A few years ago, I sat in Bill Davidson’s office, and we spoke about the character of his franchise. He mentioned work ethic and said, for example, the Pistons would never bring in someone like “Who’s the guard who went from Philadelphia to Denver?”
“Allen Iverson?” I said.
“Iverson,” he said.
Two months later, the Pistons traded for Iverson. They haven’t been the same since.
So the NBA is a funny place, where even things you say you won’t do, you may have to do. Where players you don’t really want, you acquire (for salary reasons) and where players you really want, you can’t get (for salary reasons). Where one guy can take you to the playoffs and one guy can make your life miserable.
It takes a strong stomach to own an NBA team, especially a losing one. Now we have learned such a stomach may belong to Tom Gores, a billionaire financier, who, to earn his fortune, buys companies, strips or reorganizes them, and often sells them off – not unlike Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street.”
Gores, through his private equity firm, has owned or owns dozens of companies, from Turf Care fertilizer to Ryerson metal to the San Diego Union-Tribune. He is used to and expects one thing in the end: a profit.
So why exactly would he buy the Pistons?
The silent type of owner
Well, sports teams – notoriously bad investments – are often purchased by rich men wanting a higher profile in the American circus, which saves its brightest lights for entertainment and sports. Had you ever heard of Mark Cuban, Jerry Jones or George Steinbrenner before they owned teams? But they are household names now.
So there is usually some hubris to buying a franchise. And if that is what motivates Gores – who dabbles in financing movies and has a lot of handsomely posed photos found on the Internet – it will be something new for Detroit fans.
We might like it. We might not.
Remember, major franchise ownership in this town has had one mold the last few decades: rich, older, fairly conservative businessmen who have deep Detroit roots, continued involvement in the community, and an aversion to the spotlight.
William Clay Ford, who has owned the Lions seemingly forever, speaks a few times each year and otherwise lets his stewards run the operation. Mike Ilitch, who has had the Red Wings for nearly 30 years and the Tigers for nearly 20, would be fine if he never did another interview.
And Davidson? Well. He was famous for sitting quietly under the basket, wearing a windbreaker and shuffling out before the game ended.
But one thing you can say about all three men: They all lived here, and they all bought their teams cheap, relative to their value today.
The same would not be said for Gores.
One too many for Mr. I
If his tentative agreement leads to a final sale, Gores would be paying somewhere north of $400 million for the Pistons and Palace Sports & Entertainment. To give you perspective, the next-highest price paid for a Detroit team was when Ilitch bought the Tigers for $82 million in 1992. In other words, nobody – nobody – has come close to shelling out so much to play in Detroit.
What would Gores expect for that? Would he be impatient? Would he be satisfied with a team that can’t register an excited breath from NBA fans right now?
Oh, and he’d be buying just in time to enter a troubling labor negotiation that could result in a work stoppage and diminished value. That can’t help.
Personally, I think it’s good Detroit gets another ownership face. Ilitch is a terrific owner, but three teams in one town makes you too much the center of things: Every unhappy fan would utter Ilitch’s name, wanting him to acquire this NHL star, that NBA star, that MLB slugger.
Better a fresh face. A little competition. But be forewarned. We have not seen the likes of a 46-year-old billionaire who spent most of his childhood in the Flint area but calls Beverly Hills home. Gores is notoriously private, perhaps less due to the inbred shyness of guys like Ilitch and Davidson and more because talking doesn’t help his bottom line.
But I can tell you this. Ilitch passed on buying these Pistons. And I’m pretty sure Davidson would not purchase them either, not at these prices, and in this NBA.
In other words, something new is coming, and we’re taking a pretty big turn. Get set for an interesting ride.