Catching Up With...Dave BingThis article originally was originally published in the February 2007 issue of Basketball Times
Dave Bing is not only a Syracuse legend and a member of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List; he is also a very successful entrepreneur and a community leader. His company, the Bing Group, has annual sales well in excess of $300 million, making it one of the largest African-American owned corporations in the United States. Bing showed his determination and perseverance at a young age, overcoming a serious injury to his left eye that he suffered as a child. “My parents couldn’t afford to get me into the hospital for an operation, so it just healed naturally but it left me with blurred vision,” Bing recalls.
Bing grew up in Washington D.C., which was a hotbed of basketball talent, and he honed his game by watching and playing against many outstanding local players. His favorite player as a youngster was Elgin Baylor: “We were from the same high school and the same neighborhood. Obviously, there was a big difference in our sizes, but Elgin was the kind of player who I tried to model my game after, trying to understand how to play every facet of the game. When I was coming up in D.C. we had an unbelievable amount of great players at both the high school and college levels--John Thompson, Tom Hoover, Ollie Johnson, Freddie Hetzel, Marty Lentz. Then there were the guys at Notre Dame: Austin Carr, Sid Catlett, Collis Jones, Kenny Carr. All of us are from the same area—plus Fatty Taylor and Bernie Williams—so we kind of grew up together and played against each other. When we left D.C. we were ready.”
Bing averaged 22.2 ppg and led Syracuse to a 17-8 record and an NIT berth in 1963-64, his first varsity campaign. His roommate that year only averaged 5.2 ppg but he would develop into a pretty good player and an even better coach: Jim Boeheim. “Jimmy was one of those players who was just totally underrated,” Bing says. “He came to Syracuse as a non-scholarship player and he did not get a scholarship until his sophomore year. We roomed together as sophomores and juniors and became very good friends and talked basketball quite a bit. It was evident to me way back then that Jimmy would become a good coach. He was a steady player. He was smart in that he knew how to get open and he was a good shooter. Whenever I drove to the basket he was smart enough to get to the open spot and he could put it down. He had a very good senior year (14.6 ppg, .565 shooting from the field).”
The Orangemen were ranked seventh in the nation prior to the 1964-65 season but started out just 2-8. Syracuse rallied to win 11 of its last 13 games but a 13-10 record was not good enough to qualify for postseason play. Bing averaged 23.2 ppg, including 45 points—then a school single-game record—in a triple overtime win over Colgate.
Bing and Syracuse bounced back to have a fantastic 1965-66 season. He ranked fifth in the nation in scoring (28.4 ppg) and was a consensus All-American, helping the Orangemen to set an NCAA record by averaging over 99 ppg. Syracuse began the NCAA Tournament by defeating Davidson, 94-78. “Davidson also had an All-American player, Dick Snyder,” the 6-3 Bing says. “There was a big thing about Snyder going against me but we played two different positions so we never really guarded each other. Davidson also had a couple of really big guys. One of those guys—who was about 6-10—went up for an easy shot under the bucket at the beginning of the game and I came up from the other side and pinned the ball against the backboard; I think that set the tone for that particular game. I can remember that play pretty vividly. We won and we moved on to play Duke, which was obviously a great team. I didn’t realize until I became a pro that the guy who set up the defense against Syracuse was none other than Chuck Daly. Chuck reminded me that the whole game plan for Duke was to double or triple team me to make sure that I wouldn’t score points. He said, ‘You were an unselfish player, so we knew that if we got the ball out of your hands that we had a good chance of winning.’” Duke ended Syracuse’s run with a 91-81 win in the Sweet Sixteen.
The Detroit Pistons selected Bing with the second overall pick in the 1966 draft. He averaged 20.0 ppg and 4.1 apg en route to winning Rookie of the Year honors. Bing led the NBA in scoring (2142 points; 27.1 ppg) in his second season, ranked fourth in assists (509; 6.4 apg) and joined Oscar Robertson on the All-NBA First Team. For six straight years, Robertson and Jerry West had been the First Team guards. Bing got his first taste of NBA playoff action that year, facing the Boston Celtics, who had won nine of the previous 11 NBA championships and had four Hall of Famers in their lineup (Bill Russell, Sam Jones, John Havlicek and Bailey Howell). Bing was not intimidated by the prospect of competing against them: “The fortunate thing is that during that second year I had an outstanding year, so I wasn’t really that nervous when I got into the playoffs; you’re young and you’re not afraid of much of anything. I surely had a tremendous amount of respect for the Celtics and Russell in particular.”
