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The franchise was founded as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, a National Basketball League (NBL) team, playing in the gym of North Side High School. Owner Fred Zollner's Zollner Corporation was a foundry, manufacturing pistons primary for car, truck and locomotive engines. In 1948, the team became the Fort Wayne Pistons, competing in the Basketball Association of America (BAA). In 1949, Fred Zollner brokered the formation of the National Basketball Association from the BAA and the NBL at his kitchen table. From that point on, the Fort Wayne Pistons competed in the NBA. Led by star forward George Yardley, the Fort Wayne Pistons were a very popular franchise and appeared in the NBA Finals in 1955 and 1956, losing both times.

Pistons players are believed to have conspired with gamblers to shave points and throw various games during the 1953–54 and 1954–55 seasons. In particular, they are believed to have thrown the 1955 NBA Finals to the Syracuse Nationals. In the decisive Game 7, the Pistons led Syracuse 41–24 early in the second quarter, then allowed the Nationals to rally to win the game. Syracuse won on a free throw by George King with twelve seconds left in the game. The closing moments included a palming turnover by the Pistons' George Yardley with 18 seconds left, a foul by Frankie Brian with 12 seconds left that enabled King's winning free throw, and a turnover by the Pistons' Andy Phillip with three seconds left which cost Fort Wayne a chance to attempt the game-winning shot.

Though the Pistons enjoyed a solid local following, their city's small size made it difficult for them to be profitable. In 1957, Zollner moved the team to Detroit, a much larger city which had not seen professional basketball in a decade. In 1947, they had lost the Detroit Gems of the NBL, who moved to become the Minneapolis Lakers (now the Los Angeles Lakers), and the Detroit Falcons of the BAA, which folded. The new Detroit Pistons played in Olympia Stadium (home of the NHL's Detroit Red Wings at the time) for their first four seasons, then moved to Cobo Arena. The franchise was a consistent disappointment, struggling both on the court and at the box office.

During the '60s and '70s, the Pistons were characterized by very strong individuals and weak teams. Some of the superstars who played for the team included Dave DeBusschere, Dave Bing, Jimmy Walker, and Bob Lanier. At one point DeBusschere was the youngest player coach in the history of the NBA. Unfortunately, an ill timed trade was made during the 1968 season which sent the popular home grown Debusschere to the New York Knicks for Howard Komives and Walt Bellamy both who were in the later stages of their career. DeBusschere became the key player that then led the Knicks to two NBA titles. The Dave Bing and Bob Lanier era did have some solid and exciting years but they were handicapped by being in the same division as the Milwaukee Bucks which had a young Lew Alcindor and the Chicago Bulls which had some very strong teams.

In 1974, Zollner sold the team to Bill Davidson, who remained the team's principal owner until his death on March 14, 2009. Displeased with the team's location in downtown Detroit, Davidson moved them to the suburb of Pontiac in 1978, where they played in the mammoth Silverdome, a structure built for professional football (and the home of the Detroit Lions at the time).


Detroit Pistons logo 1979–1996.The Pistons stumbled their way out of the 1970s and into the 1980s, beginning with a 16–66 record in 1979–80 and following up with a 21–61 record in 1980–81. The 1979–80 team lost its last 14 games of the season which, when coupled with the seven losses at the start of the 1980–81 season, comprised a then-NBA record losing streak of 21 games (since broken).

The franchise's fortunes finally began to turn in 1981, when it drafted point guard Isiah Thomas from Indiana University. In early 1982, the Pistons acquired center Bill Laimbeer in a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers and guard Vinnie Johnson from the Seattle SuperSonics. The three would remain together for a decade, forming much of the core of a team that would rise to the top of the league.

Initially the Pistons had a tough time moving up the NBA ladder. In 1984, the Pistons lost a tough five-game series to the underdog New York Knicks, three games to two. In the 1985 playoffs, Detroit won its first-round series and faced the defending champion Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals. Though Boston would prevail in six games, Detroit's surprise performance promised that a rivalry had begun. In the 1985 NBA Draft, the team selected Joe Dumars 18th overall, a selection that would prove very wise. They also acquired Rick Mahorn in a trade with the Washington Bullets. However, the team initially took a step backward, losing in the first round of the 1986 playoffs to the more athletic Atlanta Hawks. After the series, Coach Chuck Daly and team captain Thomas decided that their best chance to seize control of the Eastern Conference would be through a more aggressive style of play.

Prior to the 1986–87 season, the Pistons acquired more key players: John Salley (drafted 11th overall), Dennis Rodman (drafted 27th) and Adrian Dantley (acquired in a trade with the Utah Jazz). The team adopted a physical, defense-oriented style of play, which eventually earned them the nickname "Bad Boys." In 1987 the team reached the Eastern Conference Finals, the farthest it had advanced since moving from Fort Wayne, against the Celtics. After pushing the defending champions to a 2–2 tie, the Pistons were on the verge of winning Game 5 at the Boston Garden with seconds remaining. After a Celtics' turnover, Isiah Thomas attempted to quickly inbound the ball and missed Daly's timeout signal from the bench (the NBA had not yet instituted the rule that allowed coaches to call timeout themselves). Larry Bird stole the inbound pass and passed it to Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup. While the Pistons would win Game 6 in Detroit, they would lose the series in a tough Game 7 back in Boston.

Motivated by their loss to the Celtics, the 1988 Pistons, aided by midseason acquisition James Edwards, improved to a then-franchise-record 54 victories and the franchise's first Central Division title. In the postseason, the Pistons avenged their two previous playoff losses to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, defeating them in six games and advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time since the franchise moved to Detroit.

The Pistons' first trip to the Finals saw them face the Los Angeles Lakers, who were led by Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. After taking a 3–2 series lead back to Los Angeles, Detroit appeared poised to win their first NBA title in Game 6. In that game, Isiah Thomas scored an NBA Finals record 25 points in the third quarter while playing on a severely sprained ankle. However, the Lakers won the game, 103–102, on a pair of last-minute free throws by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar following a controversial foul called on Bill Laimbeer, referred to by many Piston supporters, and Laimbeer himself, as a "phantom foul." With Isiah Thomas unable to compete at full strength, the Pistons narrowly fell in Game 7, 108–105.

Prior to the 1988–89 season, the Pistons moved to Auburn Hills to play at The Palace of Auburn Hills. The 1989 Pistons completed the building of their roster by trading Dantley for Mark Aguirre, a trade that Piston fans would criticize heavily initially, but later praise. The team won 63 games, shattering the old franchise record, and steamrolled through the playoffs and into a NBA Finals rematch with the Lakers. This time the Pistons came out victorious in a four-game sweep to win their first NBA championship. Joe Dumars was named NBA Finals MVP. Game 4 of the series marked the final game of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career.

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