Bill Davidson Documentary: A Powerful Patriarch and His Bad Boys

March 28, 2019, 5:44 PM by  Joe Lapointe

Bill Davidson and Isiah Thomas

The new documentary “Call Me Bill” lasts 93 minutes and shows many entertaining, enlightening glimpses of the former Pistons’ owner William Davidson, who died in 2009 with three National Basketball Association championships.

But the film’s highlight is an 82-second clip of recordings from the legendary Boston Celtics’ radio announcer Johnny Most, who describes Davidson’s “Bad Boys” Pistons in the late 1980s. (See video below.) 

“We’re starting to see the `bang-bang’ stuff now,” Most growls into the microphone.

Those rugged Pistons included Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. They battled a Boston team led by Larry Bird.

 “Rodman is all over Bird,” Most says. “There is a violent, VIOLENT knockdown by Laimbeer. OH, MY! A completely unnecessary foul by Laimbeer – and he has the audacity to complain about something.“

The screen shows Most at the broadcast table with a headset on his ears. This image alternates with various Pistons knocking down various Celtics.

“They have been called a dirty ball club and I can see why!” Most continues, volume rising. “This is typical, a typical DISGUSTING display by Rodman, Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas! The yellow, gutless way they do things here!”

The 'Boys' are back in town

Those Bad Boy Pistons are returning to Detroit on Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena when the franchise celebrates the 30th anniversary of the 1989 and 1990 championships.

They will be honored when the current Pistons host Portland while seeking their first playoff berth in three seasons and hoping to become the only Detroit pro team in three years to qualify for post-season play.

The next night, the Davidson documentary will debut in a private event. It also will be shown to the public May 2 at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield. (Tickets.)

Both audiences will hear the car-horn voice of Most honking: “And now the other Lord Fauntleroy’s coming in. . . . Mahorn, the guy who hit people from behind. . . . I have a great deal of contempt and disrespect for this kid now because of the blind-side swipe he took at Bird.”

Although the team’s first two championships were won at what was then the new Palace of Auburn Hills, videos shown over Most’s voice are mostly from before, when they played in the now-demolished Pontiac Silverdome and sometimes drew crowds of 60,000.

You can see the translucent ceiling in the background as the camera looks up from flattened Celtics writhing on the floor. Both teams wear tight shorts that look like swim trunks.

“And it was Dennis Rodman!” Most shouts, after a foul is called, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “And he sneers because he didn’t do it! Because he’s a goody, good boy! He wouldn’t do something nasty like that!”

Most, who died in 1993, seems unhappy overall with what he calls “miserable Detroit media people” who, he says, “called me `Jerk of the Week.’

“Well, fine,” Most says. “I’ll be a jerk of the week – but I’ll be myself. I wouldn’t be like them for all the money in the world.”

Family and business

Indeed, Davidson’s Bad Boys – managed by Jack McCloskey and coached by Chuck Daly – were like hockey’s “Broad Street Bullies” who won two Stanley Cup championships for the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Pistons had not released a list of which players from the Bad Boys would attend and which would not.

If the old players stay for the film debut Sunday, they will see a bifurcated project, really two narratives in one. The first half is dominated by Davidson’s family roots, beginning in 19th Century Ukraine, when Jews were purged in antisemitic pogroms.

Black-and-white scrapbook pictures show the family settling first in Iowa, then Michigan. Mixed in are recent video clips of his relatives describing Davidson as a bright, competitive and mischievous boy.

Two of them are his sister, Dorothy Gerson, and his son, Ethan Davidson. His sister calls him “a devilish kind of kid.” Ethan says he’d heard his dad would skip Hebrew school to “play dice in the alley.”

“I used to cheat at tiddly-winks,” Bill says at his induction into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

In a more serious section of family history, Davidson tells of taking over the Guardian Industries automotive glass business in the 1950s from an unnamed cousin at the insistence of his family.

“The cash began to slowly disappear,” Davidson says. “And it was obvious at some point that my cousin was not quite the honorable member of the family . . . He had to go . . . Eventually I threw him out.”

The family section of “Call Me Bill” is warm and loving but not quite as exciting as the basketball part, which dominates the second half of the film.

