Book excerpt: How Detroit Pistons legend Dave Bing found fuel during breakout rookie season

Detroit Pistons legend and former Detroit mayor Dave Bing shares his personal stories in his new book, "Attacking the Rim: My Journey from NBA Legend to Business Leader to Big-City Mayor to Mentor." He shared this excerpt with the Detroit Free Press:

By the end of those three demanding weeks in training camp during my rookie season in 1966, we were all in great shape, because we had just run our tails off. That camp was, of course, a reflection of our player-coach, Dave DeBusschere. Dave was a tough, smart player who had earned a reputation of leaving it all on the floor in every game. He was driven and relentless, and what he demanded of us was nothing less than what he asked of himself. He was also a hell of a player, aggressive, a good shooter, and a strong rebounder and defender. As I said, tough and smart, but he was also a very down-to-earth, everyday kind of guy. The title of coach had not gone to his head, and he treated himself as a player just like everybody else on the team.

[ New book 'Attacking the Rim' details Dave Bing's triumph over obstacles ]

Being a smart player was something I had always prided myself on. I was always looking for an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, trying to pick up tendencies in their game. That way I could play to my own strengths and minimize my disadvantages. For example, throughout high school and college I had never told anyone about the accident I had at age 5, in which a nail had penetrated my left eye and left it with little more than the ability to see light. And I was not about to start talking about it now as a pro.

Dave Bing played 12 seasons in the NBA, primarily for the Detroit Pistons (1966–75). He was a seven-time All-Star who in 1996 was named one of the NBA's greatest players of all time. His No. 21 is retired by the franchise, and after basketball he was elected mayor of Detroit in a special election in 2009. Bing won the full-term mayoral election on November 2009, defeating challenger Tom Barrow.

With no peripheral vision on my left, I was more prone to take someone off the dribble to the right, but that was something I kept to myself, and somehow my quickness made up for that tendency. And I had long ago learned to turn my head on a swivel to check with my coach on the sideline or find my teammates as I crossed mid-court or settled into a play sequence. And overall, the lack of that lateral vision did not seem to seriously limit what I could do.

Over the course of my NBA career, I would be one of only three players who, at that time, averaged more than 20 points and six assists. The others were Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.

But at the moment in training camp, I was trying to win a starting guard position. The holdovers from the previous year were Eddie Miles from Seattle and Tommy Van Arsdale from Indiana. Eddie was a scorer, the best shooter on the team, and both of them were big, strong guys, 6-feet-4, 6-5, 220 to 225 pounds. It was clear from the beginning that I was too quick for either one of them. Yes, when we played half court, they were so damn big, they tended to beat me up. But when we went to full court, in game conditions, I was too quick, too fast, and neither one could stay with me.

Our exhibition season included a couple of games against the Celtics, who had Sam Jones, one of the league’s top guards. It's true the veterans didn’t play a lot until the last couple of games, but I played very well against everybody and was our leading scorer. And I heard that the word was out to the teams we’d be playing soon: You better get ready for this new young Piston guard. He can really play.

So to say I was disappointed when I learned I would not be starting in our first regular season game would be a gross understatement. I was shocked and hurt. Certain I had outplayed everybody in the exhibition season, I just couldn’t believe DeBusschere had decided on Eddie and Tom, the guys who were the starters before I got here.

I said nothing to anyone, but Eddie and Ray Scott must have sensed what I was feeling. Eddie was the player I was closest to. We had become friends during that August transition period and our families had gotten to know each other. We had talked about playing the backcourt together and just figured we’d be starting. And so both Eddie and Ray said something to me about not getting down, that things would turn around. Ultimately, all it did was make me fan the fire. "You think I’m not good enough to start," I thought to myself, "whenever I do get the chance, I’ll show you how mistaken you are."

Our opening game was in Cincinnati against the Royals and the great Oscar Robertson. Oscar was one of my heroes, and I was just in awe. Whenever I’d seen him play, I had marveled at his skills and that quiet but intense demeanor on the court. So when I finally got the call to come off the bench and get on the floor, I was so amped up and, honestly, so taken with Oscar’s presence on the floor, that I was pressing. In fact, I pressed so hard that it became one of the only games in my career in which I didn’t score. I went 0-for-6 from the field and missed the only free throw I had.

For the most part, Oscar and I were not matched up head to head. Because of Oscar’s size — 6-6, 230 — Eddie guarded him. But Oscar was such a smart player that he’d always use picks to create situations where I had to switch and take him, and then he’d clear the floor. You could just see him thinking, “OK, I got this rookie, and he’s a mouse.” If you were a smaller guy, they used to call you a mouse. Some of the guys would call out, “Got a mouse in the house.” But Oscar said nothing. He’d just back you down, and he was so big and strong, there was nothing you could do. Plus, he had that big-time reputation, so who was going to get all the questionable calls? The rookie? No, it was Oscar every time.

I suffered through a terrible night on both ends of the floor, but no one was calling me out or rubbing it in. Yeah, there were guys who would run their mouth back then — Dick Barnett with the Knicks comes to mind — barking things like “You can’t guard me” and trying to get into your head. But trash talk wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. And for the most part, guys in the league respected each other and didn’t try to embarrass other players.

