In the last week I’ve been traveling around watching games in LA, Houston and Dallas. While the experience has been amazing to say the least, I found myself leaving the arenas feeling a little… I dunno, empty. Cheering on the Lakers, Rockets and Mavs was fun, don’t get me wrong, but ultimately I was indifferent to the end result.

Tonight was different. Tonight I watched my team, the Detroit Pistons. Tonight my heart was racing, I was screaming my lungs out, I was standing and cheering for what seemed like the most important cause in the world. And when the game was over, I felt something. That final score brought a smile to my face. I walked out of the arena pumping my fist. My team had won.

The Pistons home arena the Palace of Auburn Hills is, funnily enough, located in Auburn Hills which is about 30 miles from downtown Detroit. This is unlike each of the other arenas I’ve been to so far, which have all been smack bang in the middle of downtown. This leads to a subtle but noticeable shift in the whole experience. When I was in LA, Houston and Dallas it felt like there were lots of people having a “night out on the town” who just happened to be catching a basketball game as well. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, it means you’ve got the city nightlife to keep you occupied before and after the game. But a suburban stadium feels very different. You don’t happen to be wandering past the Palace of Auburn Hills and say “Hey, I might go see a Pistons game tonight”. You don’t see many couples glammed up ready to walk over to a nearby cocktail bar after the game. You don’t see limousines, shoppers, passers by, or many tourists for that matter. You see fans, true fans, there solely to watch the game, to watch the Pistons. The game itself is all that matters.

It reminds me of the suburban football stadiums we used to have in the VFL – Princess Park, Windy Hill and Waverly (I never went to Victoria Park, for good reason). I remember going to those stadiums as a kid – it always seemed like a day trip. Very different to the feeling I get now when I catch a tram to the MCG or Telstra Dome (or whatever the hell it’s called now). The Palace of Auburn Hills feels like a Waverly stadium – you know the buzz of the city is nowhere near you, but you can still completely lose yourself in the buzz within those stadium walls.

Once I was inside I went straight to the store to buy a cap – I deliberately left all my Pistons gear at home because I knew I’d buy a truckload. I also looked for an away Stuckey jersey but the dude in the store said they’d sold out – Stuckey has been the biggest selling jersey this season he told me (I wonder if that’s because the fans figure he’s the only guy that is guaranteed to be around next season?). I then headed towards my seats, and walking down the steps towards the court I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I glanced up and saw the championship banners hanging in the ceiling – I had a flashback to the first time I ever saw Isiah Thomas, on the Awesome Endings VHS back in 1990 (I can’t believe I actually found the clip!). That was the day I decided I wanted to be like Isiah Thomas, and that I would be a Detroit Pistons fan. Almost 20 years later here I was, ten thousand miles from home, staring at Isiah’s banners. Still a Detroit Pistons fan.

It was a bit emotional, but not teary emotional. I was simply ecstatic. I had pretty good seats for the game, six rows back from the court in the middle. Close enough to hear Sheed talking smack, close enough to hear the bumps, close enough for Vince Carter to hear me booing him. When the Pistons came out I was immediately drawn to Sheed – he was wearing two headbands on top of each other (see my photos below) and he looked like a clown. I just had to laugh. I found it difficult to take my eyes off Sheed throughout the entire pre-game warm up. He was goofing around, trying trick shots, egging on his teammates. The entire Pistons team looked in really good spirits – I know it’s only the first Pistons game I’ve seen live, but I wondered, are they always in such a playful mood before a big game?

In front of me Vince Carter and Jarvis Hayes were trying to outdo each other with circus shots – Hayes made a 35 footer, Vince’s shot clanged off the rim. They were trash-talking each other, stepping further and further out each time, but neither of them could hit another shot. CLANG. AIRBALL. CLANG. That’s when Sheed walked over, a face full of concern, as if to remind both Hayes and Carter that if you’re trying any circus shots in Sheed’s House he better know about it. Sheed had a few words to them both, and before walking away casually launched a jump shot from two feet in front of the half-court line. SWISH! Vince and Jarvis both cracked up laughing and fans that saw it let out a huge “oooooh”; Sheed just waltzed back to his layup drills stone-faced. A funny meaningless moment, but I’ll never forget it.

Carter pointing to the spot on the floor where he and Hayes had been shooting from. Sheed instead took the shots about five feet behind it and swished it. Also note Sheed’s strange headband combo.

I was quite impressed by this photo I took, managing to capture Kwame’s perfect free-throw shooting form. The shot was a complete brick.

