- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

Dave Bing, who wants to be mayor of this damaged city, moved easily on his 65-year-old legs as he mixed and mingled with supporters in the hotel conference room before receiving an important endorsement.

The Hall of Fame basketball player shook hands, made small talk and instinctively surveyed the scene like he used to scan the basketball court with the Detroit Pistons - despite his limited eyesight. What’s left of his hair has long turned grey, but the 6-foot-3 All-Star guard-turned-businessman-turned-candidate remains long and lean and in control on the floor.

Just before the event began, an even taller man took his seat in the back row. It was Derrick Coleman. Like Bing, whose nine years with the Pistons led to a place among the 50 greatest players of all-time, Coleman is a former Syracuse All-American, NBA standout and entrepreneur committed to making his hometown a better place.

Unlike Bing, who grew up in the District, Coleman is from Detroit. He moved here from Alabama when he was 13. He idolized Bing the businessman as much as he did Bing the player. “Dave is like my father,” Coleman said. “We need a breath of fresh air, and to me, that’s what he brings.”

Bing endures as a local icon and has remained rooted in the Detroit area for nearly 43 years. Even at the end of his career, two seasons with the Washington Bullets and one with Boston, his family stayed behind. But he is running as a political outsider. Clearly, he says, echoing the presidential campaign of his friend Barack Obama, the old way has failed.

“Detroit is kind of a different animal when it comes to politics,” Bing said. “It’s always been about politics. It’s not about business, and that’s a problem. In most major cities, business leads politics. We didn’t get the best value for the dollars that are being spent.”

The special election is Tuesday, and Bing is running even in the polls with interim mayor Kenneth Cockrel. Former deputy mayor Freman Hendrix is the only other candidate among the 15 deemed to have a chance. The top two vote-getters advance to the May 5 election to fill the remaining term of Kwame Kilpatrick, the disgraced former mayor.

With the race tightening, Bing needs every boost he can get, including this particular endorsement from an influential political action committee. Its leader, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, heads the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. Behind a microphone, Anthony emphasized Bing’s long tenure as a successful entrepreneur and civic leader. Echoing the campaign’s prevalent theme, he said Bing “represents a newness, a fresh approach for the city.”

Bing talked up his attributes, threw a few jabs at Cockrel (“I don’t think anything new is coming to the table,” he said.) and defended himself against charges that he is too much a businessman and too little a people person.

“I have never been out of touch, and I never will be,” he said.

In his spacious office at the company he built, the Bing Group, located near the once grand, now ghostly Boston-Edison neighborhood (Henry Ford lived there), Bing later elaborated.

“My employees are all the average person, the average Joe,” he said. “I’ve never been disconnected from the average person.”

All this is happening because of Kilpatrick’s resignation in September during a scandal that broached salacious text messages to a female co-worker, two felony charges, a $1 million fine and five years probation that included 99 days of jail time. The soap opera further embarrassed the one city that could least afford it.

Bing, who considered a mayoral bid in the 1990s, was urged by local leaders to run after he strongly criticized the popular Kilpatrick early on, even while supporters were still defending him.

“I had great hopes for him as many of us did,” Bing said. “But we were the laughingstock of the country. Everywhere you go, somebody would say something negative about Detroit. I got tired of hearing that.”

Bing is financially secure, his basketball legacy permanent. Outside the political arena, he is well-liked and respected. An avid tennis player, he recently took up golf. His three grown daughters all work for his company. In other words, he doesn’t have to do this. Except now, he believes that he does.

“I felt I couldn’t sit on the sideline,” he said. “A selfish position would have been, ‘I’ve got mine. To hell with everybody else. Let me enjoy myself.’ But I don’t want to be here if I can’t make a difference. I can’t accept what’s going on. … As I saw different people coming out and saying, ‘I want to run for mayor,’ I said, ‘Hell, this is no improvement,’ I know I’ve got leadership skills and talent. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been captain of the team.”

Bing, who says he will give his salary to the police department if elected, knows the stakes are higher here than in any basketball game. He is seeking what might be considered the toughest job in America. The recession arrived in Detroit decades ago, accelerated by a mass flight to the suburbs after the 1967 riots. Beset by poverty, crime, overall decay and now an auto industry on the brink of collapse, the population has steadily dwindled from 1.8 million in 1950 to 900,000. The city is $300 million in debt.

“The city was torn apart [by the riots], and it never came back together,” Bing said. “Race has been the big divider. Economics has been the big divider. Education, or the lack thereof, has been the big divider.”

Since he jumped into the race five months ago, Bing discovered that things are even worse than he thought.

“I see the hopelessness and the poverty,” he said. “In some places, it looks like a third-world country. We’ve got to change that.”

The crux of Bing’s campaign is his long, successful business career and how he will apply tested principles to help revive the city. In the 1980s he founded Bing Steel, which became the Bing Group, a diversified company that (among other things) supplies parts to the auto companies. He also is involved in real estate and development projects.

