Chapter One: Fred Zollner
The Pistons moving to Detroit was a really big deal.
By 1957, the indomitable Fred Zollner had built one of the great sports empires. They fashioned themselves the Green Bay Packers. Think the Green Bay Packers moving to Los Angeles. Yeah Lions fans, I hear that talking about the Packers has a tint among Lions fans. I’m not a Lions fan. Small market, hometown fanbase goes to the big city. Got it?
Z rapidly built both his softball and basketball teams into dynasties of their eras, beginning as a corporate squad for his piston manufacturing foundry. The teams helped with morale, which was an important thing - it was an interesting time - but Zollner loved to win.
Softball was actually Zollner’s first love. He was active on the bench during the games and recruited great players from other teams to come work for him in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Zollner Motor Works’ entry into the sports world coincided with their boom as a company, going from just 12 employees in 1931 to as many as 1,800 at the peak of World War II. By the late 1930s, employment was growing exponentially for the company and Zollner used it as an opportunity to fill some of those spots with the best players around. If you played well against the Pistons, you were likely to get a job offer at the plant.
He would recruit for his staff - the ability to play a great third base for the softball team was more important than one’s ability on the factory floor.
Basketball was newer as a sport and hadn’t really caught fire around the country until the 1920s. But Indiana was one of the hotbeds, thanks in part to the Franklin Wonder Five and Hoosier Hysteria. After observing an Indiana basketball high school tournament, the sport’s inventor James Naismith wrote, “Basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport.” Holla, hometown.
But the NCAA hadn’t started a tournament until 1939 and attempts at starting professional teams failed, as teams struggled to find opponents in their region. Fort Wayne had previously had professional basketball teams with the Fort Wayne Knights of Columbus and the Fort Wayne Hoosiers, and the Fort Wayne General Electrics played in a professional tournament for a year in 1937.
In those days, organized basketball was relegated to a social club like the Knights of Columbus or businesses like General Electric. None were able to stick until Zollner’s Fort Wayne Pistons.
The basketball squad had gotten their start in the industrial league in the late 1930s, where they typically dominated. With the professional leagues tottering in the wake of the great depression, the National Basketball League determined their championship with a world’s pro tournament. The tourney needed an extra team to get to a 16 team field in 1940, and the Pistons were offered a shot to play their way into the field against International Harvester. The Pistons got the win and played reasonably well once there, even though they took the loss.
That appearance led to the Pistons being invited into the National Basketball League in 1941. And once Fred Zollner got his hands on professional basketball, it would never be the same.
At the time, professional sports also required a day job. Not many teams could offer both a job on the court as well as that day job, which gave the Pistons a huge leg up in filling their roster. (Interesting to think that there was once a time where the Pistons were actually a great free agent destination.) With business booming from the upcoming war, Zollner was in the position to be particularly generous.
He went out of his way to make his teams comfortable, including eventually providing the use of his executive aircraft (known as the Flying Z) when he bought it in 1952. As one of his players Buddy Jeanette said, “Fred took pro basketball out of the nickel and dime business.”
By 1944, they were winning the National Basketball League championships and the World Professional Basketball Tournament annually. Zollner once said, “Instead of making friends, we made enemies because no one could beat us.” They were the original Bad Boys.
But with World War II hitting its peak, the league struggled. As a quick history reminder, the United States entered the war with the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, with victory in Europe and Japan both coming in 1945. In the early days of the war, the league shrunk to just seven teams, the Pistons remaining one of them. At this point, professional basketball was something of a regional affair, with the National Basketball League playing mostly around the Midwest and the American Basketball League playing on the East coast. Not to mention, most of these games were played in high school gyms, ballrooms, or even taverns.
As the war grew, so did the Zollner fortune. A company that started as a one-man shop was, at this point, the supplier of around 70 percent of the world’s pistons for engines. And the wartime manufacturing needs shot the Zollner Motor Works’ fortunes upward. Zollner’s personal fortune would prove to be critical for the future of the sport.
In 1946, the Basketball Association of America was created, with the goal of becoming more of a nationwide league and taking advantage of bigger venues that were typically used for hockey. It eventually lured the top teams of the NBL, including the Pistons, the Rochester Royals (who supplanted the Pistons at the league’s dominant squad in 1946), and the young superstar George Mikan.
With two professional leagues though, the survival of either was questionable. And with the BAA pillaging the best of the NBL, the harmony wasn’t there. The two leagues even found themselves in court over contract disputes in the competition for players.
Which makes the legend of Fred Zollner all the more impressive, as he famously helped negotiate the merger of the BAA and the NBL from his kitchen table in Fort Wayne. The two leagues formed the NBA, finalizing the arrangement in 1949.
