LIFE LESSONS FROM A MAN OF STEEL

Dave Bing has made the leap from NBA star to successful businessman
August 18, 1991

Far too many African-Americans wind up on the athletic scrap heap, and even those who make it to the pros are often ill-equipped for life after their careers end. This is a story about an exception, a black athlete who used his conspicuous success in professional sports as a springboard to equally laudable accomplishments as a businessman, philanthropist and civic leader. Although few young blacks should realistically hope to follow the same route to economic success, Dave Bing is, in one respect, an excellent role model. Early on, he understood that success in life involves much more than making jump shots or scoring touchdowns.

There's always something crazy going on in the Motor City. On July 20, it was the discovery of the body of a 15-year-old girl, on fire, in a city trash bin. The girl, a cheerleader at East Catholic High in Detroit, had allegedly been strangled and torched by a 19-year-old friend, who was charged with first-degree murder.

Dave Bing, the former Detroit Piston guard who was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 1989, shakes his head and clenches his jaw as he ponders the news. Bing, 47, now the CEO of Bing Steel and two other Detroit companies, is seen as a knight of hope in a city that needs hope as badly as a desert needs water. Societal forces and global business trends have conspired against Detroit. White flight to the suburbs after the 1967 race riots, the decline of the U.S. auto industry, the collapse of the city's housing market, the twin whipsaws of drug use and the disintegration of the black family—all have helped turn Detroit into a sinkhole of chaos from which little escapes. "America is in bad shape," the city's mayor, Coleman A. Young, has said. "Detroit is in worse shape." Indeed, a recent story on the city in U.S. News & World Report reported that in Detroit "spectacular crimes have become a kind of civic tradition."

"It's a very sick society," says Bing, meaning Detroit specifically but also much more. "The breakdown in so many things, the meanness, the callousness—life itself doesn't seem to matter. Drugs have been here so long that you wonder if they have altered people's minds."

Bing says this quietly, as he says most things. Then he adds, firmly, "All of us have a responsibility to reinstill the moral fabric in our young. But we can't save everybody. Forget rehabilitation; let's prevent. Somebody's gonna lose, so cut your losses. I don't want to waste my resources on those who are lost."

Bing's bottom line: Do good while doing well. Save Detroit, but save money, too. Bing is a Samaritan, a man with a heart the size of a bucket of pig iron, but he is first and foremost a capitalist. He works 75 hours a week, 60 on business, 15 on charity. Sundays are reserved for himself, to attend the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in midtown Detroit and, as he says, "get energized with the singing, the sermon, the fellowship"; to read novels, business periodicals and the Bible; and maybe to play some tennis. He is as good a role model for young men of any color as you are likely to find, but he is particularly important to young African-American athletes. But Bing—and he'll tell you this right off—ain't no charity. No sir.

"I'm in business to thrive, not survive," he says. "If I'm a role model, well, it's largely because I have a big payroll, I spend time in the community and I'm successful. I've never yet seen a role model who was broke, bankrupt and out of work."

All of which Bing has nearly been in the 11 years since he started Bing Steel, a firm that had $61 million in sales last year and thus was ranked 10th in the nation among black-owned industrial and service companies by Black Enterprise magazine. In recent years he has added Superb Manufacturing, a metal-stamping company with gross sales of $28.4 million in 1990 (31st on the Black Enterprise list), and Heritage 21, a $3.6 million construction firm, to his enviable business stable. His companies employ more than 300 people, but these are not easy times.

"Gross sales," says Bing with a chuckle. "That doesn't mean diddly. We almost lost it all in the last 12 to 18 months. I'm in this business because I like it. But when people say, 'Would you do it over again?' you don't have to be a genius to say, 'No.' "

Detroit should thank God that Bing did it once. While he was scoring more than 18,000 points for the Pistons, the Washington Bullets and the Boston Celtics, and averaging a 20.3 points a season in his 12-year career, nine with Detroit, he was always checking things out, reading "two or three hundred [books] while we traveled," he says. In essence, he was preparing for life after basketball. During the off-seasons, while his teammates played golf, Bing worked at a bank, for the Chrysler Corporation, for the now-defunct Paragon Steel company. He learned about finance, business, the art of the deal.

