Bill Davidson is ready to go. He sits behind his desk, holding his arms, and before I can fully sit down, he grins and says, “OK, let’s start.”
At 85, Davidson needn’t wait for anything or anyone. And those who know him suggest, at his age, he’s not waiting around for the perfect words, either. He speaks his mind, honestly and frankly. He is at times impish, coy and painfully blunt.
His profile is known: a most successful businessman, a philanthropist of a very high order, a father, a grandfather and, yes, the owner of the Pistons for the last 34 plus years – and more recently the WNBA Shock – for which he will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame tonight.
But so much is not known about Bill Davidson. Even with the job of sports columnist, I have never sat down with him this way. He is notoriously private and I always respected that, grabbing a few quotes only when I needed them. But the Hall of Fame is a big deal, and, well, after three decades of ownership, it seemed time for a longer talk.
In a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion Wednesday, Davidson touched on refs (he’s angry), coaches (don’t get him started), players (he’s proud), Detroit (he’s worried), as well as race, Rasheed, box office, Larry Brown, David Stern and some long-wondered questions about Isiah Thomas.
I found Davidson honest, direct, self-assured, charming – rightfully proud of his franchises and his philanthropy, particularly in Israel. Although there have been rumors about his health, he seems fine, upbeat and forward-looking. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, one I only wish we had shared years earlier. His start, ownership and Isiah
QUESTION: Let’s go back to the day you purchased the Pistons. What were you thinking?
ANSWER: Well, my thought at the time was that it was gonna be fun. Actually, before that I’d been working with Joe Schmidt to acquire a football franchise. I was more acquainted with football.
Q: So, if the Lions had been available at the time, would you have bought them instead?
Q: And second choice?
A: Second choice was the Pistons.
Q: The Tigers were down the list?
A: Yeah. I was never gonna get into baseball.
Q: What makes a good owner?
A: A good owner is an owner who realizes his future is tied to the future of the league. Those who are very selfish about their own franchises miss the boat.
Q: I assume you’ve encountered a few of those in your time?
A: Yes. The owners in the NBA are far from a homogeneous group. Also a lot of them, I think, just buy teams at certain times to enhance their own name. There are some egos involved. I would say, of the 30 owners, 20-25 don’t know what’s going on. And, even worse, don’t seem to care.
Q: That’s a high percentage.
A: Yeah, it is a high percentage. I can count on the fingers of my hand those owners who have really done something for the league and one of them was Jerry Colangelo, who no longer is in the league but did a great job with the Olympics – as an example.
Q: Who’s your best-ever Pistons hire?
A: I’d have to separate that between players and others.
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. Joe D. and shelf life of coaches
Q: Besides players, who’s the best person you’ve ever hired for the Pistons?
A: The best hire probably I ever made would be Joe Dumars.
Q: Why Joe?
A: Because of his character, and because of his knowledge of the game. And, in all instances, because I have a wide variety of business interests – Guardian is a very, very large company, the Palace, Pistons – I depend, 100%, on the people who are in charge of whatever they’re in charge of. And nobody has run the Pistons better than Joe.
Q: How about the best coach you ever hired?
A: That’s a tough one. (He laughs.) I wanna say Michael Curry. (He laughs again.)
Q: Why – because he hasn’t proven you wrong otherwise?
A: No, no I know Michael. And I have complete confidence in Michael. And I know that the Pistons are gonna be a much different team this year than they were last year – because of the coaching.
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.
Q: Is it always your decision to get rid of the coach? I assume Joe has never hired or fired anybody that didn’t come through you.
A: Well, it’s a discussion that we have, and I rely a lot on him because he knows basketball. So even though it may be my decision, it’s really, in effect, Joe’s decision because of what we’ve discussed.
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.
Q: What about Flip Saunders? Another case of someone who lost his players?
A: It’s a story by itself.
Q: Anything you can share?
A: No. He had definitely lost the players. Rasheed, race and music
Q: Let me throw you a few players’ names. Give me your first-thought impressions. Rasheed Wallace.
A: Well, Rasheed’s a different person, and he’s very complex.
Q: Do you think he’s misunderstood?
A: Oh, yeah (chuckling). He wants to be misunderstood.
Q: But you feel you understand him and know him pretty well?
A: Yeah. I like Rasheed.
Q: How about Bill Laimbeer?
A: I like Bill.
Q: Was he also misunderstood?
A: Oh, yeah. Bill has no concept of the public or how the public perceives him. He just bulls his way along. But I’m fine with him. And he’s done a great job with the Shock. He’s made the right moves.
Q: Do you find it interesting having to merge your background – a white, Jewish businessman – with a sport where most of your players are African American and many from the inner city?
A: To be perfectly honest with you, because I’ve been living with this for 30 years or more, I don’t see color. 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, if you asked me do we have a white player on the team, I couldn’t tell you – well, I could tell you, but it wouldn’t make any difference. I get to know the personality much more than the color of the skin. Color means nothing.
Q: Do you ever find the music they play at the Palace too loud for your liking?
A: (Laughing) I hate it. I have no feeling for it.
Q: If there was one night where they were just playing your music, what would it be?
A: Frank Sinatra. The standards. Anything up to the Beatles. The Beatles were the switch for me.
Q: How about all the stuff it takes now to keep people’s interest at a game – the videos, the scoreboards, the races, the cheerleaders. Do you think all that’s necessary?
A: Well, it obviously works for the current fans. They’re not doing it for me – they’re doing it for the public. And Tom Wilson does a great job of doing that – keeping the people’s interest – and whatever else it is. Refs and other disappointments
Q: What do you look for during a game?
