Relationship between Pistons, Cruise, Detroit have organization in sync

Detroit News

The Motor City Cruise are off and running with plenty of energy.

The new NBA G League team’s first training camp practice this week prompted optimism for the team’s media day on Tuesday, in addition to a sense of arrival.

“We’re here. We’re doing it,” first-year head coach DJ Bakker said.

“To actually see it happen and have our first practice, and all of it come together, is first and foremost really exciting, and I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”

There’s a sense of one-ness — not just among the inaugural Cruise training camp roster, but with the Pistons organization as a whole.

The Cruise and Pistons are the first two teams to house NBA and G League teams’ facilities under the same roof. Bakker is not only excited about what that means for logistical aspects of their operation, but for the developmental continuity.

“Our main mission with the Motor City Cruise is to serve the Pistons,” Bakker said. “This opportunity allows guys on (off) days to either practice with our team or play with the Motor City Cruise. And I think that’s the advantage of being in the same building.

“Knowing how coach (Dwane) Casey and (general manager) Troy (Weaver) and the organization feels about it, for us to be another tool of development for the bigger picture is really exciting.”

One positive sign for this premise has been the ability for Cade Cunningham, picked No. 1 in the 2021 NBA Draft, and Isaiah Livers, a second-rounder out of Michigan, to practice with the G League team and prepare to join the Pistons at a later date.

“That would have been tough to do had our G League team maybe been in Grand Rapids or somewhere else,” Cruise general manager Rob Murphy said. “To just have the unique experience of being in the same building to get those guys work, to continue to improve where they are, is why we did this, and why (Pistons vice chairman) Arn Tellem had the vision.”

Players have already started to take notice of the setup, like undrafted rookie Anthony Tarke, a forward out of Coppin State. Tarke said that the Pistons were one of his final workouts ahead of this year’s draft, and he was just impressed with the quality of the team’s $90 million practice facility as he was with the shared atmosphere.

“We’re the affiliate, and we’re still sharing everything there,” Tarke said. “I mean, from the meals, to the drinks.”

Instead of feeling like a separate entity, Tarke said, the Cruise is “just an affiliate of the Pistons, and the Motor City. Having this new team and this new environment, this new feeling … it’s like a buzz is going around Motown.”

Those small commonalities have given confidence to young players still trying to convince themselves, as well as their peers, that they belong.

“Everyone’s just willing to listen to each other,” Jaylen Johnson said. “It’s great having Cade here, No. 1 draft pick, it just shows how humble he is. He’s working out with us, things like that. It’s a great experience. He’s jelling with us every day, he’s not acting like, ‘OK, I’m drafted No. 1, I shouldn’t be with y’all.’ He’s out there working just like we are.

“It’s a great feeling.”

The last tenet of optimism has come from stitching the roots of Detroit into the Cruise’s fabric. The Cruise houses four players with ties to Detroit and the state of Michigan.

Former Michigan Wolverine Derrick Walton Jr. grew up in Detroit. Johnson — the team’s first-ever draft pick — hails from Ypsilanti. Brandon Kearney (Michigan State, Detroit Mercy) and Ray Lee (Eastern Michigan) played college ball locally.

“Yeah, (it is) a little bit by design,” Murphy said. “Just me personally, being from Detroit, understanding the meaning of being here and being born and raised in this city, how important it is when you’re able to play at home. So any time you get a chance to look at some local talent, whether it be Detroit or the surrounding areas, you definitely take a look.

“We wanted to kind of get some guys that were excited about playing at home as well.”

Walton knows what it’s like to have success locally, but he also knows what it’s like to come up short in those circumstances. He was signed to a 10-day contract to join the Pistons in February 2020, but was not retained after that contract expired. He’s spent time with the Los Angeles Clippers after getting his first shot in the NBA with Miami, and has played for three different teams overseas.

After a considerable amount of time away from competitive basketball, Walton was looking for new ways to get involved with the community. When the Cruise relocated to Detroit, he said, “it caught my attention.”

“I thought about it day in and day out, and I really started manifesting, and to pray on it,” Walton said. “Along with the manifestation and the praying, I really wanted to bring that full circle, play back home, and get into the community a lot more.”

Between the facility and new arena, the Pistons believe they’re building something special in the heart of Detroit. They’ve managed to get their players to believe the same.

And until Nov. 11, when the Cruise make their home debut against the Wisconsin Herd at Wayne State Arena, that’s all that really matters.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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