The Case for Fame

Davidson’s support of Stern, aggressive ownership made him Hall-worthy
Editor’s Note: This is a revised version of the fourth of a four-part series that originally appeared on in March 2007 when Pistons owner William Davidson was first announced as a finalist for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Davidson, who was elected to the Hall’s 2008 class, died at 86 on Friday. Part IV examines Davidson’s many contributions to the NBA and his support of commissioner David Stern.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Defense defines the Detroit Pistons. Three NBA championship banners flutter amid the air-conditioned breezes that circulate high above the hardwood at The Palace of Auburn Hills they call home – all of them won by teams identified for their blue-collar work ethic and their defensive muscle.

But the owner who engineered all three of those titles built a business fortune by playing aggressive offense. And to the extent he would talk about the legitimacy of his candidacy for the Basketball Hall of Fame before being voted in last year – and this is a man who would have opted for root canal over beating his own drum – it was only in regard to his early and vocal support of NBA commissioner David Stern.

“That would be it,” shrugged the man who bought the Pistons for $6 million in 1974 and helped grow the franchise and the league around it into a phenomenal success story. “Backing David. He led; I supported.”

“I would say not only has he been there to support me,” Stern said, “but there to advise and counsel me. He will call and check in and ask how he can be helpful. He’s a sounding board with respect to every issue we have. He adds international business experience and his important judgment and he’s accepted appointments on every committee on which he’s been asked to serve. He’s been there from the very beginning.”

Davidson’s contributions to the NBA and basketball at large went well beyond his support of Stern, of course, but identifying and supporting Stern when the league needed to replace Larry O’Brien in 1984 wasn’t the no-brainer at the time that it would seem today.

“David had been our legal counsel for a few years and when he spoke to the owners, you knew this was a man who knew his stuff,” Pistons and Palace CEO Tom Wilson recalled. “But it’s a long way from attorney to visionary to business person to marketing person, PR person – all those things that David very quickly became that you could not possibly see in this lawyer.

“But Mr. Davidson did.”

“I always worked closely with David,” Davidson said. “When the league commissioner was Larry O’Brien, everything was defensive. When David became commissioner, we became offensive. That was the way to go.”

‘Step One’

Davidson’s support of Stern at a time he needed an influential, old-guard owner’s backing typifies the insight and decisiveness that’s marked his stewardship of not only the Pistons but of the flagship of his business empire, Guardian Industries. A struggling family business when he assumed control, Guardian now ranks as one of the world’s leading glass manufacturers with facilities in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America in addition to its North American base with headquarters in Auburn Hills adjacent to The Palace.

It was the same bold stroke he’d exhibited in hiring Wilson, 28 and with only two years of sales experience with the Los Angeles Lakers to recommend him, to run the business end of the Pistons as they were about to move to the Pontiac Silverdome from downtown Detroit’s Cobo Arena nearly 30 years ago. It was the same daring he’d exhibited in installing Joe Dumars to run the basketball side just one year removed from his playing days.

“That’s the way he’s built his businesses,” Wilson said. “He’s an aggressive guy. That’s what he was like with David – ‘give me an aggressive guy in the league office and I’ll back him.’ That’s what he loves. And if they’re wrong, they’re wrong. Not once has he said, ‘I told you so.’ He never does that.”

“He hires people in whom he has confidence and he launches them to represent him,” Stern said. “Tom Wilson and Joe Dumars are two of the best in the business and the results are shown every night. They lead the division and they sell out every night. I know he has done the same thing at Guardian. He looks for the best people and lets them run with the ball.”

“There’s not a major decision made that he doesn’t weigh in on,” Wilson said, “but he doesn’t overrule you very often if he believes in you.”

As Wilson and Dumars quickly discovered, Davidson had an amazing ability to observe, decide and act while those around him drown in the minutiae of complex matters.

“He always says, ‘My autobiography is going to be called “Step One,” ’ ” Wilson said. “ ‘Everybody wants to talk about, “Then we’ll do this, then we’ll do this and then we’ll do this.” Well, what is Step One? Until you’ve figured out Step One, nothing else matters. Give me a financial model that makes sense and then we’re going ahead.’ ”

Stern quickly came to find Davidson’s input on any variety of issues invaluable.

“He’s not only smart and analytical, but you always go to him for his perspective because, through his life experience in business and personally and every way – his international travels, as well – he brings a terrific perspective to problem-solving. It’s always terrific to get his advice and counsel.”

‘Fragile Situation’

Davidson thanks Shock fans at a rally celebrating their 2003 title.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)

Davidson’s shrewd business instincts were an instrumental but largely unheralded factor in the explosive growth the NBA underwent during his 35-year stewardship of the Pistons, in which the franchise’s value soared from that initial $6 million investment to $480 million, according to Forbes. Remember, five years after Davidson bought the Pistons, the deciding game of the 1979 NBA Finals that featured an ebullient rookie named Magic Johnson was shown on tape delay at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time.

“He’s always been there in every collective bargaining agreement, he’s always been there in expansion, he was chairman of the board (of governors),” Stern said. “He served with respect to really bringing the NBA into the modern age. He’s been an adviser on international issues. He always has a good perspective on officiating and basketball, as well.

“There has been no major issue we have had in the last 25 years – even more – that he hasn’t been at the center of. League structure to business structure to collective bargaining to expansion to marketing to franchise relocation and owner admission – he’s been there for all of it and he’s just been great.”

