What Dave Bing Had to Learn, 1968

[For most people who’ve had basketball in their blood from an early age, there are a couple of jaw-dropping, I can’t-believe-what-I-just-saw plays from their childhood that remain indelible memories. One of my indelible memories comes from the network NBA Game of the Week in the early 1970s featuring the Detroit Pistons and the then-Kansas City-Omaha Kings. Though both were middle-of-the-pack teams, the game offered a rare opportunity for a kid on the West Coast to watch live Detroit’s superstar guard Dave Bing.

Bing dominated the action, setting up his jaw-dropping play early in the second half. Bing had the ball in transition with most of the Kings already back on defense. But before pulling the ball out and settling into a halfcourt set, the 6-feet-3 Bing worked the right baseline, spotted a split-second opening, and floored it to the hoop. Waiting for him at the rim was Kansas City’s 6-feet-10 shot-blocker Sam Lacey, known for his extra-long arms. Bing elevated. So did Lacey, his right arm fully extended high above the rim. But with his running start, Bing soared even higher than Lacey and tomahawked a thumping, rim-rattling dunk that sent the crowd, the announcers, and one impressionable kid on the West Coast into complete hysterics.  

Sure, athletic guards dunking on lumbering centers isn’t so rare these days. But it was in the NBA of the early 1970s. Guards “penetrated” into the lane to set up their teammates or to slice to the basket double-clutching to find just the right release point for a dipsy-doo layup. A little guy attacking the rim mano y mano against the NBA’s rim protectors was a bad career move. Just ask Wilt. He and his seven-foot kings of pain didn’t appreciate the little guys trying to show them up.

But Bing was absolutely fearless and had the soaring athleticism to back up his ill intentions around the rim. That made him a unique talent on the 1970s NBA stage and, coupled with Bing’s outstanding floor game, landed him in the Hall of Fame. 

As this article recounts, however, Bing had his early struggles in a Piston uniform. He failed to score in his first NBA outing and was an early weak link on defense. But Bing was a quick learner and, within a few months, emerged as the consensus choice for the NBA’s 1966-67 Rookie of the Year. Journalist Phil Berger explains how Bing did it in this profile from Complete Sports’ 1968-69 Pro Basketball Illustrated magazine.]

In his debut as a pro basketball player, Dave Bing discovered he had a lot to learn about the way they play ball in the NBA. That night against the Cincinnati Royals, Bing played 16 minutes, took six shots and did not score on any of them. “It was the only time in my life I’ve gone scoreless,” he recalls. “I knew I had a long way to go.”

Bing has come a long way since then. Last year, in the second professional season, he led the league in scoring with 2142 points for a 27.1 ppg average, and was fourth in the league in assists with 509 for a 6.4 average. And not since Elgin Baylor had any ballplayer moved through the air with as much flair. 

Bing is only 6-feet-3, but he jumps like a man inches taller. When he sets off on a long-striding drive, the common layup becomes a basketball happening. For the lithe (180 pounds) Piston can suspend himself in the air longer than the average player can, and this ability enables him to switch the ball from one hand to the other (and sometimes back) to get by soaring foes and score. 

That is not all Bing does well hanging in the atmosphere. He also shoots—a jump shot that is capable of breaking up ball games, and passes—especially when double-teamed on his drives. In midair, he will slip a pass to an open teammate as skillfully as he eludes the men guarding him. All this he does with uncommon ease.  

But it wasn’t always so. When Bing first came into the NBA, he had plenty to learn. 

What bothered Bing the most were the adjustments he had to make to play defense among the pros, a fact that didn’t surprise player-coach Dave DeBusschere (since replaced by Donnis Butcher). “There isn’t anybody,” DeBusschere says, “coming into the NBA who doesn’t have a problem with defense.” At Syracuse, Bing was accustomed to a pressing, gambling defense, where risk-taking was encouraged. The trouble with that sort of defense in the NBA is that pro guards are too clever to be harassed. They took advantage of Bing’s anticipatory defense. “Once the ball was passed over him,” says Butcher, “he’d turn his head and chase the ball. Naturally, that’d leave his man wide open.”

