Last days of The Palace: The arena’s biggest sports and entertainment moments

Detroit News

It was 32 years ago this month that the Palace of Auburn Hills opened its doors, beginning a nearly three-decade reign as Metro Detroit’s premier sporting and concert facility.

The building, or what was left of it, came down in a controlled demolition last month, an overdue epilogue to a story whose final chapter was written in 2017, when the stately building along I-75 held its final event.

Over the years, the Palace hosted thousands of events: basketball games, concerts, circuses, ice shows, soccer matches, sporting exhibitions, motocross rallies, bridal shows. New Kids on the Block played there, so did *NSYNC, so did Backstreet Boys, so did One Direction. Everybody who was everybody played the Palace.

And now it’s gone. An empty lot sits where the building once stood, but the stories from inside the Palace will last forever. Here’s a look back at some of the biggest stories of the arena’s royal reign.  

Brand New Day: A crowd of 16,587 was on hand for the Palace’s inaugural event, a concert by Sting, on Aug. 13, 1988. The rocker, clad in a baggy white suit, performed songs from his 1987 album “…Nothing Like the Sun,” along with some favorites from the Police. At that debut concert — where crowds got their first taste of the traffic snarls around Lapeer Road — a floor seat could be yours for $20, a bargain for bragging rights to being at the building’s first show. 

What’s in a name?: The Palace — known in its planning stages simply as Auburn Hills Arena — was named via a public contest that garnered more than 75,000 entries, more than 1,600 of which were “The Palace.” (Great minds, right?) Jonathan Binder of Flint was picked as one of five finalists, and in December 1987, he was brought out on the court during halftime of a Pistons game at the Silverdome and announced as the contest winner. The name wasn’t popular at the time, but Binder thought it would grow on people, and eventually it did. Either way, Binder — a student at University of Michigan at the time — won two lifetime tickets to every event at the venue for his efforts. Not bad.

Aces: A crowd of 16,011 attended the Palace’s first tennis match, an exhibition between Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi on Sept. 13, 1988. Five days earlier, Agassi had beaten Connors at the U.S. Open in New York, but Connors whipped some sense into his younger opponent, winning 7-6 (8-6), 6-3. “He really surprised me. I didn’t think he had that much in him,” Agassi said after the match. “He’s by far one of the greatest players to have ever been.”

New Year’s… spectacular?: Michael Bolton fans rang in 1992 at the Palace during the “Time, Love and Tenderness” singer’s New Year’s Eve show at the building; tickets were $17.50, and did not include a champagne toast. Other New Year’s shows at the building over the years included a WWF event, featuring a bout between Ric Flair and Bret Hart, on Jan. 1, 1993; Kiss’ Psycho Circus 3D Tour on Dec. 31, 1998; and Skrillex and Boys Noize on Dec. 31, 2012. 

Keep on Trekkin’: The Palace paid tribute to the Starship Enterprise when it hosted “Star Trek Exhibition ’92” on May 16, 1992. Around 3,200 Trekkies of all ages and degrees of fanaticism attended the event, which saw all manner of “Star Trek” merchandise (including T-shirts, paintings, videos, uniforms, dolls and miniature space ships) available for purchase. But the real draw was the chat between original “Star Trek” stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, a conversation that made Trekkies’ Vulcan ears perk up. 

Bush bash: George H.W. Bush held a campaign rally at the Palace just two days prior to the 1992 election. Around 4,000 people attended the rally, where Bush — who was lagging behind Bill Clinton in the polls — gave a 25-minute speech and pledged to be the comeback kid of 1992. With Detroit Pistons center Bill Laimbeer at his side, Bush told supporters he was going to “slam-dunk” Clinton in the election. “I am absolutely confident of victory, because the American people are going to decide there is a vast difference in experience, a vast difference in philosophy, and, yes, a vast difference in character,” Bush said. Alas, history proved otherwise. 

The Chairman of the Palace: A 76-year-old Frank Sinatra performed at the Palace on Nov. 8, 1992. Shirley MacLaine opened the show, but it wasn’t a big draw: Sinatra had performed in the market in 1989, 1990 and 1991, and reports from the show remarked on the number of empty seats in the audience. No one knew at the time, but it turned out to be Sinatra’s final concert in Metro Detroit, and he wound down his performance schedule in subsequent years before his death in 1998. 

A royal Draft: The Palace never hosted an NBA All-Star game, but the NBA Draft was held there June 30, 1993. University of Michigan standout and hometown star Chris Webber was the No. 1 pick, drafted by the Orlando Magic and traded less than a half hour later to the Golden State Warriors for the rights to No. 3 pick Anfernee Hardaway and three future No. 1 draft picks. More than 11,000 fans attended the draft; tickets were about $8 apiece. 

Attendance record bodyslammed: A reported crowd of 23,954 attended WWF’s Summerslam event on Aug. 30, 1993 — a building record, technically, although Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment operation is notorious for fudging figures. In the main event, Lex Luger defeated WWF World Heavyweight Champion Yokozuna by count out, although the belt cannot change hands on a count out decision, so Luger was denied the strap. Other matches featured the Undertaker, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Mr. Perfect and Razor Ramon.   

More than just basketball: Sure the Palace was home to the Pistons and the Shock, but several other sports squads called the Palace home, too. The International Hockey League’s Detroit Vipers skated at the Palace, and even got a 69-year-old Gordie Howe to suit up for a game when he signed a one-day contract with the organization in 1997. The Ontario Hockey League’s Detroit Whalers played the majority of their 1995–96 season at the Palace, splitting their time between Auburn Hills and the Oak Park Ice Arena. The Continental Indoor Soccer League’s Detroit Safari (originally known as the Detroit Neon), the National Professional Soccer League’s Detroit Rockers and the Arena Football League’s Detroit Fury also played their home games at the Palace.

