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SI Vault – Having Fun Yet, Mr. Mayor?

January 15, 2010

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Fab Five legend Jalen Rose considers Bing a “godfather” after his pops, a former teammate of Bing’s, skipped town…

Running Detroit isn’t a job, it’s a sentence. That’s no retirement gig for a 66-year-old NBA Hall of Fame guard turned millionaire entrepreneur, is it? Dave Bing thinks differently (though he won’t begrudge you thinking he’s crazy)
By MICHAEL ROSENBERG

I. WINNING

When he reached retirement age, Dave Bing got himself a job he never wanted.

Mayor of Detroit? He wanted no part of it. “I really didn’t want him to do it,” his wife, Yvette, says.

“None of us wanted him to do it,” adds one of his three daughters, Cassaundra.

For years Bing’s old Syracuse roommate, Jim Boeheim, now the Orange’s coach, would ask him about going into politics, and Bing would reply, “I’m not crazy.”

Is he crazy now? He wonders sometimes. He admits this with a half grin and a gleam in his eye, as though he might ask for a recount of the elections he won.

When Bing told his old NBA pals that he might run for mayor, he might as well have said there were squirrels living on Neptune and talking to him through his toaster. Like his family, the former players wondered if he’d lost his mind. Fellow Hall of Famer Joe Dumars asked, Why now? Bing had resisted the call of politics when he was a younger man and Detroit was a more hopeful place. Now he was running? His former Pistons teammate Bob Lanier asked him point-blank, What the heck are you thinking?

“He said, ‘Big Fella, I believe I can make a difference,'” Lanier says. “I said, ‘If you believe it, then I’m with you. But be careful what you wish for.'”

An old friend, Charlie Beckham, who now occupies an office a few feet away from Bing’s and is considered the political brains of the Bing administration, compares Bing’s run for mayor to a plane taking off. By the time his candidacy had left the ground, it was too late for him to get off. “I don’t know that by the time he did it, he had made the 100 percent decision,” Beckham says. “A lot of it got forced just because we ran out of time.”

VOTE FOR BING: THE PAPERWORK IS ALREADY FILED.

So there they were on Nov. 3, Election Night: Bing, his wife and kids sitting in a suite at the Doubletree Fort Shelby hotel in downtown Detroit, waiting for all precincts to report. Bing sat on the couch, remote control in hand, watching a documentary on Barack Obama. He could have been downstairs with Detroit’s most powerful people, drinking an Amstel Light, supporting somebody else’s candidacy. He could have been at his place in Hilton Head, S.C. Wasn’t that the original plan? For the last few years he had talked about retiring from Bing Holdings, the umbrella company that owned his steel, medical-supply and stamp-and-assembly businesses. He had even learned to play golf. Sixty-six-year-old men do not take up golf so they can save a dying city in the Rust Belt.

Media people rushed in. It was a photo op, a chance to get pictures and video of Dave and Yvette Bing in their hotel suite, waiting for election results. Cameras flashed, but nobody spoke. The Bings tried to appear comfortable under the TV lights.

The reporters took little notice of a third person on the couch: a man who goes by the name of Tap. That’s it. Tap. Everybody around Bing knows him, but nobody seems to know his real name. All they know is that he is a friend of the mayor’s.

After a few minutes the media was whisked out. Everybody in the room busted out laughing. Tap! You could have gotten up! Tap said it was no big deal. He knew he wouldn’t end up on TV or in the newspaper. Guys like Tap, they always get cropped out of the picture.

Why did Dave Bing run for mayor of Detroit? Cassaundra says simply, “He felt he had to.” A year ago, as former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration collapsed in a surreal conflagration of corruption, Bing and some friends talked about who could lead the city. “You’re the only guy who can do it,” the friends told him.

“When you [put it] like that,” Beckham says, “it’s hard for him to argue against it.”

Bing had to move into Detroit to try to save it. Until recently he lived in a gated community in suburban Franklin, a village of three-car garages and vast manicured lawns. Now he lives on the riverfront of the poster town for the national recession. You almost expect to see a sign at the city limits: WELCOME TO DETROIT, THE MOST DOWNTRODDEN BIG CITY IN AMERICA.

Yes, people know Detroit is in bad shape … but what do they really know? Do they know that the graduation rate for African-Americans in the Detroit Public School district is 20%? Do they know that the unemployment rate in the city was recently measured at 27%—and that by some estimates the actual number may be 20 to 25 percentage points higher? Do they know that the turnout in the May 5 special election to replace Kilpatrick, in which Bing first won the mayoralty, was only 15%?

Then there is the city’s deficit, estimated to be approximately $325 million. And the city’s median income, which in 2008 was $28,730—the lowest of any major city in the country.

