Detroit — The sights were something to see, no doubt. But it’s the sounds of spring that we’re really missing these days in Detroit. And the calendar is full of reminders.
Take May 16, for example. This is the anniversary of that anxious evening back in 1996 when Steve Yzerman nearly blew the roof off Joe Louis Arena with a double-overtime winner to beat St. Louis, 1-0, in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. The indelible sound of that 60-foot slapshot ringing off the crossbar, the sellout crowd erupting, air horns blasting … man, we’ve missed that in this town.
And it’s as if we’re being taunted almost daily again this spring, watching the riveting postseason drama in the NHL and NBA unfold on our television screens, from the Game 7 heroics to the fourth-quarter collapses, through 18 overtime finishes in the Stanley Cup playoffs thus far and five 50-point performances in the NBA, two of them in Game 7s.
Sunday, it was the Boston Celtics’ star, Jayson Tatum, rewriting the record books against a storied rival after struggling earlier against the Philadelphia 76ers and then telling reporters afterward about his team, “We have a saying, ‘It’s only up from here.’”
Here in the Motor City, that’s the desperate hope, anyway. Yet it’s jarring when you stop and think about how long we’ve been sitting in silence.
Some 20 months after the cold-hearted data analysts at FiveThirtyEight dubbed Detroit “the capital of bad sports” in the midst of “an unprecedented three-year run of ignominy” when it came to the four major U.S. professional sports, we’re still mired in it. To wit:
▶ It has been more than four years — 1,485 days, to be exact — since the last NBA playoff game was held in Detroit, as Milwaukee completed a four-game sweep of the Pistons in April 2019.
▶ Little Caesars Arena was still just a steel skeleton the last time the Red Wings hosted a Stanley Cup playoff game on home ice in April 2016.
▶ You have to go all the way back to October 2014 to find the last postseason game the Tigers played in, as the Baltimore Orioles polished off a three-game sweep in the AL Division Series in Detroit.
▶ And The Lions? Well, as you’re probably aware, an entire generation has passed since they last hosted a playoff game 30 years ago.
If you’re wondering how that compares elsewhere, the answer is equally depressing, if not more so. Of the 13 cities with teams in all four pro sports, only Washington, D.C., has gone more than 12 months without hosting a playoff game. (And just barely, at that: The Capitals lost a Game 6 to Florida in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs on May 13, 2022.)
It gets worse, though. Because it has been seven years and 29 days since a Detroit team last won a playoff game anywhere, and more than a decade since the last time one of our teams won a playoff round. That was when Justin Verlander, who paid us a visit last week wearing a Mets uniform, pitched a Game 5 shutout in Oakland to send the Tigers to the AL Championship Series in 2013.
Again, that’s 10 years ago we’re talking about, before Apple made watches or any of us had met Amazon’s Alexa. And it’s six years longer than the next-longest drought for any of the dozen other cities with four or more teams, which takes us back to the nation’s capital, where the Washington Nationals were the last to advance in 2019. Of course, to add insult to injury, that was the year the Nationals won the World Series with a guy named Max Scherzer starting Games 1 and 7.
Detroit now owns the longest playoff drought in MLB (the Tigers are tied with the Los Angeles Angels at eight years), the second-longest in both the NBA (behind Charlotte) and the NHL (only Buffalo at 12 years tops the Wings’ seven-year itch) and the third-longest in the NFL, trailing only the New York Jets and Denver.
All of which begs the obvious question: When will this end?
It’s a fraught question with a frightening answer, really: Because the Lions seemingly offer the best hope of quenching our collective thirst, fresh off an impressive 2022 finish that saw them win eight of their last 10 games to narrowly miss the playoffs. They’re the odds-on favorite to win the NFC North this season, and neither general manager Brad Holmes nor head coach Dan Campbell is shying away from those expectations.
“We’ve got to be thinking that way,” Campbell said last month. “Ultimately, I think to take the next step, man, you’re shooting for the division. Because if you do that, you win the division, you get a home game and the rest takes care of itself. That’s the next part of the process.”
Elsewhere, the process is proceeding at a much slower pace, if at all.
The Tigers shook off another slow start and are hovering just below .500 in arguably the worst division in baseball, but a pennant race still seems like a long shot for AJ Hinch & Co.
The Pistons, meanwhile, are coming off a league-worst 17-win season and hoping to hit the lottery jackpot Tuesday in Chicago, earning the right to draft French phenom Victor Wembanyama. Even if they don’t, maybe they’ll take a leap under a new head coach next season and, with a healthy Cade Cunningham, the Pistons can make a run at a play-in berth. But again, that feels more like wishful thinking than a realistic goal for now.
And as for the Wings, who made some strides last season under new coach Derek Lalonde before selling again at the trade deadline, it’s probably worth remembering this about the so-called “Yzerplan” — and the growing frustration with it here in Hockeytown.
Yzerman’s NHL career began 40 years ago next month. And prior to returning to Detroit in 2019, he only needed one hand to count the number of years he’d been a bystander when the puck dropped on the Stanley Cup playoffs. So put it this way: He feels your pain.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster for our fans, and I understand that,” Yzerman said last month. “Myself included, there’s days you walk out of the rink, and you’re like, ‘You know what? I’m real happy with the way things are going.’ … And then two weeks later, you walk out of the rink and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, there’s no end in sight.’”
See what I mean? He’s with you. And quite frankly, that’s the problem: They’re all in this together, and so are we, watching and waiting and wondering when the silence will end.