One and done: The building’s shortest sports franchise tenants were the Detroit Dazzlers. The women’s basketball team played just one game as a trial for the proposed Liberty Basketball Association, squaring off against the LBA All-Stars on Feb. 18, 1991. The game was nationally televised on ESPN but was a folly on several levels: the league uniforms were awkward one-pieces, some camera shots caught almost entirely empty stands and the Palace was struck with a 40-minute blackout in the middle of the game. It was a sign of things to come for the ill-fated LBA, which folded afterward, and the Dazzlers never played again.

A Notorious show: The Notorious B.I.G. performed at the Palace one time, on a mega bill alongside Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, Naughty by Nature, Puff Daddy, Faith Evans, Total, Craig Mack, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Adina Howard and Luniz. The show was held on Oct. 14, 1995 and tickets were $27.50. Other late legends who played the Palace include Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Prince, Tom Petty, George Carlin, Aretha Franklin and Luciano Pavarotti.

A fight breaks out: You know about Malice at the Palace, the infamous dust-up between the Pistons and the Indiana Pacers in Nov. 2004. But there was another bench-clearing brawl during a basketball game at the Palace, this time in the WNBA, when the Detroit Shock and the LA Sparks duked it out during a game in July 2008. The fight started after the Shock’s Plenette Pierson gave a stiff box-out to the Sparks’ Candace Parker, causing both players to fall to the floor. The pair then tussled, punches were thrown, both teams intervened and ultimately 10 players were handed suspensions — along with Shock assistant coach Rick Mahorn, who knew a thing or two about getting in altercations at the Palace.

6 Championship Drive: The Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA Championship at The Palace, one of four championships clinched on The Palace floor. Other championships won at the building were the Detroit Vipers in 1997, the Detroit Shock in 2003 and the Phoenix Mercury, who beat the Shock for the WNBA Championship at the Palace in 2007. The Palace’s address was 6 Championship Drive, named for six of the championship teams that called the Palace home — the 1989, 1990 and 2004 Pistons and the 2003, 2006 and 2008 Shock. The Vipers’ championship didn’t count, apparently.

Homecoming queen: Madonna, who grew up just a few miles from where the Palace would eventually sit, performed at the Palace on Aug. 25 and 26, 2001 on her Drowned World tour. The latter show was broadcast live on HBO, where it nabbed 5.7 million viewers. Madonna also blessed the Palace on Oct. 21, 1993 on her Girlie Show tour — one of just five American dates on the outing, along with a show in Philadelphia and a triple-header in New York City — and on her Blond Ambition tour on May 31 and June 1, 1990. 

Iron Mike earns a payday: Mike Tyson collected a cool $10 million for six minutes of work when he fought Andre Golata at the Palace on Oct. 20, 2000. Tyson, 34, won in a two-rounder after Golata threw in the towel. No one was happy with the fight, and Golota exited the arena amid a hail of spewing beer and tossed trash. Tyson, meanwhile, wasn’t sweating the small stuff; ahead of the fight, he was spotted in town test driving a 2000 Bentley (price tag: $200,000) and a $365,000 Rolls Corniche convertible, and rumors were flying that he ordered a $12 Caesar salad at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham and left a $10,000 tip. Basically, Mike was on vacation.

A Swift debut: Country megastar Taylor Swift was just 17 years old when she made her Palace debut, opening up for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill on the couple’s Soul2Soul II tour on July 11, 2007. Swift played a short five-song set at the show which included her first single, “Tim McGraw.” Swift was back in October of that year, opening for Brad Paisley, and again in Sept. 2008, opening for Rascal Flatts, and again in June 2009, opening for Keith Urban. Swift finally made her headlining debut at the Palace with a sold-out double-header in March 2010.

Kanye shows up: Detroit rapper Big Sean’s first big hometown headlining concert, at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Dec. 1, 2012, was a moment all on its own. The then-24-year-old teared up when addressing the crowd midway through the concert, looking out at the sea of fans chanting his name, and he was nimble on stage throughout the show, performing like it was the biggest night of his life. But the cavalcade of special guests that joined him on stage that night — Mike Posner, Common, Pusha T, J. Cole and finally, in a moment that shook the building to its foundation, Kanye West — put an exclamation point on an already triumphant evening. It was one of several big appearances by Kanye at the Palace: after first opening for Usher at the Palace in Sept. 2004, he headlined the Palace in May 2008 on his “Glow in the Dark” tour, shared the stage with Jay-Z when the “Watch the Throne” tour hit the Palace in Nov. 2011 and brought the Yeezus experience to the Palace in Dec. 2013.

Famous Final Scene: Bob Seger closed out the Palace at its final concert with a Saturday night celebration on Sept. 23, 2017, a sold-to-the-rafters farewell to the building and Seger’s long history there. It was Seger’s 17th Palace sellout, and he shared his memories of shows he saw over the years — including outings by Eric Clapton and Michael Jackson — during the two-hour concert. “What a great building this has been for 27 years!” Seger said, even though it had been 29. “A lot of great shows. Thanks for everything, Palace. We love ya!” 

Kaboom: Nearly three years after the final concert at the building, the Palace was imploded last month. Demolition began in March, and 800 pounds of dynamite were used to bring down the remaining structure — 22 reinforced concrete columns, each four feet in diameter, and the roof structure they supported — on July 10. From there, crews will spend several months clearing debris and filling the hole left behind by the implosion, and the site is eventually supposed to hold 1 million square feet of mixed-use office and research and development space. But for many, it will always be a place where royalty reigned and memories that will last a lifetime were made.


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