Pistons had to rouse quiet crowds when they opened The Palace

The 1988-89 Pistons won their first NBA championship while playing at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

John Ciszewski had done his job too well. The Pistons’ vice president of corporate sales was in charge of selling the pricey season tickets for courtside seats at The Palace of Auburn Hills when it opened in 1988.

Ciszewski sold all the seats. The only problem was who was sitting in them. On Opening Night, Ciszewski’s customers were eerily quiet, observing passively except to offer polite applause.

“Ciszewski had sold most of the tickets to corporations—what regular fan could shell out $10,000 to $40,000 for one season ticket?” writes Cameron Stauth in The Franchise, his absorbing chronicle of the Pistons’ first season at The Palace. “Whoever they were, they were awfully quiet.”

It was Leon “The Barber” Bradley who pointed out the problem, Stauth says.

Bradley was a Pistons superfan who specialized in hurling vile invective at opponents, rattling them and riling up the crowd. Stauth tells the story of how Bradley once got Pistons coach Dick Vitale (yes, that Dick Vitale) ejected from a game at Cobo Hall. Bradley was unleashing unprintable tirades from behind the Pistons bench. The officials turned around and thought Vitale was the source of the shouting, and threw him out. The Pistons permanently reassigned Leon to do his dirty work from behind the visitors’ bench.

But as soon as The Palace opened, Bradley came to Ciszewski to complain.

“How can I cuss and say this and that with her there?” he asked, pointing to a woman in a pristine business suit next to his seat.

“She’ll be fine,” Ciszewski said. “Just make some noise, okay? Wake this crowd up.”

Bradley took his seat, took a breath, and started taunting the visiting Hornets in the most disparaging terms. Some of the suits around him chuckled. The woman next to him was horrified.

“Leon looked bleak,” Stauth writes. On the court, John Salley turned to the crowd and put his hands behind his ears, asking in vain for some vocal energy.

Ciszewski started to worry. He may have been a sales exec, but he was also a die-hard fan. He knew crowd noise wasn’t a luxury, it was a necessity: the Pistons had to get a lift from their home fans that could carry them to a championship.

That’s what they had in Pontiac, home of what Salley lovingly called “the crazy carmakers.” As the Pistons became contenders, the carmakers packed the Silverdome, whose makeshift stands for basketball fit the blue-collar crowd and the team’s emerging Bad Boys ethos.

When the Pistons got an arena of their own, they underestimated how much they’d miss that atmosphere.

“You missed it because of all the fans you could get in there,” Mahorn said recently about the Silverdome, before its implosion earlier this month. “It wasn’t as intimate as when you got to The Palace.”

Imagine that: a sarcophagal football dome with all the ambience of an airplane hangar, and Mahorn called it intimate.

But while Pontiac had carmakers, Auburn Hills was home to auto executives. The difference was obvious after just one game at The Palace.
The Pistons won their home opener, but Stauth says the players complained to the front office. (This contradicts a Detroit Free Press retrospective on The Palace earlier this year, which breezily claimed the Pistons “had no trouble settling in and feeling right at home right away when they played their first home game at The Palace.”)

The players explained they would need a boost from the crowd in the fourth quarter over the long slog of the regular season. They probably didn’t say it, but they also wanted the Leon the Barbers of the world to make them feel more at home, and to make opponents a little less comfortable.

So the Pistons’ front office held an emergency meeting. The suits in the pricey seats weren’t going anywhere, so they had to find a way to wake them up.

They made a game plan. First, no snoozy public address announcements in crucial game situations.

Second, get the most out of The Palace’s massive scoreboard and state-of-the-art sound system. When it reached full volume, Stauth said, the music “seemed to be playing in your head.”

The point was to follow the theme CEO Tom Wilson kept in mind as he dreamed up The Palace: “Basketball Disneyland.” Wilson admired how Disney made its entertainment so relentless that distraction and indifference was impossible, and Stauth says that was his guiding vision for The Palace.

Dave Auker, the Pistons’ sales director and sound system maestro, rose to the challenge. He whipped up a percussive playlist and a reel of video highlights for the gargantuan scoreboard. His new go-to anthem would be “Rock and Roll (Part 2)” by Gary Glitter—which had built-in mandatory crowd response. The song would soon become ubiquitous in stadiums and seemed to rouse the crowd.

So did PA announcer Ken Calvert every time he called the home team “your Detroit Piston Bad Boys!” The Auburn Hills execs had less inherent claim to that nickname, but they still seemed to identify with it. By the time the defending champion Lakers came to the Palace at the end of November, the crowd was actually on its feet down the stretch, propelling the Pistons to a three-point win.

It’s not accurate to say the Pistons invented basketball arena entertainment or were the first to play loud music. But to hear Stauth tell it, it was the Pistons, at The Palace, who literally amplified the role that auxiliary acoustic assault played at professional sporting events with an increasingly corporate clientele.

Today, of course, the music is even louder, the tickets are even more expensive, and the PA gimmicks even more cloying. The formula has been followed so exactly and so widely that by now everyone seems numb to the sonic throttling.

This year, the Pistons have a different dilemma in their inaugural season at Little Caesars Arena, which so far has been plagued by empty seats. They could only dream of Ciszewski’s problematic sellouts. Some fans are out on the concourses, experiencing the ultimate realization of “Basketball Disneyland.” Others won’t show up until the Pistons chase another championship.

That’s the other lesson from the Pistons’ inaugural year at The Palace: in the end, nothing packs the house and raises the roof quite like championship basketball.

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About Nathan Bierma

Nathan Bierma is a freelance writer, web designer, and educational technologist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is on Twitter at @nbierma.