Growing up on Detroit’s east side, Dartis Willis Sr. harbored big dreams of one day sprinting up and down the hardwood as a point guard in the NBA. As a youth volunteer for the YMCA, Willis spent long hours on the courts inside the organization’s gymnasium, dribbling, defending, taking jump shot after jump shot.
“Because I was a volunteer, we could go in and play when others couldn’t,” Willis recalls during a recent chat. “Being from the neighborhood, it was easy to grab a pair of shoes and shorts and go shoot some hoops. I played on teams at the YMCA, and it really struck a chord with me. We would go in on weekends, and we always had this dream that we were going to play in the NBA.”
Early on, though, Willis stopped growing. Stuck at what he describes as “a towering” five-foot-five-inches tall, he quickly realized that he’d have to find other ambitions. “That’s when reality set in,” he says, a shrug and a smile in his tone. “I understood the numbers and what it took. By the time I got to high school, I knew very well that I would not be the next Spud Webb.”
He would never play for a professional basketball team. Instead, Dartis Willis bought one.
More than a decade ago, Willis, who graduated from Wayne State University in 1991, purchased the Windsor Express, becoming founder and CEO of the then-expansion team in the fledgling National Basketball League of Canada (NBL Canada). In the years since, his gamble has paid major dividends as the Express — whose nickname is partly a nod to the Underground Railroad that helped free enslaved people in America, as well as an homage to the Detroit-Windsor railroads — has become one of the most successful franchises in the Great White North.
The team has won two NBL Canada championships and, this past season, reached the title tournament again before falling to the London Lightning. In fact, during the eight seasons it has competed, the Express failed to reach the playoffs only once. Undoubtedly, in becoming an internationally successful entrepreneur, the scrappy kid from Detroit’s Denby High School who earned the nickname “Little Giant” while interning at a Chrysler plant has made a big impact in the ranks of Canadian pro hoops — and in just about any arena he enters.
“Prior to the Express, Windsor only had minor league hockey and other, smaller things,” says Willis. “But they’d never had a pro team. For us to bring two championships to the city and for them to give us accolades like a parade down Oullette Avenue and the key to the city is just wonderful.”
Laying the foundation
Early in his life, however, Willis figured he’d be the politician handing out the key to the city, not the team owner graciously accepting it. He planned to go into politics. Willis enrolled at Wilberforce University in Ohio before returning home to transfer to Wayne State to major in public administration. Though intently focused on his classwork and his post-college career plans, Willis said he nonetheless loved his time at Wayne State.
“Wayne State was a special place. There were the fraternities, the sororities. There was the presence of the African American students and young inner-city people,” says Willis, who himself belongs to the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. “It was just an incredible environment. It was a predominantly white campus, but our presence was known. And it was less about, ‘Hey, you see me,’ and more about ‘I’m here, too. How do we understand the history and the rich ingredients that I bring to the overall picture?’ It was not an adverse environment. I love Wayne State.”
After graduation, Willis found himself facing a struggling U.S. economy that was battering the job market. Before entering his automotive career, he taught at a Detroit elementary school not too far from the neighborhood where he’d grown up. And before long, he found himself immersed yet again in his passion for hoops.
“‘It was a rough, tough neighborhood, but I was from a place very similar,” Willis says. “The kids looked identical to me, needing the same attention, love, dignity, respect. That was easy. I jumped right in and, before you know it, I was coaching basketball. We had an afterschool program for students who received detention. We’d play basketball with them and, at the end, we’d talk. And then we’d send them home after they served their punishment.”
Climbing the corporate ladder
After leaving the school system, Willis worked with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority as an intern. Before long, though, he soured on politics as a career. “There were a lot of things happening in the media at that time,” he says. “They were destroying a lot of political people and their families. I just didn’t want to take myself down that path. Coleman Young was catching a lot of flak, but it wasn’t just him. It was the political climate in Michigan as well as in the government overall. I thought, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ It didn’t match what my goals and objectives were for my friends and family. I backed out, and I looked closely at what else I wanted to do. I decided that, at some point, I would have my own business.”
He got married first, though. And he took a job at Lear Corporation, which manufactures car seats and electrical systems. There, Willis’s career took off. He worked his way up through the ranks at Lear, moving from production supervisor to general foreman to operations manager. He became a certified trainer for performance management, eventually becoming certified as a Six Sigma Master Black Belt.
He left Lear and worked at a few more automotive manufacturers, including the company owned by Detroit Pistons legend and former mayor Dave Bing. But eventually, his desire to work for himself won out. In 1999, Willis started Professional Development Services, an organizational firm that specializes in training, consulting, coaching and project application. He later earned an M.B.A. from Lawrence Technological University and grew his business even further. Today, Professional Development Services, which works with as many as 45 performance consultants across four countries, is worth about $4 million.
“We tend to employ a lot of performance consultants on projects in different industries from agriculture, aerospace, health care and manufacturing. We had some good IT projects, too. But the sweet spot for our company is our ability to take subject matter experts, provide them with performance management tools and then source them out to industry to support whatever goals and objectives those companies have.”
Willis says that his company has thrived largely because of his local ties, including his time at Wayne State. “I had access to a large network, being from Detroit, at Wayne State and in the city’s business environment. The networking allows you to grow as a business.”