Are you having fun yet, Mr. Mayor?

“He didn’t know the whole scope of it until he actually got in there,” Yvette says. “He knew it was bad, but he didn’t know it was as bad as it is.”

At least the hours stink. Bing usually arrives at his office by 7 a.m. Some days he gets there before most of his staff. The first thing he does is make the coffee: pot of regular, pot of hazelnut. Bing does not drink hazelnut coffee. But some of his staffers do, so he makes it.

By the time he gets back to his condo for dinner, 12 hours later, Bing is mayored out. Yvette asks about his day, and he cuts her off: I don’t want to talk about that stuff. Then he sits on the couch and watches a game or a movie.

“He probably has some days where he lays up at his place on the river and says, Hell, this is some crazy s—,” Beckham says. “It’s a thankless job.” It’s so thankless that people wonder, What can he get out of this?

Kilpatrick seemed to treat city government as his personal ATM. His reign featured a credit-card scandal, a luxury-SUV scandal, a security-team scandal, a petty-cash-fund scandal, a nonprofit-foundation scandal, a cronyism scandal, a fire-the-whistleblowers scandal and of course a sex scandal, the last of which he covered up by lying under oath and settling a lawsuit with $8.4 million of city money.

Kilpatrick finally resigned in September 2008, then served 99 days in jail for obstruction of justice. But more scandals from his mayoralty may be forthcoming. Federal agents are still investigating other instances of alleged corruption in Kilpatrick’s administration.

Bing was an early supporter of Kilpatrick’s, but was also one of the first business leaders in Michigan to call for his resignation. He is the anti-Kilpatrick: While Kilpatrick appeared to revel in his celebrity, Bing has a subdued personality and little use for the trappings of the mayoralty. Nobody has accused Bing of using his new office for financial gain. He isn’t even taking a salary.

And yet there is a segment of the city that remains suspicious of him. In southeast Michigan, one of the most racially and economically divided areas in the country, they say that where you live is a political statement. Bing’s home was an easy target. It led to charges that Bing is a puppet of suburbia, a rich wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Some people wonder if he cares—if he understands. Bing and his supporters point to his well-documented work in the community. He built his business in the city when conventional wisdom said he should start in the suburbs. He built affordable single-family homes in Detroit for little financial gain. In 1989, when the Detroit Public School district announced that all sports programs would be eliminated because of a budget crunch, Bing wrote a check for $250,000 then raised $150,000 more to save them.

He has done more than his share to help the city. But that’s not what the skeptics mean when they wonder if he understands. They want something deeper, more personal. They want to know he has bled.

II. LOSING

After his victory became official, Bing held a brief press conference downstairs at the Doubletree. Somebody asked him if he would reach out to the unions. “It needs to be reciprocal,” Bing said. “They have painted me as a bad guy, and somebody who doesn’t care about people.”

He was miffed. Why would they say that? True, Bing had terminated 16 of the city’s 51 union contracts. And he laid off more than 400 people. And he hinted that he was just getting started. But firing people … what the heck did that have to do with caring about them?

Hadn’t these union leaders ever heard of George Trapp? He was one of Bing’s Pistons teammates, and after they both retired, Bing hired Trapp to work for one of his auto-parts companies. Trapp wasn’t getting his work done. Bing fired him.

What about Campy Russell? He was another friend from Bing’s NBA days. Bing hired and fired him too.

Curtis Rowe, same thing: He played most of his career with Bing, went to work for him at Bing Steel, then got fired.

Bing told them all, and dozens of others, when they were hired: Do your work or you’re gone. It needs to be reciprocal. If they wanted a free ride, they were on the wrong train.

They should have known that about Bing. Where was his free ride when he ran down a street in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood, tripped and fell, and a nail plunged into his left eye? He was five years old. He has had fuzzy vision in that eye ever since.

He earned a basketball scholarship to Syracuse with that bad eye, became the second pick of the 1966 NBA draft, made three All-Star teams. Then, in a 1971 preseason game with the Pistons, Bing got poked in his right eye. He had a detached retina. People said his career was over. Who plays guard in the NBA with two bad eyes? Bing came back three months later.

His old teammates say he was never the same player again after the eye injury. He had blind spots in his field of vision. It was most apparent on the fast break, when he couldn’t even see some open teammates. No, Dave Bing was not the same player after that second eye injury. But he did play seven more years and make four more All-Star teams.

One year his road roommate Willie Norwood decided to test Bing’s vision. After Bing went to bed, Norwood took his teammate’s glasses off the nightstand. Bing woke up to go to the bathroom and ended up in the hallway.

“I’ve not once in my life ever heard him complain about it,” Lanier says. “I mean, not one time.”

