by | Dec 11, 1991 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

OK, all you deep thinkers standing around the water cooler wishing Bobby Bonilla’s agent would go and talk to your boss, I have a question for you: Is Detroit a hockey town or a basketball town?

We might find out real soon. Our hockey team doesn’t even need to plug in anymore; it bursts with electricity. Meanwhile, our basketball team, our dearly beloved basketball team — and I say this with the deepest respect — is getting slimed.

First-place Red Wings. Fourth-place Pistons. Weird, huh? For three years, the Pistons led this city around as if they were a bit in a horse’s mouth. Wherever they went, we followed. What they said, we believed. What they endorsed, we bought.

And then some genius decided William Bedford was the answer and, poof, that was that.

Meanwhile, the Wings loaded up with young talent, much of it unpronounceable without a foreign language dictionary, and suddenly here they are, clicking like a pair of castanets in a flamenco dance. After another victory over Chicago Tuesday night, they were all alone on top of the Norris Division. Opposing coaches are leaving the arena shaking their heads and saying, “Those guys are tough.” This, you may recall, is the same talk you heard three years ago in the NBA, when the Pistons were a pile of raw talent waiting to explode.

Question: Let’s say the Red Wings continue the way they’re going, cruising in first place, while the Pistons struggle to reach .500. Will masses of former Piston-nuts turn to hockey?

“Maybe,” said Shawn Burr.

“Somewhat,” said Steve Yzerman.

“OH, YEAH, DUDE, ALL OF THEM!” said a fan in the Joe Louis Arena corridor Tuesday. Of course, he doesn’t count because he was wearing Sergei Fedorov pajamas and had a puck in his mouth. Broad support versus deep support

My answer? Like Yzerman, I say “somewhat.” A lot of the rich suburbanites who were on the Pistons’ bandwagon won’t find the same appeal in the downtown Red Wings. (Then again, given the way they clap, who needs them?)

Also, remember, the NBA cultivates its fans with countless Nike commercials, endless Arsenio Hall appearances, and the best marketing campaign since Edwin Edwards beat David Duke by saying, “I may be a crook, but I’m not a Nazi.” Almost every NBA team has a star player you know, thanks to endorsements and magazine covers. And the league is supported by a major network (NBC) which never misses a chance to show off its stars.

Meanwhile, the NHL, for some reason, is broadcast by a small cable network. I think it’s called Fred’s Cable, something like that.

So on a national scale, there’s no comparison. But locally? Well, Red Wings fans, in the last decade, have been more loyal. (Even when the Wings had the worst record in hockey, they had the second best attendance in the NHL.) But Pistons fans might still be more widespread. Red Wings mania, for example, barely dents the black community here.

Then again, the Wings haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1955, whereas the Pistons won two NBA titles in the last three seasons.

Which brings us to another question:

Let’s say the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup this season. (Hey, it’s hypothetical.) Would the city go as nuts as when the Pistons won their NBA titles?

“Oh, yeah,” said Jimmy Carson.

“I think so,” said Steve Yzerman.

“Maybe not as much,” said Shawn Burr.

“TEN TIMES AS MUCH!” said a fan in the corridor. Of course, he doesn’t count because he was wearing Bob Probert sunglasses and petting an octopus. Why doesn’t Cheveldae sell Chevrolets?

“Basketball is still probably bigger,” Burr admitted. “Look at the endorsement deals. We hardly have any. A guy like Tim Cheveldae — he’s playing great. How come there’s no ‘Chevy for Chevy’ commercials?”

He grinned, thinking about his own nickname.

“I could so some Skippy Peanut Butter ads.”

“I don’t know,” countered Yzerman. “If we won the Cup, I think there’d be just as much attention. People would wear the T-shirts and everything.”

“It depends on the area,” Carson said. “I grew up on the east side, and hockey has always been huge there. If we won the Cup, people would be breaking an ankle to get on the bandwagon.”

Hmm. He could be right. In which case, to ease the transition, here are five reasons why you might enjoy attending Red Wings hockey over Pistons basketball.

1. No ball racing.

2. No technical fouls.

3. No commercial sponsorships every 30 seconds on the radio. (“Now folks, it’s time for the Dunham’s Unlaced Sneaker of the Game Award!”)

4. You shove somebody in hockey, it’s two minutes, not $2,000.

5. “Noise” at Joe Louis Arena does not mean fans using both hands to clap.

Of course, this may all be premature. The Pistons might yet turn it around, and the Wings might cool off. Still, it’s time to answer the big question: Is Detroit a basketball town or a hockey town?

Here’s what I say: I say it’s a town that loves the team with the best record. Which means . . .

. . . it’s a football town?


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