A: Well, I look for certain things, which are mainly fouls and, unfortunately, the referees are not what they should be – although they’re getting better. So I watch the referees. I watch who they are. There are certain referees – when they come to our game – you know you’re gonna lose. And that should never be.
Q: What do you think of the whole Tim Donaghy scandal?
A: That’s the tip of the iceberg with referees.
Q: Do the refs’ calls upset you that much?
A: Yeah, it’s what they call and when they call it – and on whom they call it. And when you see what they do, you know that they’re kind of taking over the game and making the outcome certain – all they have to do is call a couple ticky-tack fouls on say, (Chauncey) Billups, and you’re not gonna win that game.
Q: Have you voiced that concern to the commissioner?
A: (He laughs.) Daily!
Q: What’s his response?
A: Finally he’s found a general. He has so much else (to do) that he kind of turns that over to other people – and the people he’s turned that over to, recently, he finally got on it.
Q: Which of your teams, in your view, underachieved the most? Which was most frustrating?
A: Well, the worst loss was out in L.A. (in 1988) when I was in the room with David Stern getting ready to accept the trophy, and they call a foul on Bill Laimbeer against Kareem. Bill pulled down a clean rebound, and Hugh Evans calls a foul. You know that he was set up, and you know I don’t say he had a bet on the game, but that was that was unconscionable! And that cost us a championship, which we should have had. Which we had.
Q: What others?
A: The other bad one was the steal in Boston, when we had that game (and Larry Bird stole the ball). So the Bad Boys had two championships, which – one was legitimately taken away and the other was illegitimately taken away – and they still won two. So they basically should have had four.
Q: How about Larry Brown’s second year, when you lost in the Finals to San Antonio? Many thought you were the better team.
A: We were the better team, but Larry Brown was not the right coach. Now that you can say.
Q: So that’s another one you should have had.
A: Yeah. Money, Detroit and happiness
Q: If you had the knowledge then that you have now, would you still get into the sports business?
A: Yes, definitely. I love the Pistons, and I’m never gonna sell them. The original franchise price was around $6 million, and obviously it’s worth a lot more today.
Q: Seems like such a bargain now.
A: Yeah, well, Abe Polin (who purchased the Baltimore Bullets in 1964) and I were the last ones to get a bargain.
Q: Are you a happy man?
Q: All day long?
A: Nobody is happy all day long. But I’m a positive person.
Q: What have you found, in general, makes a person happy?
A: Whatever you accomplish. Your accomplishments.
Q: So a person who hasn’t accomplished anything can’t be happy?
A: No, he can be happy. I’m just telling you what makes me happy.
Q: What will you say at your Hall of Fame speech?
A: Well, it’s . (he chuckles) I gotta wait till I give it.
Q: Are you gonna do it on the fly?
Q: You won’t have a prepared text?
A: No. But I know what I’m gonna say.
Q: Finally, what are your thoughts on the state of the city right now?
Q: Can you elaborate?
A: Well, because of the moral values that have been displayed by the mayor I’m hoping that Dave Bing will run for mayor, and I’ll be supporting Dave.
Q: Do you think that given the state of the auto businesses Detroit has any chance of being a major city again?
A: I doubt it. I don’t think it was ever a major city, strictly because so much depended on the automotive business.
Q: So what is the future for Detroit?
A: Well, I think there are certain centers such as Ann Arbor which are growing and have a future. I’m not pessimistic about it. I think the damage has already been done. I’m hoping the city of Detroit will clean up and get on a positive note. I think the number of people who have moved out of the city may have peaked and we’ll find enough other types of businesses that will support generally the area in general. Hopefully the motion picture deal will have some affect. But I think you’re gonna find a little bit here and a little bit there. It will gradually stabilize.
Q: Are you much interested in politics?
A: No, I stay away from that. And the reason I stay away from it I’m a firm believer that the governments cannot do a lot of things that they try to do. Government is politics – it’s not business. And you’re always better off – my opinion – turning it over to business – where there’s a profit motive and organization. When the government tries to do those things, they’re doomed to failure.
Q: What about the auto business?
A: It doesn’t look good. That’s one area where you have to be pessimistic.
Q: At 85, have you thought about or made plans for the Pistons after you’re gone?
A: Yes. We’ll keep it in the family. It will always be in the family.
Q: And is it your hope your relatives will run it?
A: I’ve already set up the method in which it’s gonna be run.
Q: By your family members?
Q: Are the Pistons the best investment you’ve ever made? I mean, you bought the team for $6 million – and do you know what it’s worth now?
A: I don’t know, and I don’t care. (He laughs.)
Q: I would say it’s grown healthily over the years, hasn’t it?
A: That’s right. And that’s what I always tell David Stern. (He laughs). I say, “Don’t get so cocky. I’ve been here 35 years.”
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. www.freep.com/mitch.
Class of 2008
What: Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2008 induction ceremonies.
When: 7:30 tonight.
Where: Springfield, Mass.
TV: ESPN Classic.
Michigan connection: Inductees include Adrian Dantley, Pistons forward, 1986-89; Bill Davidson, Pistons owner since 1974; Dick Vitale, Detroit Mercy coach (1972-77) and Pistons coach (1978-79).
Davidson AT A GLANCE
Lifelong Michigan resident, now 85, has owned the Pistons since 1974 and the Shock since 1998.
His Pistons have won three NBA crowns, and the Shock has won two WNBA titles.
Davidson has served as chairman of the NBA Board of Governors and played an integral role in structuring the modern NBA salary cap and free-agency standards.