Cool Hand Joe
Known for his competitive fire and steady hand in leading the Pistons to back-to-back titles as a player, understated Joe Dumars has used the lessons from his 14-year career to build a contender in Detroit.
This article appeared in the March 2004 issue of Hoop Magazine.
Now he's the president of Detroit's basketball operations, and his work assembling another championship factory is moving along as a scheduled. Just as every player has his role on the current Pistons roster, everybody had their roles on those championship teams. Joe's was to tbe the strong, silent type. It was perfect casting.
Dumars wasn't so sure about that when the Pistons plucked him out of little McNeese State in '85.
"I was like, 'Why would they draft me?' They had two really good guards there already," he says now, referring to Isiah Thomas and Vinnie Johnson.
Johnson would soon become great sixth man as he stepped aside to let young Dumars realize his potential as a starter. But Dumars couldn't have have known that on draft night, when he was taken with the 18th pick; all he saw was a successful backcourt that didn't really need him.
"I thought this was the worst place I could have come," he says.
It turned out to be the best place -- or as Dumars puts it, "a blessing in disguise." His initial skepticism is understandable. Dumars wasn't exactly worldly: He grew up in post Jazz Louisiana, his only access to the NBA provided by Dick Stockton on CBS and the Atlanta Hawks on TBS. He'd never seen an NBA game in person until his sophomore year of college, when he attended a Spurs-Bullets contest.
"I saw George Gervin drop 42 that night. And I said, 'I think I'd like to do that right there'," Dumars recalls.
Dumars made the '86 NBA All-Rookie team along with Xavier McDaniel, Charles Oakley and couple og guys named Ewing and Malone. His stats wert up every year, mirroring the Pistons' ascension through the Eastern Conference ranks.
It all came together for Dumars in '88-'89, and his timing couldn't have been better. Four seasons into his NBA career, Dumars earned a spot on the All-Defensive First Team, perhaps in part for his star turn as Michael Jordan's most formidable defensive foe. He shot 50.5 percent from the floor and 85 percent from the line for a 17.2 ppg output. In a four-game sweep of the Lakers in June, Dumars averaged 27.3 points ppg and received a well-earned NBA Finals MVP trophy.
But after another NBA Finals victory in '90, the Pistons began to struggle as their core aged and succumbed to injury. By '93 they had fallen out of the playoff picture completely, and Dumars, the sole holdover from the championship years along with Thomas, was starting to think about life after basketball.
Those plans didn't initially include a front-office job with the Pistons after the six-time All-Star's eventual retirement. He had plenty of fans at NBA headquarters -- the League's Sportsmanship Award was renamed the Joe Dumars Award, after the man who first won it, and the first player to have a postseason award named after him. But Dumars started an automotive supply company -- a line of work also taken up by former Pistons Vinnie Johnson and Dave Bing -- that found great success. When he finally did retire at the end of the '98-'99 season. leaving the team in the hands of Grant Hill and Jerry Stackhouse, Dumars was ready to walk away from basketball and join civilian life.
Basketball had other plans for the most famous son of Natchitoches, La. The Pistons were floundering, no two ways about it. They looked to their most loyal subject for help: Joe Dumars, who had played all 1,018 of his games as a pro in a Pistons uniform. He was announced as the team's president on June 6, 2000, and a new era began in Detroit: A.D. Anno Domini? Nope.
He had a simple philosophy of how to run a team: Figure out how to translate his own successful career (and likewise, the Bad Boys' success) into the 21st Century NBA, and everything else would fall into place.
"I thought that it was very, very hard to win with problem players. So one of my mandates is that I would try, and I'm not saying I was always successful so far, but I would try to get really good guys," Dumars says.
"Two, I also wanted to get young veterans. It may sound like an oxymoron to some people, but these guys are 24, 25 years old and they've been in the League four or five years but are still young. I felt you could win with guys like that. I didn't want to build a team with nothing but 18- and 19-year-olds, and I didn't want to build a team of just 35-year-old guys.
"Three, I try to get guys who I think can fit into a role. It's not just about going out and getting a guy just because you can. You see a lot of deals come across your desk and a lot of them you turn down. A lot of them are good players, but may not think they tin into your team. Good player, marginal player, just an okay player -- if I think he fits, that's the kind of guy I'll get. I try not to worry about what his stats are. I just try to envision what he can bring to this team, and I either pull the trigger or I don't."
Dumars got his first lesson in presidency with Grant Hill's free agency. Hill had said he would re-sign with the Pistons, only to renege and force a sign-and-trade with Orlando that brought Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace to Detroit. It looks like a brilliant move on Dumars' part in retrospect -- HIll has been sideline ever since with chronic ankle injuries, while Wallace has become a major-league stat, anchoring the Pistons defense and rebounding, and twice winning the NBA Defensive Player of the Year ('02 and '03). But the summer if felt anything but, and Dumars was hurt. He resolved to make his free-agent dealings in the future simple: No hard sells. Keep things human. Keep things real.
