Original Old School: Dave’s World
Hall-Of-Famer Dave Bing is still running things.
Once a top-notch player, Dave Bing is now a top-notch businessman. Once the undisputed leader of the Pistons, Bing is now a leader of the city. With the election for mayor slated for next week, Bing may soon find himself in position to save the decaying Motor City. All he has to do is get by one “defender,” something he’s had no problem doing his entire life. Win or lose, with or without an MBA, Bing will continue doing what he does best: fight for the city of Detroit. In 1997, Issue 16, SLAM had the privilege of speaking with Bing.–Tzvi Twersky
by Alan Paul
Dave Bing sits behind his big mahogany desk, surrounded by reminders of his two highly successful careers. On one wall hangs a framed Pistons jersey—his retired number 21. Another wall is filled with photos of a suit-clad Bing shaking hands with Presidents Reagan and Bush as they hand him awards. Bing heads The Bing Group, comprised of four auto-parts suppliers housed in a sprawling inner-city Detroit Complex; it was built several years ago with financial backing from Isiah Thomas, Derrick Coleman and Terry Mills.
Few who knew or observed the 6-3 guard during his playing days are surprised by Bing’s conspicuous post-hoops success. He was always a team leader, both on and off the court. Athletic ability aside, Bing made the Hall Of Fame because he was the ultimate thinking man’s player. He was usually one step ahead of his opponents, both literally and figuratively, possessing a devastatingly fast first step as well as the uncanny ability to anticipate everyone else’s next move. Bing’s multi-dimensional play also made him extremely difficult to defend: He was equally capable of nailing the jumper, driving the lane or finding and feeding an open man cutting to the hoop.
Throughout his career, Bing was also known as one of the game’s most honest, forthright observers, someone not afraid to speak his mind or attempt to right a perceived wrong. Some things never change.
SLAM: What was your greatest strength as a player?
Dave Bing: My driving ability. I could get to the basket. That, along with my good jumping ability, allowed me to be where the action was. Also, my teammates knew that I would pass them the ball, that I wasn’t selfish. They would get the pass if I could set them up for an easy basket, which kept everyone involved. I believed in teamwork, worked well with people and made sure that everyone got credit for whatever they did. I was a good shooter, but not a great one, so I knew that to get my points somebody had to help me, by setting a screen or making sure I had the ball in the right place at the right time. I made sure everyone was happy.
SLAM: What was your greatest deficiency, and what did you do to overcome it?
DB: As a good offensive player, you don’t like to play defense, because it really takes a hell a lot out of you and detracts from your scoring. That’s why I respect Michael Jordan so much—as great as he is offensively, he is equally great defensively. I improved by learning to play position defense better, making sure that if I gave something up, it was going to be from the outside. At the very least, my man wasn’t going to get by me and pressure my big guys.
SLAM: You were always an excellent rebounding guard. What is the key to pulling down boards?
DB: Desire. You have to want to go up there and get it. You can’t be afraid to go inside and get hit. That’s what rebounding and the inside game are all about.
SLAM: Who is the greatest player you ever played against?
DB: Oscar Robertson was a consummate, all-around player, as was Jerry West. Of course, I never had the chance to play against Magic or Michael Jordan, who is the most talented basketball player I’ve ever seen.
SLAM: During the summer of your junior year at Syracuse, you played a lot of playground ball with Bill Bradley, who was in Washington, DC, working on his thesis at the time. You’ve said that you learned a lot from him. What was it?
DB: Bill didn’t have exceptional athletic skills, but he knew how to play the game. He thought everything out, so he was able to react to a lot of different situations. He didn’t just know where he was supposed to be on a play; he knew where his all his teammates were supposed to be and where the opposition would be. The more I was around him, the more I started to think like that, and it helped my game a lot. He also worked harder than anyone on repetitive exercises—going to one spot and taking 100 shots with the exact same motions, then moving five feet and doing the same.
SLAM: While still a player, you started Bing Pro Athlete Management because you felt black athletes were being exploited. Do you still think that’s the case, and did you ever consider doing that as a full-time career?
DB: It’s not what I was interested in doing, but I’ve always been someone who got involved and wanted to help. And there were a lot of guys who needed help, because they just turned their lives over to someone else and got screwed, which I resented. Often, they didn’t even realize what was going on. I negotiated all my own contracts. I’m sure I left money on the table because I wasn’t as astute as a lawyer or an agent might have been, but I think the experience I gained helped me to do what I’m doing today, even if I didn’t maximize my earnings as a player. I think that player representation has gotten better because of the increased exposure and emergence of whole new professions: entertainment lawyers and agents. But, while I think that players do need some professional advice, I’m still totally against agents. They’re bloodsuckers who just want to get a percentage of the total package without following through with tax advice, legal advice or investment advice. They present themselves as being knowledgeable and in all of those areas, but I don’t know one who really is. They’re just not that good. I constantly tell players that they need a separate tax attorney and accountant, that they should go to major, reputable firms. But it’s hard to keep them away from individual operators, who start following kids when they’re nine, befriending them, helping them out to make them feel obligated. All so they can get that cut of the first deal.
