When the Pistons celebrated their 2004 NBA Championship with a parade through Detroit two days later, Pistons owner Bill Davidson stole the show. He stepped up to the podium at Hart Plaza and said (via the Free Press):
“Over the past couple of weeks, there’s been a lot of b(*******) going on in this country. Let me be a little more refined and say misconception. Let’s start with the 8-1 odds on the Lakers to beat the Pistons. B(*******). Actually, they were lucky to win one game.”
It was a startling moment of brashness from someone who had always made a habit of staying behind the scenes.
But the Pistons had been disrespected, and Davidson was too proud to let his team be insulted. He took it personally. After all, the Pistons were his. Davidson was the team’s second owner. He bought the franchise from Fred Zollner in 1974.
But as much as the Pistons meant to him, he was so much more. Davidson, who died yesterday, will be remembered for many reasons.
Guardian Industries Corp.
Davidson earned a business degree from the University of Michigan and a law degree from Wayne State.
He gave up his law practice to save a drug company, and then a surgical supply company, from bankruptcy. He used that expertise to help the ailing family company, Guardian Glass.
Guardian declared bankruptcy the same year Davidson took over, 1957. But he turned the company into one of the largest glass suppliers in the world.
Some of his tactics came under attack. Competitors sued Guardian at least six times between 1965 and 1988, according to Crain’s Detroit Business.
Ernie Brooks, president of Southfield-based Brooks Kushman P.C., represented two of those companies and sees parallels between Davidson’s business tactics and the Pistons of the 1980s, who earned the nickname “Bad Boys.”
“Look at the Pistons. Don’t they track what you know Davidson to be? They were the “Bad Boys.” They committed some fouls, but they were successful,” Brooks said.
Brooks represented Denver-based Johns Manville, which sued Guardian in 1981 for stealing its fiberglass-making technology. In 1989 — the same year the Pistons won their first championship — Guardian was ordered to pay Johns Manville $38 million.
Still, Brooks said, “He was aggressive. You can argue whether it was right or wrong … but I have high regard for him.”
In 2007, Forbes said Davidson was Michigan’s richest man. Thankfully for the Pistons, he didn’t acquire that fortune too quickly.
Davidson only bought the Pistons because he couldn’t afford the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
He spent $6 million for the Pistons. The franchise is now valued at $480 million.
The Palace of Auburn Hills
The Palace, which is one of the few privately owned stadiums in sports, opened in 1988. It cost $90 million to build.
To help pay the high costs of construction, the arena had lower-level suites — a never-seen-before feature.
Just two teams, New York and New Jersey, have been in their arena’s longer. And the Palace still stands as one of the NBA’s premier facilities.
Although it wasn’t the only example of Davidson’s commitment to excellence — under Davidson’s control, the Pistons became the first NBA team to have its own plane, Roundball One — the Palace serves as the largest (figurative and literal) reminder of Davidison’s terrific reign over the Pistons.
“His friends begged him not to do it,” Wilson said. “(Theater mogul) Joey Nederlander called me and begged me to persuade him to back out, he’s going to go broke. His friends would say, ‘Hey, we know he knows what he’s doing, but with this, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ I think one reason he takes a lot of pride in this place is because of all the naysayers.
“It will be his legacy. A lot of the incredibly critical issues he took on with the NBA – all his work on the collective bargaining agreements and his support of David Stern in the early days – might have a more lasting impact on the game. But that was where he was one among a group of owners, a leader among them, but still among a group. This was all individual. And nobody else would have done it.”
Bill Davidson and Isiah Thomas once had a father-son relationship. Here’s what each had told the Free Press about each other in 1986.
Davidson on Thomas:
“The overall improvement of the team, the caliber of players that we have, the success of the league and our franchise — all of it gives me enjoyment,” Davidson said. “But the high point was definitely when Isiah came here in 1981. Until then we did not have players, did not have the coaches, did not have any tradition. Lanier and I were friendly, but I didn’t have that same feeling that I have with Isiah. We have a lot of the same approaches to life and people.
