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The toughest test yet for Detroit's iron-willed mayor

This is an excerpt from Dave Bing by Drew Sharp.

Dave Bing made a name for himself as an NBA legend, a successful businessman, and a bold politician. Read more about his amazing life in
Dave Bing: A Life of Challenge.

Now, on November 16, 2011, Bing faced perhaps his most daunting task. The city under his command was spinning in a cauldron, a creature of its own political hubris and fiscal neglect. And it was sure to get a lot hotter for everyone—the mayor included—before it cooled off.

Reporters received an advanced text summary of Bing's speech. It was filled with the standard calls for sacrifice while still promising delivery of essential services. Some elements of the plan were new, such as the privatization of certain city services, including mass transit and electrical services.

The imminent threat of bankruptcy gave Bing license to demand dramatic cutbacks, especially in the city's pension and health care commitments to city employees. And the man still had a trump card he could play if left no other alternative—the emergency manager.

The local television stations cancelled their scheduled 6 p.m. newscasts so they could cover the critical speech live. The timing of the speech magnified its importance. Bing didn't want this desperate message buried in the morning or afternoon news cycle.

Ample discussions took place among the inner circle regarding the desired pitch for the speech. Bing didn't want to come across as a bludgeoner, constantly pounding home the bad news, because he feared that such a tone would suggest futility. The speech must have some balance, conveying the necessity for historic budget cuts while also appealing to the notion that this would be the best hope for molding a newer, more financially viable Detroit.

Communications consultant Bob Warfield thought it best that the speech not occur at City Hall. This was a purely symbolic gesture. If you're hoping to appeal to the people, it's probably better that you're out there with them rather than insulated within the trappings of political power.

There had been criticisms, primarily from the city pastors, that Bing had distanced himself from those who elected him into office. The accusations were greatly exaggerated, if not downright ill-founded. But moving the speech away from the antiseptic pallor of the Coleman A. Young Government Center was the right call.

Bing's team scheduled the speech for the Northwest Activities Center, a community outreach center on Seven Mile Road, not far from the Sherwood Forest area of Detroit. This area was one of the few residential pockets in the city still fairly populated; it was perched on the northern fringes of the city limits. However, even that area underscored the infrastructural problems befalling Detroit.

Woodward Avenue, the city's primary artery cutting a north-south swath through the city, represents the eastern border of Sherwood Forest and its neighbor, Palmer Woods, home of some of the biggest, most stately homes in the city. But drive up Woodward on a winter's evening and it is completely in the dark. There were no streetlights and few businesses open. In the distance, however, there was an oasis illuminating the evening skies.

It was Ferndale, one of the southern entries to Oakland County, situated immediately across Eight Mile Road. Not only were there lights, but there was vibrant activity for a cool, windy winter's night. Restaurants, bars, and little shopping boutiques were open and busy. The disparity was stark and alarming, but nonetheless perfectly symbolic of the serious challenges facing Detroit. If the city wasn't realistic about what it could no longer provide, it would basically be pulling the plug on the city.

Bing actually looked forward to this opportunity to make his argument to the public that Detroit had no alternative but to accept less. “You don't want the state taking over the city, do you?” became the administration's battle cry and the impetus for selling the argument that Detroit should be able to take care of itself, regardless of the punitive measures taken.

In the hours leading up to the speech, there was actually great anticipation within the administration. This was finally “his time, his moment.”

Nobody ever questioned Bing's empathy or his limitless degree of humanity. This was a guy who seriously cared about doing what he strongly believed was the right thing. He truly lived the pain of those families who lost loved ones in a rise of homicides in the city during 2011. He had spoken with many young people in the city of Detroit who sadly didn't see themselves living much longer, justifying why they were drawn more to negative influences. How would telling the people of this city that they must accept less alter that sense of futility?

Could he move the mountain?

Read more from Dave Bing: A Life of Challenge by Drew Sharp.

More Excerpts From Dave Bing