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A Quiet Innovator

No bombast, only results in NBA and NHL for Davidson

June 06, 2004|Larry Lage | Associated Press

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — The owner of the Detroit Pistons was sitting courtside, watching his team in the playoffs. In front of his seat was a small TV, allowing him to keep tabs on the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Not that Bill Davidson was bored with the basketball and needed to catch up on the NHL playoffs. He just happens to own both teams.

"It was nothing special," said Davidson, shrugging his shoulders.

For those who know the 81-year-old billionaire -- "Mr. D," as he's called -- his low-key reaction to having teams simultaneously contending for titles in two sports is no surprise.

"Most people relish the opportunity to talk when things are going well," said Tom Wilson, the Palace Sports and Entertainment president and chief executive who has worked for Davidson since 1978. "That's just not his style."

The Pistons are in the NBA Finals for the first time since winning a second consecutive title in 1990. Detroit opens against the Lakers tonight at Staples Center.

It's not unheard of for an owner to have more than one major pro sports franchise. In fact, pizza mogul Mike Ilitch owns the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings. But Davidson is set apart from other owners -- and not just because of his success this year.

Owning sports teams is a hobby for him. Selling glass made Davidson Michigan's richest man, with a net worth of $1.9 billion, according to Fortune magazine.

Most of Davidson's fortune comes from Guardian Industries Corp., a major manufacturer of glass products for construction and auto industries and fiberglass insulation. The privately held company had revenue estimated in 2002 at $3.95 billion.

"For any successful organization or business, you have to have integrity," said Davidson, who has more than 19,000 employees. "And you have to make everything as straightforward as you can make it."

The Pistons and Lightning are part of Palace Sports & Entertainment, whose other holdings include the Palace of Auburn Hills, DTE Energy Music Theatre, the Arena Football League's Detroit Fury and the WNBA's Detroit Shock, which won the championship last season.

Davidson loves to watch the Pistons -- he shuns the luxury suites for a seat on the baseline near Detroit's bench -- but he shows all the emotion of somebody listening to a professor's lecture.

"I'm not going crazy inside, because I've been doing this a long time, so I just take everything in stride," said Davidson, who has seen the Pistons win two titles since buying the team in 1974. "I enjoy every minute of the game, and I'm excited, but you're not going to see me jumping up and down."

Davidson bought the Lightning in 1999, but he doesn't attend many Tampa Bay games.

"While he doesn't necessarily make the trip down and see us here, he watches the games," Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster said. "He is certainly very quick to talk about us when I talk to him, talking about the team and the players.

"He has been very, very supportive. He's a pleasure to work for, because he is not in the kitchen all the time with the cooks."

Joe Dumars played for Davidson during the Pistons' "Bad Boys" era and now runs his basketball team.

"Mr. D. is the best owner in sports, and I can say that because I deal with him every day, and I hear horror stories about other owners," Dumars said. "He gives you whatever you need to be successful. We were the first NBA team to have our own plane, and we were the first to have the new type of arena you see everywhere in the league now."

Davidson moved the Pistons into his new facility 30 miles north of Detroit, the Palace, for the 1988-89 season, when they won the first of two consecutive titles.

"Not a dollar of tax money was used to build this building that cost about $90 million, which was by far the most expensive privately financed building at the time," said Wilson, adding that Davidson had no plans to sell the arena's naming rights.

The address for the Palace changed from 2 Championship Drive to 3 Championship Drive when the Shock won its title. The Detroit Fury has advanced to the playoffs twice in its four seasons.

Davidson is known for more than just his sports and business enterprises. A New York Times article listed him as one of America's most generous donors. He gave away more than $80 million in the 1990s alone, including a $30-million gift to the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1947.

In 1999, he and his glass company donated $20 million to an international science research center and graduate school in Israel.

Davidson ran track at Michigan and played football in the Navy during World War II. He was among the first inductees into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and went into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in March.

Davidson prefers not to talk about himself. For every interview he does, he turns down dozens and makes no apologies.

"I just don't want to be a public figure," he said quietly. "I don't see any point in it."


Associated Press writer Jim Irwin in Detroit and AP sportswriter Fred Goodall in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.

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