I was scared out of my wits, but equally ecstatic, having fantasized about being on the glamorous road from my earliest days covering high school sports for the Staten Island Advance. Alas, my first two datelined stories were out of Richfield, Ohio and Detroit. It was cold and bleak in both places -- the former featuring a desolate suburban arena and the latter having become one of America's saddest decaying cities.
It was a Tuesday-Friday schedule, meaning we had three very long days in Detroit back when the downtrodden Pistons played at the old Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit, and before they abandoned the city for a monstrous football dome. Now they are ensconced in the stylish Palace of Auburn Hills, where I find myself wishing them the kind of misfortune they experienced against the Knicks in '78 -- losing by 20 in front of 4972 fans. Whereas the Tigers, Lions and even hockey's Red Wings stayed in town, the N.B.A., of all leagues, ran for cover when the city needed whatever help and investment it could get.
And obviously still does. When the Knicks pulled into town 34 years ago, we stayed in the towering hotel of the Renaissance Center, a new $337 million project facing the Detroit River that was designed to expedite commercial growth. To give you an idea of how that worked out, General Motors purchased the complex in the mid-Nineties for around $75 million.
Back in '78, the hotel felt empty and isolating. Concierge employees would quietly advise guests to think twice about wandering outside after dark. Having returned this week to cover the Yankees-Tigers series, with a 61st floor room with a view of the river and Caesars Hotel and Casino in Windsor, Ont., downtown feels less forbidding. And yet Detroit remains on the urban critical list. Last year, Mayor Dave Bing -- the Pistons' Hall of Fame legend -- said, "Simply put, our city is in a financial crisis and our city government is broken." Declines in population have dogged Detroit for years and devastated neighborhood and public schools.
You have to wonder about a nation that shrugs off the long free fall of a once-great city -- the hub of a signature industry -- and if the fortunes of Detroit are an extreme example of America's 21st Century direction. I hope not, but I also find myself rooting for Mayor Bing, his troubled city and the professional teams that didn't desert it. Not as a sports fan, just an American.