SLAM: It seems like you’ve become a father figure to a lot of Detroit players, offering counsel to people like Derrick Coleman, Terry Mills and Isiah Thomas.
DB: Well, I’d prefer to say “an older brother figure” [laughs]. But yes, a lot of guys come in and ask for advice. What I have always tried to convey to them all is, “By making $3-7 million a year, you are a business in and of yourself. I have 600 people working here for me, and I’d be happy as hell to have $3 million at the end of the year. You need to understand the resources and power base that you have. Five or six of you can come together and buy a major company. You can make a difference, and you don’t have to put all your money up. A bank will make you a loan in a minute.” I try to get them to see beyond the box.
SLAM: Do you think the huge money involved in basketball today has hurt the actual game?
DB: Yes. It takes a special kind of player to maintain the drive to improve and compete after signing a guaranteed multi-million-dollar contract. The game was spoiled with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan—great basketball players and entertainers who are great competitors as well. They came to play every night, and I don’t see as much of that today. They also understood that basketball is all about merging individual talent into a team concept. I think both fan support and corporate support will wane if there’s not a change in the NBA where we can move away from constantly highlighting individuals. The fans today have so many options about how and where to spend their time and money, and they’ll take it somewhere else if they keep seeing these high-priced crybabies and primadonnas. I believe that another long-term problem is that basketball has always been an inner-city game, but most of the arenas aren’t in the inner cities anymore. That took the game away from the people and made it a venue for corporate and middle-class America. When I first started playing here, basketball was downtown, close to the fans, and I knew half the people in the stands because, because they were hardcore fans who were there every night. It’s not like that today. Now there are many, many buffers between the players and fans, and, frankly, I don’t enjoy going to games because of it.
SLAM: You settled in Detroit immediately, continuing to live here after you were traded and returning upon your retirement. Why do you feel such a connection to this city?
DB: The people. I connected with the average person. My first summer here was ’67, when we had the riots, and I saw the ugliest thing that ever happened. I was hell-bent on being part of the revitalization of this city. Thirty years later, I still have a burning desire to be a part of that change. When I came here, the city had tremendous energy, then we went to hell in a handbasket real quick. As a 22-year-old kid, I saw people burning their neighborhoods down, and firemen and policemen trying to put the fires out and getting shot at and having rocks and bottles thrown at them. That was ugly. Afterwards, there was a lot of property damage and there was the whole black power movement and everyone was trying to go their separate ways. Because Detroit was a predominantly African-American city, it frankly wasn’t a very friendly environment for white folks. So those who had the means to get the hell out of Dodge, did. It’s taken almost 30 years to get people back, but I finally see it happening.
SLAM: You came very close to becoming the Pistons coach in ’79 when Dick Vitale was fired. Have you ever regretted that that didn’t work out?
DB: Not for a minute. That was the best thing that didn’t happen to me. Had I taken the job back then, I would not be doing what I am today, and I don’t think I’d be enjoying my life as [much as] I am. I would have been pigeon-holed into an industry and an environment where I was comfortable but where I had already proven myself. I wouldn’t have grown. Today, I am touching a lot of lives.
SLAM: During a ’71 exhibition game, you suffered a detached retina and ended up in the hospital with both eyes patched, not knowing if you’d ever see again. Was that a turning point for you?
DB: Very much so. As I lay in the hospital feeling sorry for myself—“Why me? Why now? I’m 27 and at the top of my game”—I started to realize that good health is not a given. Then I went to visit kids in the hospital who were worse off than me, and they were happy just to be alive. Right then, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and decided, “I need to get on with my life, whatever it holds. If I never play again, I’m still going to be successful.” Then I began to read a hell of a lot, mostly about business. I spent hours and hours in hotel rooms and on planes just reading and really trying to grow. A lot of what I do today is an outgrowth of what began there.
SLAM: It was assumed that you would miss a year, but you made it back for almost half of the season. The next year, playing with greatly impaired vision, you averaged 22 points and 7 assists. Did you have to make adjustments to your game?
DB: Yes. I lost a lot of peripheral vision and depth perception, so I had to really concentrate and become a consummate student of the game. I started to think like Bill Bradley and others. For instance, I thought about how hard it was to guard Oscar Robertson, how he would force the defense, take every inch you’d give him and end up with an easy shot. I started forcing the action rather than taking what I was given and driving more to the basket. I think I became a much better, more well rounded player.
SLAM: In ’84, you were named the Minority Businessman of the Year. How do the business honors you’ve received compare to all the basketball awards?
DB: I felt better about the business stuff, because I was born with a certain amount of athletic ability, but business was a whole new arena for me. It wasn’t about how fast I could run or how high I could jump. It was, “I’ve got to compete mentally with a lot of people who have an advantage because they didn’t take an 18-year detour to concentrate on athletics.” I had to play catch-up, so getting those awards made me feel real good. But it goes back again to my athletic days—even though I was the individual receiving the award, I never got my head so high up in the clouds that I forgot what got me there: the people around me. Four of five key people did a lot of the day-to-day things that made the company successful, and I made sure they knew I respected their contributions—just like I made sure the guy who set a pick for me knew I appreciated that.