Posted Nov 12 2009 11:26AM
DETROIT -- The key to survival in tough times is to surround yourself with as many comforts as possible. That's why the office is decorated with basketball memories. They soothe and give the warmth and energy needed to deal with yet another round of social and political uppercuts.
There's a leather Wilson basketball on the shelf behind the desk, commemorating the 18,000th point scored in a wonderful career. A framed Pistons jersey hangs on a wall. A group picture with fellow members of the NBA's 50th Anniversary Team is on another wall. Crystal trophies and awards are tucked away neatly in corners, providing a gentle touch of elegance and nostalgia without overwhelming the room.
They're all subtle reminders of what Dave Bing used to do and, by extension, of what the city he represents used to be.
Beyond the cherry oak doors of his office, the office of the Mayor of Detroit, lies a whole different city and career. Bing played for Detroit. Now he works for Detroit. Back in the day, he was a tenacious point guard for nine seasons in the city. He averaged 20 points a game and overcame a serious eye injury that nearly left him blind, and yet he couldn't quite elevate the Pistons from the murk of mediocrity. As mayor of Detroit ... well, Bing really doesn't have a choice this time, does he? He must help pull a suffering city from despair. Because if an NBA legend who also built a local business empire and spent 43 years of his life being loyal to the city can't lead Detroit from darkness, who can? Better yet, who'd want to?
Bing is the right man for the job because Bing is free of agendas or hidden interests. Basically, Bing doesn't need the job. Doesn't need the money, the prestige, the validation that comes with holding high office in a major city. He has all that. He doesn't need the migraine that comes with the job. He pursued this office because he loves Detroit. He could be on a beach somewhere, chillaxing.
"You're telling me," he said, smiling.
He turns 66 this month but the only giveaway of senior citizenship is the salt-and-pepper mustache. He shows no stress from the last several whirlwind months, when he willingly entered a chaotic world. He is trim, healthy, still scholarly looking, impeccably groomed with a Wall Street wardrobe. He is still the big-picture thinker who began building his second career before he was halfway done with his first. That second career became Bing Steel, a supplier to the automakers. Made him a millionaire many times over. Once done with that, Bing, already a Detroit icon, settled into the comfy life. And seethed at what he saw.
Detroit was in flames -- not literally as in the late 1960s, but still. The city was sent to its knees by a stream of social, economic and political ills that were decades in the making. The population fell. Crime, illiteracy and unemployment soared. The auto industry, after churning out one too many Pintos, raced to Washington, cupholder in hand.
The get-off-your-sofa moment for Bing arrived when Kwame Kilpatrick, the disgraced former mayor, stumbled through a string of embarrassing personal airballs, throwing another cream pie into the face of a city plastered with many. Whereas Detroit was once the butt of jokes, that became too easy. Nobody laughed at Detroit anymore. Detroit was suddenly a place for pity, scorn and, worse yet, abandonment.
Bing couldn't be a spectator anymore. Four elections later (yes, four; don't ask), he is sitting in the big chair, discussing why he left the good life for a thankless job and how basketball, no surprise, factored into his thinking.
"It is a challenge, and that's where the competitive juices from basketball came back to the forefront," he said. "Probably more important is the need for leadership here. I care about the city and the people in this city, and both are hurting right now. Because of the lack of leadership, it affected all of us and we didn't deserve it."
"There was no one else with the leadership skills to take the city where it needed to go. I can make a difference."
For Bing, fixing Detroit is like guarding Oscar, the Pearl and Jerry, not on consecutive nights, but on the same night. Yet Bing does not look at Detroit the way you look at Detroit. He doesn't see hopelessness, a dead end or, as Time magazine recently called it, "Notown." He's not that pessimistic. At the same time, he's rather blunt about the status quo.
"We're broke," he said.
Detroit is $300 million in the hole and at the mercy of the crippled auto industry because the city never embraced a diversified economy. To begin to fix the broke and broken city, Bing first must get the differing parts of the local government, still mending from the previous administration, to work together. Then he must rally the community into seeing his vision for a better Detroit. That's hard to do when morale is lower than the Lions on Sundays.
"Change has got to come from the bowels of our community," he said. "As a community, we're not there yet. If people want change they have to be part of it. If things don't go right, it's going to impact all of us. If things do go right, it's going to impact us as well. Everybody's impacted.
"That's why I go back to my sports background. You have to understand how important the team is. You can be a star on the team, and guess what? Big deal. That's not what it's all about."
The timing for Bing is eerie. He's taking over the city right when Detroit can't possibly sink much further. And yet, when he first arrived in the Motor City as a rookie in 1967, all hell broke loose and a troubling image began to crystallize, making way for what we now see in Detroit.
"Unfortunately for me," he said, "my first summer here was the summer of the riots. The city fell off a cliff. People were angry. We wound up taking the city down. We burned our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, our businesses. We're still paying for that today. That's over 40 years ago. We haven't come back from that yet."
Detroit didn't reinvent itself, unlike other factory-belching cities in the Midwest, and it's reeling from being a one-trick town. There is no affluent white section or any large rich section, just small pockets of prosperity. Downtown is slowly coming back, having been reawakened by new ballparks for the Tigers and Lions and the careful suburbanites who tip-toe in on gamedays. But the main streets still tend to be creepy some nights and empty on others. The waterfront makes for a beautiful stroll on sunny days, yet it's just a sliver of land in a city with large swaths of poverty.
Still, Detroit qualifies as a major city. An important city. A vital city. Nearly one million people live within its boundaries. America still leans on Detroit for domestic cars. Detroit can reverse the trend, or so the thinking goes, if it has the proper leadership, and if that leadership can sell the people who live here, and the businesses that operate here (and those that don't) on the notion that Detroit can build a better tomorrow.
Bing has the business smarts and the competitive dive and a big enough identity to steer Detroit in the right direction. The city voters agreed two weeks ago when they gave Bing a full term.
"That's what this administration is charged with," he said. "How do you put a plan together?"
Detroit has started by giving the ball to one of the best point guards ever and letting him run the play.
Friday: Mayor Bing on the state of the NBA.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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