| The Detroit News
Detroit — It seemed like a very normal Saturday night. The Pistons were facing the Utah Jazz at Little Caesars Arena with an announced crowd of 16,590 watching a third-quarter comeback fall short. After the loss, the Pistons were heading out for three games on the road in the last weeks of a dreary season.
That ended up being the last home game of the season, on March 7, 2020.
That was before the NBA shut down the season. Before the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world. Before more than 530,000 people died in the United States because of the virus.
That was a simpler time, when surgical masks were mainly for surgeons. When most people hadn’t downloaded a Zoom app. When “virtual” and “social distancing” weren’t part of everyday vernacular. When workday attire didn’t include sweatpants and slippers. When people readily shook hands and hugged.
A year later, nothing is normal. There are Pistons games at LCA, but the pandemic changed the sports world, announcing its arrival from the moment that Jazz stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell were among the first to test positive for the virus.
It’s different not only for the players, but for the hundreds of workers who haven’t gotten back to their regular routine of doing the jobs they loved at LCA. Many have had close encounters with the COVID-19 among their families and friends.
Like most people, they forever have been changed by the past year, but the memories of that last fan-filled home game still resonate.
“I literally walked by (Donovan Mitchell) and I looked at him and said hello because he looked like one of my cousins,” recalled LaShell Griffin, who regularly has sung the national anthem before every home game. “I remember that game and a few days later, everything was shut down to a screeching halt.”
Griffin hasn’t been back to LCA, but the Pistons are beginning to get fans back in the arena, with a maximum of 500 at home games for the past few weeks. For the first time this season, they are selling tickets to the general public and will welcome up to 750 fans — with some specific COVID protocols — beginning next week.
In the year since the pandemic, there have been few fans, and even fewer arena workers, who themselves have formed bonds with their co-workers and the fans who come to games, whether it’s in the floor seats, the clubs and suites, or the upper levels of LCA.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll all go back and things will be normal,” said Clinton Shannon Sailes, Sr., better known as the Dancing Usher. “The arena is like ‘Cheers’ — everybody knows each other. You come in and you’re happy to see everybody. Any time somebody is missing, or there’s a loss of friends or family, it hits hard, because you’ve seen them for so many years.”
Sailes, who has been with the Pistons for 10 years, hasn’t performed at games this season, but he did record a dance-cam video that has been shown on the big screen in lieu of his trademark live performances during timeouts.
It’s been a rough year for Sailes, who says he knows of 10 friends who have died from COVID-19. He hasn’t tested positive but seeing the impact that it’s had on his life and those around him, he’s urging everyone just to continue to be patient and continue wearing masks.
“Even if you don’t have it, you can save a life by staying home and not potentially getting it yourself,” he said. “The pandemic gives clarity when you’ve lost so many friends, and you see a self-value in people. People are here one minute and gone the next.”
It’s also hit hard for Griffin, who has had a couple of family members test positive, but they recovered. Some other extended family members also tested positive because they didn’t take all the precautions. That’s was a lesson for everyone, she said.
“There were a lot of touch-and-go moments, but they were healed and blessed,” she said. “I had other family members who went out and didn’t have masks on … and they all caught it. It’s unfortunate when people don’t realize it’s serious and it’s a life-and-death situation.”
Away from the arena
Cathy Hewie, a retired loan officer, has worked as a concierge in one of the clubs at LCA and she has missed the opportunity to be around the arena. Her last event was the Red Wings game on March 10, 2020.
Even at that time, there wasn’t a clear sense that things were going to change so quickly and so dramatically. The time away from LCA has taken her from her arena family, but it has given her more opportunities to spend time with her actual family, which has its benefits and issues.
“It was bittersweet because I’ve been able to look after my elderly mom and spend time with family — that’s the sweet part,” Hewie said. “The bitter was just missing my LCA family and co-workers and the fans and the Pistons and Red Wings players and management team. We were like a big family. That’s the bitter part of it all.
“I’m looking forward to returning and reuniting with everyone again.”
It’s the same for Sailes, who has become one of the faces of the franchise for a number of years. He interacts with fans, from the floor seats to the upper levels, with a trademark smile and a dance move waiting for fans young and old.
Sailes has been a fixture on the Pistons entertainment team and though he’s been away from LCA, he’s hoping to get back when things are safe, which could be soon. What fan interaction will look like at that point still is a question, but his role in entertaining likely won’t.
“My No. 1 goal with the fans was no matter whether the Pistons won or lost, to make the fan feel like they won. That’s what I wanted them to go home with,” Sailes said. “Any time someone came around, I wanted them to feel that.”
The Pistons’ Dancers perform live at games this season, but the other acts, including the Drumline, the Extreme Team and the Mini (the youth dance team) all have been sidelined during games.
There are some recorded performances — including utilizing different anthem singers for each game — that are shown on the big screen, but the feel is different with only a few hundred fans in the stands.
Figuring out what a new normal still seems a long way away, but how that impacts the entertainment teams and other arena workers still isn’t clear. There’s still some question about how much interaction they’ll have with fans or whether they’ll have to wear masks.
“I really had not thought about it as far as going (back to LCA) to be in a large crowd, because it’s been the way it is for so long,” Griffin said. “It seems foreign that (distancing) would be anything other than what it is now.”
There’s still some hope for sunshine after the rain.