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The Palace of Auburn Hills: Where greats earned the crown

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Michael Jordan came through here. LeBron James came through here. The NBA itself came through here.

They were tested.

And they emerged stronger.

Late Pistons owner Bill Davidson built The Palace of Auburn Hills, a sparkling, privately funded arena years ahead of its time that opened in 1988. Lower-level suites and on-grounds parking generated millions. Davidson’s Pistons won three championships while playing at the venue.

But current Pistons owner Tom Gores wants to return the franchise to Downtown Detroit, where the Pistons will join the Red Wings – who leave Joe Louis Arena, which opened in 1979 and was years behind its time – in a new shared arena.

So, the stars of those Pistons title teams – including Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups – gathered one final time at their old home to celebrate and reminisce.

The Pistons leave The Palace with a whimper, a 105-101 loss to the Wizards on Monday. The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game, here or anywhere, in nine years.

But The Palace will stand as a proving ground for the biggest stars of its generation.

Jordan started 1-6 in playoff games at The Palace, including 0-4 in a seven-game loss in the 1990 Eastern Conference finals. The Pistons double-teamed him, knocked him down, bullied him.

Finally, he and the Bulls turned all their frustration into Bad Boys-level competitiveness, paired it productively with their superior talent and swept the Pistons in the 1991 conference finals. Jordan won his first of six championships that year and became the greatest player of all time.

LeBron James was 1-5 in playoff games at The Palace when he scored the Cavaliers’ final 25 points in a double-overtime win over the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. That 48-point game was the first we saw LeBron truly unleashed, and he finished off the Pistons a couple nights later to reach his first of seven NBA Finals.

The most infamous moment at The Palace, of course, came in 2004: the Malice at the Palace. As then-Ron Artest laid on the scorer’s table during type of player fight the Bad Boys normalized at the arena, a fan pegged him with a cup in the chest. Artest leaped into the stands looking for a fight, and Stephen Jackson followed. Fans and Pacers brawled on and off the court for an extended period.

It was a low point for the NBA, which was still trying to find its way post-Jordan.

But the league too became stronger than ever after facing peril at The Palace. The NBA committed to improving its image, and a deep group of stars have the league more popular than ever.

The post-Malice debates – starting with the dress code – weren’t always clean. There’s a tension in a league where most players are black and most paying customers are white.

That was particularly felt with The Palace – about 30 miles north of downtown, in the wealthier suburbs and literally one of the largest symbols of white flight in an area still feeling the effects of the 1967 riots. Truthfully, Detroit was probably better off without a taxpayer funded arena. But the entire region, in and out of the city, has an attachment to the city of Detroit. People, especially an older generation, here like the idea of the Pistons playing downtown. It feels right to them.

The Pistons made Auburn Hills their home for 29 years anyway, and it worked, because, at their best, the Palace-era Pistons embodied the attitude of Detroit. The Pistons might provided Jordan with an NBA education, but when the petulant student became the teacher, they darn sure didn’t shake the Bulls’ hands.

Respect wasn’t earned easily here. Jordan didn’t get it until years later – begrudgingly. Grant Hill, the Pistons’ own hotshot who bridged eras, was far too widely unappreciated here. The fans still paying attention are grumbling about Stan Van Gundy’s current group.

Yet, those who prove themselves are welcomed back forever. Rodman, who joined the Bulls after leaving the Pistons and then embarked on years of sideshow antics, drew one of the night’s biggest ovations when he delivered the game ball. Thomas, 23 years after his last game here, still drew the largest media swarm with his infectious smile. And Wallace paraded around as if he owned the place.

“When you’re in The Palace, you always feel like a king,” Wallace said, resting a Larry O’Brien trophy on his shoulder.

The Pistons were never the NBA’s darlings. They just beat the NBA’s darlings.

They outlasted Larry Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Lakers and held off Jordan’s Bulls to win championships in their first two years at The Palace. In 2004, the Pistons upset the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant-Karl Malone-Gary Payton Lakers, becoming the only home team in NBA history to sweep the middle three games of a 2-3-2 NBA Finals and win a title on its home floor.