Sheed and Vince share a laugh after the game. In fact, Vince and Sheed spent most of the game just laughing at each other.

The Pistons team intro is by far the best out of the teams I’ve seen so far – but I already knew this from watching them on TV. It feels more like a WWE wrestling intro than an NBA game. The crowd was electric, but the stadium wasn’t completely full – I guess the Nets aren’t the biggest drawing card in town. I won’t get into too much detail about the game, you can read the official game recaps for that, but here are a few more of the lasting impressions I had:

  • Detroit had a perfect start. We made our first seven shots and never looked back. Sheed was hitting threes, Dyess was draining 20-footers. Everything was clicking. It made me think – which other team in the league has a power forward and a center who can both drain 20-25 footers with consistency? I can’t think of any.
  • I cheered loudly when Walter Hermann started the second quarter – whom I paid tribute on Unsung Player Day last week. I really like the way Walter plays – with 100% energy and effort all the time. I know he’s mainly out there for his three-point shooting, but tonight he impressed me in all areas. He was all over the boards – he had an equal team-high 6 rebounds and he only played 12 minutes! He also spaced the floor really well and made the defense honest. He didn’t end up knocking down any shots, but it didn’t matter – while he was on the court during that second quarter the Pistons ran out to a 19-point lead. Walter played that entire quarter, but coach Curry in his infinite wisdom decided to bench him for the rest of the game. And what happened? The Nets came roaring back, cutting it to 5 late in the game and almost stealing it. Walter had the highest +/- differential with +9 along with Will Bynum (who scored 20 points). I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a 2 point-6 rebound performance win equal top honors in points differential, but it goes to show that Walter brings a lot of intangibles to the floor. When Coach Curry and his staff review this game I hope they realize the impact Walter had, because looking at the box-score won’t tell you.
  • Brook Lopez is an impressive specimen. He didn’t really look like a rookie tonight. From the get go he was sharp, made good position, and pretty much had his way with the Detroit front line. Like I keep saying in my Blogger ROY rankings, he’s already a top 10 center in the league. He has a load of potential, and if I’m the Nets I’m looking to build around him and Devin Harris for the next decade. What I like best about Brook is that he seems to have a bit of a mean streak in him. The kind of mean streak any 7-footer needs to make the most of their physical assets and instill fear in people.
  • At the end of the third quarter, the Nets having closed the gap to 10, Sheed walked back towards the bench past the coaching staff. Coach Curry must have said something because Sheed all of a sudden turned around and starting yelling at Curry – it almost looked like verbal abuse. I’m not going to jump to any conclusions here, but Sheed looked really unhappy and virtually had to be restrained. A few of the other Detroit players looked at Sheed and Curry a little stunned. It was all over in five seconds. I’m guessing it was nothing. I’m guessing it was just Sheed being Sheed.
  • Has Will Bynum now become the closer for this team?! Just as he did against Charlotte a few days earlier, Bynum made the fourth quarter his own. He scored the first nine points of the fourth all in the space of three minutes – he was on pace to break his own 26-point record. It was also very interesting to note the line up Coach Curry used during most of the fourth. Bynum, Maxiell, Kwame, Stuckey and Afflalo played most of the quarter before Rip and Tay came on to replace Stuckey and Afflalo with four minutes left. If one year ago you told me the Pistons would start a fourth quarter of a relatively close game with Will Bynum, Jason Maxiell, Kwame Brown, Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo I would have laughed at you and smacked you in the face. It goes to show how much the whole Pistons world has been turned upside down in the last six months. Also note that Sheed didn’t go back on in the fourth – I wonder if that had anything to do with his little spat?

Thanks to a clutch Rip Hamilton three with 24 seconds left the Pistons walked away easy winners in this one, a display that was convincing at times but also left me feeling very uneasy at others. Interestingly, with the Sixers losing again, there is still a chance Detroit can grab 6th spot. The Sixers do have a tough last few games – Toronto (away), Boston and Cleveland (away). The Pistons last three games are all winnable – on the road against Indiana tomorrow, at home to Chicago on Monday, and away to Miami on the last day of the season. Unfortunately the Magic lost today, so if Detroit wants to get Orlando in the playoffs they will have to win their last three and hope they get the 6th seed.

I’m heading to the Chicago game on Monday, and I’m hoping to get there a little early to make use of my media pass and speak to a few of the players. It could prove to be a massive night for Detroit basketball with big playoff implications. A Pistons win would certainly be a big cause for celebration – maybe even worth hitting the town for. Well, Auburn Hills at least.

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