Thomas on Davidson:
“He’d still be someone I’d want to hang out with. (And) put it this way: We’d get into a lot of trouble.”
In 1994, a trade that would have sent Thomas to the Knicks reportedly fell through because Davidson assured Thomas he would get a large contract the next year and a front-office position when he retired.
But news of the meeting leaked, and supposedly that irked Davidson. Thomas retired after the season and never got that front-office position. Tensions remained between the two for about a decade.
What exactly went down still remains a mystery, but Davidson shed some light in an interview with the Free Press last year:
Q: OK. Who’s the best player?
A: I’d say the best player we ever drafted was Isiah Thomas.
Q: Can you say anything — and I recognize it’s been a complex relationship over the years — about the falling out you two had at the end of his playing career?
A: Well, I was very, very close to Isiah, and there were times he was almost like a son. But, because of his background, um … I told him he had to change — you know, coming from where he came from. I said, “You’ve got it made now. Don’t keep doing those things that you’ve been doing.” I won’t tell you what they are. But he couldn’t change.
Q: And that’s why he didn’t have a future with the Pistons?
Q: Had he been able to change, would you have envisioned him having a lifelong career in the front office?
A: Yeah, certainly.
Q: Had you discussed that at one point with him?
A: I wouldn’t go that far.
Q: But in your mind you had considered that a possibility?
A: If you know the relationship was like a son — I was trying to counsel him — the subject of his future relationship and what his job would be never came up. Because he had to change first.
Q: To use your metaphor — he didn’t take his father’s counsel?
Q: What’s your relationship with him at this point?
A: We’re the best of friends.
Q: How did it heal?
A: One day I decided — this was about five years ago — that there’s only one guy that I’m really not friendly with. So I called Isiah up, and I said Isiah (chuckling) — before I go to my grave — you know, whenever I do — I want you and I to be friends.
A: So we hug each other now — and you know we just had the reunion. We’re the best of friends today.
Q: Why was it important to you to make peace? Did it have to do with getting older?
A: Right. As you get closer to the end, you say … there’s one exception. I want to cure that exception.
Q: And he didn’t know why you were calling?
A: No. In a way he didn’t understand — never has quite understood …
Q: What happened?
Q: Did you feel a need to go into all that?
A: No, no. There was no point in going into it. …We just come from different backgrounds. He had to fight his way up, and I didn’t have the problems he had growing up. There’s a lot of good things about Isiah, but when we had our parting, it was over something pretty substantial.
The last three Pistons’ coaches never won fewer than 50 games in a season. But Davidson had a hand in firing all three — Flips Saunders, Larry Brown and Rick Carlisle.
Davidson didn’t think Saunders was good enough. From True Blue Pistons:
Joe Dumars wasn’t the only one with a voice that matters who left The Palace the night of the Pistons’ elimination by Boston saying, “I’d seen enough.” So had his owner.
“Absolutely,” Pistons owner William Davidson told me Wednesday morning. “No question in my mind. And I encouraged Joe to sever the relationship with Flip Saunders.”
And with Brown, when old Jewish men bicker — oy. From the Free Press:
Q: Speaking of coaching, let me ask you about a few coaches. Larry Brown. What can you tell me about him?
A: Well, Larry Brown is not what he appears to be. And he’s built a reputation for himself based on his own PR people. He’s not what he appears to be.
Q: When did you decide he was out?
A: Ah, probably after I’d been with him for half a season.
Q: Half a season?
A: Yeah, that’s all.
Q: But you let him continue to coach?
A: Well, we won that year.
Q: What if they had won against San Antonio?
A: Uh, probably not. I can’t tell you. … It depends on the players. The reason I get rid of a coach is if he’s lost the players. I don’t want to subject my players to a coach they don’t want, basically and in whom they have lost faith.
Q: Did you feel that was the case with Larry?
A: Oh, yeah.
There have been rumors Carslisle was fired because he didn’t say hello to Pistons staff, and that irked Davidson. But in the interview with the Free Press last year, Davidson denied that. Another mystery about Davidson’s relationships.
Q: Rick Carlisle — was that your call? Or had he lost the players?