“Even though our team won back-to-back championships, their team was the one that really, I thought, put us in that elite class where we were able to keep the winning tradition,” Thomas said, “in terms of being thought of as a championship place.”

Houston billionaire Dan Friedkin expresses interest in buying Rockets

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We’ve seen the flashy names – Beyonce and Hakeem Olajuwon – interested in buying the Rockets.

But what about someone who can actually afford a majority stake?

Mark Berman of Fox 26:

Houston billionaire Dan Friedkin, owner and CEO of Gulf States Toyota and the president and CEO of the Friedkin Group, acknowledged in a statement released to FOX 26 Sports that he is interested in buying the Houston Rockets franchise.

“I’ve expressed interest in exploring the purchase of the Houston Rockets,” Friedkin said in a statement released by his company.

Forbes pegs Friedkin’s net worth worth at $3.1 billion and the Rockets’ value $1.65 billion. So, while he might be able to buy the team outright, it’d likely be a stretch of his assets.

More likely, if Friedkin is serious about purchasing the team, he’ll do so as part of a group. Whether he’d spend enough to be the controlling owner is an open question.

Memphis coach David Fizdale calls confederate monuments in city “unacceptable”

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Confederate President Jefferson Davis has a statue in Memphis. So does Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a man who went on to be one of the early members of — and reportedly the first grand wizard of — the Ku Klux Klan (he would later deny to Congress any involvement with the group). Both men lived in Memphis.

The Memphis City Council voted in 2015 to remove those statues — part of a growing trend nationally to remove Confederate monuments — but it was stopped because the statue is under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Historical Commission, which denied the request. The city is still fighting that legal battle.

The removal issue has been divisive is Memphis, but in the wake of violence in Charlottesville by white supremacists and Nazis — ostensibly about the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in that city, but really about much more than that — Grizzlies coach David Fizdale spoke out on the issue. He was interviewed as part of the MLK50: Justice through Journalism program, with the translation courtesy The Commercial Appeal‘s Geoff Calkins.

“Fifty years later (Martin Luther King Jr.) is speaking to us from the grave and telling us to stand up to this crap that we’re seeing, that’s festering in our country, that our president has seemed to deem OK and label as equal as people who are fighting for love and fighting hate and bigotry and all of those things. We’ve got to listen to Dr. King. There’s no way, with me being the head coach in the city of Memphis, that I will sit on the sidelines and disgrace his legacy, my grandfather’s legacy, and let somebody destroy something that we built in America that I think can be exemplary.”

“I can’t sit and watch this, not in a city where Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago, where we have, even today in our city a statue of a known Klansman, right here in the beautiful city of Memphis with all these incredibly wonderful people. It’s unacceptable. It will no longer stand. I think you’re seeing it all over America people are not standing for it anymore. It’s a black eye on our history.”

David Fizdale is not known for holding back his feelings — “take that for data!” — and he is spot on here on a far more important issue. Good on him for using his platform and voice to speak out.

These are statues dedicated to men who fought to uphold slavery as an institution, and as a nation that something we fought a war over. The north and the Union Army won the military campaign more than 150 years ago, but we are still fighting the Civil War in this nation in terms of ideals. Fizdale understands that. Removal of those statues is a step in the right direction, away from glorifying an ugly past built on the notion that one man was not equal to another, that one man could own another.

Don’t expect Fizdale to be quiet on this issue. Nor should he be.

US men’s basketball enters a new world – without its stars

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The jerseys say USA, though that’s about all that will be recognizable.

When the U.S. men’s basketball team returns to action later this month, fans might be left wondering, “the red, white and who?”

The Americans are cautiously entering a whole new basketball world, one in which not only are the best U.S. players not available, but neither are any in the NBA. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and the stars might show up in a few years for the Basketball World Cup and Olympics, but only if a group of minor leaguers can get them there.

It’s all part of FIBA’s new qualifying format and the road starts at the AmeriCup 2017. It’s a tournament the Americans don’t need to win – and aren’t sure they can – but one they have to play to make themselves eligible for the events that will matter.