In the heat of the game, Oscar said nothing to me. Actually, he saved all his venom and curses for the officials. He always let them know when he was unhappy. He was really hard on the refs, and maybe that was another reason he got all the calls.

After the game, when Cincy had beaten us, and we were walking off the floor, Oscar came over to me. He shook my hand and said, “Look, you just had a bad day. Your shot was off. I know you can play, and you’ll do well. So don’t worry about it.”

I said, "thanks," but could hardly find another word. For Oscar to say that to me meant a lot. That was the beginning of our long and deeply valued friendship, and many years later Oscar would induct me into the NBA Hall of Fame.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing talks about his restructuring plan for the city of Detroit in his office at Coleman A. Young Municipal center in Detroit, on Dec. 14, 2012.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing talks about his restructuring plan for the city of Detroit in his office at Coleman A. Young Municipal center in Detroit, on Dec. 14, 2012.

In the locker room, my teammates told me not to worry. “It’s over, it’s done, so be ready for the next one. We know you can play.” And back at the hotel, I knew they were right. Despite the bad night, my confidence was not shaken. Yes, I had missed my shots, but somehow I knew I was going to be OK, and I vowed to never again be so awed by a superstar.

I was looking forward to the next game, once again against Cincinnati. But this time we returned home for our opening night at Cobo Arena, and I couldn’t wait, because I had something to prove. Not so much to myself but to all the fans in Detroit who had never seen me play. All that disappointment had welled up again after New York passed over me with the No. 1 pick and the Pistons feeling they had to settle for second best — that, too, fueled my resolve. Oscar’s running mate was Adrian Smith, and from what I’d seen in that first game, I felt he couldn’t guard me.

Now, the Pistons were not a great franchise at the time. They had some good, steady players, but no big star or marquee types. Even DeBusschere, though solid, well-rounded and respected, was not the kind of guy who created a lot of excitement. Neither was Ray, and while Eddie’s shooting could produce a hot streak, he was not the consummate guard.

No, at Cobo, halftime was when all the stars came out. Of course, I’m talking Motown. The company was still dominant then, and a lot of its star performers were big-time basketball fans. They’d all come down — Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Dramatics, Smokey Robinson and my old playground pal from D.C., Marvin Gaye — and they were all big fans. When they came, they’d put on such an incredible fashion show that you thought you were at some kind of Hollywood ball. The players wanted to get out of the locker room at halftime just to see who was strutting their stuff. I had never seen anything like it.

With so many people so close to the court, Cobo was a different place to play. Hearing those fans respond to your game and picking up everything they were saying, practically every word, was something new. They were certainly not afraid to tell you what was on their mind, if you didn’t play well, or just made some dumb move. They were all over it. Everybody there was a coach and on your case.

Fortunately, that first night, again coming off the bench, I had a decent game, scored 12 points and we won. That was my introduction to Detroit, and I began to connect with those fans. I hit a couple of shots early on, and they got behind me. They saw I could drive to the basket, I could jump, and I could hang. Being both quick and fast, I could go baseline to baseline, and I was good one-on-one. So those Detroit fans began seeing things they had not seen from our players before, and I could hear people saying things like, “Oh, my God, look what he did!” And, in turn, hearing that convinced me again that sooner or later I’d be starting and everything between me and the Pistons was going to be OK.

There was energy in that building, and I was feeding off it. Frankly, I think players who say they pay no attention to the fans are skirting the truth. I didn’t know those people close to the floor, but they made me feel comfortable, energized, and at home. And then the Motown folks were all over the place at halftime and made things even more festive. I’m sure a lot of people also came down to see them. Especially on an opening night like that one, it was one big happy family.

Over the next 15 games, I continued to come off the bench. I averaged more than 15 points a game, and that included several highlight performances: 25 at San Francisco, 21 against Philly, 23 in another home game against Cincinnati, 28 at Los Angeles and 20 against the Knicks. Finally, for Game 18 on Nov. 18, a month into the season, I got the call to start for the first time against the L.A. Lakers, who brought another of my idols, Jerry West, to Cobo Arena.

If there was anyone I had modeled my game after, it was West, since we were similar in size and his skills were remarkable. A great outside shooter, he also drove to the rim, played tough defense, and was just a marvelous all-around player. In that game we weren’t matched up, because UCLA’s Gail Goodrich and I were guarding each other, and I pretty much ran him ragged. My first step was explosive, I scored 35, with seven assists and eight rebounds, and we beat the Lakers, 121-118.

On nights like that, I felt so quick; I thought there was no one who could keep up with me. And afterward, West praised my game, saying I had a great future in the league. He thought it was impressive that I could play so fast, yet always seem under control, especially for a rookie.

As a team, the Pistons were doing a little better than the previous season and playing close to .500. Over the next few weeks, we would beat the vaunted Boston Celtics three out of four times, and their legendary player-coach Bill Russell also had kind things to say. The most intimidating defensive center of all time called me fearless in driving to the basket.

How to buy the book

Book title: "Attacking the Rim: My Journey from NBA Legend to Business leader to Big-City Mayor to Mentor"

Author: Dave Bing.

Publisher: Triumph Books (November 2020); 304 pages.

Price: $28.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Dave Bing book excerpt: How Detroit Pistons legend broke out as rookie