Those old NBA friends—Trapp, Russell, Rowe—misjudged him. Maybe they thought Bing was too forgiving to fire them. Maybe they remembered how he felt about Jimmy.

Jimmy Walker is gone now—his friends like to think he is up in heaven, looking for a nightclub. He was a wild man, Jimmy. “A free spirit,” Bing says. For five years they shared the backcourt in Detroit—the best in the NBA, they believed.

Jimmy had a sweet jumper and an ahead-of-its-time spin move and a never-ending supply of wild oats. He would drink and carouse all night, sleep all day, then hang 25 on the Lakers. “Amazing stamina,” Bing says.

The Pistons roomed Jimmy and Dave together on the road, hoping Dave could reel him in a little, but that was like trying to net a pack of butterflies. Walker was traded to Houston in August 1972; five months later Jalen Anthony Rose was born in Detroit. Jimmy was Jalen’s biological father. Jimmy was a lot of kids’ biological father. “I hear that number is in the teens,” Rose says.

Jalen’s mother, Jeanne Rose, was a key puncher for Chrysler. His father was invisible; Jalen never saw him. But his father’s backcourtmate was around. Bing kept tabs on the kid, taught him what he could. “Like a godfather,” Rose says. For years they talked about everything but Jimmy. “That was not something we heavily stressed,” Rose says. “Or discussed. Or even acknowledged.”

Rose went on to be a star at Southwestern High. Jimmy was never there, but he was always with him. Rose chose number 42 because it was the reverse of the 24 that Jimmy wore with the Pistons. Jalen wanted to play like his father and get famous enough to let Jimmy know who he was.

When Jalen reached high school, Bing gave him a job working on a steel press and moving cargo; and it came with the same warning everybody else got: Do your work or I’ll fire you. Jalen learned, “When the lunch truck pulls up, there is no taking cuts because you got a good jumper.”

Ask him if he was ever angry at Jimmy for ditching the boy, and Bing says, “If you knew Jimmy, you couldn’t be angry.” He says that Jimmy was “beautiful” and that he loved him. Bing never said a bad word about Jimmy to Jalen, and it is impossible to know exactly what effect that had on the boy. But eventually Jalen picked up the phone and called Jimmy. Jalen was not bitter anymore. He was ready to meet his father.

It never happened. Jimmy, who spent most of his post-NBA days bouncing around from city to city, died of cancer in the summer of 2007. Rose, who had just retired after a 13-year NBA career, went to the funeral in Kansas City. There were only a few dozen people there. A few were Jimmy’s kids—at least, biologically. Jalen sat with siblings he’d never known as they mourned a father they’d never had. Jalen was stunned. Dave Bing was there to console him.

III. DRIVING

The mayor of Detroit folds his own laundry. He makes his own bed. He could have hired somebody to do this stuff years ago. His wife says she would do it. But they know that won’t work, because she won’t do it as well.

“I don’t know what it is,” Yvette says. “I tried to watch. But his looks better than mine.”

He’s been this way forever. Nobody else can meet his bedmaking standards, so he makes the bed. Everything in his life is in order. He abhors clutter. You’ll never see yesterday’s newspaper lying around. Sometimes Yvette will buy him a jogging suit, and he’ll wear it again and again for three months, then give it away. Nothing hangs in his closet unless he still wears it.

Bing lives like he played basketball: hard, without flash. As a player he never talked trash. Boeheim remembers going through pickup games and fall practice with Bing at Syracuse. Bing never dunked. Then, in the first game, Bing threw down a two-handed jam. Boeheim was stunned. Where did that come from?

As an NBA player Bing read books voraciously, usually about business. He spent his off-seasons working at the National Bank of Detroit and Chrysler. After he retired in 1978, at age 34, he went straight to work for a firm called Paragon Steel, with the goal of learning the business and starting his own company. He founded Bing Steel, which became the Bing Group, and aimed to make it a billion-dollar-a-year business.

Other players put their names on basketball camps, then show up to give a speech, run a clinic or two and farm out the rest of the duties. Not Dave Bing. He went to his camp in the Poconos, built friendships with the kids, then had them over to his house in the winter—or dropped by their houses.

One of the kids, a 14-year-old named Benny White, went on to play at Michigan State, then worked for Bing Steel. By 1986 White was making $80,000 a year as an executive sales rep. “Tailor-made suits, taking customers to the Red Wings’ games, living the life,” White says. “But I started to feel empty.”

White told Bing he was quitting the business to be an assistant coach at Albion (Mich.) College. The job paid $9,000 a year. Dave went nuts. Is this why he mentored White, hired him, even lived with him for a year? So White could go coach a game?

