Becoming Cities of Redemption

The 2004 NBA Championship Pistons — winning it all with players no one else wanted.

Being a normal human being, I have other interests besides that of the future of shrinking Rust Belt cities.  Among my other interests, I’m a huge sports fan, particularly of all the teams that I began following as a child in Detroit – the Lions, Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings professionally, and the University of Michigan’s collegiate teams.  Yes, the U-M hoops team’s push to the national championship game was pure heaven for me – right up until Trey Burke was called for that foul against Louisville on what was CLEARLY a clean blocked shot… but I digress.
Recently the Detroit Pistons concluded their basketball season with another disappointing finish, winning just 29 of 82 games and once again missing the playoffs.  After the season the Pistons announced that a big part of their improvement plan was to spend and spend willingly in this year’s free agent market.  The Pistons will be some $20 million under the league salary cap, enabling them to sign one super elite free agent or possibly two or three excellent players.  The team believes they can throw money at players and they will come.
Unfortunately the public reaction in Detroit probably mirrors the private reaction among the NBA’s top players – the top players don’t want to move to the Motor City.  The comments sections to newspapers and sports websites might not be the most accurate barometer of public sentiment, but they do offer some insight into the public mindset.  Many commenters noted that, given a choice, would free agents opt to sign with Los Angeles, New York or Miami, cities full of glamor and glitz, or even Houston or Phoenix, lower cost cities that offer better weather than the Rust Belt?  Even Chicago was deemed to be a better option because of its urban amenities.  The Pistons, they reasoned, don’t stand a chance in pulling in the big names in the NBA free agent market.
You know what?  They’re right.
Professional ballplayers make relocation decisions just like we do.  They look at local economies, housing options, cultural amenities, weather, just like us.  And they will be swayed by the same things that sway us.  If the Pistons were already a winning team, they would be able to use that to their advantage just as a successful business in an otherwise moribund local economy would be able to attract top level talent.  But the Pistons clearly don’t have that advantage right now.
Fortunately, the history of the Pistons suggests that there’s a successful model of talent attraction that’s worked for them in the past and should once again be employed.  In fact, their model is one that could could greatly improve the city’s economic prospects, and other shrinking Rust Belt cities as well.
(Note: the next several paragraphs demonstrate how one sports teams’ talent attraction model has worked over the years.  If you wish to see simply what implications this has for Rust Belt cities, skip ahead.)

The Pistons have one three NBA championships in their history, in 1989, 1990 and 2004.  That may not sound like many, but the Pistons are tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for fifth-most NBA championships, behind the Boston Celtics (17), Los Angeles Lakers (16), Chicago Bulls (6) and San Antonio Spurs (4).  The other teams were able to win championships with transcendent Hall of Fame players – Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, David Robinson and Tim Duncan (yes, he will be included at that level five years after he retires).   The Pistons, however, have never had such a player.  The closest would likely be Isiah Thomas, the scoring point guard who led the Pistons to their first two titles. 
So how did the Pistons develop one of the more successful organizations in NBA history (recent history excluded)?  Without consciously adopting the approach, the Pistons adopted a two-part strategy:
·         Target players through trades and free agency who’ve failed in other locales and are looking for a chance at redemption.
·         Be willing to accept nontraditional talent and pursue success in an unconventional fashion.
Again, I don’t believe the Pistons thought this through as a strategy; obviously I’m not connected with the Pistons front office.  But this approach did yield the Pistons some excellent players who were critical pieces of their championship runs.  To wit:
·         Bill Laimbeer: a semi-bust in Cleveland, he was an outside-shooting big man when teams wanted their bigs to be inside scorers.  The Pistons took a chance on him and his unique skill set bedeviled teams.
·         Dennis Rodman: unrecruited out of high school, Rodman sprouted seven inches after high school graduation, attended junior college and later played ball at a small college in Oklahoma.  He entered the league unheralded but turned out to be one of the best rebounders the league had ever seen.
·         Ben Wallace: an undersized but hard-working defensive demon at center, he was a toss-in in the trade to get All-Star Grant Hill out of Detroit.  He couldn’t get off the bench in Orlando, but he was able to carve his niche in Detroit and become the defensive lynchpin for the team.
·         Rasheed Wallace: another big man with an outside game, he became more famous for being free spirit (best case) or head case (worst case) for the Portland Trailblazers.  He was traded to the Pistons and became a critical piece of their championship in 2004 and the playoff success the team had for the next four seasons.
·         Chauncey Billups: the first five seasons of Billups’ career were a mixed bag as he struggled to adjust from being a top-flight college scorer to a pass-first NBA point guard, without being blessed with the blazing speed typical of players at the position.  The Pistons signed him, gave him the reins, and he became possibly the most celebrated Piston of the last ten years, winning the NBA Championship Most Valuable Player award in 2004.
It’s clear – the Pistons’ stumbled-upon model for talent attraction works.  
Other teams have employed similar strategies.  The San Antonio Spurs were fortunate to draft two of the best big men of the last 25 years in David Robinson and Tim Duncan, but they’ve been able to maintain their success by trading for similar players seeking redemption, but also delving into and excelling in the foreign player market long before other teams saw the benefit.  The NFL’s Oakland Raiders have a long history of taking players with questionable character issues and telling them, “just win, baby.”  Also in Oakland, baseball’s Athletics adopted the “Moneyball” approach of using data to identify player skill sets previously unrealized or undervalued, leading to a revolution in the sport.
All this sports talk – what can this possibly mean for Rust Belt cities?  Top tier cities are full of elite talent in a variety of industries.  There are thousands of people who’ve not succeeded to their expectations, or outright failed.  They are in search of redemption.
If Rust Belt cities are smart, they would target talent in other cities to support existing successful industries or targeted industries in their area.  Surely there are people who have failed at, say, getting that angel investor to fund their renewable energy technology idea in Silicon Valley and they’re resigned to being an anonymous database administrator in the Valley instead.  That person is one who should be embraced by Rust Belt cities – bring them back here, support them and their work, and let it grow.  Hell, even tell them that if it reaches a level in your town that requires relocation for future growth, let them go.  And then pursue another failed smarty in search of redemption.
Sadly, two things stand in the way of the redemptive talent attraction model.  The Rust Belt’s xenophobia makes its leaders think that all their problems can be solved only by local people acting locally.  And, rarely is there a coordinated economic development strategy for an entire region, only multiple actors working independently – and at odds – from each other.
The model is there for sustained success.  Can cities ever actually employ it?

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