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UD's Kopicki is answer to JLA trivia

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
The first-ever event held at Joe Louis Arena was a college basketball game on Dec. 12, 1979. Here University of Detroit sophomore forward Joe Kopicki (35) scores the first points of the game against Michigan. However, the Wolverines defeated UD, 85-72. (Photo from University of Detroit-Mercy archives)

DETROIT – Before St. Louis forward Brian Sutter scored the first goal at Joe Louis Arena, there was a 19-year-old from Macomb County who became the correct answer to “Who was the first player to ever score at JLA?”

Sutter is a correct answer – but only if the Red Wings are part of the question.

See, before the Wings took up permanent residency at the Joe in 1979, there was a college basketball game between the University of Detroit and the University of Michigan that was played at the new riverfront arena.

On Dec. 12, 1979 – 15 days before the Blues posted a 3-2 win over Detroit in the first-ever hockey game held at the building – Michigan defeated Detroit. But it was the Titans’ Joe Kopicki who accounted for the first points of the game, hitting a jump shot that etched the 6-foot-9 sophomore’s name in the JLA annals.

“Earl Cureton got the ball at the high post and I just flashed into the middle of the lane and he gave me a pass,” Kopicki said. “I turned around and shot about a five footer off the backboard. It was nothing planned. It just happened.”

As a kid who grew up in Warren – just 11 miles from the arena along the Detroit River – Kopicki recalls his enthusiasm for the extravagant night attended by several local dignitaries, including Detroit mayor Coleman Young, who was a proponent of the $58 million arena that decades later would become the epicenter to Hockeytown.

“It was a nice moment and something special to be a part of,” Kopicki said. “The building wasn’t finished and they were making a big deal about it because they built it so fast and we were scheduled for the first event in there. Coleman Young and all the big names from the city of Detroit were down there. It was nice. It was the place to be that night.”

For years, large photos of Kopicki’s shot and Sutter’s goal hung in the arena. Kopicki still has a copy of his shot (pictured above) displayed in his living room; though he’s amazed people still talk about the basket he scored more than 36 years ago.

“I hear about it from time to time,” said Kopicki, who finished with 15 points that night.

Kopicki’s basket helped the Titans jump to a 12-4 lead, but the Wolverines recovered from a slow start and cruised to an 85-72 victory behind the 36-point effort by junior forward Mike McGee.

As a youngster, Kopicki grew up on Hill Street in the shadows of automotive assembly plants along Mound Road. The oldest of Joe and Mary Kopicki’s four children, he was a big sports fan and cheered loudly for all the Detroit teams.

“My dad used to take me to all of the sports,” Kopicki recalled. “We used to go to the Red Wings games at Olympia, used to watch the Pistons at Cobo, and Tigers and Lions at Tiger Stadium. Whatever season it was we were sports fans.”

But by the time Kopicki was in high school he knew basketball would be his path to success when college coaches like Dick Vitale, Smokey Gaines, Rollie Massimino and Mike Fratello visited his parents’ home to discuss college options.

“Things took off after my junior year and I started hearing from all the different schools,” Kopicki said. “It came down to U of D and Villanova. But I decided to stay in my own backyard. At the time U of D was a top-20 program and it was only six miles from the house, and I was afforded the opportunity to start as a freshman because they were losing John Long and Terry Tyler. It all fit together and a lot of the kids and others don’t know or don’t remember is back then we were in the top 20.”

Back then college teams didn’t have many chances to play in large 20,000-seat arenas. So getting the opportunity to be among the first to play in the new arena in front of 12,319 fans was certainly a thrill that Kopicki said he never imagined.

Even though the building wasn’t complete, it exceeded the expectations of many, especially Associated Press sports editor Harry Atkins, who covered the inaugural event and described the hulking gray structure as “one of America’s premier sports palaces” in his game recap.

Atkins’ critique of the arena continued:

A large force of ushers – easy to spot in orange T-shirts – had little trouble getting folks to their seats, even though section and aisle numbers were scrawled on the walls with chalk.

The inside was bright, well-lighted, with good acoustics. All the seats are red, and the basketball floor is trimmed in red with the University of Detroit logo painted in two corners and the center circle. Oddly enough, Michigan was the official “home” team for the inaugural game.

The building clearly isn’t finished. But rest rooms off the main concourse were open and working, water fountains worked, and concessionaires were open for business – some from regular stands along the concourse, others from wooden tables across from unfinished regular booths.

UM athletic director Don Canham told reporters that JLA has “the greatest sight lines I’ve ever seen. They’re the best in the country; far better than Madison Square Garden in New York.”

Fitzgerald coach Joe Kopicki talks with referee Mike Gentry before the start of Tuesday's varsity boys' basketball game at Lakeview High School in St. Clair Shores, Mich. (Photo by Bill Roose/Detroit Red Wings)

Kopicki was especially fired up that particular Wednesday night. The Titans, who played an independent schedule back then, were fresh off a 22-win season and a trip to the 1979 NCAA tournament, where they were upset by Lamar.

“It was a big deal because normally we played on campus,” said Kopicki, who for the past nine years has coached boys’ basketball at Fitzgerald High School, his alma mater in Warren. “It was a big deal because we got to play in the new arena, which wasn’t even completely finished, and we were gonna play against the University of Michigan.

“Back then U of D played a national schedule. We had played Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Syracuse. So we were used to playing with the big boys and we looked forward to playing Michigan because we were considered a smaller school but we felt we could play with anybody.”

Known now as the University of Detroit-Mercy, the Titans return to Joe Louis Arena this weekend to compete in the Little Caesars Horizon League men’s basketball tournament.

For the next four days, the Joe will host nine games that will determine the Horizon League’s automatic bid to the 68-team NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament.

Kopicki, who played three seasons in the NBA with Washington and Denver, said bringing basketball back to downtown Detroit is great news, especially for local high school players.

“It’s a mid-major conference and the high school kids can go down and watch it and say, ‘Hey, I can do this’ or ‘I can give is a shot’,” Kopicki said. “Like I tell the kids here if you can play they will come and find you. There’s a slot for you somewhere you just have to find the right slot.”

The first round opens Saturday with No. 4 seed Green Bay (19-12, 11-7) facing No. 9 Cleveland State (9-22, 4-14) at 12 p.m. EST, and No. 5 Milwaukee (19-12, 10-8) against No. 8 Northern Kentucky (9-20, 5-13) tipping at 2:30 p.m. The other side of the bracket pits No. 3 Wright State (19-12, 13-5) against No. 10 Illinois-Chicago (5-24, 3-15) at 5 p.m., and No. 6 Detroit (15-14, 9-9) against No. 7 Youngstown State (11-20, 6-12).

Top-seeded Valparaiso and No. 2 Oakland received double byes into the tourney semifinals.

Monday’s semifinal games will be televised on ESPNU. Tuesday’s championship game will be on either ESPN or ESPN2 at 7 p.m.

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