The summer of 1990 is remembered as a time when Pistons fans celebrated the “Sweet Repeat” of back-to-back NBA titles. George Blaha fondly remembers it, too. Especially what happened afterward.
Later that summer, Blaha hosted his first charity golf event benefiting Vista Maria, Michigan's largest private not-for-profit child welfare agency for girls and their families.
“I remember the first few years we just wanted to make some money,” Blaha said, "and then we got up to years five through 10 and we really started to roll.”
On Monday, Blaha hosted his 20th annual “High Hopes Golf Invitational,” a sold-out and star-studded event at Forest Lake Country Club in Bloomfield Hills. The celebrity golf extravaganza has raised $830,000 for Vista Maria since its inception, and will likely exceed the $1 million mark in 2009. For all his good work in front of the camera, Blaha’s efforts behind the scenes on behalf of Vista Maria may be his most lasting accomplishment.
“It’s a tremendous legacy of hope,” said Cameron Hosner, president and CEO of Vista Maria. “That’s why we call it ‘High Hopes,’ because George has literally enabled us to save thousands of disadvantaged and victimized young girls … Through this event we’re able to raise essential support so they can have a new life.”
Standing at the tee on the eighth hole (sponsored by the Pistons) Blaha gushed Monday with the same pride and enthusiasm for High Hopes that he brings to Pistons telecasts.
“Time’s absolutely flying by because, No. 1, I’m having such a good time broadcasting Pistons games, but second of all, this tournament has continued to be so successful and help so many young ladies,” Blaha said. “We just look forward to the next year.”
”A real tribute to George”
Blaha’s Pistons family was well represented Monday. The contingent of former players included Hall of Famer Dave Bing, Bad Boy Vinnie Johnson, 1970s forward Jim Davis and Blaha's current broadcast partner Greg Kelser. (Bing and Johnson also have served as Blaha’s color analyst during his lengthy play-by-play tenure.)
Bing and his wife, Yvette, played in a foursome with Palace President and CEO Tom Wilson and new Pistons head coach John Kuester. Bing, elected Mayor of Detroit in May, spoke briefly at the dinner before embarking to address city business.
“My wife and I, this is our third year participating. Neither one of us was golfers three years ago. I can’t say we’re golfers today,” Bing said, getting a laugh from the crowd, “but we do enjoy the camaraderie, making new friends and we do enjoy supporting an organization such as Vista Maria.”
More than 220 people agreed, drawing the largest crowd ever to the $125-a-plate dinner. Other prominent Pistons figures in attendance included vice president of basketball operations Scott Perry, director of player personnel George David and assistant coach Pat Sullivan.
“It’s a real tribute to George,” said Wilson, who was playing in the golf portion of the event for the first time. “I’m real glad to be out here today and it’s kind of tribute to him a little bit that all these people came out. It’s a good day.”
George “has done it all on his own”
The origins of the High Hopes Invitational begin with Bill Lewis. A Pistons season-ticket holder virtually since the team arrived in Detroit - “I had front-row seats at Cobo,” he says proudly - Lewis introduced Blaha to Tom Sullivan, then president of Vista Maria.
At first, they just wanted Blaha, a celebrity in his own right as the voice of the Pistons since 1975 and Michigan State football nearly as long, to lend his name to the Vista Maria advisory committee.
“You don’t even have to come to many meetings, we just want to tell you what this group’s all about,” is how Blaha recalled the initial pitch. “Then I realized how much good they were doing and how much need there was.”
Sullivan recalled the inaugural event was held on a public course and “very low-key.” It has evolved into an all-day affair with a luncheon, celebrity cocktail hour and dinner (with former Big Ten football rivals George Perles and Lloyd Carr as this year's speakers). There were also silent and live auctions with a number of Pistons autographed items and VIP packages up for bid. “The Pistons are probably the big reason that [the auction] is the success it is, with the stuff that comes over here,” Lewis said. “Nobody runs an auction like George.”
Nonetheless, the key to the event’s longevity and success, Blaha said, is keeping it from growing too big, too fast.
“We’ve tried to keep it somewhat reasonable, make good money, but not try to hit a home run every year,” he said. “We want to come back the next year and bring the same people back and hope they feel like they get a fair shake for their money and have a lot of fun.”
That philosophy benefited the event this year amid concerns that benefactors would be harder to attract.
“This year, in this terrible economy, it’s sold out,” said Sullivan, who continues to serve Vista Maria in other roles. “I was proud to be able to introduce George to Vista Maria, but he’s done it all on his own.”
A True Success Story
Blaha’s visibility as a TV personality contrasts sharply with the lives of the girls who come to Vista Maria. They are often forgotten, abused or neglected out of public view, or at least out of sight of anyone willing to help. You have to fall through a lot of cracks to reach Vista Maria the way Christina Linguidi did when she was 16.
Linguidi, now 26, spoke at the High Hopes dinner to illustrate the healing powers of Vista Maria, which reports 88 percent of girls in their specialized residential treatment programs improve their physical, cognitive and emotional health.
Linguidi graduated high school with a 3.97 grade-point average and this spring became the first person in her family to graduate from college. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Communications, with a minor in Chinese, from Oakland University, which she attended with the help of the High Hopes scholarship program.
“So often we hear of the horrible statistics, and of the stories of those who do not succeed, but I stand before you not a statistic, but a proud graduate, not only of Vista Maria, but of Oakland University,” Linguidi said.
She closed by saying, “You guys here are already supporting those who are getting ready to succeed, and you’re like family when they didn’t have family, and I thank you for being here.” As Linguidi walked through the standing ovation and back to her table, she passed Blaha. With a gleam in his eye, he gave her a thumbs-up as she went by.
That’s why George stands out among his broadcasting brethren. He can get a point across without saying a word.