A: Yeah, he had lost the players. He had a certain style, which wore off after a certain amount of time. But he was a good coach, on kind of a short-term basis. He knows the game, did all the right things, but he didn’t have that personal touch with players.
Q: The whispers were that you didn’t like his style or personality.
A: No, definitely not true.
Q: He wasn’t fired because he had words with members of your staff?
Q: Why was he fired?
A: Players. A player will never come out and say it, but because I’m close to them, I know what they’re thinking.
Q: So you can tell when the coach has lost the players just by talking with the players?
A: No, it comes back around. Somebody will say something to somebody, and then that person will say something to me. And if that happens enough times, then you realize what it is.
Davidson’s involvement in the Detroit community is well documented. In 1997 he was honored for his lifelong philanthropic efforts, locally, nationally and internationally, by the Council of Michigan Foundations. The same year, he was listed in a New York Times article as one of America’s most generous donors. Davidson was also one of the “founding fathers” who originated the Pistons/Palace Foundation, a charitable vehicle that has donated more than $20 million dollars in cash and merchandise since 1989. In January, 1995 the foundation worked in conjunction with the City of Detroit’s Parks and Recreation Department to establish the Partnership to Adopt and Renovate Parks for Kids (PARK) Program. The program provides for restoration of Detroit parks, basketball courts, baseball diamonds, running tracks and playground equipment.
In 1992, he donated $30 million to his alma mater, the University of Michigan’s School of Business Administration. The grant to establish the William Davidson Institute will provide assistance in a special program to help develop market economies throughout the world. He has also endowed the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York with a $15 million gift, and the American Technion Society to establish the world’s first educational institution entirely dedicated to the international management of technology-based companies at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. In 1999, the Davidson Institute of Science Education was established at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. His $20 million gift was the largest private donation ever given to the Institute that is a leading international science research center and graduate school.
Locally Davidson has donated a renewable $2 million gift to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra that enables the organization to make long-term touring plans both in the U.S. and internationally and pledged to fight cancer with a gift of $1 million to support collaborative research, prevention and early detection programs in breast and pediatric cancers at the Karmanos Cancer Institute and Children’s Research Center of Michigan.
He also donated $75 million to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem.
Davidson has his own banner in the rafters of the Palace, up with the team’s three NBA Championships — all earned under him.
Two of his teams — the Pistons and the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lighting — won championships in 2004, making him the only owner to win the title in both sports in the same year. His WNBA team, the Detroit Shock, have also won three titles.
But that wasn’t enough for Davidson, who thought the Pistons could have four titles.
The 1987 season saw the Pistons eliminated in seven games by Boston, led by the Bird-Parish-McHale triumvirate made possible by Dick Vitale’s obsession with Bob McAdoo. But it was a piercing Game 5 loss with the series tied 2-2 that proved decisive, a game that turned on Isiah Thomas’ pass intercepted by Bird and fed to Dennis Johnson for a winning layup.
The following season the Pistons hurdled Boston only to run into the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Ahead 3-2 and leading in Game 6’s waning seconds, a questionable foul call on Bill Laimbeer allowed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to sink the tying and winning free throws. With Thomas hobbled by a badly sprained ankle, the Pistons narrowly lost Game 7, as well.
“We have the game won,” Davidson said, “and I’m sitting there in the locker room with David Stern, waiting to accept the trophy, and Hugh Evans – I’ll never forget the official – called the foul on Bill Laimbeer. It never should have been called – never been called in the history of the game. My thought was I’ll go to my grave and this is the only thing I’ll ever get.
“We should have won when the ball was thrown away, we should have won in Los Angeles, we should have won four in a row.
Organizations, not teams, win championships. The Pistons won a title in 2004 because of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace. They won because of Larry Brown. They won because of Arnie Kander and Mike Abdenour. They won because of Joe Dumars.
And they won because of Bill Davidson, who put everyone else into motion.
Davidson always said the way to run a business was to hire competent managers and let them work.
He did that for 35 years with the Pistons. Detroit should hope whoever owns the team for the next 35 does it as well.
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