ILITCH IN IT FOR MORE THAN JUST PISTONS

Who else? Really. Who else? Who else has the money, the experience, the potential real estate and, most important, the motivation?

It’s almost natural for the Ilitches – who own the Tigers and the Red Wings – to take a run at the Pistons. But it’s not just the Pistons. In fact, it might not really be about the Pistons. What Palace Sports & Entertainment represents – venues, concerts, booking possibilities – are more attractive to the Ilitches than a basketball team, even though Mike Ilitch said in a statement Monday, “I really want to see the Pistons remain the Detroit Pistons.”

The fact is, owning an NBA team right now, with a labor dispute on the horizon and in a city as hurting as Detroit, won’t get many smart businessmen excited.

But owning an NBA team that can play in an arena with your hockey team, and moving that NBA team downtown so you have 40 to 50 more nights a year where crowds can frequent your downtown businesses, and gaining a top suburban venue for big-name acts that marries perfectly with your already existing downtown properties – well, that’s a whole lot of smart.

If you can get the right price.

And we’ll see if that happens. Reasons to question a deal

The fact is, the Ilitches were likely suitors the moment Karen Davidson announced that her late husband’s empire was on the block. The fact that it took this long to make a public announcement suggests the price was too high.

Until now. The Ilitches, in going public, are being very shrewd or very forthright. They didn’t have to announce their interest. They could have let rumors swirl, played the “no comment” game, and only spoken when a deal was done or dead.

Instead, everyone knows. Maybe this saves the Ilitches the annoyance of rumors. But it also puts a subtle pressure on Davidson to make a deal that would keep the Pistons in the state.

And while I – like most of you – do not want the Pistons going anywhere, there are a few questions that bear asking here.

One: Is it good for a single guy to own three pro teams in a city? As great as the Ilitches have been, we already have seen how spending on the baseball team and the hockey team, at times, has been a stretch. Basketball can suck money with the best of them. Guaranteed contracts. Free-agency madness. Salary-cap manipulation. It’s a lot to ask of one owner.

And then there’s the attitude of the basketball world. The LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh circus should tell Mike Ilitch all he needs to know about the potential climate he’d be getting into. It’s a players league. It’s all about getting paid. These are not Canadian farm boys just happy to make a team. Loyalty, endless effort, low profiles – let’s be honest, these are not strong suits of the NBA. The right combination

Which leads me back to my original point: This is not about basketball. What the Ilitches really covet is the Palace, Palace Sports & Entertainment, and the possibilities of having a hammerlock on entertainment in metro Detroit. Think of it. They’d have the Fox, the Masonic, Cobo, Comerica Park, the Palace, DTE Energy, Meadow Brook and whatever new arena the Wings and Pistons would play in. There’s not a concert, convention, truck show or rodeo they couldn’t book. They already have the guy who ran the Palace entertainment side – Tom Wilson – under their employ.

The Ilitches are smart people. They are family-oriented. And, yes, they are sentimental – but rarely at the cost of good business. They didn’t keep Tiger Stadium alive forever. They’ve parted company with popular players.

I’m sure Mr. Ilitch would like to see the Pistons stay in Detroit as opposed to, say, moving to Las Vegas, but he’s not going to fork over $300 million or $400 million to spare a weepy good-bye.

You best believe this makes business sense for the Ilitch family – and it should. Detroit is a tough market right now, and there’s not exactly a line of people dying to throw money at us. In the end, if they can get their price, the Ilitches have more synergy than a lone sports tycoon, and they have a history with the city that make fans feel assured.

It’s not a done deal and there are plenty of questions, but in the end, Davidson might ask herself the same one we’re posing this morning: Who else?

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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