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Original Issue


Since 1949 Fred Zollner, owner of the Detroit Pistons, has juggled players, coaches and general managers in search of a winning team. This year he may be close to the right combination

It is somehow fitting that the name of the Detroit Pistons' coach is Butcher. During 18 years in the NBA the Pistons have yet to win the league championship, and they have not won even a divisional title since 1956, when their home was Fort Wayne. Since moving to Detroit the following year, the team has never had a .500 season, and in the past four years it has finished last, last, next to last and last again in the Western Division.

It is not as if the Pistons' management had not tried harder. Owned by millionaire Fred Zollner, who is known around town as the Big Z, the Pistons are generous to players, honorable in their dealings, classy in grabbing a tab, dying to field a winner and, alas, sensationally given to lousing themselves up. The Big Z has been a sparkling success as an industrialist, bank director and board chairman of Tri-State College, but as a basketball boss he has consistently rolled snake eyes.

Logically enough, Detroit has steadily treated the Pistons as a civic embarrassment, yet the big news in town this year is that the team is winning. Under new Coach Donnis Butcher, the Pistons have been over .500 all season and are currently third, behind the 76ers and Celtics in the Eastern Division (divisions were realigned this year when the Seattle and San Diego franchises were admitted). Anyone familiar with gracious Fred Zollner must root for the Pistons to continue winning, but anyone aware of the club's tradition must wonder what method the organization will find to destroy itself this time.

Fred Zollner is the perfect man to own the Pistons, not only because he can afford them but because he has been able to endure them without once raising his voice. Zollner, going on 67, is short and stocky, a dapper man sporting peak lapels, a silk shirt, a constant tan and an unruly coiffure that suggests he is about to mount a podium and conduct Beethoven's Ninth. He is the sort who would not harm a fly; rather than swat one, he would catch cold holding the door open till the fly got ready to leave. Considerate to one and all, Zollner turns to his general manager, a moonfaced man named Ed Coil, and says, "In 11 years I've never hollered at you, have I, Ed?" Coil, just as all but one of the Piston general managers before him, came into the job with absolutely no background in pro basketball. He was an auditor in the Zollner Corporation, which manufactures pistons in Fort Wayne. His predecessor as general manager, an ex-sportscaster named Don Wattrick, was the one executive with basketball experience, having played semipro in the 1930s for—no kidding—the Hamtramck Belmont Trenchers. In the fall of 1965 Wattrick died of a heart attack—shortly after reviewing Piston prospects in preseason training, Detroit fans add morbidly.

"So I prevailed upon Ed Coil to accept the job," Zollner explains, as though he had lured Red Auerbach. "To show you what kind of fellow he is, he sold his house and moved to Detroit." Deeply grateful that a hired hand would accept a transfer, Zollner exclaims, "He sold his pride and joy!"

Zollner's own pride and joy is a red brick factory complex where 1,300 employees turn out nothing whatever except thousands upon thousands of silver-colored, bowl-shaped pistons—big pistons for air compressors, medium-sized pistons for trucks, little pistons for lawn-mower engines and classified pistons whose destination only the high command knows—$30 million worth of pistons a year, all told. Surrounded by pistons, Zollner is able to march through his plant and know that practically every soul there loves working for him. The pay is tops and the shop is air-conditioned. Twice union organizers have forced recognition elections, and twice they have been walloped. In the 35-year history of the Fort Wayne plant, not one salesman has resigned or been fired. "A workman is worthy of his hire," intones Zollner. "Hi, Fred!" the workers call out.

Fred does not want to be called Mr. Zollner. Born in Little Falls, Minn., he came from humble beginnings himself. His father, Theodore Zollner, an inventor and manufacturer of machinery, had to struggle, for he lacked capital and sales know-how. It was his son Fred who, at age 24, put the family firm over the top. One of its customers, a nearby bus line that sawed Packards in two and converted them into buses, had run into trouble obtaining a suitable piston from an eastern manufacturer. So Fred Zollner designed a better piston and sent it East. The response, he says, was: "What does that kid in the sticks know about pistons?" Rebuffed, the Zollners themselves began making pistons for the bus company, and as the bus line burgeoned through a merger and became the Greyhound Corporation it carried The Zollners along in its prosperous wake. In 1931 father and son moved to Fort Wayne, a central location for shipping.

In 1937, responding to a request from the boys in the shop, Zollner decided to sponsor a company basketball team. Because he offered good jobs to new players, the best talent in industrial basketball came to his door at a fast dribble. "We rarely lost," Zollner says, "and since we were playing neighboring industries, we were making enemies instead of friends."

That being the case, Zollner turned the team pro, enrolling it in a Midwest circuit—the old National Basketball League—in 1941. The coming of World War II made the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, as they were then called, as successful an athletic organization as there was in the land. The country was full of topflight athletic competitors who, because they were working at draft-deferrable jobs, did not have to join the Army and go to war. Working in the Zollner plant by day, they could indulge their competitive instincts by night. Zollner's basketball team dominated the NBL four straight years.

