Mike Ilitch could be good Pistons owner – if he handles complications well

Maybe this all a giant exercise in honesty and simplicity.

Karen Davidson doesn’t want to own the Detroit Pistons. Mike Ilitch does.

Both have stated so publicly, and there’s little reason to believe they’re lying. On top of that, Davidson said she wants to sell the team to a local owner. Ilitch said he wants to buy the team to keep it in Michigan.

How much easier could this get?

As a Pistons fan, I hope this deal goes smoothly. I doubt the Pistons will be sold before the season begins, like Davidson suggested, but Ilitch making a deal that quickly would be encouraging.

I don’t think Ilitch would be a great owner for the Pistons, like he is for the Red Wings. I don’t think he’d be a very good owner for the Pistons, like he is for the Tigers. But I think he’d be a good owner for the Pistons.


Owning three teams is costly, especially in a depressed Michigan economy. Ilitch’s sporting passions appear to be hockey, a sport he has generously supported at the youth level, and baseball, which he played in the Tigers minor league system in the 1950s.

How will basketball fit?

Ilitch is competitive enough that I’m not too worried. Even after cutting the Tigers’ payroll last offseason, he couldn’t help but sign Johnny Damon when he realized the outfielder could help the team win its division.

Even if the Pistons are his third priority, I think Ilitch will devote enough resources to make them viable contenders.

But I worry they’re his fifth priority – behind the Red Wings, Tigers, Joe Louis Arena and The Palace of Auburn Hills.

The Palace is still one of the league’s best arenas. Joe Louis Arena, for all its tradition, is woefully outdated. Ilitch needs a solution for the Red Wings, and packaging both teams into one arena could help him find it.

Of course, many have speculated Ilitch buying the Pistons would lead to the team’s return to Detroit. I think the Pistons playing in Detroit would be great. I love the city, and Ilitch does, too. It also doesn’t hurt that several of his other business interests would benefit from more visitors to Detroit.

But if Ilitch buys the Pistons, they and the Red Wings should play at The Palace until the building is no longer viable. It has suites, parking and the capacity to host concerts. Best of all, it’s privately owned. The profit it generates goes to its owners.

The city can’t afford to publicly finance a new downtown arena anytime soon unless it’s a clear money maker, and maybe not even then. Owning three teams, and following the precedent of nearly every owner besides Bill Davidson, Ilitch probably won’t offer the city such a sweet deal. Even though Ilitch said keeping the Pistons in town was a prime motivator in getting involved, I doubt he’s so altruistic he wants that at all costs.

And of course, before we can get that far, the transaction has to occur. Would any bitterness over Tom Wilson’s departure complicate discussions?

But all these issues pale to the upside of Ilitch buying the Pistons.

Opportunity to have it all

I took a class at Michigan called Sports Ethics, and one of our discussions was based on a hypothetical cash offer Ilitch received to move the Red Wings out of the Detroit area. I don’t remember the exact number, but it was exorbitant enough that even a billionaire would pay attention.

A couple classmates, probably out-of-staters, said he should take the deal. Most said he should pass, because it just felt wrong. I said, given his age, forging his legacy was more important than money. Throughout the discussion, everyone basically stuck with their beliefs about what Ilitch should value.

If Ilitch does this right – buying the Pistons could be the Machiavellian, legacy-building and just-feels-right move wrapped into one.