How a Coin Toss Brought Detroit a Hall of Famer

Next month the Detroit Pistons will draft a top ten pick in the NBA draft, but it will hardly have the same drama and impact that occurred when the team made their top selection in 1966.

In 1966 the teams that placed last in their division, had the first two picks with the order determined by a coin flip. The New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons were hungry to win the toss so they could select U of M’s Cazzie Russell who was the unanimous 1966 College Player of the Year.

During his spectacular varsity seasons from 1963-’64 to 1965-’66, three time All American Cazzie Russell lead the Wolverines to Big Ten titles each year and two Final Four appearances which included a heartbreaking loss to John Wooden’s UCLA team in the 1965 championship game. ( Russell still holds school records for the highest career scoring average (27.1 points) and the highest scoring average for a season. (30.77 points in ’65-’66).

Piston player-coach Dave DeBusschere called tails, but the coin turned out heads.

Had he won the toss, Dave Bing would not be the Mayor of Detroit.

The Knicks drafted Russell as expected and the Pistons chose Dave Bing, the Syracuse guard who was fifth in the nation in scoring and Syracuse’s first consensus All-American in 39 years.

As it turned out, even though Cazzie Russell was one of the greatest college players of all time, his NBA career paled in comparison to Dave Bing’s.

During a 12 year NBA career, that included a world championship with the Knicks in 1970, Russell averaged 15.1 points per game with New York, Golden State, the Lakers, and Bulls. However Dave Bing would become the NBA rookie of the year, lead the league in scoring in his second season and go on to become a Hall of Famer. In 1996, he was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players.
The small number of fans who supported the Pistons at Cobo Arena after Bing’s arrival marveled at number 21’s skills as he flew to the basket. After a score, the house announcer would say, “B-I-N-G-O!”
After retiring from the NBA, Russell served one year as a CBS basketball analyst, spent nine years coaching in the Continental Basketball Association and worked two years as an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks and spent over twelve years as the head basketball coach at tiny Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design.

Meanwhile, as we all know Dave Bing went on to become a successful businessman in Detroit with Bing Steel, and then in 2009 took on the unenviable task of running Detroit.

So what if Detroit doesn’t win the lottery pick in June. You just never know what you might end up with.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.