Reflections on the Humble Beginnings of the Detroit Pistons

Today the Detroit Pistons will travel to Cleveland to face LeBron James and the Cavaliers in round one of the NBA playoffs in front of a packed Quicken Loans Arena.

The Cleveland arena is a far cry from when the Pistons made the playoffs in 1960, just three years after the struggling franchise moved from Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

The following excerpts from my Detroit Free Press article written a few years ago may cause your jaw to drop.

On March 12, 1960, the same day Ernie Harwell would broadcast his first Detroit Tigers game, (Lakeland exhibition) the Pistons, lead by Bailey Howell, Gene Shue, and Walter Dukes, played the first game of a three game first round series against Elgin Baylor and the Minneapolis Lakers in front of a national NBC TV audience at………………..Grosse Pointe High School !!!

The local television blackout was hardly necessary. The announced attendance of fans, onlookers, and curiosity seekers was 1,938.

In the early years, the Pistons were a mere sideshow relegated to a couple of paragraphs buried in the sport pages.

For the 1959-60 season, the Piston’s averaged at home 5,742 per game. The team would not average more than 10,000 fans a game until the 1982-83 season, Isaiah Thomas’s second year with the club.

In the early days of the NBA, many teams found themselves temporarily homeless when the larger arenas booked more popular events like rodeos, dog shows, and concerts.

In March of 1960, Piston GM Nick Kerbaway turned to Grosse Pointe High School (now called Grosse Pointe South High) for the first playoff game because Olympia Stadium was booked for the Ice Capades and their other regular season venue at the University of Detroit was unavailable. Five months earlier, the Pistons and Lakers had played an exhibition game at the high school located on Grosse Pointe Boulevard just South of Kercheval to benefit the school’s Dad’s Club.

Two days before the game, the Grosse Pointe News reported that except for the bottom bleachers on the east side of the gym being reserved for Piston season ticket holders, general admission tickets priced at $3.00 for adults and $1.00 for students were available the morning of the game and at Craig’s Sport Shop and Norm Archer Sports.

“One thing that stands out about that game is that I remember a bunch of empty seats,” said Jon Rice of Kalamazoo, who, along with other Grosse Pointe High basketball players helped to usher and act as “gofers” for the Pistons and Lakers. “That game was more a novelty. When we played it was to a full house (3,000 capacity) and the crowds were louder,” said Rice who later went on to teach and coach at the school for 35 years.

“Looking back, it’s incredible that we played a playoff game at a high school gym,” said Gene Shue, a Piston guard and the league’s sixth leading scorer that year. “We had a hard time fitting in because the Red Wings and Lions were so good. But I loved Detroit, and because back then the players loved the game so much, we didn’t really care where we played.”

According to “Hot Rod Hundley”, the colorful long time Utah Jazz broadcaster who played guard for the Lakers opposite Shue, “the Pistons didn’t have an advantage playing at Grosse Pointe High because it wasn’t their home court.”

“We had often played at high schools gyms in exhibition games throughout the country, but it was really strange because it was a playoff game on national TV. What was really bizarre is the following year after our team moved to L.A., we played a playoff game against the Pistons at a convention hall on a stage far enough from the edge so we wouldn’t fall off,” he says laughing. “That’s back when we were pioneers.”

Finishing second in the eight team NBA’s Western Division with a 38-45 record, five games ahead of the Lakers, the Pistons had defeated Minneapolis in seven of their 13 regular season meetings prior to the playoffs.

Although most people in the Detroit area could care less about the playoff game, Jon Rice was delighted.

“It was such a thrill to see them play at our gym” said Rice who sat by the right of the gym stage behind the basket near the locker rooms. “I had never been that close to professional athletes. Elgin Baylor was our favorite to watch because he was the first skywalker who could take off from the key and drift and hang.”

The game was a seesaw battle that ended in controversy after Baylor, the leading scorer with 40 points, won the game for the Lakers (113-112) on a free throw in the closing seconds.

Leading by two points 112-110 with 18 seconds left and a foul to give after the Piston’s 7 foot center Walter Dukes sunk a 15 foot hook shot, Piston player coach Dick McGuire called a time out to lay out a strategy of committing a “non-intentional” foul that would give the Lakers one point and the Pistons the opportunity to run out the clock.

When play resumed, the Pistons nearly shoved the Laker’s ballhandler Rudy LaRusso to the floor but referee Mendy Rudolph refused to blow his whistle. Jim Krebs took LaRusso’s pass and sunk a 15 foot shot to tie the score with 7 seconds left. But before the ball went through the net, referee Richie Powers called a foul against the Piston’s Shellie McMillon for pushing off of Baylor under the basket. Baylor made a free throw that won the game. The next day in Minneapolis the Pistons were trounced 114-99 and eliminated.

I guess you could say Piston basketball has come a long way.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.