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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sneak Preview - Across the Pond - Memories from NCAA Final Four

Across the Pond:
72,000 Crazy Car-Makers Rock Ford Field in Detroit for NCAA Final Four
By Terry Lyons

DETROIT – April 7, 2009 – The temperature rose and the sun shined brightly on this springtime Saturday afternoon when college co-eds flocked to the bars and restaurants around Ford Field in downtown Detroit. The vibe in the “Motor City” was just right.

In the days of yesteryear, when the Detroit Pistons were winning NBA titles with the likes of Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Mark Aguirre on the roster, we used to stay in the northern suburbs of Detroit. The Pistons championship hopes were built in the Pontiac Silverdome in the late 1980s but the championships were realized in the great Palace of Auburn Hills, a good 45-minute car ride north of Detroit’s Metro Airport, way past Telegraph Road.

We stayed at garden apartment villages, places called “The Somerset Inn,” the “Troy Hilton” and a “Guest Quarters.” We were thrilled to watch them build the Troy Marriott and often went to have lunch at the construction site while we cheered-on the workers to hurry the project along with hopes of Marriott points, Marriott Club sandwiches and an eventual jewel of a “Shula’s Steakhouse,” built in time for the Pistons’ most recent championship.

The reason we didn’t stay in downtown Detroit, you ask? It was a disaster.

Downtown Detroit was a complete hellhole. Its best city blocks housed vacant, old burned out building or downtrodden buildings with squatter’s rights. The Midwest economy was booming in the ‘burbs and in places like Chicago and Minneapolis but, in Detroit, the economy was as dismal as I’d ever seen within the United States of America. Unemployment was soaring. The crime factor? Forget it.

One time, we ventured downtown with some friends who had fought in the Viet Nam war and we visited a place called, the “Old Miami,” located in the Cass corridor. We drank some beers – PBRs - if I remember correctly – and played the jukebox with songs like “Ohio” by CSNY and “Unknown Soldier” by The Doors. The bar owner, Danny, told us stories and welcomed us to the bar because we knew one of the most honored patrons, Shelby Strother. If you were friends of Shelby, you were welcome at the “Old Miami.” However, a few years later, 1994, in fact, I told former NBA star Derrick Coleman – a tough, Detroit native – of our adventure to the Cass corridor and the Old Miami. His reaction: “YOU WENT WHERE?”

OLD MIAMI: 3930 Cass, Detroit, Michigan; Tel. +1313.831.3830
The Old Miami is a must see neighborhood dive bar for anyone visiting Detroit. It was established in 1975 as a place for Vietnam Veterans and still sports some very cool military memorabilia on its walls. Amenities that not many neighborhood bars have include a fireplace (Detroit gets down right frigid in the winter), couches, and a backyard. That's right a backyard, complete with porch and a stage where you can catch up and coming live music, mostly from Detroit's punk set; now what more could you want in a dive bar? We'll tell you; nothing.

So, with the NCAA tournament just concluded and the University of North Carolina winning in such an impressive fashion, why – on earth – would I be writing about downtown Detroit and the Viet Nam era bar, called the Old Miami?

Well, it’s to make this point: Detroit is on the way back!

The downtown area sports a brand new (American) football stadium, alongside Comerica Park, the home of Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers. There are three or four relatively new hotel complexes and a host of new restaurants, bookstores and lunch places. The GM/Renaissance Center office complex and its surrounding area is as nice as it gets and the Marriott at Renaissance Center hotel housed the main media hotel and thousands of out-of-town visitors at Detroit. Only the NCAA’s vaunted coaches, all who registered with the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches), had a bad stay – with a 45+ minute ride north to Windsor, Canada, across the great divide. The NCAA coaches – many who think, “They’re the show,” became the “Bridge and Tunnel” crowd of the NCAAs.

Upon check-in for your media accreditation and the issuing of venue and party credentials, you were graced with a nice letter from Detroit area school children who wrote of their love for their hometown and the hope that a new “Detroit” would bring. The Basketball Hall of Fame and the NCAA combined to refurbish and improve a downtown YMCA basketball court and dedicated it as “Tyler’s Court” in honor of Tyler Ugolyn, a victim of the World Trade Center terror attacks in 2001. NCAA coach Bo Ryan of Wisconsin, conducted a basketball clinic for local youngsters.

The mental boost to the city was immeasurable, but the vast economic impact was plentiful.

"It is estimated that the projected economic impact of the Final Four on the city of Detroit and the local economy during the four days of the NCAA tournament has been between $30 and $50 million," said Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. "That is definitely a much needed shot in the arm and certainly comes at the right time."

Cockrel said there were only minor incidents to report.
"In fact, at the Big Dance and Hoop City, there were no incidents," he added.

"Detroit's a great city, it's rebuilding and we had a lot of fun here," said visitor Mark Balley to the local media.

"Wherever we've gone we've been treated well," said North Carolina fan Emmett Hunt. "It seems like Detroit is a very friendly city ... and I want to come back."

The feeling was mutual from a group assembled at the Detroit Athletic Club to announce the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2009. I was fortunate enough to gain a serious working gig, assisting the H of Fame with their media set-up and future planning for the (VERY) special induction ceremony to take place this coming September 10-12, 2009 in Springfield, Mass. The class, which includes NCAA women’s basketball coaching great Vivian Stringer of Rutgers, Utah Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader is assists and steals, along with “The Admiral,” David Robinson, one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All-Time and a two-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist. Then, of course, the Class of 2009 headliner is the one and only Michael Jeffrey Jordan. (MJ needs no statistical reminders).

So, what was the bottom line?

The city of Detroit is on the way back. The US of A is on the way back. You could feel the vibe all the way from Telegraph Road and 8-mile Road. From Jay Wright, the great Villanova Coach who reminds some of us of a certain new POTUS, named Barack Obama to Tom Izzo – the understated but true-genius coach of the Michigan State Spartans to Roy Williams, the good old boy from Carolina who led an impressive UNC Tar Heel team to a much deserved national championship. They all had one shining moment in Detroit and the eyes of the basketball world caught a great glimpse and will return to be sure they pump some more energy into Motown.


Terry Lyons, Contributor
A former communications and media executive at the NBA, Terry has behind-the-scenes knowledge that few others could boast. His vast experience, contacts list and knowledge of the game make him a star asset to 24/7's writing team.

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