Davidson has not been nearly as involved with the NHL after buying the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999, but his impact on hockey’s ownership was felt, as well.

“He’s been to two NHL meetings, that’s all,” Wilson said. “The first was sort of a ‘welcome to the NHL, thank you very much.’ But then he came to one when we were doing the new collective-bargaining agreement. Owners were all over the place – ‘This is the amount of money it should be at, what about this, what about that.’ He sits and watches for a while, then he spoke and he just stopped the meeting. Basically, he said, ‘If we don’t get the economics fixed, all this other stuff you’re talking about is irrelevant.’

“Jeremy Jacobs from Boston, five or six other guys, all came up to him, shook his hand and thanked him for coming. What he had said was spot-on. They all respect him because he’s incredibly wealthy and successful, but in three minutes he grabbed them by asking the questions that needed to be asked.”

Davidson remembered a time the NBA was on the same shaky financial footing as today’s NHL and was outspoken in his disapproval of the unrest among the new wave of owners. He worried for the league’s future as ownership groups with no appreciation for how far the league has come displayed recklessness in safeguarding what it has achieved.

“The owners are a funny group,” he said. “There are always a couple that are active and good businesspeople. The majority of them are passive and don’t really know what’s going on. The crisis in the league – which we have right now – is that it’s only (Washington Wizards owner) Abe Pollin and myself who understand what happened with the beginning of the league and what the league was before David Stern came on.

“There’s a huge gap. (Ex-Phoenix Suns owner) Jerry Colangelo kind of filled that gap for a while, but when Jerry sold the distance between Abe and I and the next owner is over 20 years. Most of the new owners just don’t understand what the basis of the league was – the success of the league and the part that David Stern played. There’s a couple of them who have set the league back. So I’ve spoken out about it, but I’m the only one who does. Right now, with all the success we’re having, it’s a little bit of a fragile situation.”

Big Splashes

For all Davidson’s input on the NBA’s most critical issues, two other bold moves made bigger splashes – groundbreaking decisions to buy the Pistons their own airplane, which soon eliminated commercial travel for NBA teams, and to privately finance his own arena, which radically altered the league’s economics and spawned a wave of new arena construction that has The Palace, even as it celebrates its 20th birthday, poised to become the league’s oldest arena.

“We have undergone a complete renovation of 29 buildings,” Stern said. “The last one slated is the Nets move from New Jersey to Brooklyn. We’ve either remodeled or redone all NBA buildings and it goes back to The Palace of Auburn Hills, which still looks terrific and has been upgraded and retrofitted in ways that keep it among the finest.”

Stern well remembers the gamble Davidson took by committing $50 million of his own money at a time that arenas were not considered moneymakers. But when Wilson struck upon a simple but brilliant plan – put suites at the most desired viewing angles, build more of them than anyone ever had and charge unprecedented prices for them – a new era dawned. The suites moved so swiftly that Davidson OK’d increasing their number even after construction had begun, upping The Palace’s eventual price tag to around $90 million.

“Everyone thought he was a little daft,” Stern laughs today. “ ‘What are you doing – blah-blah-blah.’ But, literally, it changed the experience of NBA basketball. He not only committed to building it, but to maintaining it, enhancing the experience and spending to continually keep it modern.”

When Davidson bought Roundball One for Chuck Daly’s Bad Boys – an innovation Daly unfailingly credits as instrumental in the team’s 1989 and ’90 titles – Stern suggested other owners follow suit.

“Following his lead, I recommended it to the owners and a couple of teams shouted me down,” Stern said. “So I said, ‘I’m not going to recommend it, but ultimately you will need it.’ It became a competitive issue that every team felt they had to have.”

It’s now an accepted cost of doing business, but ultimately the product – and NBA fans – are the benefactors. The greatly reduced travel toll translates into fresher players and better basketball.

“As it relates to buildings, as it relates to planes, Bill has been a leader,” Stern said.

‘A Spectacular Individual’

Stern, of course, is now universally praised for his vision and leadership.

“Probably the greatest commissioner, not only in basketball but among all the professional sports,” said Oscar Feldman, the dear friend and personal attorney whom Davidson coaxed into becoming a partner with him in buying the Pistons more than three decades ago. “And Bill has been a leader within the industry of professional basketball and was always the most supportive of David.:

“David needed a constituency guy and Mr. Davidson was it,” Wilson said. “A lot of the things David did in the early days raised eyebrows – the whole marketing thing, merchandising, the television plan, going into cable television, almost everything he did that took us in a different direction, before he’d earned his stripes, was questioned. I remember being in meetings and there’d be rolling of eyes. There was a large element in the early days that doubted him.

“But when you had somebody as respected as Mr. Davidson backing you as emphatically as he backed David, a lot of that doubt was put to rest.”

“He is the quintessential person for whom you would want to work,” Stern said, “and for Pistons fans, the kind of owner you want to make sure is there to assure that the team is always looking to improve and competing at the highest level. What I will always appreciate most about Bill is his friendship, his availability and his wisdom.

“The ways of the Hall are very mysterious and it’s a mystery I have yet to be able to decode,” Stern said as the vote drew near for Hall induction. “But if anyone deserved to be nominated and elected, it’s Bill. The Hall of Fame is nice, but the respect and affection that Bill has from his fellow owners and everyone who has worked with or for him is really the ultimate tribute to what a spectacular individual he is.”