Buying in, giving back
That network eventually landed Willis an offer from a good friend to vet his idea for an embryonic sports league. “He was looking to launch the National Basketball League of Canada, and he asked if my company could come to Toronto and review the strategic plan,” Willis says. “At the time, Canada didn’t have a true pro league, and he wanted to know that it would work. I thought it was a great idea and they’d identified a great market.”
Then Willis’ friend, who owned a franchise in Halifax, Nova Scotia, made another pitch. “He asked me if I would be interested in purchasing a team in one of the markets,” he says. “Windsor was one of the markets that was open, and I really wanted in. For me, with my family and my business, it was important to stay as close in proximity to Detroit as possible. I watched at first. I followed the league the first year of its infancy. My mind was made up when I looked at the strategic plan, but I wanted to see how it worked. I loved it. After that, I launched my team in the second year of the National Basketball League of Canada.”
Kicking off play in the 2012-13 season, the Express became the eighth team in the NBL Canada and earned a playoff spot during its inaugural season. Although the Express lost in the first round of the postseason, Willis was already proving his mettle as an owner and his determination to build a winner. He’s quick to credit his upbringing for his early achievements as a team owner.
“Everything I learned at both Wayne State and at Lawrence Tech really paid dividends,” he said. “It was unbelievable. The experience I gained while working for MSHDA, Lear and Chrysler all gave me a rich foundation. As a youth, I went to a thing called Leadership School with the YMCA. They teach you the principles and foundations of leadership and their importance. From fifth, sixth grade up, I had already been given a foundation and an understanding of what it meant to be community and what your role is as a leader. Whether I was working for Lear or whether I was in school at Wayne State, my personality was shaped by the rudiments of leadership and volunteerism. Those things were embedded. I was shaped to know my role as a Detroiter, as a community member, as a friend. It was all shaped by 25, 30 years of working with people from different areas in both the public and the private sectors. It prepared me to be able to walk into Windsor and bring them their first pro team and take a young group of workers and develop them as leaders of my organization.”
Willis says the opportunities he and his business partners have been able to extend go far beyond the gym. “Windsor’s been a special place,” he says. “Giving young players another place to play outside of Europe when the NBA is not an option is great. It’s been great to see them earn a living playing the sport they love. Extending to the young people opportunity to be broadcasters and interns. To be able to offer someone a job in sales. To engage the first female general manager here in Windsor to work for the pro team. We’ve had two kids accept an opportunity with the MLSE [Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment] Toronto Raptors organization. We have served in Windsor with the Express as a launching platform for everybody. Whether it was a basketball player who got a G-League look. Whether it was a broadcaster out of the media center of St. Clair College who got his first chance to pick up a mic for a pro team. Whether it was a choreographer for the dancers who got a chance to choreograph a pro team. Whether it was the high school dancer going to college, being able to come and dance for a pro team and be paid.
“All of those things that are associated with a pro organization — the positions and jobs and opportunities — we have provided here. We have an organization owned and operated by a Black group that is not just for profit but is a social entrepreneur organization that pays its dividends back to the community in every way.”
Local guys making good
Willis also has tapped into some local talent on the court, too. The Express’ starting point guard, for example, is Latin Davis, a former Wayne State Warrior. Asked about Davis, Willis begins to gush.
“What a remarkable young man,” Willis says. “It’s really sweet for me to watch what he’s done this year because he went to my alma mater, he came from a lower league and he got the opportunity to show what he can do. When I first saw him, I was very clear that he would have to convince me that he can play at this level. I don’t select the players. Our coach does. But Coach also shares with me who we’re going to bring in to enhance our team. Latin Davis was identified early on. And Latin got a chance to come in last summer and we watched him, and I had my reservations. I was like, ‘I don’t know that he can be your point guard.’ And I told Latin directly, ‘You’ve got to convince people because I don’t see it.’ And so, we had a great relationship right from the start because I was honest, straightforward. And he proved me wrong.”
Willis credits his business partners as well for their support in the team’s overall success. “My partners’ value is too much to reduce in any way. They have given me this opportunity to expand the business and do things here. I’m a servant in every way. We launched a business 12 years ago; we are still standing.”
There are rumors that NBL Canada may fold as a league during the offseason, but Willis insists that the Express will continue to play. He’s currently looking at other leagues but hasn’t decided yet where the franchise will land. His hope, though, is that the Express will get the opportunity to play more teams outside of Canada, including some of the NBA G-League’s top squads.
“If I had an option, it would be some affiliation with the G-League,” he says. “Windsor is a big market for Detroit. We are a unique market. Having some connection to the NBA would be important.”
But Willis believes in his vision for the Express regardless of whether the team can forge any ties with the larger pro league headquartered south of the border. Not only will the Express return, but Willis says he will be working to make sure the team is as dominant as in past years.
“The reason they called me Little Giant is because I wasn’t afraid to take on any issue, problem or person,” he says. “I was always known for taking on the biggest problems and solving it with my counterparts in the manufacturing environment. And so hence Little Giant is a man who has always had a tall personality.”
Small wonder then that, from Detroit all the way across the Ambassador Bridge, Little Giant continues to loom large.