There’s no way of knowing whether former NBA star and new Detroit Mayor Dave Bing can solve the multiple problems besetting a city where the rates of unemployment, budget deficits and foreclosures are among the nation’s highest.
But we do know Bing will attack the challenges with the same intelligence and intensity that marked his 12-year pro basketball career, most of it as a perennial NBA All-Star and local icon with the Detroit Pistons.
His tenure as the city’s third mayor in a year following scandal-plagued Kwame Kilpatrick and successor Ken Cockrel Jr., could be brief. To keep his job, Bing must win a Democratic primary in August and the general election in November.
Considering Detroit’s doldrums these days, that’s like entering a game with your team down by 20 points in the fourth quarter and being asked to rescue it. Yet Bing, at 65, has been overcoming formidable obstacles all his life.
He rose from a poor background in the District to star at Spingarn High School in Northeast, the same school that produced fellow NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor. Then came notable careers at Syracuse University before he joined the Pistons in 1966 and began dazzling onlookers with his all-around play.
“Maybe some other player does this better and another does that better,” former NBA player and scout Earl Lloyd told Sport magazine in 1971, “but nobody does as much as Dave.”
Imagine what Bing could have done with two good eyes.
One day when he was 5, Bing tripped while playing with two sticks nailed together and a nail lodged in his left eye. Surgery saved it, but his vision in the eye was permanently blurred.
Nor was that the end of his problems. Bing was approaching his sixth NBA season in 1971 when Los Angeles Lakers guard Happy Hairston accidentally jabbed his finger into Dave’s right pupil in an exhibition game. Bing suffered a detached retina, spent three days in the hospital after surgery and missed three months of the season.
As a player, Bing noticeably favored the right side of the court. Former Pistons teammate Willie Norwood said he couldn’t understand why, as a rookie, he was constantly being ignored while filling the lane on the fast break. Then he realized he was on the left side of the court.
“He just couldn’t see me,” said Norwood, now a Detroit businessman. “The next time, I went down the right side, and I got my first dunk.”
Characteristically, Bing converted the second injury to his advantage.
“I’m a better free throw shooter because I’ve had to practice more,” he said. Bing also became a better defensive player “in case I can’t score enough.”
His primary offensive role was as a 6-foot-3 playmaker, but Bing averaged 20.3 points in nine seasons with the Pistons, two with Washington and one with Boston. But he never played on an NBA champion, although the Bullets won the title in 1978 a year after he departed for Boston. One reason was that Bing and Dick Motta, Washington’s rock-rumped coach, were at odds after Motta asked the veteran guard to improve his defense.
“I’m in my 11th year, an All-Star for seven years. I’d changed my game already, and he wanted me to change it again,” Bing told The Washington Times last winter. “We didn’t hit it off well.”