He was what you want an owner to be: decisive, trusting, smart, camera-shy – and rich. Bill Davidson had seen enough and done enough and earned enough in his life that owning a pro basketball team didn’t define him or stroke his ego in a way that turned the team into his personal playpen.
He funded the Pistons and was proud of the Pistons. But he let players play and coaches coach and mostly he let his business stewards – Joe Dumars and Tom Wilson – run the operations, and that is largely why it became such a huge success. Sometimes letting go of the reins gives you the most control.
Davidson let go of the reins for good Friday, dying, at 86, from long battles with illness that left him recently wheelchair-bound. It was a bad image. Because Bill Davidson never operated that close to the ground.
To do what he did, you need vision, an eye for the clouds, and he had that when he bought the Pistons in 1974 and he had it when he built the Palace in 1988 and he even had it when he gave his team wings – a private jet – before anyone else. His theory was a better rested team would be a more successful team. I still remember when Adrian Dantley was traded by the Pistons and was leaving the hotel, the last thing he said to me was, “Gonna miss that plane, man.”
Somehow Bill Davidson had that kind of foresight. And while he was tiny compared to the players he employed, a white-haired man with large ears and eyes that crinkled narrow when he smiled, he stood taller than all of them when it came to team business – and that was non-negotiable.
You did not mess with Bill Davidson. If he wanted you out, you were out. Didn’t care how it looked. Didn’t care what it cost. Ask Rick Carlisle. Ask Larry Brown.
Davidson knew when to let go of the reins, but he knew when to grab those suckers and snap ’em, too. Reason to doubt Thomas
He had mercurial relationships with certain Pistons talent over the years, the saddest of which was likely Isiah Thomas and the proudest of which was likely Joe Dumars. Thomas had been “like a son,” Davidson said, and it seemed that the superstar guard had a future in the Pistons’ front office almost as a birthright. But something went wrong in the last months of Isiah’s playing career. Davidson told me that he had warned Isiah, “You’ve got it made now. Don’t keep doing those things that you’ve been doing.” But whatever they were, Isiah kept doing them.
Davidson cut him off.
Just like that.
And not until years later did he reach out with an olive branch.
The old man was like that. You could make the list, but you could be crossed off just as quickly.
His relationship with Dumars, ironically, became more like the one he might have once envisioned having with Thomas. Dumars was handed the keys to the basketball operations when he was 36 – one year out of the league, with no real front-office experience. But he had sat alongside Davidson many times, receiving his counsel, listening, nodding, asking questions. Dumars came from a small town and a big family where old people were respected and where sitting on a porch listening to their stories was part of your life education.
He found a kindred older soul in Davidson and Davidson found one in him. In recent years, they would visit often, in their offices, or in the Pistons’ training room, where Davidson would often come for a mid-morning massage. Davidson shared business philosophies and basketball philosophies, but they were largely indistinguishable from his life philosophies. The pro sports world wasn’t any more complex than real life, Mr. D believed. And what he would not brook in one, he would not brook in the other.
Mr. D wanted a good product. He wanted good profits. He wanted respectable people, manners from his employees, respect shown to superiors, and this above all things – loyalty.
It is one of the reasons Larry Brown was never long for this franchise. When he dangled his dalliances with other teams, he might as well have slit his Pistons career throat. The showdown between Davidson, Brown and his agent once the 2005 season ended is the stuff of rumor legend – with Davidson allegedly pointing at Brown and telling him he cost his team a championship and would never work for him again.
In the end, Davidson paid millions for Brown to go away.
But he still went away.
Davidson snapped those reins. Supposedly, at one point, after the nastiness went down and Brown was shown the door, Davidson turned to Dumars and said, “Enough, let’s go see ‘Wedding Crashers.’ “
That may or may not be a true story.
But it should be. Sharing his riches
Because Davidson, for all he accomplished – taking a $7 million investment to a $480 million franchise, building one of the most successful concert venues in the country – should be a little larger than life. He should have stories like Howard Hughes or Warren Buffett. But the beauty of the old man was that while he was often around, he was barely noticed. He wore a windbreaker to the games and shuffled in late and shuffled out early. He sat under the basket, but never tried to coach from his seat, and he never looked foolish trying to hang with the young players – like some pathetic sports owners do
He was their boss. They knew it. He knew it.
That was enough.
And yet he had great affection for his team. And for a white, Jewish guy born just after World War I, he was incredibly modern on racial attitudes. “I don’t see color,” he recently said. “I don’t distinguish color anymore, which is a good thing. Thirty years ago, I might have. But by being with the players, getting to know them … it wouldn’t make any difference. I get to know the personality much more than the color of the skin. Color means nothing.”
Davidson was known for giving away millions, but he should also be known for the millions more he gave away with no fanfare. He was incredibly philanthropic, to children, to Michigan, and his love for the Jewish community and the state of Israel was unrivaled. As many tears are shed for his death in Detroit, there are likely that many falling in parts of the Holy Land. Davidson, who sometimes got on his private plane in pajamas and flew overnight to Tel Aviv, walked with the biggest names in that country. And his generosity – there, here and elsewhere – will be missed.
The last time I saw him was the first truly long interview we had ever done together. I had been with the Free Press for 23 years. I figured it was time. He always had been so shy and I had respected his privacy. When I mentioned this to him as we sat down last September, he said, “Oh, well, all you had to do was ask, I would have done it at any point.”
It was only then that I realized how much I missed not getting to know this man better. And perhaps only today that many Pistons fans realize the same.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.