Sunday, June 05, 2011

Like Davidson in '74, Gores Has Work Cut Out For Him

Bill Davidson was a graduate of that old school you keep hearing about. Whatever it was, that’s where Davidson learned about business.

It was a school that said loyalty meant something, and a contract was worth not just the paper it was written on but the forest that produced the trees that made that paper.

It was a school that mandated that you represent your company with the utmost dignity and respect, and that no one individual was greater than the whole.

Davidson brought these credos to the NBA when he bought the Detroit Pistons from Fred Zollner in 1974.

Zollner, for his part, had brought the NBA itself to Detroit, bringing with him his Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and staking out his big top inside Olympia Stadium, which would be his basketball team’s home whenever the tradition-rich Red Wings weren’t in town.

The Pistons immediately became Detroit’s redheaded stepchild of pro sports.

Zollner’s team failed to draw at Olympia, and then the Pistons moved into brand-new Cobo Arena in 1961 and they failed to draw there, too. Pro basketball wasn’t moving the sports fan in Detroit, not like it did in hoops-rich towns like New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Zollner’s franchise was Goofus to the other Detroit teams’ Gallant. It seemed to exist only to serve as a cautionary tale. It was perpetually the “before” in one of those before and after success stories.

The Pistons went through coaches like a Broadway cattle call audition. They made trades that were outshined by the contestants on “Let’s Make a Deal.”

The Pistons couldn’t do anything right. They drafted funny.

By the mid-1960s, it was touch and go as to whether Zollner would pick up his tent and move to another burg.

Then the Pistons got lucky, even when they thought they hadn’t, and drafted a skinny guard from Syracuse named David Bing, when the guy they really wanted, forward Cazzie Russell from Michigan, went to the New York Knicks. This was 1966.

The Pistons lost a coin toss for Cazzie, and so settled with Bing, who only happened to become the man who would save pro basketball in Detroit.

Still, by 1974, Zollner had become a recluse owner, jetting to Detroit from his home in Florida maybe twice a year to see what his basketball players did to earn the paychecks that bore his signature.

Zollner’s was an unsuccessful franchise, though it had two big stars: Bing and center Bob Lanier.

Bill Davidson, Zollner’s neighbor in Florida, had wanted into the pro sports ownership business in the worst way. You know the rest of the joke.

Davidson had bid on Tampa’s World Football League franchise in 1974, but the price was too high. So he turned his attention to his neighbor’s pro basketball team.

The Pistons hadn’t made a dime of profit in the 17 years they’d been in Detroit. Even a 52-win season in ’73-74 failed to spin the turnstiles with much speed or frequency. They were the Edsel of Detroit sports.

Davidson forked over a grand total of $6 million to buy the Pistons from his neighbor Fred Zollner.

The team Davidson purchased was still mostly dysfunctional and by far the fourth favorite in a city with four choices for pro sports.

Fast forward to Thursday afternoon at the Palace, the House That Bill Davidson Built.

On the dais sat a tanned, handsome, 46-year-old man—only five years younger than Davidson was when he bought the Pistons in 1974.

Tom Gores spoke to the media on his first day as Pistons owner. Gores, the day before, had finalized a transaction of mega proportions. In the package came the Palace Sports and Entertainment Group and a dysfunctional basketball team that is by far the fourth favorite in a city with four choices.

The parallels between the state of the Pistons now and their state when Davidson bought them 37 years ago are uncanny.

The Pistons were off the radar in ’74, and they pretty much are now, too. The TV cameras don’t lie. Games televised from the Palace the past couple of seasons were conspicuous by the absence of fans in the stands. The camera shots looked like an NBA game in the closing seconds of a blowout. Only, it was like that for entire games.

In fact, you could make a case that the Pistons of ’74 were in better shape than the ragtag bunch of today, because at least the former had two bona fide superstars in Bing and Lanier.

The Pistons, 2011 vintage, have no one remotely close to being a star, let alone a superstar.

But Gores is plunging into the NBA waters anyway, a Flint kid made good—and how many of those are there? Flint has been kicked, crapped on and stripped of its economy for the better part of 20 years now.

Yet here’s Gores, a Flint guy, with hundreds of millions of dollars to throw at the Pistons and the entertainment conglomerate of which they are part.

The price tag that Gores paid for the entity that Bill Davidson paid $6 million for in 1974 is thought to be in the $320 million range.

Oh, and Davidson managed to turn a profit a time or two—along with winning three league championships.

The Pistons team that Gores has inexplicably bought is filled with unlikable, petulant players who have defiled the team’s motto of “Going to Work.”

It’s a bunch that has won a grand total of 57 games over the past two seasons, not coming close to the playoffs in either year. Attendance is way down, befitting the overall interest in the team throughout metro Detroit.

It is, in effect, 1974 all over again when it comes to pro basketball.

From this embarrassment of non-riches, Tom Gores plans on making money and winning another championship and leading a resurgence of NBA basketball in a town that could, right now, pretty much take it or leave it.

Just like what Bill Davidson hoped to do 37 years ago.

Oh, and there’s a lockout looming in less than a month.

Gores is either about to show off his mad skills as an astute businessman, or he’s a damn fool.

But a guy from Flint who’s just managed to come up with $320 million couldn’t be a fool, could he?

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