Legends profile: Dave Bing
The 7-time All-Star won the Rookie of the Year Award for the 1966-67 season.
Sport magazine once dubbed Dave Bing “Mr. Unsung-About.” A high-scoring guard who quietly triumphed over injury and went about his business for 12 seasons in the NBA, he then quietly went on to off-court success as a self-made industrial magnate.
The buzz of celebrity never seemed to attract the speedy Bing, who excelled in an NBA era rich in backcourt legends that included Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Walt Frazier.
In nine seasons with the Detroit Pistons, followed by two with the Washington Bullets and one with the Boston Celtics, Bing amassed 18,327 points in 901 contests (20.3 ppg). His efforts earned him a spot on the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. The league’s Rookie of the Year for 1966-67, he went on to make the All-NBA First Team twice and the Second Team once, and he played in seven NBA All-Star Games. In only his second season, 1967-68, he led the NBA in scoring with 27.1 points per game.
Yet more remarkable than his career accomplishments is the fact that Bing found the will to play for seven seasons after suffering a devastating eye injury, a setback his doctors assumed would cut short a brilliant career. And there is the fact that Bing, a child of urban poverty who signed his first professional contract for all of $15,000 per year, followed his NBA career by building his own $60 million-per-year steel business in Detroit and becoming a noted civic leader.
At Bing’s 1990 election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Oscar Robertson introduced his longtime rival, saying, “Dave is the perfect example of professionalism, class, dignity, and humanity. He cares. He gets involved with the world.”
Bing grew up in the same northeast Washington, D.C. neighborhood that produced Elgin Baylor. His mother was a domestic, his father a bricklayer, and work was often scarce. The four children slept two to a bed. “My father called me ‘Duke,’” Bing recalled in Sport magazine, “because I was good with my dukes and because I wanted to be top dog.”
Injuries struck both father and son. At a construction site a brick crashed four stories and struck the elder Bing on the head, creating a blood clot in his brain. “I swore I’d never live a life like that,” Dave Bing told Sport. But the younger Bing had his own calamity at age five. To improvise a game of “horsey,” he found two sticks, nailed them together, and was prancing down a street when he tripped; a nail plunged into his left eye. An operation saved it, but Bing suffered fuzzy vision in that eye from then on.
Injury wasn’t the only obstacle to his learning basketball. Older children shooed him away from the basketball courts on school playgrounds because they said he was too small, so Bing initially concentrated on baseball. At Washington’s Spingarn High School, however, he was encouraged by basketball coach William Roundtree, who became a second father. In Bing’s senior year he was one of seven players on the varsity squad to average double figures in scoring.
Although his skills attracted collegiate interest from such basketball powerhouses as UCLA and the University of Michigan, Bing chose Syracuse at the urging of Ernie Davis, a football All-American at the school. Bing also confessed that he chose Syracuse partly because he doubted his own skills and thought his chances of standing out in college would be better in a lower profile basketball program.
Bing’s performance at Syracuse was hardly low profile. In three varsity seasons he averaged 24.6 points, earning All-America honors as a senior. Pro scouts buzzed about him, and the Detroit Pistons made him the second overall pick in the 1966 NBA Draft (behind Cazzie Russell).
Bing’s NBA debut was inauspicious. Coming off the bench, he missed his first six field-goal attempts and recorded the first scoreless game of his life. Two weeks later he was given a chance to start for the first time-and promptly connected on his first eight shots from the floor. The next night he scored 35 points. Bing was off and running to a 1,601-point season in 1966-67, which made him only the sixth rookie in NBA history to top 1,600 points. He scored 20.0 points per game and was named NBA Rookie of the Year.
The following year he bested such high-scoring superstars as Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain to lead the league in scoring with 2,142 points and a 27.1 average. Bing was the first guard to set the scoring pace in 20 years (since Max Zaslofsky of the 1947-48 Chicago Stags of the Basketball Association of America). The super sophomore even managed to nudge the Lakers’ West from the All-NBA First Team that season.
Bing, who had married his college sweetheart at Syracuse and was the father of two young daughters by the time he entered the NBA, had signed as a rookie for $15,000 per year. In 1969 the opportunity to move into the big-money ranks lured him to jump to a franchise in the rival American Basketball Association.
The team played in Oakland in 1968-69 but moved to Washington, D.C. for the 1969-70 season. Eager for a hometown attraction in Washington, team owner Earl Foreman signed Bing to a three-year contract for the then princely sum of $500,000. But when Foreman decided to install the ABA franchise in Norfolk, Virginia, for the following season, Bing was able to escape the deal and stay with the NBA. The leverage enabled him to negotiate a new agreement with the Pistons at $450,000 for three years.