“He called me a fool—with a few more other names too,” White says. “He was just through with me.”

For a month the two didn’t speak to each other. Then White wrote a letter explaining his decision, and Bing said he understood. White would come back to and leave Bing’s company three more times.

Employees at the Bing Group learned quickly: The workday starts at 8 a.m. Not 8:05; not after you finish your doughnut and catch up with the guy in the next cubicle. Bing’s world was built around achievement. Sometimes he would pay for somebody to go to college, even if he didn’t know the kid. He’d call his own children together, even when they were young, for formal meetings. Cassaundra, Bridgett, Aleisha, come here. It’s time to talk about estate planning.

Every Saturday at 8 a.m. Bing would get up and turn on the stereo. He always played the same song: Wake Up Everybody, by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. His daughters still know the lyrics by heart.

Wake up everybody no more sleepin’ in bed

No more backward thinking, time for thinkin’ ahead

The world has changed so very much

From what it used to be

There is so much hatred, war an’ poverty….

By the time Melvin got to the chorus (The world won’t get no better … if we just let it be), Bing would be peeling back the sheets on his daughters’ beds. Wake up, everybody. Time to do your chores.

IV. THINKIN’ AHEAD

When he was 12, Dave Bing went to a playground in his D.C. neighborhood to play baseball. He didn’t know what position he would play, so he took two gloves: a first baseman’s mitt and a glove he used at shortstop.

He looked out on the diamond and saw a boy fielding ground balls at second base—barehanded. The kid’s name was Elmer Sylvester Winters. He was small, so the other kids slapped a nickname on him: Tadpole. Then they shortened it. They called him Tap.

Bing kept one glove and gave the other to Tap. By the time they went to Spingarn High together, they had reasons to drift apart. Tap was a self-described D student, while Bing excelled in school. Tap went on to Fayetteville (N.C.) State College for a year and came home; Bing went to Syracuse for four years and moved to Detroit. Tap got a job with the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation and stayed there 30 years; Bing, of course, went from basketball to business and made himself a multimillionaire.

Bing says he and Tap have “nothing in common.” Yet they have been the best of friends for almost half a century. Tap was the first to learn what many have since figured out: Dave Bing might wince when you get traded to Houston and neglect your kid in Detroit; he might call you a fool when you take a pay cut; and, yeah, sure, he might fire you. But he never crops you out of the picture.

Of Bing’s closest friends, Tap is one of those few who encouraged him to run for mayor. “If I had a chance to run for mayor, I’d run for mayor too,” Tap says. “Like Forrest Gump: Run, man, run.”

Can Bing bring Detroit back? Nobody knows. Some days even he seems to have his doubts. Detroit is a big city with more big problems than he can count. Bing can’t fold all the laundry and make all the beds.

But he will try. He says he thinks of himself as a statesman, not a politician. He seems almost to take pleasure in telling people what they don’t want to hear.

He will take on the unions and slash the city payroll. He will try to put more cops on the streets. He has pledged to improve school safety and keep more kids in the classroom; to cut the number of city bank accounts in half and reduce discretionary spending; to maximize federal stimulus dollars; to diversify the city’s economy; and to consolidate and reduce city-owned real estate.

He hired Benny White as his youth advocate, and former teammates have held campaign fund-raisers. Former Detroit Northern High, Syracuse and NBA star Derrick Coleman is the new commissioner of the Public School League. Bing gets advice from old NBA colleague Bill Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey.

Bing recently sold his stamp-and-assembly business. The steel company is about to be dissolved, another victim of the auto industry’s crisis. He still has his medical-supply business, but as he pushes 70, Bing is waist-deep in his third career. He may have been a hesitant mayoral candidate, but he will not be a hesitant mayor.

Last Friday, as he gave his inaugural address to a large crowd at Detroit’s famed Fox theatre, Bing’s voice never wavered. “From Day One, I’ve made the tough but necessary choices to put our city on track,” he said.

Two months before, he had sat in his office and said he had started to get into the lower levels of city government, to see who was getting the job done and who wasn’t. He knew what they didn’t: He was going to fire some of them. He has known some of these people for years. He said that doesn’t matter.

They would be fired like George Trapp and Campy Russell and Curtis Rowe were fired. Dave Bing’s two bad eyes didn’t even blink when he said it. A few weeks later, Bing announced a reorganization of his cabinet. He took a significant amount of power away from Charlie Beckham, his longtime friend. The two plan to continue their weekend tennis matches.

Detroit is his business now, and he will run it like his business. He will start his workday at 7 a.m., whether his staff has arrived or not. Winter has come to the most downtrodden big city in America. Somebody has to make the coffee.

ASSIGNMENT DETROIT
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