Friday, March 19, 2021

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Fort Wayne Pistons for Moving to Detroit

March 19, 1957: The Minneapolis Lakers beat the Fort Wayne Pistons, 110-109 at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Larry Foust scores 30 points for the Pistons, and George Yardley adds 23. But it's not enough, as the Lakers get at least 15 points from 5 players, including Hall-of-Famers Clyde Lovellette and Bob "Slick" Leonard (elected as a coach for a later Indiana-based pro team, the 3-time ABA Champion Indiana Pacers).

This completes a 2-game sweep of the Playoff series between the teams. The Lakers move on to the NBA Western Division Finals, where they are beaten by the St. Louis Hawks, who are subsequently beaten by the Boston Celtics for the title. The Lakers will move to Los Angeles in 1960.

For the Pistons, this is their last game in Fort Wayne. In the off-season, they move to Detroit. They had been founded in 1941 by Fred Zollner, who owned a foundry that made pistons, for engines of all kinds. Like the NFL's Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, the team, originally known as the Zollner Pistons, had their roots as a "company team." The move to Detroit, the Motor City, the world's greatest automobile-producing center, made the name "Pistons" make more sense than before.

Zollner was from Minnesota, and graduated from the University of Minnesota. Fort Wayne was where he was able to build his foundry, so that's the only connection he had to the city. Since he had made pistons for both Ford and General Motors, he did have connections to Detroit.
Fred Zollner

In Fort Wayne, the Pistons joined the Midwest-based National Basketball League, and won its title in 1944 and 1945. When the NBL merged with the Northeast-based Basketball Association of America to form the National Basketball Association in 1949, the Pistons were welcomed in. They reached the NBA Finals in 1955, losing to the Syracuse Nationals; and again in 1956, losing to the Philadelphia Warriors.

But after just 1 more season, they moved to Detroit. With the Indianapolis Olympians and the Anderson Packers both having folded since 1951, Indiana, the most basketball-crazy State of them all, went from having 3 teams in the NBA to none in just 6 years. Why did this happen?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Fort Wayne Pistons for Moving to Detroit

5. The National Football League. The NFL had set the precedent: A league centered around mid-sized Midwestern Cities. Rochester, New York. Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Akron, Canton, Massillon, Portsmouth, Toledo and Dayton, Ohio. Decatur and Rock Island, Illinois. Green Bay and Racine, Wisconsin. Duluth, Minnesota. And, yes, Fort Wayne, Evansville, Hammond and Muncie, Indiana. Aside from Green Bay, none of those teams would still have an NFL team by the 1934 season.

Likewise, the NBA had teams from the BAA and the NBL that played in such cities: Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, New York; Moline, Illinois; Oshkosh and Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Waterloo, Iowa; and, in Indiana, the aforementioned Fort Wayne and Anderson. Some of those teams survive today, but only because they moved to bigger cities.

The NBA knew that the teams couldn't stay in such cities. The Fort Wayne Pistons and the Rochester Royals both moved in 1957, leaving the Syracuse Nationals the last of these, becoming the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963.

4. Fort Wayne. Whatever qualities the city may have, good or bad, it's just not big enough to be the home of a major league sports team. It was home to only about 140,000 people in 1957. It's got nearly twice that now, around 270,000, making it the 2nd-largest city in Indiana, after Indianapolis. But that's still not big enough. The metropolitan area is home to maybe 615,000, depending on which Counties you count as part of it.
Downtown Fort Wayne, including the Allen County Courthouse

3. The Arena Situation. After playing their 1st 11 seasons in the gymnasium of Fort Wayne's North Side High School, the Pistons were able to move in 1952, to the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. By the standards of the time, it was a good arena. But it was still too small for a major league sport team: Only 8,000 seats. Later renovations and expansions have pushed it to 13,000, but that's still too small. 
Allen County War Memorial Coliseum,
after a 1989 renovation added a convention center

The Coliseum still stands. Since its opening, it has been home to a minor league hockey team, the Fort Wayne Komets, now in the ECHL (which, because its geographic reach is now huge, no longer stands for "East Coast Hockey League": It doesn't stand for anything, it's just "the ECHL"). It's hosted minor-league basketball teams, including the Fort Wayne Fury of the Continental Basketball Association from 1991 to 2001, and since 2007 the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA G League, the top farm team of the Indiana Pacers.