Detroit took a 2-1 lead in the series but Boston won the next two contests, setting up an elimination game for the Pistons at home in game six. Bing struggled in the first half, scoring just seven points, but he set a franchise playoff record with 37 second half points (his 44 total points are also a franchise single-game playoff record). One moment in particular stands out for Bing from that game: “I’ll never forget one time when I drove to the hoop and made a basket and Russell said, ‘That’s the last one—don’t come back in here again.’ I was smart enough to pay attention to him and shoot in between jump shots or long jump shots and didn’t go back to the basket to challenge him.” Despite Bing’s heroics, Boston closed out the series with a 111-103 win and went on to win the championship. Bing’s anecdote seems to suggest that Russell not only affected and intimidated lesser players but also the very best players in the game. Asked if that is an accurate statement, Bing replies simply, “Absolutely agree.”
Bing ranked among the league leaders in scoring and assists in each of the next three seasons, but the Pistons failed to qualify for the playoffs. The Pistons seemed poised to have a good season in 1971-72: Bing was coming off another All-NBA First Team selection, second year center Bob Lanier was about to become one of the league’s top players and the Pistons had narrowly missed the playoffs in 1970-71 despite posting a fine 45-37 record. These hopes came crashing down when Bing suffered a detached retina in his right eye during the preseason. “The team of doctors basically asked me not to think about playing again—but at the age of 27 and the top of my career, I never gave that a second thought and I was able to play another seven years,” Bing says. “I wasn’t the same player. I think that I became a better all-around player but never the prolific scorer that I was before that injury. I had to play the last seven years of my career with blurred vision, basically, in both eyes.” He missed a total of 37 games and the Pistons’ record plummeted to 26-56.
Bing found a silver lining in his plight: “I had to concentrate more on other phases of the game and I think that’s what made me a better all-around player. I wasn’t the scorer that I had been prior to the eye injury but I think that my assists went up, my free throw percentage went up and I became better defensively and I think that just because I couldn’t see as well and shoot as well that I focused on other parts of the game.” He shot over .800 from the free throw line for three straight years, a level of accuracy that he had never achieved prior to having the detached retina, and Bing had four of his five best apg averages after suffering that injury. How did he improve his free throw shooting despite his vision problems? Simple—free throw shooting is different from field goal shooting because it involves a fixed target and there are no defenders, so just by improving one’s concentration and mental focus one can shoot quite accurately from the free throw line even if the rim looks a little blurry.
Bing only missed a total of three games in the next three seasons. Lanier became the team’s top scoring threat but Bing was a solid number two option (averaging 22.4, 18.8 and 19.0 ppg) in addition to ranking third, sixth and second in the league in assists in those years. The Pistons endured a heartbreaking 96-94 game seven loss to the Chicago Bulls in the 1974 playoffs and lost to Seattle in the first round of the 1975 playoffs. What is the difference between being a good, solid NBA team and being one of the teams that seriously contends for an NBA title? “Number one, I think that you have to be very fortunate in having the right kind of role players,” Bing replies. “Almost every good team has a star or two, but you have to have good role players. Then, I believe that you have to be lucky that you don’t have any major injuries. All of the good teams have injuries because the season is so long and your body gets torn up and worn down but the timing of injuries is important. You will see that a lot of the good teams are healthy in time for the playoffs and they will usually have their best players available for the championship series. But I think that the most important thing outside of having good players is making sure that you have the right kind of role players. At this level it is very easy to get jealous of each other because somebody is getting all of the press and whatever else. The good organizations, the good coaches and the good teams know how to get players to play their roles.”
The Pistons traded Bing to the Washington Bullets just prior to the 1975-76 season. He won the 1976 All-Star Game MVP and helped the Bullets make the playoffs in 1976 and 1977 before finishing his career in 1978 as a Boston Celtic. Some players struggle to adjust to life after their playing careers end, but Bing prepared for several years to make the transition as smooth as possible: “In my era, the kind of dollars that were paid then would not set you up for the rest of your life, so I had to work in the off-season and get some training. I continued to do that even as my basketball career progressed and improved and I made more money; I continued to work in the off-season, which I think was the best thing for me because it allowed me to get exposed to business and get exposed to people outside of basketball. I think that was very helpful. You have a lot of downtime as a professional athlete, so I always read a lot to try to make sure that I improved my vocabulary. I tried to understand the principles of business. I think that all of those things helped prepare me for the eventuality of retiring from the game and moving into another career.”