“It’s going to be really interesting,” USA Basketball men’s national team director Sean Ford said. “We don’t know. We’re flying blind a little bit.”

Even the Americans’ best-known commodity is a bit of an unknown now.

Jeff Van Gundy coached in the NBA Finals and is analyst for them every year on ABC, but he’s leading the U.S. team as an international basketball rookie. He is busy brushing up on the nuances of a game that can be played and officiated completely differently than in the U.S.

He begins Thursday in Houston for training camp, where he will seek the 12 players who will travel to Uruguay and possibly Argentina for the AmeriCup and the potentially better-prepared opponents who wait.

“What we have to do is match and exceed their passion, how hard we play, how together we are as a group,” Van Gundy said, “because when the U.S. has not succeeded in international competitions, it’s because there wasn’t as much maybe sacrifice as you need, or maybe you were deficient in one skill that was important.”

It’s the Americans’ first appearance in the former FIBA Americas tournament since 2007. Their starting lineup in that romp to gold – James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Jason Kidd and Dwight Howard – was one of the strongest the U.S. has ever assembled.

The 17 players in camp with Van Gundy include Kendall Marshall, Reggie Williams, Darius Morris and Marshall Plumlee, players good enough to play in the NBA but not stick.

The Americans haven’t needed to play in their zone championship since because they’ve won every Olympic and world title, exempting them from qualifying. But FIBA has revamped its qualification system to look more like soccer’s, where national teams will play home-and-away games against teams in their pool.

But some of the windows are during the NBA season – the opening games are scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend – and players under NBA contract won’t be permitted to play. So the Americans plan to primarily use players from the NBA G League, with perhaps some who have been playing overseas.

“Look, no one’s going to feel sorry for us. But we know that this is different and we’re going to have to figure out how to be successful in a different model,” Ford said. “There’s always unknowns, but there’s probably more unknowns because No. 1, we don’t know how good we need to be. We don’t know how good we can be.”

Ford considers the prospective players a notch below the NBA, calling them “survivors, grinders, competitors.” That’s far from the level that suited up for Mike Krzyzewski for a decade or would play for Gregg Popovich in 2019 and 2020, but Van Gundy is eager to work with them in his first coaching assignment – not counting his daughter’s youth league – since he was fired by the Rockets in 2007.

“There’s very few LeBron James of the world – obviously one – or great players who have it easy. These guys’ careers have not been easy and so I really admire their persistence, their grit and their determination,” Van Gundy said. “To get to work with them and coach them, that was part of the pull for me.”

With limited time and options, the Americans know the AmeriCup could be a challenge. Ford said they hope to reach the semifinals in Argentina and see what happens from there.

They will need to start winning come November, when they open their first-round pool that includes Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba.

The U.S. has to finish in the top three there, playing their other windows of games in February and June-July, to advance to another pool that will include three teams among Argentina, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay, from Sept. 2018 to Feb. 2019.

Another top-three finish then would clinch their spot in China in 2019.

They will have a deeper field of candidates later who will be in shape from playing with their G League teams. But, they also could lose a player they like if he plays well enough for them in August to get a contract in the NBA or overseas.

There are many uncertainties, though Ford said there is one constant.

“From a USA Basketball standpoint,” he said, “if we’re going to put a team together, we’re going to try to put the best team together that we can and go out and try to win.”

Former Lakers forward Tommy Hawkins dies

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tommy Hawkins, the first black athlete to earn All-America honors in basketball at Notre Dame and who played for the Los Angeles Lakers during a 10-year NBA career, has died. He was 80.

Hawkins died Wednesday in Malibu, according to the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom he once worked as director of communications.

He graduated from Notre Dame in 1959. Hawkins was inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor and his 1,318 career rebounds remain the oldest record on the books in Fighting Irish basketball history.

Hawkins was selected by the Minneapolis Lakers in the first round of the 1959 NBA draft. He played for them as well as the Cincinnati Royals, and notched 6,672 career points and 4,607 rebounds.