Joe Dumars attempts to steer Detroit back on winning road
In The Driver’s Seat
The following article originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of Hoop magazine.
Of course, it does not always work out. In the absence of championships, what is most often produced in this human Petri dish is a fungus of dysfunction. Yet on those rare occasions when it does work, the championship locker room is a place to behold, because inside this intimate confines, there's an undeniable magic in the air. It reeks of confidence, passion, pride and intelligence.
More than a decade ago, the address of the best locker room in the basketball world was “2 Championship Drive, Auburn Hills, Mich." Talk about your great social experiments, welcome to the locker room of the two-time defending champion Detroit Pistons, circa 1989-90.
Over in one corner of the room was Isiah Thomas, the team captain. A product of Chicago's inner city streets and suburban private schools, Thomas was the team leader with the impish face and the pit-bull competitive persona. On the other side of the room was Bill Laimbeer, the 6-11 center. He was a Republican child of privilege, a Waspish white kid who, at least on the surface, had nothing common with Thomas. Yet both men grew to personify the very essence of the Pistons' roguish “Bad Boy" image.
Thomas and Laimbeer were typical of this disparate group. They had Rick Mahorn, the muscular enforcer with the vulgar humor of Richard Pryor and basketball smarts of a coach-in-training; and Dennis Rodman, the bizarre robo-rebounder, who in his pre-RuPaul phase, was a monster-truck-loving Southern hick. There was John Salley, the quintessential New York sophisticate/class clown; and Mark Aguirre, the moody but talented low-post scorer.
Yet, of all these colorful Bad Boys, it was the quiet one who intrigued me the most. Joe Dumars never said much, and that was part of his charm. Rodman crashed the boards with a fist-pumping flourish. Thomas broke down a defender with a flamboyant speed dribble. When Mahorn, Laimbeer or Salley defended the basket, they did it with a rude, forceful body slam.
Yet everything Dumars did in his 14-year playing career was as subtle as his slight smile. He was always a man of nuance. A crucial jumper was punctuated with no more than the snap of a wrist, the drop of his head and a quick run back to the defensive end of the floor. He was a six-time All-Star, a two-time NBA champ, a Finals MVP and named to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team four times. And somehow, Dumars managed to do it as quietly as possible.
And so now isn't it somewhat telling that out of this richly talented championship locker room, with so many obviously qualified, natural-born leaders to choose from, it was the quiet one whom team owner William Davidson ultimately selected as the man he wanted to take charge of the Pistons and return the franchise to its glory days?
Last year, after only one season in the front office, Dumars was promoted from vice president of player personnel to president of basketball operations for the Pistons. He is one of a growing number of new generation NBA executives, former players who are now trying to move into the front office to reshape once-great franchises. But the job of rebuilding the Pistons into championship contenders is as daunting a challenge as going one-on-one with Michael Jordan. This is a team that has fallen on tough times. After nine consecutive winning seasons, three trips to the NBA Finals and two titles, the Pistons fell into eight seasons of neglect with the steady – and not-so-polite – departures of all the Bad Boys, from GM Jack McCloskey and head coach Chuck Daly to all the old players, who were either traded or retired. The Pistons' image was tarnished further in the offseason when they lost free agent Grant Hill to the Orlando Magic.
But the first step in Detroit's restoration was made with the promotion of Dumars. Now that he's in charge, Joe D is trying to restore some of the old values of toughness and talent that marked his best playing years with the Pistons. The most crucial step in changing the Pistons was when Davidson gave Dumars full authority over all basketball-related matters, including the most important control of all – the checkbook.
Dumars will need all the control he can get trying to restore faith among the players, so that 2 Championship Drive can once again be one of the best addresses in the basketball world.
But just like the old times, when the ball is in Joe Dumars' hands, good things tend to happen.
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