Sunday, September 04, 2005

In Detroit, Bing Has Been King -- Under The Radar

(the following column can also be viewed at RetailDetroit.com, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to www.RetailDetroit.com and click on "Columnists")

Thirty years ago this summer, David Bing was traded by the Pistons to the Washington Bullets. It was an acrimonious split, the All-Star guard sniping at the Pistons’ new ownership publicly. Player called ownership cheap for not wanting to renegotiate his contract. Ownership, a new syndicate led by a man named William Davidson, was aghast. In their world, a deal was a deal. No backsies.

All has long been forgiven, or at least I presume so. Bing’s number is retired, after all -- a move initiated by Davidson, still the Pistons owner. So the bad feelings did go away, although it took a number of years for that to happen.

Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch gets a lot of press for his efforts to prop the city of Detroit up, and deservedly so. I shudder to think what the Woodward corridor would be like if it wasn’t for Ilitch and his family. Of course, some dream of what the Tigers would be like if it wasn’t for him, too, but that’s another column.

But Dave Bing, who came here unwanted from Syracuse University in 1966, to a team and city deeply disappointed that the flip of the coin prior to the ’66 draft didn’t enable the Pistons to draft local hero Cazzie Russell from U-M instead, has also been a hero to this town, and not just on the court. In fact, what Bing has done after his playing career is every bit as impressive, if not more so, than what he accomplished in uniform. And we’re talking Hall of Fame player here.

Bing in action -- on the court. His off-court actions are even more impressive

There was a time when Bing wanted to help out in a basketball capacity, after he hung up his sneakers in 1978 -- as a Celtic of all things. After the Pistons fired coach Dick Vitale in November 1979, Bing openly campaigned for the job, and some of the TV and newspaper guys around town pumped him, too. Bingo was ready to let bygones be bygones and return to the franchise that he helped save from extinction in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

But it was too soon for Davidson. It takes a lot to get out of the owner’s doghouse, and he is absolutely impervious to legend and popularity when it comes to that sort of thing. Ask Isiah Thomas, or Larry Brown. Bill Davidson is one man you do not want to cross.

So Bing was passed over, and maybe that’s just as well, because the ‘79-80 Pistons were a dreadful 16-66 and that couldn’t have been good for Dave Bing’s reputation or his health, for that matter. Alan Trammell could tell you some stories, having gone through his 43-119 hell with the Tigers in 2003.

His career in basketball apparently over, Bing started his own company, Bing Steel, and that became a success and he did more and more in the community, and there was even talk of him running for mayor. And he wouldn’t have been running against chopped liver, like nowadays. His opponent would have been a guy named Coleman A. Young.

It isn’t written about, nor spoken of, at least not very much, but Dave Bing has done more for the city of Detroit than a lot of the supposed leaders or council members or big shot businessmen have even talked about.

For example, Bing launched Bing Steel in 1980. A decade later, the firm had grown to annual sales of $61 million. He went on to acquire Superb Manufacturing, a $28 million-per-year metal-stamping company, as well as a small construction firm. Then, in 1989, the city of Detroit announced plans to cancel all sports programs in public high schools as part of a budgetary-crisis cutback. Bing launched a campaign that raised $373,000 to save the programs. As it turned out, Detroit voters approved tax increases, but Bing still had the money turned over to the schools, no strings attached. Not bad for a private citizen who could have retreated to the comfort and luxury of the suburbs, if he were so inclined.

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Pistons fans of today, the youngens with their Ben Wallace afros and their Rip Hamilton jerseys, should be reminded that if it wasn’t for Dave Bing, the Detroit Pistons might very well now be the Charlotte Pistons or New Orleans Pistons
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After his playing career, Bing did come back to the Pistons in a way, as a television analyst in the early-to-mid 1980’s. It was obvious to anyone listening that Bingo knew his stuff, and as a former point guard, maybe he would indeed have been a good coach. By that time, any fences that needed mending between he and Bill Davidson had been repaired, but it was too late to pursue coaching. Besides, the Pistons had a coach who also knew his way around a pick-and-roll -- Chuck Daly -- and who had been doing it for 20 years or so. The team was in good hands, so Bing was content to put in his two cents worth on the sideline, speaking into a microphone on press row.

It would be nice, though, if the Pistons did something a tad more than simply having Bing’s #21 hanging from the rafters in the Palace. I’m not usually one for statues, but a nice bronze one of Bing driving to the hoop would be appropriate outside the arena’s main entrance. It would be symbolic of what he did as a player and what he has done as a citizen. Pistons fans of today, the youngens with their Ben Wallace afros and their Rip Hamilton jerseys, should be reminded that if it wasn’t for Dave Bing, the Detroit Pistons might very well now be the Charlotte Pistons or New Orleans Pistons. Bing WAS the Detroit Pistons at a time in the late 60’s when attendance at Cobo Arena rarely nudged the 5,000 mark per game. Next time you go to a Pistons game at the Palace, make it a point to arrive about an hour early. Take your seat and look at the sparse crowd among you. That’s about as many people who attended Pistons games -- at tip-off -- when Bing came to town.

Bing won the league scoring crown in his second season, in 1968, and to this day no other Piston since can lay such a claim. He gradually resuscitated the franchise and the team built around him, until crowds of 7,000-10,000 were more and more commonplace. I am convinced that if it wasn’t for Bing, even Fred Zollner, who owned the team at the time and was as optimistic as anyone about pro basketball in Detroit, would have pulled the plug and taken his team elsewhere. And the three championships the Pistons have won since Bing left would have been celebrated with parades in some other downtown.

Bing keeps giving back to a city that was disappointed to get him in '66

Today, Bing is independently building 40 middle-income, brick homes in the city from $170,000 to $200,000 to help revitalize certain Detroit neighborhoods. Dick Dauch, cofounder, chairman and chief executive officer of American Axle & Manufacturing, is behind him.

"Dave is one of Detroit's jewels," he said. "He's a great human being and also an extraordinary industrial businessman who has made a whole professional commitment to Detroit having jobs."

"You've got to start somewhere," Bing said. "Two years ago, when I decided to do this, I looked at the community, and I saw the deplorable conditions of the housing stock, and I said, 'People don't have to live like this. People need to dream.’"

Oh, by the way, Cazzie Russell, the marquee player from Michigan that Pistons team officials drooled over, was drafted by the Knicks when they won the infamous coin toss in 1966. His career in the NBA was nothing to speak of. But at the time, the Pistons cursed their luck -- all except former player Earl Lloyd, who said, according to Jerry Green in his book The Detroit Pistons: Capturing A Remarkable Era, "Don’t worry -- we just drafted the best player in the country."

That they did -- on and off the court.

(research for this column produced facts and quotes from NBA.com and Rochelle Riley’s Detroit Free Press story on Bing from 8-24-05)

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