Basketball Legends Discuss How Detroit Culture Changed the NBA

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Sports enthusiasts and writers crowded the Cartier Ballroom of the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center on Thursday, August 2, to hear from the best in the basketball business. A panel entitled “Detroit Basketball: Then and Now” included former star players Isiah Thomas, Spencer Haywood and Steve Smith. Former Detroit News writer Vincent Goodwill also joined the panel at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention and Career Fair to speak about how much of an influence the Motor City has had on the NBA.

Moderated by Stephanie Ready, NBA game analyst (Charlotte Hornets) for FOX Sports Southeast, topics included the infamous “Malice at the Palace” and the Pistons’ recent move back to downtown Detroit.

Panelists opened the discussion, powered by Turner Sports and The Bleacher Report, singing each other’s praises. Goodwill and Smith, both Detroit Pershing High School grads, beamed with pride as they talked about Haywood (also a Pershing alum) and his accomplishments. Haywood’s historic 1971 Supreme Court case ended the NBA rule that barred players from being drafted into the league until four years after their high school graduation.

Thomas spoke a lot about the need for diversity within the media and how an inclusive press environment would have changed the Bad Boys era. “We were being viewed by the gaze of the white male,” he said. Thomas said that instead of being upset by the term, the team decided to embrace their bad boy image. “If you embrace the label then you make the label work for you. … We used the label to instill fear. We didn’t have to be physical or hurt you; if that’s in your mind, then you go for the jumpshot instead of the lay-up.”

The November 2004 game between the Pistons and Indiana Pacers, also known as “The Malice at the Palace,” was a hot topic for the panel. The brawl resulted in a historic amount of fines for players on both teams.

The panel had a unanimous feeling of disappointment about media coverage of the incident. “It’s going to be a negative thing for my city,” Smith said about his initial thoughts on the fight. “Even though it was a fight between two teams, it still shined negative light on the city.”

Goodwill saw it as another reason for people to taint the city’s image. “It became another stain and label the city had to fight back,” the NBA analyst said. “On the news, it never said it was Auburn Hills [where the game actually took place]; it was always Detroit.”

Thomas reiterated just how heavily the Bad Boys influenced the current state of the NBA. “We were the first small-market team to win big, have own plane, stay in first class hotels, wear suits and ties to games,” the NBA Hall of Famer said. “That dress code that David Stern had to put in, look at how the Pistons used to dress; that was us.”

As they looked to the future, the group hoped the team’s move back to the city would mean recreating its strong ties to the community. “When we got to the Palace we lost a little of our everyday people,” Thomas said. Smith said the move to the Palace felt like the team had been taken away from the city. Now that the team is back, Smith hopes the team will reconnect with Detroit residents.

“To have the Pistons back here is a blessing and we have to finish that blessing off with a statue or a trophy,” Haywood said.

Thomas summed up the panel with a simple quote: “We change all rules. That’s what we do in Detroit.”

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