Davidson mourned at funeral service

Updated: March 17, 2009, 6:49 PM ET
Associated Press

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. -- Despite being part of an NBA ownership fraternity that often leveraged wealth into privilege and public attention, billionaire philanthropist William Davidson commonly chose obscurity.

The man known simply to players, friends and fans as "Mr. D" could be seen at most Detroit Pistons home games, sitting quietly near the end of his team's bench.

Davidson "always was a warm guy, always was pleasant, always down to earth," former Pistons player Earl Cureton said Tuesday following the funeral service at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.

"He just looked out for us for a long time," Cureton continued. "He was knowledgeable of the game, of course everybody knows that."

Davidson died Friday at his Bloomfield Hills home at the age of 86.

The owner and CEO of Auburn Hills-based Guardian Industries, Davidson became majority owner of the Pistons in 1974. Under his leadership, Detroit evolved from a struggling franchise into one of the NBA's best teams, winning championships in 1989, 1990 and 2004.

"It's definitely safe to say that none of us would be leading the lives that we're leading had we not met him as an individual," Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas said after Tuesday's service.

Thomas, drafted by Detroit with the second overall pick in 1981, was the first key piece to the team's earliest two titles.

Other players from that era, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, John Long and Vinnie Johnson also attended the funeral. Pistons president Tom Wilson and former player and current team executive Joe Dumars were among the pallbearers.

"He was just one of the greatest owners I had a chance and obligation to be around," Mahorn said. "His big thing was giving back to the people, and the people have given back to him today."

But Davidson's interests reached far beyond Detroit and basketball. As an honored philanthropist, he gave away more than $80 million in the 1990s alone. Much of his money went to Jewish causes.

He funded Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem and the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Rabbi Eric Yanoff remembered Davidson as a humanitarian who loved his family, the Detroit area and Israel and worked throughout his life to help better them all.

It was something he did with little fanfare.

"Your father was so unpretentious. You truly didn't know how powerful he was," Rabbi Joseph Krakoff said to one of Davidson's children during a service intended to be more inspirational than a time of grief.

Davidson, who served in the Navy near the end of World War II, loved his country, Krakoff added. He relayed the story of how when Davidson found out one of his employees was a reservist and had been called up to serve in Iraq, Davidson invited the man and his family to his office, where he told them he would hold the man's job open and would pay his salary while he was in Iraq.

"Go in peace and return in peace," Krakoff quoted Davidson as telling the employee.

Davidson was "a man of modesty and humility ... a man of integrity and vision. ... He was fearless, secure, and he never worried. There were no obstacles for William Davidson," Krakoff said.

For 52 years, Davidson led Guardian, a major manufacturer of glass products for the construction and automotive industries and fiberglass insulation products. The company has 19,000 employees worldwide.

"He provided vision, leadership and a straightforward approach to building business with an entrepreneurial style second to none," according to a statement Tuesday on the company's Web site. "He established a no-nonsense, anti-bureaucratic culture within Guardian Industries and the other organizations he led."

But it was how he ran the Pistons that endeared Davidson to many in Michigan.

"He was a wonderful philanthropist and good friend and an extraordinary individual," NBA commissioner David Stern said outside Congregation Shaarey Zedek following the funeral. "On the NBA front, he was essential to our growth over the last 35 years."

Davidson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in September and also owned the WNBA's Detroit Shock and Palace Sports & Entertainment, comprising The Palace of Auburn Hills and DTE Energy Music Theatre. Davidson also owned, for a time, the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning.

Health problems restricted his attendance at Pistons games in recent years.

He granted only a handful of interviews and turned down requests for dozens more while his three pro sports teams were winning league championships over an eight-month span in 2003 and 2004.

"I just don't want to be a public figure," he told The Associated Press in 2004. "I don't see any point in it."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press