Married with two children coming out of Syracuse, he started working for a bank and then for Chrysler during NBA offseasons. After a failed effort to coach the Pistons in 1979, he plunged back into business. Although the economic downturn has had an effect, the Bing Group remains profitable, the model of entrepreneurship in a tough environment.

Bing said he brings “integrity, trust, all the things a mayor’s office should have.”

“We’ve never had a person with a business perspective lead the city,” he added. “It’s always been career politicians and bureaucrats.”

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In his prior life, Bing played basketball. He attended Spingarn High School and, along with Elgin Baylor, another future NBA great who earlier played at Spingarn, helped start the flow of basketball talent from the D.C. area to the rest of the world. There was John Thompson Jr. and Jerry Chambers, who transferred from Spingarn to Eastern because he couldn’t make the team and ended up being an All-American at Utah. Later came the likes of Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley, Fred Hetzel, Kenny Carr and many more.

“Growing up in Washington in the era I grew up in, there was nothing like it,” said Bing, who lived in the Deanwood section with his parents, brother and two sisters. One of his basketball pals was the late singer Marvin Gaye, who would make a name for himself with Detroit’s Motown Records.

Bing’s father worked construction and eked out a living. When Bing was 21, a falling brick struck his dad on the head and caused brain damage, which Bing believes contributed to a fatal stroke a few years later. The kids slept two to a bed, but like a lot of people who grew up poor, Bing said he had little sense of poverty. Sports contributed to that. Bing was a good baseball player. On the basketball court, he was a shrimp.

“The older guys took me under their wings,” he said. “And I was smart enough to know to give them the ball.”

When he was 5, Bing built a makeshift “horse” out of two pieces of wood. One day when he was riding the horse, he fell and a protruding nail pierced his left eye. Lacking insurance, Bing never had an operation, and the wound healed on its own.

“I’ve had blurred vision ever since,” he said.

As a player, Bing noticeably favored the right side of the court. Former 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.”

Bing in 1962 decided to attend Syracuse, a football school. He was escorted on his recruiting visit by Ernie Davis, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who would die of leukemia the next year, and All-America tight end John Mackey.

Turning a losing program into a winner, Bing kick-started a basketball tradition that lasts to this day.

“He was a great player, one of the best I’ve ever seen,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who was Bing’s teammate and roommate. “Off the court he was a tremendous leader, a guy people would naturally follow. He was very mature right away.”

The Pistons and New York Knicks held a coin flip for the No. 1 pick before the 1966 NBA Draft. The Pistons desperately wanted the local favorite, Michigan’s Cazzie Russell. But the Knicks won and picked him. The Pistons settled for Bing. A headline in Detroit read, “Sorry Pistons - Knicks draft Cazzie.”

While Russell was embarking on a mediocre career, Bing was rookie of the year. In his second year, he led the league in scoring, the first and only Pistons player to do so. In all, Bing played nine seasons in Detroit. He was a seven-time All-Star, a versatile player who could score and pass and the team leader.

“He was the ticket,” said Lem Barney, the Hall of Fame Detroit Lions cornerback and Bing’s close friend for more than 40 years. “No question about it.”

But Bing’s teams never made it to the NBA Finals, and he occasionally clashed with management over salary issues or in defense of his teammates. This was back when athletes were supposed to be seen and not heard.

“They said, ‘You’re a locker room lawyer. You’re standing up for the players and not the franchise,’ ” Bing recounted. “I said, ‘I’m the captain of the team.’ ”

In 1969, Bing signed a contract to play for a new ABA franchise in Washington, but owner Earl Foreman wound up moving the team to Norfolk. Bing stayed with the Pistons and still got a new contract.

“I wanted to return home,” he said. “But it was a money game, too. In order to make money, you had to play both ends.”

In 1972, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Happy Hairston poked Bing in his “good” eye, and he suffered a detached retina. For 12 hours, his eye lost total sight. He later wore a single contact lens to compensate and continued to produce. But another dispute with management, this time over a player who was cut, led to his 1975 trade to the Bullets for NBA assist leader Kevin Porter.

Despite joining stars like Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Phil Chenier, it did not go well for Bing. Porter was a true point guard, Bing more of a scorer. Bing was asked to pass more and shoot less.

“It was a tough transition,” Bing said.

It got worse for Bing when fiery, demanding Dick Motta replaced easygoing K.C. Jones as coach. Motta wanted Bing to step up his defense.

“I’m in my 11th year, an All-Star for seven years. I’d changed my game already, and he wants me to change it again,” he said. “We didn’t hit it off well.”

Motta would lead the franchise to its only championship the following year, but Bing was gone - traded to the Celtics. But he still had made a strong impression on his teammates.

“It was just the way Dave did everything,” said Chenier, a Wizards broadcaster who has remained friends with Bing. “He commands respect.”

Bing struggled with a troubled Celtics team in transition. Red Auerbach, the legendary general manager, offered Bing the captaincy the next year if he returned, but Bing said no. It was time to go home. He never left.

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