A-Plus, Mr. D

Hall induction validates contributions of 34-year Pistons ownership

Inductee Bill Davidson speaks during the 2008 Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on September 5, 2008 at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
Pistons owner William Davidson’s Guardian Industries began its explosive global growth back in the ’80s – about the same time the NBA’s tentacles started drawing in curious and fascinated fans on every continent. And he doesn’t think that’s coincidental.

“In the 1980s, I decided it would be a good idea to put a (glass) float plant in Hungary,” Davidson said Friday night during his speech to mark his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. “It was under communist control. We had negotiations. We sat at two tables, facing each other, my team on one side, theirs on the other. The Hungarian glassworks was headed by the ministry of the interior. A man, a commissar – a big, tough-looking guy – we sat for three straight days, face to face, getting nowhere.

“On the third day, through a lucky break, we reached a settlement. As the negotiation ended, he got up, walked across to shake my hand, and all of a sudden, he hugged me and whispered in my ear, ‘Mr. Davidson, I’ve known who you are all along. You’re the owner of the Detroit Pistons. If you want to know, I’m a starting guard on the Hungarian national team.’ ”

That was just one example, Davidson said, of how the NBA “has worked hand in hand with global expansion of Guardian.”

Davidson praised NBA commissioner David Stern for that. Davidson, an early supporter of Stern’s to succeed Larry O’Brien as NBA commissioner, has consistently maintained that backing Stern to sometimes skeptical ownership peers counts as his most important contribution to the league. Stern, for his part, has praised Davidson for his support and guidance on all of the key issues that have faced the league during his tenure – labor negotiations, expansion, TV and corporate partnership deals, and growing the game beyond North American boundaries, where Davidson’s deft international business touch has proven invaluable.

Stern and many others – including Pistons president Joe Dumars, Palace CEO Tom Wilson, Shock coach and ex-Pistons great Bill Laimbeer and Bad Boys coach Chuck Daly – praised Davidson before the owner’s 14-minute speech Friday night in Springfield, Mass., during a video montage.

“If anyone knows Bill Davidson, they know he’s a man’s man,” Daly said. “He was one of those owners who let people do their jobs. A great owner, really.”

“It was just a great, great, great comfort for me to know I had someone who was the owner of the Pistons who just epitomized everything you wanted in a great owner – incredible character, honest, straightforward,” said Dumars, who served as Davidson’s presenter. “When someone is a trailblazer, a risk-taker, an innovator, that person should be recognized. If any person deserves to be in there, it’s this guy right here. It’s Bill Davidson.”

“Bill has been a successful owner because he believes in hiring the right people and then having them do the job they were hired to do,” Stern said. “The Palace of Auburn Hills was a pioneer – you could have this great building. It began a 25-year run that is going to result in every building having been rebuilt or remodeled.”

To be sure, Davidson’s bold move to privately finance The Palace at a time when buildings were not believed to have profit-making potential was a signature moment in his stewardship of the Pistons.

Davidson, first announced as a finalist for the Hall in 2007 before gaining induction on his second time around, bought the Pistons from Fred Zollner in 1974 for approximately $6 million, striking the deal in principle as they walked along the ocean near their neighboring vacation homes in Golden Beach, Fla.

He moved them to the Pontiac Silverdome four years later, then a decade after that moved them to The Palace, which revolutionized arena architecture and forever changed NBA economics for its strategic placement of luxury suites at the most advantageous sight lines. A wave of arenas that had been built around the same time as The Palace’s 1988 debut became almost immediately obsolete, with many of them – including new arenas built for expansion teams in Charlotte and Miami – already having been replaced.

Not including Madison Square Garden, which has been remodeled so extensively as to be counted as a virtually new arena, only the New Jersey Nets’ arena among the NBA’s 30 homes is older than The Palace, celebrating its 20th anniversary this season – and the Nets are readying for their move to a new arena in Brooklyn.

Among Davidson’s other noteworthy contributions, he was the first NBA owner to supply his team with its own airplane – customized to accommodate the typically large frame of a basketball player – to allow the Bad Boys era Pistons to circumvent commercial air travel.

The Pistons have won three championships on Davidson’s watch – his WNBA Detroit Shock have won two more – and come to be known as a model franchise in basketball circles.

Davidson said his induction “makes my heart pound a little bit harder because of my history, which is many years in the NBA,” then closed his speech – after introducing the many members of his family in attendance, and acknowledging some who couldn’t be there, as well – by saying, “my association with (the NBA) has proven to be very valuable in my business and we salute all the members of the NBA, especially David Stern. I’ve enjoyed tonight much more than you can imagine and thank you for your attention.”