We have seen it in the past with several former white professional athletes, who, after calling it a career, transition to the world of politics. People like former miler Jim Ryun, football stars Jack Kemp, Jim Zorn and Heath Shuler, and basketball players Bill Bradley and Tom McMillen. Now it looks like Black athletes have caught the political bug. Most recently Kevin Johnson, who played for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns a good portion of his career, was elected mayor of Sacramento, California. Now NBA Hall of Famer Dave Bing has qualified for a run-off election to determine the next mayor of Detroit.
For those old enough to remember, the name Dave Bing was as synonymous with the Motor City as Motown, General Motors and Ford back in the sixties. The shooting point guard from Washington, DC came to the Detroit Pistons via Syracuse University, where he was an all-American and had his number retired. He spent 12 years in the NBA, most of them with the Pistons, and distinguished himself as Rookie of the Year in 1966, a perennial All-Star and elected to the pro game’s Hall of Fame. Bing was also named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all time.
Bing was a popular figure in Detroit, a city whose fans are loyal to their Pistons, baseball Tigers, football Lions and hockey Red Wings. The hoops great has been a fixture in Detroit since his playing days and has been involved in the community throughout his years in the city. Bing played during an era when NBA players were not paid much, even those like him who were the superstars of the period, so he was a management trainee at a bank during the off-season and took part in an auto dealer training program. When he retired from the game he took a job will a local steel company in the area of public relations but became disenchanted because he sensed he was hired simply due to his celebrity. He enrolled in the company’s management training program and left after two years to start his own company, Bing Steel. The company supplies steel to the auto industry.
Bing Steele has become one of the nation’s most successful Black businesses although it got off to a rocky start since it was launched during a recession. After losing money Bin g Steel landed a contract with auto giant General Motors and things began to turn around. Soon, the company reached profitability and expanded into four companies now known as the Bing Group, all supplying the automotive industry. The Bing Group has been consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top Black businesses by Black Enterprise magazine.
Bing steps into a hornet’s nest with his pursuit of the mayoralty in Detroit. The city has been hit with the double whammy of scandal and economic crisis. Its former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, once a rising star who held great promise, was caught in a salacious scandal with his chief of staff, revealed by steamy text messages and exposed in a trial around the firing of police officers. The police involved claimed their dismissal was due to their knowledge of the affair between the mayor and his aide. Kilpatrick was eventually forced to resign, convicted, imprisoned and recently released.
If that were not enough, Detroit has had to wrestle with the implosion of the automobile industry and the recession. Cities across the country have been devastated by the economic downturn but Detroit has been steamrolled. The auto industry was Detroit, and the tens of thousands of auto workers in the city and places like Pontiac, were middle class and the backbone of the local and state economy. The marginalization of the city did not occur overnight, it was a slow burn as the Big Three automakers lost market share over time and eventually the confidence of the American consumer. It was bad enough that the car companies were in decline but their downfall also affected a supply chain of companies that fed the auto plants with parts and materials.
Dave Bing steps into the fray with his basketball legacy intact, but also a distant memory to many Detroiters, but his skill as a successful businessman relevant for a city that has fallen on hard times. Detroit has seen a variety of leadership styles in its Black mayors, from the combative Coleman Young to the more centered Dennis Archer to the hip-hop influenced Kwame Kilpatrick. However, none of them have could trade upon the celebrity of a storied professional sports career in the city or the track record in business that Bing brings to the table. It is that experience building a business and employing local residents that Bing is hoping will convince voters to send him to City Hall.
So far, he appears to be winning voters over. Going into this past Tuesday’s election, Bing had about $170,000 in his campaign coffers, far more than his rivals. In fact, his prime opposition, Mayor Ken Cockrel, who succeeded Kilpatrick, had just under $10,000 after spending almost a half million dollars for ad placements for the February 24 election. Bing received 29 percent of the vote, compared to Cockrel’s 27 percent. Voter turnout was reported to be an underwhelming 15 percent. The two men must now face each other May 5 in the city’s general election. Each candidate will be challenged to provide a vision for a city that has a $300 million deficit, 18.6 percent unemployment, rampant crime, and a faltering delivery system for city services.
One of the key issues will be economic development and that could play into Bing’s hands. The expansion of the Cobo Center convention hall, where Bing’s Pistons played, has already taken center stage with Bing claiming Cockrel has mishandled the matter; alluding to an ugly fight in the Detroit City Council over the expansion plan. The convention center is seen by many people as an important element in stimulating business in the city. Mayor Cockrel identified it as a priority in his recent “State of the City” address. The mayor also pointed to the construction of a light rail line along the city’s Woodward Avenue as a high priority item.
In the next few months Dave Bing will have an opportunity to follow Kevin Johnson’s lead and call the shots at City Hall. Win or lose, Bing, like Johnson, could be the leading edge of an emerging trend of retired Black professional athletes who trade upon their popularity and post-career activities to enter the political arena. For some Black communities it could create a new dynamic as individuals, with access to money and have high name recognition, and who are not bound by old allegiances, change the dynamics of city politics.