DETROIT – 6 Championship Drive, where The Palace of Auburn Hills once stood, the previous home of the Detroit Pistons and the Detroit Shock. The arena’s address would increase by a digit each time a hometown championship was won. When the Shock were around, they contributed to adding digits more frequently than their NBA counterpart.
Twenty years ago, the Shock became the first WNBA champion not named the Houston Comets or Los Angeles Sparks, during the league’s seventh season. The Shock were also the first team in American pro sports to go from having the worst record in the league to winning a championship the following season.
They went on to add two more championships in 2006 and 2008, prior to the franchise’s relocation to Tulsa in 2009 (and, in 2016, to Dallas).
Cheryl Ford, the third overall pick in the 2003 WNBA Draft, helped turn the Shock around immediately, averaging a double-double in the regular season on her way to the league’s Rookie of the Year award. Swin Cash Canal, the second overall pick in the 2002 WNBA Draft, was the team’s most well-rounded player during the 2003 season, averaging 16.6 points per game (PPG), 5.8 rebounds (RPG), and 3.6 assists (APG). Deanna Nolan shot 42.1 percent from three while averaging 12.4 PPG. Coming off the bench, Kedra Holland-Corn shot over 40 percent from three-point land.
In the finals, Detroit met up with Lisa Leslie and the Los Angeles Sparks. On the heels of a 27-point performance from Ruth Riley Hunter, who would go on to win the WNBA Finals MVP award, the Shock completed their worst-to-first season in a win-or-go-home Game 3 in Detroit.
“The 2003 Detroit Shock were champions, were selfless, were incredible women who fought every second they stepped on the court,” Riley Hunter said.
We’re welcoming back the CHAMPS!
Tonight, the 2003 Detroit Shock team is returning to the 3️⃣1️⃣3️⃣ to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of their championship win💙❤️ pic.twitter.com/O1PTWQ3beM
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) March 9, 2023
They weren’t a star-studded team, or what would be considered a superteam in today’s W. In the regular season, six players averaged nine points or more. The team shot 37.8 percent from three, while holding opponents to under 30 percent from deep.
In addition to leading the league in points scored per game, at 75.1 PPG, the Shock also led the league in net rating by a landslide. According to HerHoopStats.com, they held a net rating of 6.6, with the next closest team being the Comets at 4.1. Other teams were unable to keep up with Detroit’s point production, all while holding its opponents to a league-low in field goal percentage.
Debatably, the most impressive feat of the 2003 Shock was their insanely quick pace—they ran the highest number of possessions per 40 minutes. Thanks to their 7.7 steals and 4.6 blocks per game, Cash Canal, Ford, and crew were able to get out on the fast break and make opponents pay off turnovers.
Twenty years after the worst-to-first season, players and staff members from the 2003 Shock reunited when the Pistons honored the anniversary of Detroit’s first WNBA championship, in a home game against the Charlotte Hornets on March 9.
“The 2003 Detroit Shock changed the way women’s basketball was played forever,” Bill Laimbeer, head coach for all of the Shock’s three championships, said in the above interview.
“We go play physical basketball, and we go to play every game to win,” Laimbeer continued. “We’d rip your heart out to get a basketball win.”
Physicality is a trait that embodies the city’s culture and has led the town’s other sports teams to success. The Pistons won NBA championships in 1989 and 1990 during their “Bad Boys” era. Laimbeer took the court for both title teams, where he was known for his tough style of play.
“This (Detroit Shock) team was very special.” Laimbeer said.
In the years after securing the WNBA title, members of that Shock team have gone on to do their part in advancing the game. Cash Canal was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2022, and now serves as the Vice President of Basketball Operations and Team Development for the New Orleans Pelicans, after spending time as an executive in the W as the New York Liberty’s Director of Franchise Development. Riley Hunter was the first Vice President of the WNBA’s Player association, a role she served in from 2005-13. After her playing days were over, she served as the General Manager for the San Antonio Stars until the team was sold and relocated to Las Vegas. She is currently a Senior Director of Team Development in the Miami Heat’s front office, after being a part of the team’s broadcast booth for four seasons. Nolan, who spent her entire WNBA career in Detroit, settled back in Michigan after finishing overseas in 2018. In addition to starting a career as a DJ, she opened a wine bar with her wife, Anna, in the metro Detroit area, appropriately named Vino & Vibes. Elaine Powell, a starter for the Shock and their strongest facilitator, is currently an assistant coach for Georgia Southern’s women’s basketball team.
A sellout-crowd—22,076 fans—for Game 3 of the 2003 Finals made the Shock’s championship-winning night the highest attended game in WNBA history. For comparison’s sake, when the Chicago Sky beat the Phoenix Mercury to win the title in 2021, 10,378 fans at Wintrust Arena watched the hometown team win their first championship. In 2022, the Las Vegas Aces won their first title on the road against the Connecticut Sun, in front of 9,652 at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Shock went 13-4 at home during the 2003 regular season, before going 4-1 on their home floor in the postseason, winning both of their games in the final series against the Sparks in Detroit.
Long after the Shock were gone, the toughness and tenacity they brought to Detroit continued to be remembered. The address of the arena where their fast-paced play touched the hardwood remains an ode to their championships, even though The Palace of Auburn Hills was converted to dust, with no more Shock—no more Detroit—basketball ever to be played at the site.
Will the W ever return to Detroit? We don’t know.
But, if it happens, the city will be ready for it. And, maybe, the old Palace can update its address to 7 Championship Drive.
“Detroit showed us a lot of love, they (really) did,” Ford said. “And we miss them.”