Isiah at the Joe

This April, the Detroit Red Wings—and their fans—bid farewell to Joe Louis Arena.  The team had called the Joe home since 1979.  However the arena had always been a shared home—often with hoops and boards replacing the ice and nets.  The very first event held at the Joe had in fact been a basketball game between the University of Michigan and the University of Detroit.  The stadium has also hosted professional basketball games on several unusual occasions.  In 1984, a scheduling conflict with a motocross event resulted in the Detroit Pistons’ nail-biting loss in the decisive fifth game in their first-round play-off series against the New York Knicks taking place at the Joe.  The next year, the Silverdome’s roof collapsed under the weight of snow, necessitating the Pistons to play the remainder of their season at the Joe and Cobo Arena.  In 2006, when the Detroit Shock won the final game of the WNBA Finals, they did so at Joe Louis Arena, as the Palace of Auburn Hills was booked for a Mariah Carey concert.

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Rookie Isiah Thomas prepares to shoot a free throw during the October 17, 1981 exhibition game between the Detroit Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers.  Judging by his shrugs following the shots, he missed both.  Thirteen years after this video was shot, Thomas retired with a career free throw percentage of 75.9.

While in most of these cases, the Joe had been a fallback venue, on October 17, 1981, the Joe was deliberately chosen to host a special pre-season exhibition between the Detroit Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers.  At the close of the 1978 season the Pistons left Cobo Arena, and moved out to the suburbs.  The move was controversial; many fans were upset on principle by the move out of town, while others simply did not enjoy the long drive out to the drafty Silverdome.  A return—albeit brief—of professional basketball to the city was an event of note.   A recently rediscovered 16mm film reel shot court-side as mostly unused b-roll for the c. 1981 promotional film “Detroit Means Business,” prominently features a soon-to-be famous rookie—the 1981 NBA draft’s second overall pick, Isiah Thomas.  Suited up in his brand new number 11 jersey for one of the very first times, the twenty-year old is filmed going for rebounds, shooting free-throws, and leaping into the fray among larger and more seasoned players, including the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Just three years later, under those same hockey jersey-draped rafters, during that final first round playoff game against the Knicks, Isiah Thomas would establish himself as a household name by scoring 16 points in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to tie up the score and push the game into overtime.

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Isiah Thomas drives past Eddie Jordan.

While professional basketball downtown was a novelty in 1981, next year it will again be the norm; the Red Wings and Pistons will again share a roof in the new Little Caesars Arena.

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