January 23, 2018

Detroit Rock City

Last weekend I visited Detroit. It was the latest (and last this season) stop in my quest to see the Washington Wizards play in every building in the entire NBA. 16 down, 14 to go.

Because this past Friday's Wizards - Pistons game was the same weekend as the North American International Auto Show, hotel rooms were a little scarce and a little expensive in downtown Detroit so we stayed in Windsor, Ontario, which is across the river in Canada, a decision that had us explaining to customs and immigration staff on both sides of the Detroit-Windsor what we were doing visiting Canada three times in two days. On our way to the game Friday, we explained to the guy letting us back into the USA that we were going to see the Wizards game.

His response? "I thought that team would be better this year. They were supposed to be in the Finals, right?" Yeah. Welcome to my life as a Wizards fan, dude.

After Wednesday's horrible 133-109 loss in Charlotte, I really didn't want to go all the way to Detroit to see the Wizards lay the same kind of egg they laid down in North Carolina. But head coach Scott Brooks promised Wizards fans some changes. About time! That promise, and the prospect of the Wizards being re-energized and looking like the Eastern Conference contenders that they seem to think they should be, had me actually excited about the possibility of watching my new re-invented Wizards team in person for the first time in Michigan. Stop laughing. Seriously.
Warming up for a blowout of the Pistons. One day...
So what happened? How about no changes to the starting lineup and a dreadful start leading to a 10 point deficit after the first quarter. Yes, coach pulled Marcin Gortat a little more than 4 minutes into the game and didn't send him back into the contest until the second half. And sure, Ian Mahinmi got the rest of the first quarter under his belt after being subbed in for Gortat and then also sat the entire second (and third and fourth). And somehow the Wizards pulled even at the half behind superior efforts from Tomas Satoransky and Kelly Oubre, Jr. I was (and I can't believe I'm writing this) dreading the starters coming back in when the bench got tired.
The third quarter was totally different. The starters played almost the whole way (still waiting for those changes, Scotty...) and ended up with a 17 point lead (down from 20 earlier in the third) after putting up 45 on the Pistons that quarter. 45!!!! Finally things are corrected, right? The confusion I got from the customs guy letting us back into the country right before the game should be gone now, right? THIS is the Wizards team I wanted to see. Everything corrected. Let's get up by 30 or 35 and cruise to an easy victory with Tim Frazier and Chris McCollough bringing it home.

Almost as good as it got. A win's a win, I guess. I LOVE this scoreboard.
Of course not. The 20 point margin that had become a 17 margin was down to 4 with less than four minutes to play. Luke Kennard was warming up to become the next in a long line of Wizard killers. What the heck is going on with this team? I can almost understand blowing a 20 point halftime lead to Brooklyn (although not really) but a 17 point lead in one quarter? To a Pistons team missing a couple of guys? It's almost as if the Wizards collectively were like "We scored 45 in one quarter. That should be enough to win the game. Let's just coast for the other three quarters." Fortunately, that attitude didn't kill the team this time. Some clutch free throw shooting and a career game from Kelly Oubre put the Pistons away.
There were a ton of Wizards fans at this game. Maybe more than I've ever seen in an opponent's arena. Despite the lazy and completely lacking any sense of urgency or opportunity style of play the Wizards have enjoyed (maybe the wrong word there) this season, it appears John Wall and company are catching on beyond the DMV. And I guess that's a good thing for the Wizards. I just hope those new bandwagoners can handle the stress of being a Wiz fan.
I've been itching to go to Detroit for a game for years. Unfortunately for me, the Detroit Pistons didn't actually play in Detroit for, like, forever. So before this year, going to see the Wizards on the road in Michigan would have meant just that: going to Michigan (not Detroit) to Auburn Hills, a full 45 minutes or so away from the city whose name graces the team's jersey. But not this year now that the brand new Little Caesars Arena is open downtown. So of course no Wizards road trip report would be complete without a little something for me to say about the arena. This one is really pretty cool.
Like most arenas (or likely all arenas), the new one in Detroit is bigger than our own building down on 601 F Street. Like most places I've seen the Wizards play on the road, that translates into larger concourse areas, but Little Caesars is probably taking this to the extreme. On the south and east sides of the building, they've managed to create an interior street of sorts with stores, restaurants and bars on either side of the really really wide walkway. I suppose from a climate standpoint (and a moneymaking standpoint) this is a smart move. Get people inside out of the cold as soon as possible and have them eat and drink inside the stadium. The food choices are pretty diverse. Sure there are two Little Caesars stands in the building but there's also a ton of other stuff, including two food courts with multiple food stands arrayed around a communal seating area. Unfortunately, they also let Kid Rock into the building. You don't have to go there. Just saying...
The other cool feature of the indoor streets is that it allows the upper concourse to be expressed in the building as an object, making the arena appear like a stand alone stadium within a larger urban box. It's a pretty creative idea, but one that will only work with the kind of space that you can get in a city other than Washington. I definitely get stadium envy when I travel.
The center of the arena where the action takes place is equally well done. And it's not just the new-ness of the place, although sitting on months old brand new Redwing-red (this place was built for hockey and the Detroit Redwings, not basketball and the Detroit Pistons) seats rather than purple-ish 20 year old MCI Center/Verizon Center/Capital One Arena seats was surely nice.
There are a few features that make the main performance space really special. First, the lighting system is incredible. I never really think of the lighting system in a building adding much value to the experience (although I thought the same thing in Brooklyn a few years ago also) but my couple of hours in this building reminded me of how I can forget things. Almost every timeout had some kind of lighting effect that was pretty spectacular. It was almost as if the building staff were showing off their new toy.

Second, the scoreboard is fantastic. I raved about the scoreboard at the Grizzlies game two weeks ago but this thing blows away the one at FedEx Forum in Memphis. It's bigger, crisper and the square corners are actually way better than the radiused corners in Memphis. This scoreboard there is pretty much perfect. The colors, just like the colors in the light shows, are amazing.

Finally, and oddly enough, it's the small things. The lighted ceiling, rather than the painted black exposed utilities ceilings you see in most arenas, makes a huge difference to the atmosphere of the space. I've written that the ceiling at Madison Square Garden makes all the difference to that building; the blue luminous ceiling at Little Caesars is a great update to MSG's ceiling for the 21st century.

During the fourth quarter we started talking to four dudes in front of us a little about the game. They were complaining about the Pistons losing to everyone they should beat and beating a team or two they had no business beating every now and then. Sounds familiar, right? Ultimately, I think the Wizards are better than the Pistons. After Friday's closer than it should have been win, we are 3-0 vs. the Pistons this year. That's how it should be. Thank God I didn't go to Charlotte or Dallas either side of that game. Ultimately we need someone to step up in this organization and get people to perform at the level that is required. It's clearly not going to be the players and it doesn't appear that Scott Brooks is going to be that guy. OKC is up Thursday. I can't honestly see that game going very well. Trade deadline is less than a month away.

Two final notes about Little Caesars before I close this one. First, the interior streets in the arena come complete with manhole covers. I'm assuming based on their somewhat random placement that these are actual manholes to access actual underground utilities, although whether they are or not doesn't really matter. In some spots, the generic manholes are replaced with custom made covers with the names and playing dates of Pistons and Redwings legends. Ben Wallace's is shown above. I think it's a great way to celebrate past team legends.

Second, and because it's Detroit and a hockey arena, there's a statue of Gordie Howe in the building. Gordie is an NHL and Redwings legend of course. But he's also the first guy I can remember knowing about in hockey as a kid in Connecticut when he was playing for the New England and later Hartford Whalers. Mr. Hockey ends this post.

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