Part of his motivation for off-season work was purely economic. Though he was the second player chosen in the 1966 NBA draft—he had been a first-team All America at Syracuse—his first contract with the Pistons was worth only $15,000 a year. "I never did tap into the big money," he says. "My biggest contract was $225,000, in 1977 with Washington, and then I took a $35,000 cut to play for the Celtics my last season."

Even at the beginning of his playing career, Bing was helping people, working with charities, adopting "little brothers" in Detroit's Big Brothers program. The first of those youngsters was Benny White, who was 14 when Bing was 23. White eventually graduated from Michigan State and became one of Bing's first salesmen at Bing Steel.

The company was launched on sweat, prayers and more than a little money from Bing's own pocket. The company deals in processing, warehousing and delivering rolls of steel, which it sometimes sells to Superb Manufacturing, which punches the metal into auto parts. The two companies are "between 90 and 100 percent dependent on the auto industry," says Bing. Heritage 21 does well when cars are selling, too. Thus, if Detroit does well, so does Bing.

But there's far more to Bing than making a buck. He cares about people generally, and specifically about people on the down-and-out. He grew up in a poor, all-black part of Washington, D.C., the second child of working-class parents. No one would have been surprised if he had failed. "But I had a mother and father, and they had old-fashioned values," he says. "I had caring neighbors and an extended family. Things worked out for me, and I'd like to see them work for others."

His concern for his workers—78% of whom are black—is apparent every time he walks through one of his plants, shaking hands, patting workers on the back, calling them by name, asking about their problems. He treats them well. "I'll never pay just minimum wage, never," says Bing.

Any kind of good news in Detroit is grand news. So now people are talking seriously about Bing for mayor. Young, who will be 75 at the next election, in 1993, is rumored to have tacitly anointed Bing as his successor. Will Bing run? "You think about it," he says. "But my responsibilities are to my companies and my people."

And Bing plans to expand. He stands outside the Superb factory, a sparkling new 56,000-square-foot facility near Chrysler headquarters on Detroit's ravaged west side, and gestures at the adjoining 28 acres he bought from the city in 1987. His goal is to turn the vacant land into an industrial park, with assembly, plastics and painting plants to complement Bing Steel and Superb.

For Detroit, this would mean more jobs, more self-esteem, more purpose for its citizens. "I want to bring people back from the suburbs," says Bing. "If we turn our backs on the central city, we turn them on our kids. And if we do that, we all lose."

Other black former athletes who have succeeded in business are aware of how many of their brethren do not make it. "I've seen the danger firsthand," says erstwhile Detroit Lion running back Mel Farr, now a prosperous car dealer in the Detroit area ($84.3 million in sales in '90) and one of Bing's closest pals. "My best friend for years was running back Billy Sims. When he got injured, he hit rock bottom. The guy went bankrupt."

"You know there's life after football, but you don't take it that seriously," says Drew Pearson, the former Dallas Cowboy wide receiver who's now president of Drew Pearson Enterprises Inc., a sports-licensing and sportswear manufacturing company in Addison, Texas, that had sales of $11.3 million last year. "You're so engrossed in making it that you lose reality. At the end of my rookie year [in 1973], I realized I had made $22,500 for the year and had spent most of that already. That woke me up. I realized that what I made in football would never be enough to get me through life."

Former NBA star Elvin Hayes, a successful car dealer in Cleveland, Texas ($11.9 million in '90), adds, "There's no $100,000 job waiting just because you once shot a basketball."

Bing's biggest obstacle was getting financial assistance to start his steel business. "Because I was a high-profile former athlete," he says, "people thought I was already rich and, of course, spoiled, lazy and stupid. You know, we as Americans have done a damned poor job of protecting our own people, our values, our cities. And now here come the Japanese!"

Bing doesn't do business with Japanese companies, because he thinks they have taken from the U.S. without giving back—a Bing no-no. "My employees can't drive foreign cars," he says. Bing also believes that Japanese businessmen do not like American blacks "because of what we've let ourselves become." He understands that attitude, however unfair it may be, because he knows there was a time when Americans did not take the Japanese seriously, either. "Then, bam!" he says. "In 10 years they got 35 percent of the auto market. They look at things long-term, not short-term, the way we always do."