Bing reached his peak in 1971, when former player and Pistons scout Earl Lloyd summarized his skills to Sport magazine: “Maybe some other player does this better, and another player does that better. [But] nobody does as much as Dave does.”
By then Bing had been named the Pistons’ captain for his leadership on and off the court. Teammate Bob Quick told Sport, “If Dave weren’t the captain, he’d still be the team leader.” Teammate Otto Moore added, “If things go wrong, Dave keeps you from putting your head down. He can run, dribble, shoot, do everything. If he played 48 minutes, he’d lead the league in scoring.” Bing came close in 1970-71, amassing a career-high 2,213 points and scoring 27.0 points per game.
But on the eve of the 1971-72 season Bing, his vision already limited by the childhood injury to his left eye, came perilously close to losing the sight in his right eye altogether, and with it his brilliant young career. Playing a preseason exhibition tilt with the Los Angeles Lakers, Bing was guarding Happy Hairston when the Lakers’ guard made a sudden cut. As he slid past Bing, Hairston’s hand flew up and he inadvertently jabbed a finger into Bing’s right pupil.
Despite intense pain, Bing initially thought he had suffered only a scratch, and he even started the season opener a few nights later. But the next morning he awoke to find his vision seriously dimmed. Rushed to a hospital, Bing was told his retina had become partially detached; he underwent surgery the following day and spent three days in total darkness with his eye bandaged.
Sidelined for three months, Bing ignored the warnings from doctors that returning to play would put his vision at risk. Although his peripheral vision was permanently impaired and the bright lights of a basketball court could cause his eyesight to blur, he returned to the Pistons’ starting lineup in late December 1971 and scored 21 points against the New York Knicks in his first game back. In spite of the lost playing time that season, Bing managed to average 22.6 points in 45 games.
Characteristically, Bing found virtue in the injury. “I’m a better free-throw shooter because I’ve had to practice more on it,” he revealed a few seasons later. Indeed, Bing’s free-throw percentage, which had never reached .800 during his first five years in the league, exceeded that mark for three consecutive seasons after his injury. The injury, Bing added, also forced him to become a better defensive player. “I figure I’d better be doing something in case I can’t score enough,” he said.
Bing, however, always thought of himself as a playmaker, not as a defensive stalwart. What he did best, he once explained, was drive to the basket. And what he did best on the drive was dish the ball off. He would dribble toward the hoop, draw a group of defenders, leap and hang, and then suddenly feed Bob Lanier or another open teammate. Bing posted a career average of 6.0 assists per game.
The early 1970s were a time of great promise and even greater frustration for the Pistons. In 1973-74, following the most successful regular season (52-30) since the franchise moved to Detroit in 1957, the Pistons finally made the playoffs only to be ousted in the first round by the Chicago Bulls. The following season, despite sagging to a 40-42 regular-season record, the Pistons again made the playoffs but were ousted in the first round, this time by the Seattle SuperSonics.
Frustrated after nine seasons with Detroit, Bing again sought a chance to play in his hometown. The Pistons accommodated his request prior to the 1975-76 season, trading him to the Washington Bullets with a first-round pick for Kevin Porter. The hometown reunion did not prove triumphant. Although Bing had one more brief moment of exultation, earning MVP honors at the 1976 NBA All-Star Game, his two seasons with the Bullets were marked by coaching confusion and increasing struggles with his vision. His point production sank to a career-low 10.6 per game in 1976-77, and Washington released him at season’s end.
Not yet ready to hang up his shoes, Bing found a home for one more season with the Boston Celtics, serving as a third guard and appearing in 80 games with an average of 13.6 points per game. He finally retired after the 1977-78 campaign.
Always a student of the business side of the game, Bing had become a voracious reader during the long road trips NBA players must endure. During his offseasons, instead of devoting himself to golf or other recreational pastimes, he worked in Detroit for a bank, the Chrysler Corporation and a small steel company, teaching himself finance and deal-making.
Bing returned to Detroit and launched Bing Steel in 1980. A decade later, the firm had grown to annual sales of $61 million, making it the 10th-largest African-American-owned industrial company in the nation, according to Black Enterprise magazine’s rankings. He went on to acquire Superb Manufacturing, a $28 million-per-year metal-stamping company, as well as a small construction firm.
In 1989, the city of Detroit announced plans to cancel all sports programs in public high schools as part of a budgetary-crisis cutback. Bing launched a campaign that raised $373,000 to save the programs. As it turned out, Detroit voters approved tax increases, but Bing still had the money turned over to the schools, no strings attached.
Bing continued to be involved in a leadership role in the Detroit community throughout the years, and in 2008 announced he would run for mayor of the city. In a special election on May 5, 2009, Bing was elected to replace former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and served out the rest of his term in office. Bing was then re-elected to a full term in November of 2009 before opting to not run for re-election in 2013.