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Davidson the working man's billionaire

Quite simply, he's hiding out somewhere on the short list of the most successful owners in professional sports.

He has more money than Ted Turner and isn't as hands-on as George Steinbrenner. He doesn't make as much noise as Marge Schott and doesn't have the flash or charisma of Michael Eisner.

And he has as many or more championship rings than each of the above.

Meet Detroit Pistons owner William "Bill" Davidson, who just might be the next owner of the Lightning. But don't think for a second that what Davidson has done as a sports owner defines this self-made billionaire.

He has owned a sports franchise _ one of the more successful ones _ for the past 24 years, yet little is known about him.

Deeply religious, avid about his health (he works out every day at the Palace of Auburn Hills, which he owns) and more apt to sit in the stands instead of the owner's suite, Davidson, 75, is the working man's billionaire. By all accounts he's a regular guy, with one exception: Everything he touches turns to gold.

Virtually every business he has taken over _ from his family's wholesale drug company to an automotive glass supply company to the Pistons _ has gone from near-bankruptcy to a thriving leader in its industry.

He has two rules of business: hire competent people and do everything first-class.

"He hires people to do the job and then gets out of the way," Pistons president Tom Wilson said. "He trusts their judgment and gives you the ability to fail."

Rarely do they fail. The Pistons are one of the NBA's most stable franchises. Davidson's other sports ventures, including the International Hockey League's Detroit Vipers and the WNBA's Detroit Shock, rank among the most successful teams in their leagues.

But perhaps his biggest accomplishment in business was building the Palace of Auburn Hills. Despite being 10 years old, it still is considered the model for the modern sports stadium. It hosts 200 events a year and holds an amazing 180 suites, some as close as 16 rows from the main floor.

Most of the newest arenas, such as Tampa's Ice Palace, Washington's MCI Arena and Montreal's Molsen Centre, are based on the designs and technologies of the Palace at Auburn Hills.

Away from business and sports, thought, little is known about Davidson. He is passionate and knowledgeable about his teams and businesses, but he rarely is in the public eye.

He ran a little track in high school and played a little football in college. He loves the symphony. He has a well-known bitter rivalry with Detroit Red Wings and Little Caesar's pizza owner Mike Illitch and doesn't exactly draw raves from the government officials in Detroit, who consider him a traitor for building his arena in a suburb. And he loves, absolutely loves, Seinfeld.

But most of these stories have come second-hand. He almost never agrees to interviews and reveals little about himself when he does. Mostly, the only time his name appears in newspaper stories or on television is when he's giving away another several million to this charity or that cause. He has given away more than $80-million to projects that promote education, development of free-market economies, Jewish causes and quality of life in Detroit.

"What I do," Davidson told the Detroit News last week, "is what I initiate."

The question everyone wants to know now is will he initiate a purchase of the Lightning?

"If we were to work something out, it would be very good for Tampa," Wilson said. "He's a brilliant businessman."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writer Gary Shelton contributed to this report.