In spite of its age, it's a good arena -- for a city that's big enough for minor-league teams, but not major-league teams.
Coliseum interior, during a Fort Wayne Komets game

But if the Pistons were going to draw bigger crowds, they were going to need a bigger arena. Detroit offered one, and from 1957 to 1961, the Pistons played home games at the 15,000-seat Olympia Stadium, home of the NHL's Detroit Red Wings.
Why did they stay there only 4 years? Because they didn't have first choice of dates there. The arena was controlled by the Red Wings' owner, Bruce Norris, one of the biggest jerks in sports at the time -- and that's saying something. So from 1961 to 1978, the Pistons accepted a drop in available capacity to 11,000 to play at Cobo Hall on the riverfront, next-door to where the Wings were building the Joe Louis Arena.

Fred Zollner sold the Pistons to Bill Davidson in 1974. From 1978 to 1988, they played in suburban Pontiac, at the huge Silverdome. From 1988 to 2017, they played a few miles away in the adjoining suburb of Auburn Hills, at the Palace. Since 2017, with the Wings long since having passed out of the Norris family's grubby hands, they have again groundshared with the Wings, at the Little Caesars Arena.

But in 1957, the Olympia looked like a better location than the Allen County Coliseum.

2. Detroit. Try not to look at it from the perspective of 1967 to the present, with that year's riot still casting a shadow over the Motor City, with poverty and crime still out of control. Think of what Detroit was in the Fifties.

It was a vibrant, forward-looking city. It was thought of as a place of industry, of innovation, a city of the future. That the future it imagined didn't come to pass was cruel on multiple levels. But the things Detroit gets called today -- a whole, a giant ghetto, hopeless, in serious need of a rebuild -- were unimaginable in 1957.
Detroit in the 1960s. Cobo Hall is at the lower left.

And it was a great sports city. The Lions had won the NFL Championship in 1952 and 1953, and reached the NFL Championship Game in 1954. They would win the title again in 1957. The Red Wings had won the Stanley Cup in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1955, and reached the Finals in 1948, 1949 and 1956.

The Tigers hadn't won a Pennant since they won the 1945 World Series, but in the 11 seasons between then and the Pistons' move, they had 7 winning seasons. They were 82-72 in 1956, albeit 15 games behind the Yankees. They weren't contenders, but they were good.

So Detroit was a good destination for a sports team looking to move.

1. It Didn't Matter. The Pistons weren't missed. Like some other basketball-crazy places, Indiana is populated by people who care more about their high school and college teams than their pro teams. 

Kentucky had a team that won an ABA title, but has never had an NBA team. North Carolina's pro teams haven't done much. New Jersey, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Francisco until the Warriors caught fire again in 2015 -- these are places that love basketball, but don't care that much about pro basketball. Even Detroit didn't seem to care much about the Pistons until Chuck Daly got their act together in the late 1980s.

The State of Indiana does love their college teams: Indiana University, Purdue, Notre Dame, Butler, the University of Evansville. But the Pistons didn't set the world on fire in Fort Wayne, and while the Pacers have had their moments in Indianapolis, I don't think it would be considered a great tragedy by the people of that city if they moved.

Or, to put it another way: There have been books published lamenting the losses of baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers and football's Baltimore Colts. But show me the people who've said, "It broke my heart when the Pistons left" or "Fort Wayne has never been the same." Go ahead. Show me one. I've never seen one, let alone met one.

VERDICT: Not Guilty.

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