Fort Wayne, Olympia, Cobo Arena, Silverdome

This segment opens with a fabulous clip from an old newsreel called “Basketball Techniques Starring Boston Celtics, coached by Red Auerbach, and Fort Wayne Piston Zollners coached by Paul Birch.” (No, the screen doesn’t call them the “Zollner Pistons,” their actual name then).

Zollner moved the Pistons to the Detroit Olympia in 1957, to Cobo Arena in 1962 and sold the team to his mother’s Miami neighbor, Davidson, in 1974, while they walked by the Atlantic Ocean.

Bill Davidson: "I used to Cheat at tiddly-winks."

Davidson bought the club in part because he couldn’t buy the Tampa Bay franchise in the National Football League.

From that era, “Call Me Bill” shows film clips of Pistons’ star guard Dave Bing – later Detroit’s mayor – playing before a few fans and many empty chairs in 11,200-seat Cobo. Bing recalls fondly the Motown recording stars who showed up and mingled at halftime.

In those days, Ethan Davidson says, fans came up to his father at his courtside seat to throw beer and popcorn at him while urging him to sell the team.

Bing also alludes to the “big issue in the City of Detroit” when Davidson moved to Oakland County in 1978. But there is nothing about Davidson’s dislike of Mayor Coleman Young, a major factor in the move.

Either Bing diplomatically dodges the touchy subject or such talk ended up on the cutting room floor. The movie is produced by his son Ethan Davidson and his wife, Gretchen.

Nor is anything made of the disastrous Dick Vitale era.

For one full season and the beginning of a second – at the start of their 10-year Silverdome residency -- the former University of Detroit coach controlled Davidson’s franchise on the court and in the front office.

He made many disastrous decisions.

After building a record of 34-60, Davidson fired him and drove to his house to deliver the news personally – an act of kindness.  Vitale went on to a more successful career as a college basketball broadcaster.

In that Vitale is rarely at a loss for words, it might have been good to hear from him about this chapter, if only briefly.

More glossing over

Among other historic topics overlooked are:

  • The Bad Boys leaving the floor in a huff and without the traditional handshake after being eliminated from the 1991 Eastern finals by Michael Jordan’s ascendant Chicago Bulls;
  • The Malice in the Palace brawl between ornery Detroit fans and the Indiana Pacers in 2004 when the Pistons were defending their third championship. (The Pacers’ primary pugilist, Ron Artest, later named himself Metta World Peace.)
  • The controversy when both Thomas and Rodman said Bird was overrated because he was white. This came after the angry 1987 Eastern Conference finals following Detroit’s Game 7 defeat in the Boston Garden.

The segment on Most begins with an establishing shot, appropriately jittery, from an elevated train approaching the now-demolished Garden. Most’s radio tirade in the film may well be from that 1987 series.

The following spring, 1988, the Pistons beat the Celtics in the Eastern finals but lost the championship round to the Los Angeles Lakers. A year later, they beat L.A. to take their first title.

Chip on a city’s shoulder

The documentary compresses much of Pistons’ history – before and after the Bad Boys – into brief glimpses. Summarizing with a narrative arc is Tom Wilson, the president and chief executive officer of the Pistons under Davidson.

He recalls how media coverage of sports three decades ago differed from today’s era of the internet and sports-talk radio.

“You had three televisions stations,” Wilson says, “and people actually read the newspaper.”

Detroiters identified with the Bad Boys, Wilson says, in part because “we sort of feel we’ve got two strikes against us” just for being in Detroit.

“The team kind of reflected that,” he adds. “They were a tough team. They played hard. Some would say dirty. A lot would say dirty.”

So: Fans fond of charming biographical documentaries about family love, successful immigration, cultural assimilation, religious devotion, entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen should be sure to see at least the first part of “Call Me Bill.”

But if you wish to relive and revel in memories of blood-boiling sports enmity, that proud Motor City chip-on-the-shoulder attitude and those memorable championships of long ago, stay patient for the second part of “Call Me Bill” and check out those Bad Boys back in the day.

See the film May 2

“Call Me Bill: The William Davidson Story” debuts at a private event Sunday night in Detroit and to the public on Thursday, May 2, in the Berman Center for the Performing Arts of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd. in West Bloomfield. (Get tickets.)

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