"As much as we wanted Grant to re-sign, he chose to go elsewhere. After that I just said, 'You know, from this day forward, I want to make sure guys who we say we want, that they want to come here as well and try to establish that early on,'" Dumars says. "No matter how much you want a player or acquire a player as a free agent, no matter how much you want him, he's got to want to come here as much as you want him.
"Before you can even get to the business element, you have to get to the human element. If a guy wants to be here and I think he'sa good player, I can work the business element out. That's the least of my worries."
Dumars' grassroots way of dealing with potential players has worked well. Thus far, his biggest roster victory has been point guard Chauncey Billups, who chose Detroit over a number of other suitors in the summer of '02. All of the team chasing him were offering the same level of contract, but Billups liked the direction Dumars was taking the team in, and the way the man operated. Dumars relates well to the players who are technically, his employees, in part, because he isn't too far removed from being a player himself. Sometimes it can be tough -- he's had to trade away former teammates like Jerry Stackhouse, acts that he terms "gut-wrenching" -- but it affords him special perspective in a job usually occupied by older guys who have worked their way up through coaching and front-office jobs.
"It was a unique transition for me. I'd just got through playing with those guys. I was just on the bus and hanging out and chilling with those guys," Dumars says. "It would have been very, very pretentious of me to try to all of a sudden come in one day with a suit and tie and say, 'Hey, Iím the executive now, so we can't kick it like we used to.'
"I still came in and chilled with the guys, but also told them, 'Hey guys, there's got to be excellence here. Gotta be good, guys; can't have any problems. And let's keep our relationship.'"
Dumars also traded away teammate Lindsey Hunter, but three years later traded for Hunter again. Hunter was eager for a second tour of duty with Detroit, this time with Dumars at the reins of the franchise.
"I played with Joe and I know a lot about him. I know the type of person he is and what he expects. He's a guy that even when he played he expected excellence. I think you can see that in the type of team that's he's built here," he says.
"Joe is a very personable guy. He's a straightforward type of guy, something that's hard to come by in this business. Being a former player, he doesn't have the political correctness of a head coach, a guy that went from playing to coaching to management," Ham says. "He went from playing to management, so he knows exactly what he wants this team to represent and what he wants out there between the lines. That makes him so much easier to work with."
The kid from Natchitoches, who never once shot the crowd the finger or had a run-in with the law or embarrassed his team in any way, now officially controls its destiny. And the more things chance, the more things stay the same. One of Dumars' earlier NBA memories is of meeting Maurice Cheeks, who in '85 was writing the closing chapter of a great career.
"He was one of my favorites growing up. I think I told him that my rookie year and he just smiled and said thank you. He probably doesn't even remember. I was just some obscure rookie out of Louisiana," Dumars says. "But he was probably the player I looked at the most. He was quiet, very effective, a great, great player, kind of unsung. But I felt he was the glue to that 76er team that kept everybody together."
Sound like anyone Joe knows?
In A.D. 4, the Pistons are inching closer and close to Dumars' ideal vision. They went to the Eastern Conference Finals last season for the first time since '90-'91, and Dumares was tapped as the NBA's Executive of the Year. Chauncey Billups is singed through '08, Rip Hamilton through '10, Ben Wallace through '06. Mehmet Okur and Tayshaun Prince, both late picks, continue to prove Dumars' drafting prowess. Darko Milicic is patiently waiting in the wings, a windfall left for Dumars by former GM Rick Sund, who trade Otis Thorpe to the Grizzlies in '97 for what turned into the No. 2 overall pick in last June's draf. They are coached by Larry Brown, who is still hungry for a ring after all his years commanding from the sidelines. The Pistons are the type of team any GM would want to run: Ready for a run at the championship now, and ready for a run at the championship for years to come.
And Dumars is ready to watch his creation grow. He is happy in his desk job, having learned to channel his competitiveness into team building. Perhaps he is mindful of other former players who went from floor general to boardroom general without nearly as much success.
"I had a great career. I enjoyed it. I think I accomplished everything as a player that you'd want to accomplish," Dumars says. "I'm telling you, I've never, never looked back once and said, 'God, I miss playing now.' When I see the guys on the bus and I see them hanging out after practice in the locker room and watching TV and talking smack back and forth, those are things that you probably miss more than anything else. But the actual playing? Not at all. I've not looked back on day since I retired and wished I was still playing."
That's because he doesn't have to. Joe Dumars can look to thje future and thus far, it's as bright and shining as the past.
NBA.com is part of Turner - SI Digital, part of the Turner Sports & Entertainment Digital Network. Advertise on NBA.com | Career Opportunities | Help