He eagerly joined the new NBA in 1949 and in his efforts to win a championship he has run through nine coaches, five general managers and enough money to build an annex to his piston plant. Is the goal worth the pain?

"I have quoted MacArthur in our programs," Zollner answers. " 'There is no substitute for victory!' " Yes, but hasn't the road been terribly rough? " 'Every dollar a man brings home is won in battle with other men,' " says Zollner, quoting again. The source of that quotation, he explains, is Andy Gump.

Wielding a forceful hand in every aspect of the Pistons' affairs, Zollner has changed coaches, front-office lieutenants and players like a man flipping the dial on a safe in hope of lucking onto the combination. Yet the men who have passed through Zollner's revolving door go away wishing him well. Paul Birch, a Piston coach in the early '50s, says Zollner instructed him to get tough with the players. Fired three years later because Zollner considered the team "a little overdisciplined," Birch nevertheless says, "I like the man. He's for mankind." Earl Lloyd, once the club's head scout and assistant coach, hoped to become the sport's first Negro head coach, but Zollner twice passed him by, convinced the players weren't ready for a Negro coach. "Mr. Z has a tremendous amount of integrity," says Lloyd, certain Zollner did not act from personal prejudice. Nick Kerbawy, a banished general manager who sued Zollner for $5½ million, says of him, "He loves the game, and he's a great asset to the NBA."

Indeed, to the NBA, Zollner has been square old Pop who always comes through when you write home for money. During the league's years of growing pains Zollner helped keep it afloat by lending it large sums, while many clubs failed to pay their dues. He asked no concessions for his vote when the league gerrymandered its territorial draft to allow Philadelphia to select Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas University and to swing Ohio State's Jerry Lucas to the new Cincinnati Royals. "I try to vote on what I think are the ethics of a situation," he says.

In return for all his efforts his fellow owners have spit in his eye. With the excuse that the Pistons had a private plane in which to get about, the NBA awarded them the worst schedule, the tight, grueling trips that grind a team down. When the territorial draft was about to expire two years ago, Zollner pleaded for its extension in one form or another, so that he might satisfy local pressures and draft Michigan's Cazzie Russell. He was voted down. "I asked for a special favor and didn't get it, so I wasn't wronged," reasons Zollner.

Flying back and forth between Detroit and his two residences—a Tudor manor in Fort Wayne and a dazzling oceanside ranch-style home in Golden Beach, Fla.—Zollner has remained something of a mystery man to the city of Detroit ever since he moved his club, uninvited, to their city in 1957. Fort Wayne, he had concluded, could not support pro basketball; Detroit, Zollner soon learned, was damned if it would. He was suspected of being a nomadic fast-buck artist. Columnist Doc Greene's widely read essays in The Detroit News did not help. Wrote Greene: "As a charter member of the Hockey Haters' Association of America, it is my unpleasant duty to inform [its members] that perhaps we are hating the wrong sport. Two or three nights of professional basketball could make a hockey fan of you."

Zollner started right out by dropping $200,000 and maintained that pace the next season. Meanwhile, he turned to the children of Detroit, hoping to breed a new generation of basketball fans. He admitted them free or for as little as 50¢, and in a move widely interpreted as an effort to make liars of the city's youth, he offered a cornucopia of prizes to those kiddies who best completed the sentence, "I like the Detroit Pistons because...."

All the while Zollner kept refueling his critics by racing out on treacherous limbs and crashing on his face. "In all of my business activities I'm a nonconformist," he says. "I do what in my own mind I think is right." He had come to Detroit with Charley Eckman as his coach. Eckman, previously a referee, had never coached, but Zollner was convinced he was the man to "loosen the chains" that tough Paul Birch had fastened around the players. Subsequently, Zollner learned Eckman's theory of coaching: "You don't have to teach these pros anything. Just give 'em the ball and let 'em play."

Twenty-five games into the Pistons' first season in Detroit, Zollner got rid of noncoach Eckman, replacing him with a sheet-metal salesman, Red Rocha, whom he ordered to spend 15 minutes before each game explaining pro basketball to the fans. Though Rocha took the Pistons to second place, neither the team nor his lectures stirred the public. "Piston games," says one Detroiter, "were known as a place where you could take your girl and sit upstairs for 50¢ and neck in privacy."

Zollner decided strength was needed in the front office. For his first general manager he had hired an itinerant press agent-promoter-newspaperman who had once spieled for a Miss Universe pageant in Long Beach. Now he wanted a larger figure. Nick Kerbawy cared no more about pro basketball than he did about sumo wrestling, but as general manager of the Detroit Lions, then champions of the NFL, he knew everybody in town worth knowing. So Zollner invited him to his hotel suite, picked up a sheet of hotel stationery and jotted down an attractive offer.

