Remembering Bill Davidson

One of the giants in Jewish philanthropic life, Bill Davidson, passed away over the weekend.

Here’s the JTA news brief:

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Bill Davidson, owner of the Detroit Pistons basketball team and a philanthropist, has died.

Davidson died Friday at his home near Detroit. He was 86. The cause of death was not immediately released.

Davidson, who was inducted last year into the Basketball Hall of Fame, had owned the National Basketball Association team since 1974, and won three NBA championships. He also owned the Tampa Bay Lightning National Hockey League team, and the Women’s National Basketball Association team the Detroit Shock until 2008.

Davidson gave more than $200 million to charitable causes, according to the Detroit Free Times.

Among his gifts, Davidson and his wife, Karen, gave $75 million in 2007 to construct the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower at Hadassah Hospital-Ein Kerem in Jerusalem.

A common theme in the obits and testimonials — whether about his success as a philanthropist or sports team owner — was the idea that Davidson was who deserved a great deal of recognition for his good works, but was happy not to receive any.

Bob Aronson, the longtime cheif executive at the Detorit federation and now the president of Michael Steinhardt’s foundation, had this to say to the Detroit Free Press:

"He was one of the world’s greatest philanthropists, and he was also one of the world’s quietest philanthropists. He did what he did never for recognition but because he believed in the cause."

The obituary by Mitch Albom is definitelty worth reading. Here’s a snippet:

But the beauty of the old man was that while he was often around, he was barely noticed. He wore a windbreaker to the games and shuffled in late and shuffled out early. He sat under the basket, but never tried to coach from his seat, and he never looked foolish trying to hang with the young players — like some pathetic sports owners do.

He was their boss. They knew it. He knew it.

That was enough.

And yet he had great affection for his team.

And for a white, Jewish guy born just after World War I, he was incredibly modern on racial attitudes. "I don’t see color," he said recently. "I don’t distinguish color anymore, which is a good thing. Thirty years ago, I might have. But by being with the players, getting to know them … it wouldn’t make any difference. I get to know the personality much more than the color of the skin. Color means nothing."

Davidson was known for giving away millions, but he should also be known for the millions more he gave away with no fanfare. He was incredibly philanthropic, to children, to Michigan, and his love for the Jewish community and the state of Israel was unrivaled.

As many tears are shed for his death in Detroit, there are likely that many falling in parts of the Holy Land. Davidson, who sometimes got on his private plane in pajamas and flew overnight to Tel Aviv, walked with the biggest names in that country. And his generosity — there, here and elsewhere — will be missed.

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