Bing had the ability to think long-term even when he was young. Much of that skill was instilled in him by an exceptional coach at Spingarn High in Washington. Dr. William Roundtree, now a Baptist minister, taught his basketball players that team-work was all. In Bing's senior year seven players on the Spingarn team averaged in double figures. "If I'd had a different philosophy, David could have scored 40 points a game," says Round-tree. "But he believed in me, and I believed in esprit de corps."

Two years ago Bing spearheaded a drive to raise $600,000 to save the sports, music and arts programs in Detroit's public high schools. He believes the money was well spent. "All these things will come back to benefit all of us in the community," Bing says.

"I just idolize Dave Bing," says Bob Lanier, the Piston center during much of Bing's career who now operates a promotional merchandising business in Milwaukee. "He had such wisdom, and all he did was give people encouragement. He is just blessed with being able to endear people to him, to lead."

Bing is a quiet, congenial man, but the fire in him burns hotter than even he may realize. Once during a Piston home game, for instance, he threw his 6'3", 185-pound body at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and slammed home a monster jam. Why? "He was just there," says Bing with a shrug.

"Man, he rocked whole Cobo Hall," recalls Lanier. "My in-sides were exploding. He could just blow your mind!"

Bing went to Syracuse mainly because he was recruited by Ernie Davis, the 1961 Heisman Trophy winner who played football and basketball for the Orangemen. Bing's college roommate for a couple of years was Jim Boeheim, now the basketball coach at Syracuse and a man who credits Bing with teaching him, the hick from Lyons, N.Y., to act with dignity and polish. When Lanier joined the Pistons in 1970, he talked management into letting him room with Bing on the road so that he could learn from the older man. "He was my mentor," says Lanier. "We'd just sit around and talk about life."

"A lot of what I've gotten is from luck," says Bing. "But there are no shortcuts. I used to study my opponents hard and work on my conditioning all the time. You have to do that in life, too."

He tells the same things to Derrick Coleman, a former Detroit schoolboy who once worked at Bing Steel and is now a forward for the New Jersey Nets. Last season, Coleman was voted the NBA's Rookie of the Year, just as Bing had been 24 years earlier. Coleman has long looked to Bing as a father figure, and Bing took some heat from the NCAA for allegedly buying Coleman meals while Coleman was an undergraduate at Syracuse. (The NCAA is still investigating other charges against the Orangemen.) "They're not gonna tell me I can't buy a kid a meal," says Bing. "I can tell them to go straight to hell. They ought to have better things to do."

Bing has been married and divorced twice. He is currently single and living in a downtown condo. But he and his former wives are on good terms, and his three grown daughters love him dearly. Two of them work for Bing's companies, and the third, Bridgett, says, "He was always even-tempered, even with three girls. I could see him as mayor. He wouldn't be any different."

Bing sits at a table near the dais at a convention center in Atlanta, listening to Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson deliver a rousing speech on social injustice to several thousand people at the National Urban League's annual convention. Sitting at the same table is William Pickard, CEO of Regal Plastics in Roseville, Mich., and chairman of the 1990 NAACP dinner in Detroit that raised $1.1 million for the organization. Bing has agreed to chair next year's dinner. He looks at Pickard with a grin. "That means I have to raise $1.2 million, doesn't it?" he says.

Pickard smiles and nods.

Bing focuses again on Jackson, who grabs a glass of water and cools his flaming rhetoric. Jackson talks about business and its possibilities for helping people without jobs and without hope. He describes the Bush Administration's economic policy as a disaster for "average Americans." He says, "The real problem is not the bad guys, it is that the good guys have gone to sleep."

With that, Bing applauds loudly. Some of them are awake.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRABlNG'S BOTTOM LINE: DO GOOD, DO WELL. IN 1990 HIS STEEL COMPANY HAD SALES OF $61 MILLION. PHOTOLANE STEWARTDURING HIS NBA CAREER BING (21) PREPARED FOR LIFE AFTER BASKETBALL. TWO PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRAPEARSON (ABOVE) OWNS A SPORTSWEAR AND SPORTS-LICENSING BUSINESS; FARR HAS SUPERSUCCESSFUL CAR DEALERSHIPS. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

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