Third of a multi-part series
Over the years, the Detroit Pistons have brought several significant, largely good, if unrecognized, changes that transformed the NBA on and off the court.
“We made it a point that our team was covered by African Americans,” Isiah Thomas, who played his entire 12-year NBA career in Detroit, told Black journalists last summer at NABJ in Detroit. “I am really proud of how the Detroit Pistons not only changed the landscape of journalism but also changed the landscape of basketball.”
Vincent Goodall, who was once a team beat writer and now covers the NBA for Yahoo Sports, added, “When people like [Thomas] found out I am from Detroit, I got pulled aside. They were always giving advice” on how best to correctly and honestly cover the city and the team, he pointed out.
“We were the first small-market [team] to have our own plane [and] the first to stay in first-class hotels,” Thomas continued. “We were the first team to start wearing shirts and ties to the game. The other [team] owners had to upgrade.”
However, the Pistons are mostly known as the “Bad Boys” and not for setting a defensive standard that forced the league to change. They were also known for the “Malice at the Palace.”
November 19, 2004, was the first meeting between the Pistons and the Indiana Pacers since they played in the Eastern Finals. It was nationally televised on ESPN, and the heated but lopsided contest between the two division rivals was in favor of the visiting Pacers. “Watching it [on television], I saw two teams that weren’t going to back down,” Thomas said. “You put all in the same arena together” along with some rowdy fans in the stands, and this became a bad mix.
A scuffle between two players on the court in the waning minutes of the game soon boiled over into the stands. The aftermath saw 11 players fined by the league — an estimated $11 million lost in salaries. Players received multiple-game suspensions; Indiana’s Ron Artest was suspended for the rest of the season.
Five players and five fans were later charged with assault and battery, and two Pistons fans were later banned from any events at the Palace, as well. All this took place at the Palace of Auburn Hills, some 60 miles outside of Detroit, but the city nonetheless got blamed.
“[It] would be something negative to be labeled on the city,” said former NBAer and Detroit native Steve Smith. Goodall, in high school at the time, recalled, “I was listening to the game [on the radio]. My sister called me, and she said they are fighting at [the Palace]. They are fighting everybody.”
Detroit native and Hall-of-Famer Spencer Haywood pointed out that when he played, fights in the NBA were common, “but the Malice at the Palace got more attention.” Thomas said he also was bothered that only the players seemed to get blamed.
“We put all that on the players. Did any of the coaches get suspended? Did any of the coaches get fined? This is what happened constantly with Detroit in terms of image, perception, and media coverage from people outside of Detroit,” Thomas noted.
But, like an Elton John song, The D still is standing after all these years. Broadcaster Stephanie Ready told me that she had no idea the connectedness Detroiters feel for their sports teams, especially the Pistons. “You can tell that Detroit runs through the blood” of the likes of Haywood, Smith, Goodall and Thomas among many, many others who proudly claim The D as their own.
Part 1: ‘There’s no city like Detroit’
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.