To a certain generation of hoop fans, the moment remains as imperishable a memory as a spring-break fling. With the final seconds ticking off the clock in the fifth game of the 1990 NBA Finals between the Detroit Pistons and Portland Trailblazers, Vinnie Johnson sees teammates Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars double-teamed and decides to take matters into his own hands. Fifteen feet to the right of the basket, “The Microwave” springs off his tiptoes and launches the ball and — whoosh! — the Pistons win the game, 92-90, to clinch their second straight NBA title.
As the Detroit Pistons celebrate 50 seasons in the Motor City this year, it’s worth noting that the team was far from a success when it first arrived in the fall of 1957. Originally based in Fort Wayne, Ind., the team spent much of the ’60s and ’70s struggling to develop a winning attitude and a fan base while playing at Olympia Stadium and Cobo Arena. It even played one playoff game in a local high-school gym, a sign of its low-rent status.
Bill Davidson bought the team in 1974 and slowly turned it around. After the team spent several years at the cavernous Silverdome, he built The Palace of Auburn Hills entirely with his own money. With celebs like Kid Rock, Anita Baker, and Thomas Hearns cheering them on, the Pistons established themselves as one of the most valuable and successful franchises in pro sports. Since 1988, they have played in five NBA Finals, winning three championships and taking the other two series to a seventh game before losing. Original “Bad Boys” stars like Thomas, Dumars, Johnson, and Bill Laimbeer have given way to a new generation of blue-collar favorites, notably Chauncey Billups, Rick Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, and the man with the retro ’fro, Ben Wallace.
Big Ben broke a few hearts when he signed with Chicago, and his return trips to The Palace always bring waves of cheers and jeers rolling down from the stands. A schizophrenic reaction, to be sure. But as P.A. announcer John Mason exuberantly sings out during every home game, that’s “DEE-troit basketball!”