Vinnie Johnson | The Piston Group | Detroit

Playing for the Detroit Pistons in 1990, Vinnie Johnson -- known as "The Microwave" because he could instantly heat up the Pistons' offense -- hit the title-clinching shot in the NBA finals. Today Johnson is manhandling the competition in a different arena, as chairman of the Piston Group, a Detroit-based automotive supply company with nearly 500 employees and $227 million in 2003 sales.

Johnson expects to crack a half billion in revenue by 2008.

The business hasn't always moved so fast, however. Johnson began his entrepreneurial career with teammate Bill Laimbeer in 1995; they started a firm that sold packaging supplies to automakers. By 1996 they'd split. With encouragement from a General Motors executive, Johnson segued into manufacturing auto parts.

The Piston Group's location is in one of Detroit's toughest neighborhoods, and Johnson grappled with absenteeism and high turnover among workers in the early years. Teaching people to work in a complex manufacturing environment required tons of training, and the payoff from that investment was at times slow to materialize. For his troubles, Johnson received a $3,000 tax credit per employee as part of Detroit's Empowerment Zone. Today the Piston Group has a stable base of workers. "When you're dependent on people to help you succeed, you have to make sure you have the right team, the right chemistry," Johnson says.

Now the company is focusing on creating a stable base of customers. GM, which spends $6.6 billion with minority suppliers annually, has been one of Johnson's champions. Ford has been another. But both automakers are struggling, which is why Johnson is eager to sign up Japanese automakers. "We're constantly calling those guys," he says. For a man who first made his mark on the floor of the Palace, perseverance comes naturally. -- Daniel McGinn