When the Palace of Auburn Hills originally opened back in the late 1980s, its address was 1 Championship Drive, fitting for a building constructed at the peak of Detroit’s “Bad Boys” Pistons-mania. Now, almost three decades later, the address has changed several times over, now 6 Championship Drive, a nod to the six titles that professional basketball teams have won under the roof of the most royal-sounding building in the NBA.
The Detroit Pistons announced earlier this week that they’d be moving to Downtown Detroit, joining the NHL’s Red Wings at Little Caesar’s Arena starting next season. There also are plans to build a new community center and practice facility somewhere nearby, all of which puts an end to a successful stint in Auburn Hills, a Detroit suburb a little over 30 miles to the north of the city.
When construction broke for the Palace back in June of 1986, the Pistons had just wrapped up their third consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference playoffs after a six-year drought. The team hadn’t gotten out of the second round of the playoffs since the early 1960s and hadn’t appeared in a championship series since the team was in Fort Wayne. By 1986, the franchise had existed for just shy of 40 years and had never won a championship.
That, obviously, was all about to change, and the building itself would have something to do with the resurgence. As the paradigm for the new “modern arena” in that era, plans for The Palace included 180 luxury suites, which was excessive in the late 1980s. The building also would create seating for over 22,000 fans, which at the time made it the largest arena in the league. The United Center has since surpassed it, but even with 27 NBA arenas having been built since The Palace, it remains the second-largest in the NBA in terms of seating capacity. The place was absolutely cavernous by the era’s standards, ready to accept a throng of fans about to be treated to the best Pistons basketball they had ever seen.
In fact, by the time The Palace opened a little over two years later Detroit was a legitimate championship contender, having just lost the 1988 Finals the previous June to the L.A. Lakers. With a coach like Chuck Daly and players like Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars leading the charge, Pistons fans felt ready for a new era of Detroit basketball, and was it ever coming.
On November 5, 1988, the team played its first game in the new arena. Detroit won, of course, their first of 63 regular season games, to this day the second-winningest regular season in team history, and in the summer of 1989 the team would win its first championship in a four-game sweep over the very same Lakers team that beat them the previous year. They clinched the series at the Forum in Inglewood, but the Palace, in its very first year of existence, served as host for Games 1 and 2, both of which turned out to be wins.
Things didn’t slow down the following season. Detroit won 59 more regular season games, fought off a nasty up-and-coming Chicago Bulls team in a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals, then dispatched the Portland Trail Blazers in five games in that year’s Finals. Once again, only the first two games of the series were played in Auburn Hills, but in two years’ time, with two NBA Finals have been played there, the Bad Boy Pistons had never lost a game on their home turf.
The Palace was off to a great start, but after three consecutive grueling seasons in which the team played over 300 games, it was inevitable that they’d eventually succumb to a younger, hungrier team, and by 1991 the Chicago Bulls superseded them as the league’s next great team.
That didn’t mean The Palace was devoid of success in the remainder of the ‘90s. In 1998, the WNBA’s Detroit Shock moved into the building, winning their first championship within five years. It would be the only time that the Shock would win the Finals at The Palace.
Later, when former “Bad Boy” Bill Laimbeer took over coaching duties, the Shock went from finishing 9-33 in 2005 to winning the WNBA title just a year later. Between 2006 and 2008, the team would appear in three consecutive WNBA Finals, winning two of them and putting the exclamation point on one of the most dominant eras in the league’s history, particularly notable since the team moved to Tulsa in 2009.
All the while, the men’s team had reinvented itself into a new sort of perennial NBA powerhouse without a discernible superstar. Behind the efforts of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince, the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons shocked the Goliath-like L.A. Lakers, which that year featured not only Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, but also Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
The series shocked the entire NBA community, as the Pistons upset the Lakers in only five games, this time winning the championship on The Palace floor for the first time. It only took 16 years, but the Pistons finally gave their hometown fans a title to celebrate on home soil, and it remains arguably the most euphoric moment in the building’s history.
Detroit hasn’t won a title since and made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009. That, coincidentally, was the longest playoff drought since before the team moved into The Palace, and with a quiet resurgence over the last two seasons, one has to wonder if ownership believes a change in venue will energize the players and the fan base the way it did back in 1988.
Either way, the team will move closer to the majority of its fan base, which makes sense as Detroit boasts one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, leaving the Palace to be demolished and redeveloped in Auburn Hills. It’s an area that is booming, and early indications are that the 100-acre plot of land, once cleared of all that historic rubble, will be sold and serve as home to a new research and development park.
In other words, it won’t face the same fate as the Pontiac Silverdome, which sat either vacant or sparsely-used for the better part of the last 14 years. All physical memories of The Palace will vanish over the course of the next few years, but it’s important to remember one of the most historic buildings currently in the game.
Only Madison Square Garden has been in use longer than The Palace, and coincidentally those are the only two arenas left in the NBA without garish corporate sponsorships attached to the marquee. The arena has been good to its fans, even if it was a bit of a pain to get out there, but the Detroit Pistons can really be the Detroit Pistons now.
The only sad thing is that no one will ever punch “7 Championship Drive” into their navigation system.
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