Detroit basks in sports spotlight

When Nelson Cruz hit a walk-off grand slam in the 11th inning to give the Texas Rangers a 2-0 lead over the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series, I panicked.

Over the past week, the city of Detroit has received unprecedented national press, from ESPN to CNN. It's welcoming, but also stressful. For years, the only time Detroit made national news was for the wrong reasons. How would the city handle this rare influx of positive publicity?

Cruz's home run seemed like a bad omen. Maybe Monday night wasn't going to be one the best days in Detroit sports history.

Maybe the Lions were going to be gigantic flop on Monday Night Football, where they had not appeared in 10 years. What if something ugly happened on the streets of Detroit, causing people to view the city as worthless (again)?

But it wasn't the Lions' 24-13 victory over the Bears that kept my fears from becoming full-blown paranoia.

It was, of all things, logging onto Facebook about 10 minutes before kickoff.

My timeline was absolutely flooded with pictures from Ford Field and the scene just outside the stadium.

"So amazing!" someone wrote as a caption to an aerial picture that showed hundreds of Detroit Lions fans cramming into Ford Field before kickoff.

People painted their faces blue. They wore blue wigs and cheap, plastic blue jewelry.

And to think, when the team went 0-16 in 2008 the most popular Lions memorabilia was a brown paper bag.

Even those who weren't from Detroit and had no rooting interest in the Lions were posting Facebook statuses about how happy they were for city and for the Lions.

True story: A friend of mine in Florida called me on Monday in desperate need of a pair of Lions-Bears tickets to impress a client (not a Michigan native) who was going to be in Detroit during the big game.

I haven't been asked for help getting someone Lions tickets since … well, never.

This can't be real life.

I texted my friend Michele, a diehard Lions and Tigers fan, because I wanted confirmation about what I was experiencing. Michele, who attends Tigers spring training in Lakeland, Fla., every year, spent a large part of Monday tailgating in downtown Detroit. She's also going to Game 3 of the Tigers-Rangers series at Comerica Park on Tuesday.

"The last time we were doing well, Barry [Sanders] was playing," she texted me. "We were at the Silverdome and the Tigers were horrible. Now we have a baseball and football stadium downtown and that makes the environment electric. Today when I was walking around Greektown, people were talking to each other. Chicago fans were cool. I guess it's different when you're not the joke of the league. It feels good to not have to defend my loyalty of Detroit teams."

I covered Super Bowl XL in Detroit in 2006, and the atmosphere and characterization of the city wasn't like this.

I was there at Ford Field for the Final Four two years ago and although Michigan State was in it, it wasn't like this.

When the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997, breaking a 42-year drought? No, it still wasn't quite like Monday night.

There were 67,861 fans at Ford Field for the Bears game, which was the largest Lions crowd in the stadium's history. But it seemed like there were twice as many people there because the only thing the Bears did with any consistency -- other than have Jay Cutler running for his life -- is commit false start penalties.

"It was crazy out there," said running back Jahvid Best, who rushed for a career-high 163 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown run that was the second-longest in team history. "I think the fans caused them at least six or seven false starts."

Try nine.

This isn't to say Monday was the best night in Detroit sports history, but even though no championships were won, it will rank as one of the most important days for the city.

Hey, it was special enough to warrant a commemorative page.

Of course, none of this onfield success will change Detroit's absurdly-high unemployment and crime rates, or the rocky Michigan economy.

But the Lions are 5-0 for the first time since 1956 and one of only two unbeaten teams (along with Green Bay) remaining in the NFL.

Unlike a lot of other moments in Detroit's history, this success doesn't feel fleeting. The Lions are in position to achieve every year, not just every 50.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.