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 have 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.”