Zollner would prove to be essential to the survival of the new league, as he took charge of transportation needs for many teams in the league. He provided additional financial support and pushed to adopt new rules to improve the sport, including the 24 second clock and six foul limit. This was similar to his impact in softball, which was so pitcher-dominant that it hurt the watchability for fans. Though his Zollner Pistons softball team was also led by great pitchers, he still pushed the sport to adopt rules to help the offense as well.
As the prominence of basketball grew, softball’s declined. Though the Pistons had become the sport’s dominant team, Zollner focused more of his energy on the new basketball league he had helped create. Plus men’s professional softball was increasingly becoming a relic. The sport had roots going back to a depression-era distraction, with its peak in the mid-1930s becoming the top spectator sport in America with more than 140 million people attending games. But it wouldn’t be able to survive the increase in popularity of baseball and eventually went by the wayside.
In the early days of the Fort Wayne Pistons in the new professional basketball league, Zollner’s team didn’t experience its customary success. It took six years for the Pistons to reach their first NBA Finals, which it lost two years in a row in 1955 and 1956. But it was in typical Zollner fashion as he personally recruited a slew of future Hall of Famers to his roster, including Andy Phillip, Bob Houbregs, and Larry Foust. Perhaps most significant though was drafting George Yardley.
Now among the elite teams in the young league, Zollner was at a turning point. He’d taken the professional basketball team as far as it could go in Fort Wayne, which wasn’t even the largest market in its own state. The league schedule had already expanded from the 60 games the Pistons played in 1948-49 to 72 by 1953-54. And the future could hold an even larger schedule. Fort Wayne’s population just couldn’t provide the attendance the team needed to thrive.
And with the change to becoming a legitimate, self-supported professional sport, it was no longer like the old days where Zollner could offer players a factory job to supplement a meager basketball salary. Yardley earned around $15,000 when he helped lead the Pistons to the Finals in 1955 and 1956, which equates to about $136,000 these days. That’s essentially nothing compared to what NBA players make today, but it did force Zollner to figure what he needed to do to make his Pistons viable now that his other competitive advantage for recruiting was gone.
Meanwhile the fifth largest state in the country at the time was less than 200 miles to the northeast, which was also an automotive manufacturing hub that would fit the Pistons identity. And Detroit hadn’t had professional basketball in years.
They officially made the move for the 1957-58 season. It seems appropriate that on the 60th anniversary of the Pistons move from Fort Wayne, the team returns from the suburbs to Detroit. The first game was played on October 23, so pretty close to the exact anniversary.
That first season in Detroit didn’t go entirely smoothly. They lost about $100,000 thanks to the expense of playing in Olympia Stadium, rather than their preferred University of Denver. Zollner promoted his new team in Detroit in a partnership with a brewery, so of course the collegiates couldn’t be exposed to something as morally outrageous as beer.
But at Olympia they shared the stadium with the Red Wings, so it required setting up and disassembling the court any time they wanted to practice. They could only afford a handful of practices for the entire season.
That first game in particular was a bit of a nightmare. They opened things in the new city against the Boston Celtics in the second game of a double header. The New York Knicks and St. Louis Hawks played the first one. The ice under the floor led to slippery conditions, but Bill Russell dominated to get the Celtics the win. Things didn’t improve from there that season, as Zollner couldn’t get fans through the doors and the Pistons weren’t any good.
And here’s the part of the story where, after a rough first season, the indomitable Zollner perseveres and Detroit rallies around their Pistons in their new home.
Unfortunately, that was never to be the case.
While Zollner managed to get his Pistons to a market large enough to support the team, a combination of struggling teams, challenges with venues, and an inattentive fan base, the franchise never flourished.
The Pistons played in Detroit for 17 seasons before Zollner finally sold his beloved team to William Davidson in 1974. They finished above .500 just twice.
Chapter Two: Bill Davidson
They managed to find a better home than Olympia, moving to the brand new Cobo Arena after four seasons. That didn’t help the team’s profitability though. Though it’s difficult to verify the finances of teams in those early days of the league and it’s possibly hyperbole, it was said that the team never turned a profit once in Detroit by the time Zollner sold the Pistons.
Mr. D continued to move the team outward, to Pontiac in 1978 then to Auburn Hills in 1988 where he built his lauded, privately finance arena. Seriously, how unprecedented is it for a sports owner to privately finance their own arena?
It’s difficult to doubt the premise when the Pistons sold out the first 245 games they played at the Palace, a streak that wouldn’t be broken until the Going to Work crew took the mark to 259. And since land for a privately financed arena was going to be cheaper that direction. For context, the Warriors are currently bragging about their 230 sell out streak.
