A Wild Ride

Editor’s note: This is a revised version of the first of a four-part series that originally appeared on Pistons.com 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 I recalls his decision to buy the Pistons, his early learning curve and their growth into one of the NBA’s elite franchises.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – When William Davidson asked his dear friend, his business partner and his attorney to explore the wisdom of buying the Detroit Pistons 35 years ago, he could not have envisioned the ride ahead – one that delivered him to three NBA titles, returned his original investment scores of times over and ultimately cemented his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

And if Davidson couldn’t envision it, nobody could.

Because as Oscar Feldman – that dear friend, business partner and attorney all rolled into one – tells it, the great strength of the man he first met as University of Michigan freshmen in 1940 was to grasp both the risk and potential of business investments and then exercise his uncanny instincts and managerial skills into maximizing that potential.

Davidson struck a conditional deal to buy the Pistons from Fred Zollner – a Fort Wayne, Ind., manufacturer whose Zollner pistons, as in car parts, spawned the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons basketball team that became the Detroit Pistons in 1957 – and then put Feldman on the case.

They’d talked about the fun of owning a professional sports franchise and first made a run at the NFL. Davidson enlisted ex-Lions great Joe Schmidt to be part of a group that bid on the Tampa expansion franchise in 1974. But when the price went past what Davidson was willing to spend, they bowed out and regrouped.

“Two months after that we heard a rumor that the Pistons might be for sale,” Feldman recalls. “I called Ed Coyle, who was then the general manager of the Pistons, and he confirmed that Mr. Zollner was prepared to sell.”

The framework for the deal was struck as Davidson and Zollner walked along the Atlantic Ocean one day in Golden Beach, Fla., where they had vacation homes a few doors apart, for $6 million though it’s “often overstated,” Davidson said.

“I flew down to Florida and we shook hands on the deal subject to my due diligence,” Feldman said.

‘Take a Piece’

That due diligence led him to Fort Wayne and a review of the Pistons’ books – where Feldman quickly decided it was a deal fraught with undue risk.

“I spent a day or two down there looking at all their records and came back and told Bill we weren’t buying the team. He said, yes, we were. I said they hadn’t turned a profit in 17 years of existence and that I’d be happy to close the deal but I didn’t want any part of it.”

“I want you to take a piece,” Davidson told him, “so you’ll look after the store for me.”

For nearly a decade, the businessman in Feldman wondered about the wisdom of signing on, but the friend and sports fan was having too much fun to care and making too many lasting friendships to fret over the cash that flowed in the wrong direction.

For his part, Davidson quickly decided that if he was going to own an NBA team, he’d have to attack it as aggressively as he had other business ventures, including his wildly successful stewardship of Guardian Industries. A modest family business when he assumed control, today it stands as one of the world’s giants of glass manufacturing with facilities in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America in addition to its sprawling North American interests.

“It evolved,” Davidson said of his grasp of the NBA and the explosive growth that began in the early ’80s with the Pistons owner at the center of everything of import – identifying and emphatically supporting David Stern for commissioner at a time he was viewed skeptically; crafting the collective bargaining agreements that put the league on solid economic footing; and revolutionizing arena financing and construction with his decision to build The Palace of Auburn Hills, complete with the strategically placed suites that opened up lucrative new revenue streams.

“When you’re not in pro sports, at that time I was thinking it would be fun. I didn’t look at it as a business. After a year, I realized it was a business venture and I better get serious about it.”

And that original $6 million investment is now worth $480 million, according to Forbes.

“I don’t care what it is today,” Davidson shrugged. “I’m not going to sell, so what difference does it make?”

Success didn’t come quickly, but Davidson kept working the soil. His was a management style that encouraged risk-taking – nothing ventured, nothing gained – and discouraged second-guessing. He identified good people, gave them the latitude to probe for greatness over mediocrity, and stayed out of their way unless and until it came to a point his instincts told him change was necessary.

