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Myron Cope
December 18, 1967
Since 1949 Fred Zollner, owner of the Detroit Pistons, has juggled players, coaches and general managers in search of a winning team. This year he may be close to the right combination
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December 18, 1967

The Big Z And His Misfiring Pistons

Since 1949 Fred Zollner, owner of the Detroit Pistons, has juggled players, coaches and general managers in search of a winning team. This year he may be close to the right combination

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"I have quoted MacArthur in our programs," Zollner answers. " 'There is no substitute for victory!' " Yes, but hasn't the road been terribly rough? " 'Every dollar a man brings home is won in battle with other men,' " says Zollner, quoting again. The source of that quotation, he explains, is Andy Gump.

Wielding a forceful hand in every aspect of the Pistons' affairs, Zollner has changed coaches, front-office lieutenants and players like a man flipping the dial on a safe in hope of lucking onto the combination. Yet the men who have passed through Zollner's revolving door go away wishing him well. Paul Birch, a Piston coach in the early '50s, says Zollner instructed him to get tough with the players. Fired three years later because Zollner considered the team "a little overdisciplined," Birch nevertheless says, "I like the man. He's for mankind." Earl Lloyd, once the club's head scout and assistant coach, hoped to become the sport's first Negro head coach, but Zollner twice passed him by, convinced the players weren't ready for a Negro coach. "Mr. Z has a tremendous amount of integrity," says Lloyd, certain Zollner did not act from personal prejudice. Nick Kerbawy, a banished general manager who sued Zollner for $5� million, says of him, "He loves the game, and he's a great asset to the NBA."

Indeed, to the NBA, Zollner has been square old Pop who always comes through when you write home for money. During the league's years of growing pains Zollner helped keep it afloat by lending it large sums, while many clubs failed to pay their dues. He asked no concessions for his vote when the league gerrymandered its territorial draft to allow Philadelphia to select Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas University and to swing Ohio State's Jerry Lucas to the new Cincinnati Royals. "I try to vote on what I think are the ethics of a situation," he says.

In return for all his efforts his fellow owners have spit in his eye. With the excuse that the Pistons had a private plane in which to get about, the NBA awarded them the worst schedule, the tight, grueling trips that grind a team down. When the territorial draft was about to expire two years ago, Zollner pleaded for its extension in one form or another, so that he might satisfy local pressures and draft Michigan's Cazzie Russell. He was voted down. "I asked for a special favor and didn't get it, so I wasn't wronged," reasons Zollner.

Flying back and forth between Detroit and his two residences—a Tudor manor in Fort Wayne and a dazzling oceanside ranch-style home in Golden Beach, Fla.—Zollner has remained something of a mystery man to the city of Detroit ever since he moved his club, uninvited, to their city in 1957. Fort Wayne, he had concluded, could not support pro basketball; Detroit, Zollner soon learned, was damned if it would. He was suspected of being a nomadic fast-buck artist. Columnist Doc Greene's widely read essays in The Detroit News did not help. Wrote Greene: "As a charter member of the Hockey Haters' Association of America, it is my unpleasant duty to inform [its members] that perhaps we are hating the wrong sport. Two or three nights of professional basketball could make a hockey fan of you."

Zollner started right out by dropping $200,000 and maintained that pace the next season. Meanwhile, he turned to the children of Detroit, hoping to breed a new generation of basketball fans. He admitted them free or for as little as 50�, and in a move widely interpreted as an effort to make liars of the city's youth, he offered a cornucopia of prizes to those kiddies who best completed the sentence, "I like the Detroit Pistons because...."

All the while Zollner kept refueling his critics by racing out on treacherous limbs and crashing on his face. "In all of my business activities I'm a nonconformist," he says. "I do what in my own mind I think is right." He had come to Detroit with Charley Eckman as his coach. Eckman, previously a referee, had never coached, but Zollner was convinced he was the man to "loosen the chains" that tough Paul Birch had fastened around the players. Subsequently, Zollner learned Eckman's theory of coaching: "You don't have to teach these pros anything. Just give 'em the ball and let 'em play."

Twenty-five games into the Pistons' first season in Detroit, Zollner got rid of noncoach Eckman, replacing him with a sheet-metal salesman, Red Rocha, whom he ordered to spend 15 minutes before each game explaining pro basketball to the fans. Though Rocha took the Pistons to second place, neither the team nor his lectures stirred the public. "Piston games," says one Detroiter, "were known as a place where you could take your girl and sit upstairs for 50� and neck in privacy."

Zollner decided strength was needed in the front office. For his first general manager he had hired an itinerant press agent-promoter-newspaperman who had once spieled for a Miss Universe pageant in Long Beach. Now he wanted a larger figure. Nick Kerbawy cared no more about pro basketball than he did about sumo wrestling, but as general manager of the Detroit Lions, then champions of the NFL, he knew everybody in town worth knowing. So Zollner invited him to his hotel suite, picked up a sheet of hotel stationery and jotted down an attractive offer.

"I went home," Kerbawy recalls, "and phoned my lawyer, Buck Giles. and said, 'This Zollner is making strong overtures to me. Let's set up severe conditions and knock him out of the box so he'll quit bothering me.' "

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