Bing applied the knowledge that he learned to found his own company, Bing Steel, in 1980. Bing Steel purchased steel from various mills and shaped it to order for its customers to use in creating their own finished products. Bing had just four employees when he started operations but he did $1.7 million of business in his first year. President Ronald Reagan later honored Bing as the National Minority Small Business Person of the Year. Bing eventually became involved in manufacturing and real estate and renamed his company the Bing Group.
Not surprisingly, Bing does not think that current or retired players should be content to entirely hand over their financial affairs to others: “I don’t think that you should ever depend on somebody else to manage everything for you. You have to accrue a certain amount of knowledge yourself. Letting other people manage your money is not a problem as long as you know how to manage them. Make sure that you understand money, finance and banking. I don’t think that it is a matter of intellect at all but we become lazy. We don’t check—we are too trusting in some cases, also. There are a bunch of guys who take advantage of that and I don’t blame them 100%; I blame us for not keeping them in check in some cases. One of the tough things now is that we have so many young guys who don’t have four years of college and maturity. They are coming out of high school or after their freshman year of college and they are getting exposed to a lot of things that they don’t know about.”
Bing wishes that current players had a better understanding of how to transform their tremendous income into tangible economic power: “I think—and one of the things that I have said at different player conferences—that most of the guys today, particularly the star players, because of the money that they are making today, are entities unto themselves. There are a lot of businesses that don’t make the kind of money that these guys command on an annual basis. One of the things that I push for is that if four or five of these high paid players would get together they would have enough capital, enough assets, to be able to go out collectively and buy Fortune 500 companies. They could really make a real difference in urban America—and make money doing that. We just have to get these guys to think differently.”
In 1992, Bing, Archie Clark, Dave Cowens, Dave DeBusschere and Oscar Robertson founded the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). Bing is proud of the work that this organization has done and has high hopes for its future: “During my career I always had a great deal of respect for Oscar Robertson just based on the superstar status that he had and how he cared about the lesser player—it wasn’t about Oscar. I had the chance to play with (Dave) DeBusschere when I first got to Detroit and then at the end of my career, my last year, I had a chance to play with Dave Cowens. Archie Clark broke into the league at the same time that I did and Archie is from the Detroit area, so we had a good relationship. The five of us decided that we needed to do something for those players who started the NBA. Those players, because of the timing, did not participate in our pension fund. Those players are at an age when they need to live out the rest of their lives in dignity and not have to worry about begging for money. We made it a point to not only recognize them for the things that they did to make things a little bit easier for us but also to make sure that they could live the rest of their lives with dignity.”
Just as Bing prepared for his retirement from the NBA, he is keenly aware that he will not always be in charge of the Bing Group: “I am in my 26th year in the business. The real key for me right now is to finalize the succession plan. I have three daughters who are in the business and some managers who have been with me for a long time. The key for me now to be successful from a business standpoint is to make sure that there is a solid succession plan.” That does not mean that Bing is resting on his laurels: “In the city of Detroit I have gotten into development. We are building homes and we also have a big development on the riverfront near Cobo Arena, the arena that I played in (with the Pistons). We are about to start construction on 111 high level condos and that’s going to be one of the first high level condo developments on the riverfront in Detroit. We are pretty excited about that.”
Bing is still an avid basketball fan: “Chauncey Billups is a guy who plays the whole game and plays the game the way it should be played. I enjoy watching him. Maybe some people feel that the guy out in Los Angeles (Kobe Bryant) has lost some of his appeal but I think not; I think that he is probably one of the most gifted players that I have seen in a long time. Kobe comes to play and he’s got all the skills. Most recently, Dwyane Wade is another one who comes to mind. It’s unfortunate that T-Mac has been hurt in the last few years because I think that he is a tremendous talent, also. Even though he is nearing the end of his career, Jason Kidd would be another one who could play in any era.”
posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 AM