DETROIT (AP) — In basketball and in business, Dave Bing never side-stepped a challenge.
But the overwhelming weight of Detroit’s financial problems and other troubles faced by the former manufacturing hub have convinced the former NBA great, steel supply company founder and first-term mayor that he may have to pass control of the city over to the state.
In doing do, Detroit would be in line to become the largest city in the country to fail and be taken over by state government. Bing grudgingly sees such a handoff as an extension of his service to the 700,000 Detroit residents looking to him for leadership.
“An emergency manager can’t come in here and run this city without the help and support of teammates,” Bing told The Associated Press in an interview this week. “I’ll be a teammate. My executive staff will be a teammate. What we need to figure out is not fighting the person but how do we get along to make wins for the citizens in the city of Detroit.”
The 69-year-old mayor has been swept up in the vortex of despair that has come to symbolize much of Detroit during the past few years. To some, the city’s failings represent Bing’s failure in his third career choice.
He spent a dozen Hall of Fame years as a high-scoring guard in the NBA, including nine individually successful seasons with the hometown Pistons. His Bing Group automotive supply and manufacturing companies provided hundreds of jobs in a city with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
But “his legacy as a politician is not a very good one,” said Adolph Mongo, a Detroit political analyst. “You can’t run a city like you run a company. You need someone that’s politically savvy enough to surround himself with CEOs who will allow him to navigate the political land mines.”
Citing a $14 billion mountain of debt, $327 million budget deficit and other issues, a state-appointed review team submitted a report to last month to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder that the city was in a financial emergency with no good plan from Bing or Detroit’s City Council to turn things around. Snyder agreed, setting in motion the possible appointment of a manager over the city’s finances.
“I don’t want to view that as a negative on the mayor or the City Council,” Snyder told The AP. “They’ve had plans and I think their plans include a number of good things … but they’re not sufficient to solve this problem in my view because of the magnitude.”
Under Michigan law, emergency managers have the power to develop financial plans, renegotiate labor contracts, revise and approve budgets to help control spending, sell off some city assets and suspend elected officials’ salaries.
It’s not clear what roles Bing and the City Council would have if a manager is appointed. A candidate has been picked, but Snyder is holding back on naming that person pending a challenge by the city.
The nine-member council has voted to challenge. A hearing is Tuesday in Lansing. The board will face that battle without Bing, who declined Wednesday to be a party to it.
“For me, I don’t mind fighting, but I’m not stupid,” he said. “If I know I’m going to get in a fight that I have no chance of winning, why in the hell should I get in that fight? I’m much better off walking away from that and fight another day.”
But victories have been sparse for the Washington D.C. native in his adopted hometown.
After being taken No. 2 overall in the 1966 NBA draft, the slender and silky smooth 6-foot-3 guard had only two winning seasons in a Pistons uniform.
He did earn Rookie of the Year honors and two All-NBA first team selections. He was elected into the professional basketball Hall of Fame in 1990 and eventually named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
In 1980, he founded Bing Steel in Detroit. The company grew into a small empire of steel and automotive supply operations surrounded by aging houses in the weary North End neighborhood.
It was from there that Bing watched as Detroit’s economy stalled and all but collapsed. At the same time, once-popular Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick became entangled in a text-messaging sex scandal that would force his resignation and later send him to prison.
With no political experience and tons of business acumen, the man who twice averaged 27 points per game in the NBA won a special election in mid-2009 and a 4-year term later that year.
He took over a city in shambles.
Then as now, the deficit was more than $300 million. City Hall computer and record keeping systems were antiquated.
And people were fleeing. Between 2000 and 2010, a quarter-million residents moved away maybe to escape the economic meltdown and national mortgage collapse that hit Detroit as hard as anywhere. Surely some went in search of better schools or to escape the daily burglaries, carjackings, robberies and shootings plaguing city neighborhoods.
With them went a great deal of the tax base. General fund revenues dropped by more than $80 million between 2009-10 and 2011-12.
Bing may have been better off calling for an emergency manager from day one, said L. Brooks Patterson, the Republican executive for Oakland County, north of Detroit.
“He had to wait for the public to catch up,” Patterson said. “The public didn’t want to believe they were in trouble. The City Council still is in denial.
“I don’t think there’s been a mayor beset with more significant challenges in the United States. Just look at Detroit’s finances. They didn’t collapse over the last two years. They’ve been in a downward spiral for at least a decade, if not longer.”
At some point, people will look back and acknowledge Bing as somebody who cared, said Karen Dumas, a communications strategist and former mayoral spokeswoman.
“You’ve got issues with the government structure and legacy problems that have plagued the city and maybe were swept under the rug that are now coming to the forefront,” Dumas said. “He said we would all have to share the pain. That goes from the top to the bottom … the unions, the administration, the City Council.
“People had conversations about making the changes, but not necessarily the willingness to make those changes.”
Bing says previous elected leaders were “more concerned about re-election” than healing Detroit’s ills.
“If you fix problems you’re not going to be popular and you ain’t going to get re-elected,” he said. “I didn’t come in here with my idea on making this a long-term third career. I knew what I was up against. I knew there were hard decisions that had to be made and I was committed to make the hard decisions.”
Bing has yet to say if he will even seek re-election later this year.
“Dave never walked away from a challenge in his life. I don’t think that’s his style,” said Patterson, adding that the city’s trials under Bing’s leadership “won’t tarnish his basketball legacy.”
“Not many people are in that league. That’s secure,” Patterson said. “I think people will look back on his four years as mayor and think he’ll have some unfinished business.”
Others think differently.
“When he hands over the keys,” says Mongo, the political analyst, “he’ll be remembered as a person who couldn’t pull Detroit out of the big, black hole.”