But I’m going to doubt the premise. It’s a bad premise. For several reasons.
For starters, I’m continually perplexed by how this model of attracting tens of thousands of individuals to travel across town to attend sporting events on a regular basis came on the backs of the gas crisis that peaked around the time that the Pistons moved up to Pontiac.
John Gallaghar of Detroit Free Press has done a tremendous job of covering the closing of the Palace, and nailed it with these lines:
Along with Northland Center, Summit Place Mall, the Pontiac Silverdome, the old Kmart headquarters in Troy -- all these and the Palace were hailed as cutting-edge developments when they opened. Yet all face either demolition or drastic overhauls. And the massive Bloomfield Park mixed-use project proved to be stillborn, facing demolition after stalling out during construction. That a project as prominent as the Palace of Auburn Hills could face demolition after a mere 29 years of use says something not only about changing market trends but about the massive miscalculation that enabled the past half-century of suburban sprawl.
But the part strikes me most soundly comes from a different note, one that hasn’t come up in much of this conversation. Race. Gallaghar writes:
Back in 1965, Detroit Edison hired the noted Athens-based consulting firm Doxiadis Associates to map out the future of metro Detroit.
Oh, that year. Oooooh. Dang.
Of course, 1967 was the year of the Detroit riots sparked by racial tensions. But we could go back in history to the early 1960s when Detroit envisioned itself as a haven for equanimity.
After all, Martin Luther King, Jr. made his first delivery of his “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit before stepping in front of the Lincoln Memorial. That march to the Pistons’ home of Cobo Hall was the first time the great man tested the words that his advisors advised against. The city produced the largest civil rights demonstration in the history of the country. The NAACP banner led the walk with African American and caucasian leaders marching behind.
But underneath that surface, while Henry Ford II worked hard to fight his grandfather’s Anti-Semitic work, the prior Ford was what he was. And there was the great bigot Father Charles Coughlin, whose radio broadcast based out of Royal Oak could well have seen the United States as an ally of Germany during World War Two if he’d had his way.
Bigotry was not a stranger to Detroit.
Detroit has become known to many as the city that epitomizes white flight. Even through crisis of gasoline, folks still fled the city to the point that city planners built their dreams around a suburban utopia.
An unhappy thought I have about the Pistons is that they participated. From Gallagher going back to a Mr. D interview in 1991:
"To me it was crystal clear what was going to happen to the city of Detroit," [Bill] Davidson said. "People may not like it, but I didn't cause it to happen. Twenty years ago, I could have told you what the city of Detroit would be like today, knowing what was there. We didn't move out of anything that had anything positive going for it."
There comes a certain amount of bandwagon behavior in the suburbs. The Bad Boys get loved. The Going to Work crew gets loved. Applebees gets loved. There’s an inability to distinguish between what’s truly great and what is just what you do on a Friday night.
Now obviously sprawl is a big part of Detroit’s problem.
It was a bad premise. It was one that was fueled by the worst inclinations of our country.
That’s not to say that Bill Davidson was a bad owner or the Palace was inherently bad. Mr. D was great. And the Palace was and is a terrific arena.
But the fact that it’s still a terrific arena but essentially worthless is a testament that Auburn Hills wasn’t the place for it. And with the Silverdome’s developing corpse between there and downtown, the clues were there.
Chapter Three: Tom Gores
From the moment Tom Gores bought the Pistons, rumors of a return to downtown Detroit started. Arn Tellem’s biggest job was to see that move take place.
In truth, the Pistons have never been successful downtown. As much as jumping in on Ilitch family’s stadium project for the Red Wings makes sense from a logical standpoint, there’s definite risk from a historical view.
But there’s an important cultural element here. Perhaps it’s something of a retreat from the white flight of the 60s. As Laz Jackson (whose help editing this piece was essential in turning it from a shitty term paper into something readable) pointed out as we were discussing this, no a sports arena won’t solve gentrification and it wasn’t done as a grand gesture of unity, but righting wrongs has value.
The Detroit Pistons were the Green Bay Packers of basketball once upon a time. One of the great owners in the history of sports made the decision to completely change that identity by moving the team to Detroit. It didn’t make money, but it was the right decision.
One of the great owners in the history of sports made the decision to move the team to the burbs. Despite some great intentions and actions, it was the wrong decision.
This season, a newer owner of the Pistons, only the third in the history of the team’s organization, has made the choice to move the team back to the city. It’s the right decision.
It’s good to see the Detroit Pistons back where they belong: Detroit.