"I went home," Kerbawy recalls, "and phoned my lawyer, Buck Giles. and said, 'This Zollner is making strong overtures to me. Let's set up severe conditions and knock him out of the box so he'll quit bothering me.' "

The next day Kerbawy returned to Zollner's suite and handed him a typewritten list of preposterous demands. He wanted $15,000 annual salary, plus a $3,000 annual bonus, to run the ball club. He also wanted 20% of the club's gross profits before taxes. He would need an expense account and an auto. Additionally he wanted the title of vice-president of industrial relations for the Zollner Corporation, at $25,000 per year. The contract would run 19 years, taking Kerbawy to age 65, and pay him a minimum of $819,000 in cash. Then he would get $400 monthly retirement pay.

"I accept every point," Zollner said.

Kerbawy remembers turning to the window and muttering, "Oh, hell."

Calling a press conference, Zollner predicted that Kerbawy's new job "should be the only position he will need the rest of his life." Events proved this prediction perfectly accurate—indeed, from where Zollner sits, sickeningly accurate.

Midway into Kerbawy's third season, Zollner received reports that his general manager had drifted afield and had involved himself in a proxy fight between two factions of Lion stockholders. The rub was that Kerbawy reportedly was soliciting proxies in opposition to a faction that included William Clay Ford, brother of Henry Ford II, who was buying lots of Zollner pistons. Zollner ordered Kerbawy to take a six-month leave of absence, with pay. In the end, Kerbawy collected his pay for nine months, then promptly sued Zollner for impeaching-his reputation. After asking $5.5 million, he settled out of court some three years later for $255,000, 40% of it tax-free, and today says that his 2½ seasons as Piston general manager were worth $600,000 to him. Once again Zollner had been a help to mankind.

In the meantime he tried a new tack with the Pistons. He always had retained a veto over player trades and draft selections, but in 1963 he invested complete authority in a new coach, Charlie Wolf. "We got a break in being able to steal Charlie away from the Royals," Zollner told the press. Actually the Royals had left the house unattended with the windows wide open; apparently disenchanted with Wolf, they had not even bothered to take him to the draft meeting. At any rate, Zollner announced, "He's the kind of take-charge guy I've been looking for."

Wolf took charge with gusto. He led the players in calisthenics and urged them to climb stairways to second-level hotel lobbies instead of using escalators. He enforced curfews with the tenacity of a headmistress of a girls' college. The Pistons won 23 games, lost 57 and finished a well-disciplined last.

Wolf moved quickly to rebuild. The Pistons desperately needed a big man, and they were to get first pick in the draft. Head Scout Earl Lloyd recommended 6'10" Willis Reed, an unheralded prospect from Grambling, or, if not him, 6'9" Lucius Jackson. No, said Wolf. He personally had scouted the U.S. Olympic tryouts and had become infatuated with flashy Joe Caldwell, 6'5". "We felt we needed someone who was exciting," Wolf explains. He drafted Caldwell (who, after little more than one exciting season as a Piston bench warmer, was traded to St. Louis for small change), while superfind Reed went to New York and strongman Jackson to Philadelphia.

The rebuilt '64-'65 Pistons lurched to two victories in their first 11 games, whereupon Zollner replaced his take-charge guy with a 24-year-old player, Dave DeBusschere, then only two years out of Detroit University. A handsome, dimpled bachelor, DeBusschere was the only head coach in major sports who could dance the jerk and the monkey. He could also throw a baseball well enough to have appeared in 36 games as a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. What he could not do was lead the Pistons into a playoff, and after three seasons he asked to be relieved as coach. His assistant, Donnis Butcher, was given the job.

Butcher started this season in an awkward spot. Paul Seymour, the former Baltimore coach, was named as his assistant, and it was generally assumed that as soon as the Pistons went bad—and that figured to be very soon—Seymour would take over. Now, with the team in third place after 20 games, ahead of the New York Knicks and Cincinnati Royals, Butcher's job seems secure, at least for the moment.

A number of things have combined to make the Pistons winners this year. Center Joe Strawder has been aggressively gathering in rebounds. Former Coach DeBusschere and last year's rookie star, Dave Bing, have been averaging close to 30 points a game. Terry Dischinger, a top player before going into the Army for two years, is back and playing well. The team, lacking height, has been playing a pressing defense—"like a pro football blitz," says Butcher—that has rattled many teams. The Pistons are not yet ready to beat the 76ers or Celtics, but when you consider their past record, third place is never-never land.

There are times when it seems that Zollner's interest in pursuing an NBA championship is waning. He appears at fewer and fewer home games. Instead, he goes fishing. In his 48-foot air-conditioned cruiser he pursues blue marlin off the Bahamas and sips Scotch at the Bal Harbor Club. Regulars at Cobo Hall remember seeing him chain-smoking away at only six or so games last season, and only two this year. Is the Big Z tiring of the Pistons? Would he ever sell them?

Not a chance, says Zollner, especially now that the team is winning. In the Zollner style, he is merely trying a new approach. Swooping down in his plane, the Flying Z, he has concentrated on road games. That way, he explains, "you can pick out the players who play well before their friends but loaf when they're not at home.

"I don't think this franchise will ever be for sale, except by my estate. I'm a sportsman. I enjoy it. We're going places."