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 84, 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 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 you that Hall of Fame is a big deal, and, well, after 34 years of ownership, it seemed time for a longer talk.
In a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion Wednesday, Davidson touched on the refs (he’s angry), coaches (don’t get him started), players (he’s proud), Detroit (he’s worried), as well as unions, 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 franchise 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 life-long 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. Dumars, Larry and the 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. The 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, 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 g