‘The McAdoo Thing’

“Frustrations? There were quite a few,” he recalled, wincing at one in particular. “The biggest one was the thing with Dick Vitale and the (Bob) McAdoo thing. That was the killer. Dick fantasized. He said, ‘Boy, if I had McAdoo along with Bob Lanier, I could really do something.’ And the way it ended up, McAdoo never wanted to play for us.”

Davidson, an avid tennis player and a terrific track athlete at Michigan, saw more passion out of McAdoo on the tennis court, often looking to the next court at his tennis club to find McAdoo swatting fuzzy balls.

“He was a great basketball player when he wanted to play,” Davidson said, “and he was a pretty good tennis player, too. He just didn’t want to play for us. They ended up calling him McAdon’t.”

The Pistons traded two first-round draft choices and M.L. Carr to Boston for McAdoo; Red Auerbach parlayed those picks into Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, acquired from Golden State for one of those picks that the Warriors used to select Purdue center Joe Barry Carroll, a player of such flickering passion that his nickname – especially apropos given the “McAdon’t” roots of his acquisition – was Joe Barely Cares.

“We ended up with a player who didn’t want to play and (Boston) wound up with three Hall of Fame guys,” Davidson said, still irked nearly three decades later at allowing Vitale to hoodwink him into a deal that grounded the Pistons for years. “They got three great players and we got nothing. That haunted me for several years.”

The Pistons wound up waiving McAdoo – after firing Vitale 12 games in to his disastrous second year – midway through his second season, one that saw them go 21-61 and get the second pick in the draft. With a proven basketball man in the general manager’s chair, Jack McCloskey, the Pistons selected an elfin guard with an angelic smile and an assassin’s heart from Indiana, where Isiah Thomas had just led Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers to the NCAA title in his sophomore season.

And that started a turnaround that led to the 1989 and ’90 titles famously bagged by Chuck Daly’s Bad Boys and saw the Pistons through their transition from the Pontiac Silverdome – where they’d relocated in 1978 from Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit – to neighboring Auburn Hills, where The Palace opened in time for the 1988-89 season and the franchise’s first NBA championship.

‘Should Have Won Four’

It always galled Davidson that it wasn’t the second or third Larry O’Brien Trophy in his collection.

The 1987 season saw the Pistons eliminated in seven games by Boston, led by the Bird-Parish-McHale triumvirate made possible by Dick Vitale’s obsession with Bob McAdoo. But it was a piercing Game 5 loss with the series tied 2-2 that proved decisive, a game that turned on Isiah Thomas’ pass intercepted by Bird and fed to Dennis Johnson for a winning layup.

The following season the Pistons hurdled Boston only to run into the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Ahead 3-2 and leading in Game 6’s waning seconds, a questionable foul call on Bill Laimbeer allowed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to sink the tying and winning free throws. With Thomas hobbled by a badly sprained ankle, the Pistons narrowly lost Game 7, as well.

“We have the game won,” Davidson said, “and I’m sitting there in the locker room with David Stern, waiting to accept the trophy, and Hugh Evans – I’ll never forget the official – called the foul on Bill Laimbeer. It never should have been called – never been called in the history of the game. My thought was I’ll go to my grave and this is the only thing I’ll ever get.

“We should have won when the ball was thrown away, we should have won in Los Angeles, we should have won four in a row.

“But that’s history.”

It became a history rich in achievement, not only for the franchise he bought while strolling with his neighbor on a Florida beach but for the league he helped to grow into a global empire as far-reaching as his Guardian flagship. It’s a history that delivered William Davidson to Springfield, Mass., as a Basketball Hall of Famer.

He was inducted under the broad category of “contributor.” There was one other person among the Hall’s Class of ’08 finalists who fell under that heading – Dick Vitale. All those years after being talked into hiring a man who would go on to far greater acclaim as a broadcaster than as a coach, did the Pistons owner appreciate the irony of their concurrent candidacy?

“Yes, I do. And the only irony is if he gets in,” Mr. D laughed, “and I don’t.”