That wasn’t the only trouble he had on defense. “He had trouble getting over picks,” recalls teammate Eddie Miles. “He had to learn to hit the pick hard enough so that the man setting it couldn’t roll of for the quick return pass.” Bing discovered that what worked at Syracuse didn’t in the NBA. “I found out quickly,” he says, “that you have to use your hands more on defense.”

He did not find out quickly enough, at least to DeBusschere’s satisfaction. For when the season began, Bing was sitting on the bench. And after his demoralizing debut against Cincinnati, he began wondering if he’d ever learn all he had to. 

He did learn. He was not a starter, but he was coming off the bench and scoring points, getting wiser and wiser all the time.

The first time Detroit played Boston, Celtic coach Bill Russell assigned K.C. Jones to guard Bing when he came into the game. Bing had scored 18 points in the previous game as a part-timer, and Russell didn’t want him to do that against the Celtics. Jones, the league’s toughest defensive guard, made sure Bing didn’t score—at least for the first half. At halftime, Bing had no points. But in the second half, he was a little different, and Jones came away impressed with the rookie. 

“Dave is a real cool one,” K.C. said at game’s end. “I gave him very few chances to shoot during the first half. But instead of just standing around, the way most rookies would, he helped out in other ways. Dave moved the ball well, he passed to the open man and he played good defense. And he got away from me enough in the second half to score in double figures. Not many rookies come into this league and take charge the way Bing has.”

Bing was a regular quiz-kid at learning what the pro game was all about, and, before long, he became a starter. Once he was a regular, he converted the Piston fans to his side. Detroit people did not exactly want Bing when he was drafted at the end of the ’65-66 season. The city was daffy about Cazzie Russell, the University of Michigan star (he had sold out Cobo Arena twice as a collegian), and was counting on getting him as Detroit’s territorial choice. The trouble was that the NBA had voted to drop the territorial privilege the same year Cazzie became eligible. So Russell ended up being drafted by the New York Knicks, and Bing was the Pistons’—if not the people’s—choice.

All that changed once Bing got into the lineup on a regular basis. Dave gave the fans something to holler about. In his first starting assignment, he scored 20 points against the Knicks, the next night he had 35 against Los Angeles. By season’s end, Bing was scoring even bigger. In Butcher’s first game as coach, Bing hit 47 points against the Baltimore Bullets, just five points short of the club record of 52 set by George Yardley in 1957-58. 

He was also learning how to handle himself in repartee. Take the time Bing was riding in a cab with Ray Scott (later traded to Baltimore) and Detroit sportswriter Joe Falls. 

“What do you think of Ray Scott as a basketball player?” Falls asked Bing.

“He’s got a lot to learn,” said Bing with a wry grin.

“How is he as a gin player?”

“Same thing.”

“How ‘bout drinking gin?” Scott teased. 

“He goes up with the best of them,” Bing grinned. 

By the end of his rookie season, Bing was going with the best of them on the court. He led Detroit in scoring with 20 ppg (tenth in the NBA) and in assists with 4.1 a game (eleventh in the NBA). His presence in the lineup roused the Pistons. “He made us run,” says DeBusschere. “We never had what I considered a running game until he arrived.” For his work, Bing was voted Rookie-of-the-Year.

But he knew he was not finished learning the game. “For one thing,” he says, “the coaches felt I was making too many plays in the air, that I was committing myself too soon by leaving the floor. To a certain degree, they were right. I was doing it a little too much. But going up into the air is my game, so I didn’t want to eliminate it. I just wanted to get to the point where I was doing it effectively and consistently. 

“The summer after my rookie year, I also got to working on other parts of my game. Defense especially. As a rookie, there’d been times I’d looked really bad. But Eddie Miles showed me things that summer that helped me in the ’67-68 season. He showed me the little things. Like how to use my hands and forearms so that the refs can’t see it. As a result, my defense was much better last year.”

So was his offense, to the point where even Bing was surprised. “I never figured myself for scoring as much as I did. But things just fell together. For one thing, I was shooting more. I had the confidence of my rookie season to build on. Plus, Donnis told me he wanted me taking more of a shooting role on the offense. 

