The first thing you notice about Dave Bing is how little he has changed. Even though he now wears three-piece suits and silk ties, it's hard to believe that he has been away from basketball for seven years. He still moves with the grace that characterized his play for the Detroit Pistons, and he exudes the class for which he was known during his playing days. Just three pounds heavier now, with a touch of gray at the temples, Bing is aging gracefully.
While many other professional athletes struggle, often in vain, to find a calling after their playing days end, Bing, 41, has made an unusually smooth transition from athlete to entrepreneur. "I was married, with two children, when I came into the league in 1966," he recalls. "I wasn't making enough money to support my family. I realized then that an athlete's playing life is short-lived and fragile."
Bing had a fine NBA career, amassing 18,327 points and 5,397 assists; those career totals make him one of only four players in the top 20 of both categories. During his NBA years he also worked diligently in the off-season for the National Bank of Detroit and the Chrysler Corporation, acquiring the skills he would need to forge a business career later on.
Bing announced his retirement in September 1978, after a disappointing final year with the Boston Celtics. However, it was early in the 1977-78 season that he made the decision to leave basketball, even though he had two years left on his contract. Why didn't he announce his imminent retirement at that time? "Well, John Havlicek had already announced his, and he was such a great player, I didn't think it would have been right to do it at the same time." So Bing stepped back and listened to the testimonials that poured in for Havlicek.
During the first two years after retirement, Bing worked for a small steel-processing firm in Detroit, Paragon Steel, learning the business. In 1980, with only four employees, he began Bing Steel, Inc. Since he had no equipment of his own, he worked at first as a broker, putting companies that needed processed steel in touch with the steel processors. Then, with a promise of business from General Motors, Bing sank $500,000—a combination of money saved from his NBA earnings and capital borrowed from several sources—into the purchase of his own plant.
The decision was sound. Bing Steel now has 62 employees, and sales have grown from $2 million the first year to $30 million in 1984. Most of the business is the cutting, bending and packaging of steel for automotive parts. "We don't get involved in external, exposed applications," he says. "We concentrate on the unexposed parts, door hinges, trunk locks, inner panels, that sort of thing." Meanwhile, Bing has also founded a small construction outfit, Heritage 21, which operates primarily in southeastern Michigan. In addition, Bing does occasional color commentary on Piston telecasts and, since his divorce three years ago, has the responsibility of raising his children—Cassaundra, 21; Bridgett, 19; and Aleisha, 16.
Bing worries about the players who never make the adjustment to life after basketball. "As a player, you don't like to think about your career ending," Bing says. "And when you make so much money, you also don't think about what will happen when the dollars stop. I believe the big salaries in basketball really cripple guys and keep them from their full potential." In an effort to address that problem, Bing, along with former NBA stalwarts Oscar Robertson, Archie Clark, Zelmo Beaty and Walt Bellamy, is forming a retired-players association to help active players develop careers beyond the confines of a basketball court. "We're a family," Bing says, "and we have some resources they can utilize."
Last year, Bing was invited to the White House to be honored, not for his basketball accomplishments but for his contributions to business. He received two awards, National Small-Business Person of the Year and National Minority Supplier of the Year. It was heartening that a player who toiled on non-championship teams for most of his NBA career, whose number, 21, wasn't, for some reason, retired by the Pistons until eight years after he had left the team, should receive such unambiguous recognition as a winner in business.