They were a ramshackle pro basketball franchise, with a history of slapstick. Their story seemed to have been written by Mel Brooks in collaboration with Albert Camus.
Since moving to Detroit in 1957, the Detroit Pistons in 1974 had, at various times: hired their radio guy as the team’s GM; made a 24-year-old player the head coach; played playoff games in a Grosse Pointe high school gym; had a coach quit on the spot after just 10 games into the season; and had an owner that was so absentee, he only knew of his team’s nightly fate via the wire services.
All that, and more, played out against the backdrop of losing in a vacuum. A typical Pistons season in those days finished at 26-56, with home games attended by only a few thousand of Metro Detroit’s most curious. The Pistons didn’t have fans, they had gawkers.
But Bill Davidson liked pro basketball in the worst way, so the Detroit Pistons were perfect for him.
It was a perfect time, too. 1974 was pet rocks and mood rings and polyester and Richard Nixon out, Gerald Ford in. It was Patty Hearst with a machine gun and boycotts of lettuce. It was like the country threw up in its throat a little bit.
So what better time to lead a group of investors in buying the Pistons, the NBA’s deadbeat son? 1974 did very nicely in that regard.
Davidson, the millionaire from Guardian Industries, came from a world where a deal was a deal. So imagine his umbrage when Dave Bing held out for more money.
Davidson wasn’t the Pistons owner for more than a few months when superstar guard Bing wanted a raise from his 1973-74 salary, even though Bing was under contract at that rate.
Davidson didn’t understand. In his world, a contract was a contract.
The Pistons had just completed, finally, a relatively successful season in 1974. They went 52-30. Their coach, Ray Scott, was named Coach of the Year. The blind squirrel had found its nut. Every dog really did have his day.
Now Dave Bing wanted more money. He threatened not to attend training camp unless Davidson ripped up Bing’s contract and wrote another one.
Davidson looked at Bing and saw a petulant player who was using his team’s only good season in Detroit as leverage.
A year later, Davidson traded Bing away—for Kevin Porter. Davidson went from the frying pan to the fire; Porter’s photo could have been found next to Webster’s entry for petulant.
Such went the beginning of Bill Davidson’s foray into pro sports ownership.
Somehow, the Pistons remained in Detroit throughout the 1960s and early-1970s after moving from Fort Wayne, Indiana, even though the teams were lousy and the crowds were skimpy. The Pistons were dinner theater; the Red Wings, Tigers and Lions were Broadway.
Davidson’s predecessor, Fred “The Z” Zollner, was committed to Detroit. It would have been so easy to up and move the Pistons. He could have fled town with them and had gotten a one year head start before the team would have been reported missing.
But Zollner stayed in Detroit. He’s one of the most under-celebrated figures in Detroit sports history, for showing such resilience.
Today, Bill Davidson’s widow has shown how smart she is.
Karen Davidson, from the moment her husband passed away in March, 2009, made no bones about it: she wanted no part of being the owner of an NBA team.
Women usually are the brains of the group.
Karen Davidson has no delusions of grandeur, like her late husband did when he purchased the Pistons in 1974, thinking owning a pro team would be swell. She knows how shark-infested the waters can be.
“I think you need an owner that’s passionate, engaged,” she told the media during the latest basketball season.
What she didn’t add because she didn’t have to, was that she is not the passionate, engaged owner that the Pistons need. She’s the Accidental Tourist.
The Pistons are for sale. Only those sleeping under rocks don’t know that.
Karen Davidson stands to make quite a haul when she gets someone’s signature on a receipt. The Pistons are just part of the deal. She’s selling Palace Sports & Entertainment (PS&E), too—which includes the DTE Energy Theatre, Meadowbrook Theater, and the Palace itself.
The irony is that, after all those wretched years in Detroit in the pre-Davidson era, after all the times Fred Zollner could have moved the Pistons elsewhere, there are rumblings that after this upcoming sale, the Pistons might not have Detroit as their prefix.
“It’s always our preference to keep the sold team in its market,” NBA Commissioner David Stern told the media this week. “But we haven’t always been successful in that endeavor.”
Cue the foreboding music.
The Pistons would leave Detroit now , after all they’ve been through and all they’ve overcome? It’d be the couple divorcing after 53 years of marriage.
For what it’s worth, Karen Davidson doesn’t think that will happen. She thinks the lure of PS&E would make moving the Pistons unattractive to potential buyers.
But the fact that Stern didn’t slam the door shut on such a notion is a little troublesome.
The Pistons leaving Detroit? After 53 years?
We’ve already lost Stroh’s and Uniroyal and Towne Club. Vernor’s, too. And Hudson’s.
Karen Davidson thinks that’s not going to happen. David Stern says, cavalierly, who knows?
If the Pistons leave Detroit now, decades after having no business even being an NBA franchise—and after three championships and many near-misses—then the franchise’s story will not have been written by Brooks and Camus, after all.
It sounds like something LeBron James’s biographer would pen.