“Most important, I learned to adjust to situations. Rookie year, I wasn’t stupid, but there were times I took foolish shots. Like I might try to drive against the big guys. Wilt, Nate, Russ. I’d end up taking a bad shot, of course. This year, I wasn’t trying to go all the way against them. I’d pull up and shoot the jumper. Against other teams, I’d go to the basket.”

He was also still learning how to exploit his assets. Against guards taller than he was (a Jeff Mullins or Keith Erickson), he’d use his speed to get the quick first step. Against speedy, but shorter, foes (an Archie Clark), he’d try to work in close enough so that he could use his jumping ability and go higher than the defender for his shot.

“I knew when to shoot this year. After the first 10 games, my confidence picked up. I found myself becoming mad if I only scored 20 or 22 points. Not that points are everything, but on the Pistons that was my job . . . to score.”

Bing did more than just score. His defense helped win ball games, too. Against Seattle on November 9, Bing stole the ball from Sonics’ rookie center Bob Rule with only two points. The steal, one of several he made that night, helped secure the Piston victory.

But for all his defensive progress, more often than not it remained Bing’s explosive scoring that kept Detroit in the ballgame, a change from Bing’s earliest days in organized ball. 

“When I played at Spingarn High School (in Washington, D.C.),” he says, “I wasn’t that big a scorer. Even in my senior year, I was only averaging about 19 points.”

At Syracuse University, Bing became more of a scorer. In three years of varsity ball, he scored an Orange high of 1,803 points. 

He also became involved in some bizarre incidents with his teammate Frank Nicoletti. As freshmen, roommates Nicoletti and Bing believed in the power of the prank, a philosophy not shared by the Resident Advisor who lived in the same dormitory. Trouble was that Nicoletti and Bing always covered their tracks, which left the advisor without any chance to discipline them. That is, until Bing decided to play a prank on Nicoletti. 

What Bing did was to shut the door to their room just as Nicoletti had finished rolling a bowling ball down the hall so that it would thud against the wall adjacent to the advisor’s room. “When the advisor looked into the hallway,” says Bing, grinning, “there was Frank knocking on the door and begging for me to let him in.”

Through their four years together, Bing was always the instigator, Nicoletti the guy eluding trouble. “Even at team practices,” recalls Bing, “Coach (Fred) Lewis would be telling us about the team we were to play, about its star player. Everything would be very serious, the team would be listening real hard. Then I’d say, in a stage whisper, ‘What do you mean, Frank? What do you mean, he’s no good?’ referring to the star on the opposition that Lewis was talking about. Frank would try to look innocent, but the coach would get mad. Frank would just shrug. He  knew the coach believed me.”

On a road trip to Kentucky, Bing found that the joke was on him—at least for a moment. “We were in the lobby of our hotel in Kentucky,” recalls Sam Penceal, a teammate, “and a woman came up to Dave and asked him to take her bag. She thought he was a bellhop. Naturally, all of us cracked up. But here’s the kicker, Dave goes back to Syracuse and tells the story—only the way he tells it, it all happened to me, not him.”

Sometimes the laughs were on the court. “We were coming back from the West Coast my senior year,” Bing says, “with a 9-1 record. We played Creighton, and they were killing us. One of our players had a sneaker come off. He was ready to take the ball out of bounds, but the sneaker came off. Instead of putting the ball down, he gave it inbounds to a Creighton player to hold. The guy looked at him as if he were crazy, shot the ball, made the basket and then—I swear it happened—said, ‘Thank you,’ to our guy.”

The pro game is not nearly as polite as the college game. As Bing came into his own last year as a scorer, he discovered that the defenses were concentrating more on him. “There were more hands on me last year, no doubt about that,” he says. “Things were much more physical when I started scoring.”

The result? Where Bing had been practically injury-free as a rookie, he suffered a fractured thumb, fractured knuckles (he played most of the season with a damaged right hand), and enough gashes to require 34 stitches in ’67-68. 

“Sure, it’s tougher,” says Bing. “But you’ve got to learn to cope with it. You’ve got to keep working at your moves to stay ahead of the defense. In this game, you never stop learning.”

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