1970s and early-1980s.
The Tigers have managed to push people through the turnstiles even when the team on the field hasn’t been much.
The iconic Old English D baseball cap is worn proudly worldwide.
The Pistons draw fans when they’re good, yes—but when they’re bad, the people stay away in droves. This is because pro basketball has never been, and never will be, a hit in Detroit if it doesn’t come with a side order of winning.
The Pistons haven’t had a winning record since the 2007-08 season. But what’s worse is they haven’t been relevant since then.
That’s a death knell around these parts.
Five years is an eternity for irrelevant pro basketball in Motown.
There’s no telling how much the fanbase has fractured since the days of making the Eastern Conference Finals every year—since the days of the Pistons’ version of the Fab Five: Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed and Ben Wallace.
Those days seem like a long time ago, don’t they?
I remember Game 3 of the 2004 NBA Finals at the Palace. I was there. The noise was deafening. As the Pistons pulled away from the Lakers on the court, you couldn’t hear yourself think.
I remember Game 5 of the 1984 first round at Joe Louis Arena. Pistons vs. Knicks—the Bernard King series. I remember Isiah Thomas scoring 16 points in 92 seconds at the end of regulation. I thought JLA might come down that night due to the noise ripping at its rafters.
But those were giddy times—postseason basketball with some high drama. The front-runners came out in full force and yelled themselves hoarse.
These are not giddy times for the Pistons.
The team has a reputation of being in disarray, of burying coaches. There is a “spinning their wheels” feel about the franchise. In the team’s three latest coaching searches—2008, 2009 and 2011—the Pistons failed to nab their top choice.
They even failed to land their second choice.
There might be a hook this time, however.
The Pistons have three young players primed for being coached up—Brandon Knight, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. The Pistons also have lots of salary cap space this summer. And they will be in the NBA’s lottery for a high draft pick.
The Palace is still a world-class facility, some 25 years after its opening.
So there is a lot to like if you’re a well-heeled NBA coach looking for work.
It’s time now for the Pistons to make a coaching hire that is almost solely designed to bring back the fans who have wandered off in search of other winter entertainment.
It’s time to put Xs and Os off to the side a little bit and go for a blatant PR move. The Pistons, despite their three tender young stars, are still several years away from championship contention. So the next coach isn’t going to get them there, anyway.
It’s time to hire Bill Laimbeer.
It’s time to reach out—time to say, “Billy, come back home. We need you.”
Laimbeer has just as much, if not more, coaching chops as some of those who have been mentioned already as Lawrence Frank’s replacement. He has won three WNBA Championships as a head coach.
He has served an apprenticeship as an NBA assistant in Minnesota.
Laimbeer embodies what the Pistons were when they were champions in 1989 and 1990. He is beloved in this town—almost as much as his point guard, Isiah Thomas.
The Pistons could do worse.
And they have, several times.
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