It was nearly 29 years ago, and two men were at crossroads in their professional lives – crossroads that materialized because of their failed partnership.
Bill Davidson was a five-year loser in the world of professional basketball. He had wanted badly to get into ownership. You could make the old joke here: He wanted to own a team in the worst way – and that’s exactly what he did.
Davidson bought out his partners in 1974 and took over sole ownership of the Detroit Pistons, but only because a look-see into owning a football team didn’t come to pass. In an interview with Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, published this week, Davidson said his first inclination was to own the Lions, if they were available. He and former Lions coach Joe Schmidt, Davidson said, explored owning another football team, which he didn’t identify. But football wasn’t his destiny. Davidson would be stuck with the Pistons – an apt word. The team had been in Detroit for 17 seasons, and in only two of them did their wins exceed their losses. Their time in the Motor City had been more slapstick than serious. But they were Davidson’s, and his alone, after he bought out his compatriots.
Dick Vitale was an abject failure as Pistons coach when he was fired by Davidson in November 1979. Davidson hired Vitale in the spring of 1978, having fallen under Dickie V’s spell and his snake oil salesman act. Vitale promised Davidson “ReVITALEization” and spoke of “Pistons Paradise.” For the owner’s time and trouble, Vitale delivered a 34-60 record.
Bill Davidson is a lot smarter now, by the way.
So here Davidson and Vitale were, losers in basketball, and, by extension, in life. The notion that either of them would survive in the game, let alone become enshrined in its Hall of Fame, was folly.
Then one man changed all that, for both parties.
Jack McCloskey was a grizzled former college basketball coach and a vagabond NBA head coach and assistant, minding his own business on the bench of the Indiana Pacers, helping his old friend Slick Leonard, when Vitale approached him. Dickie V told McCloskey that Davidson was looking for a “basketball man” to run his operation in Detroit. Vitale and McCloskey knew each other from their time spent coaching along the Atlantic Coast – McCloskey at Penn and Vitale in high school in New Jersey.
And Vitale, deposed in Detroit, held no grudges toward Davidson. In fact, not only did Dickie tell McCloskey about the vacancy in Detroit, he whispered McCloskey’s name in Davidson’s ear.
A meeting was set up, between McCloskey, Davidson, and Pistons legal counsel Oscar Feldman. McCloskey impressed, and Davidson wanted to hire him as his new GM, right away. But the Pacers were reluctant to let McCloskey out of his commitment. It looked like Davidson wouldn’t get Vitale’s referral after all.
But the Pacers came around, and Jack McCloskey took over the woeful Pistons in December, 1979.
“To this day, whenever I see Dick, I thank him,” McCloskey told me a couple years ago, on the verge of his induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.
Speaking of thanks, Vitale has long spoken of how thankful he was that he got canned by the Pistons.
“Mr. Davidson probably saved my life,” Vitale said in a recently-published interview.
Vitale quit the University of Detroit in 1977 because of ulcers. And his early days with the Pistons were pock-marked with stomach ailments, too.
“I probably would have been dead before I was 50,” Vitale said.
Davidson, in the five years prior to hiring McCloskey, had presided over a mess with the Pistons, culminating with a controversial move from downtown to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1978. After the Vitale Era proved to be a colossal failure, Davidson looked almost as much of a clown as Vitale himself, which is saying something.
McCloskey changed all that.
By the end of the 1980s, the Pistons were one of the NBA’s elite. They won championships in 1989 and 1990, and came damn close in 1987 and ’88, too. All of it – ALL of it – was due to the drafting and coaching hires orchestrated by McCloskey.
Vitale, meanwhile, turned his failure into success after being hired by the newly-born sports network ESPN to be a college basketball analyst.
Friday, Vitale and Davidson were both enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Davidson went in for his accomplishments as an owner and as a guardian of the league, and Vitale was inducted for his tenure behind a microphone and, peripherally, for his authoring several books about the game. They may laugh at Dick Vitale, but it’s irrefutable that he got a whole bunch of folks interested in the college game simply because of his brash, catch phrase-tinged style.
“They need a T.O., babyyyyy!”
“He’s a PTPer!”
And so on.
Neither of the two men – Davidson and Vitale – would have been in Springfield, being honored along with such greats as Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon and Pat Riley and Adrian Dantley, if it wasn’t for their parting of ways in November 1979.
Davidson saved Vitale’s life by firing him. And Vitale saved Davidson’s face by recommending he hire Jack McCloskey.
Sometimes we don’t see how funny life is, until, say, 29 years later.