Twists of Fate
There were four other pretty fair basketball players in the van Bobby Knight had graciously arranged for the last cuts from the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that would romp to the gold medal in Los Angeles, the field greatly weakened by the Soviet bloc boycott: Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and A.C. Green.
Twenty-two years later, Barkley and Dumars returned to Indianapolis, site of the 2006 Final Four, to be introduced as the stars of that year’s Hall of Fame class. I was there, covering that Final Four, when Dumars reminisced about that van ride.
In a hotel ballroom, Dumars – who by that point had won two NBA titles as a player and one as the architect of the 2004 Pistons – could afford to smile about missing out on his one and only shot at an Olympic medal. He remembers the emotion he and Stockton, seated side by side in that van, shared.
“I remember John Stockton and I looking at the talent in that van and saying, ‘Wow!’ Stockton said, ‘Are you serious? I’d like to take the six guys right here and play whoever they keep on that team.’ ”
Among the guards Knight chose to keep over Dumars and Stockton: Georgia’s Vern Fleming, Cal State Fullerton’s high-scoring Leon Wood – now an NBA official – and Indiana icon Steve Alford. Among the frontcourt options Knight kept ahead of Barkley: lumbering Joe Kleine of Arkansas, mechanical Jon Koncak of Southern Methodist and athletically limited Vanderbilt shooter Jeff Turner.
Missing out on that Olympic berth, quite likely, altered the course of Joe D’s life – and, quite certainly, the course of Pistons’ history. If he makes the Olympic team and Knight ultimately awards playing time on merit, what would the odds have been that Dumars would have been passed over 17 times in the 1985 draft, allowing Jack McCloskey to find a player he considered the ideal backcourt partner for Isiah Thomas?
(Thomas became a quick convert, too. When the Pistons gathered for training camp in Windsor before the 1986-87 season, I was talking to Isiah about Joe D’s rookie season. Dumars had gotten solid reviews all around, but no one was predicting absolute stardom for him. But Thomas surprised me when he said, “You all don’t know it yet, but Joe can do everything I can do.”)
As it was, McCloskey thought there was precious little chance Dumars would last that long. For his part, Joe D – who’d grown up in Louisiana and gone to college there, at McNeese State – was secretly hoping to be picked by either Dallas, with the two picks immediately ahead of Detroit, or Houston, picking right after the Pistons at 19, to start his NBA career in neighboring Texas.
Detroit seemed an unlikely landing spot for Dumars because the Pistons, though still a flawed team, had a well-stocked backcourt. In addition to Thomas, already a two-time All-NBA first-teamer, the Pistons had shooter deluxe John Long starting next to him with Vinnie Johnson off of the bench. And Johnson, just a month before the 1985 draft, had already been dubbed “The Microwave,” courtesy of Danny Ainge, after lighting up the Celtics for 22 fourth-quarter points as the Pistons won Game 4 of their playoff series to tie Boston two games apiece.
But McCloskey had scouted Dumars at a Las Vegas holiday tournament and his two trusted veteran scouts, Will Robinson and Stan Novak, had fallen hard for him in the NBA’s then-annual Hawaii predraft tournament for college seniors.
On draft night, McCloskey – with owner Bill Davidson and minority owner and longtime Davidson pal Oscar Feldman in the war room – watched as Dumars kept falling, muttering to himself that the free-fall was sure to stop with Dallas. When the Mavs used the 16th pick on Canadian-born center Bill Wennington of St. John’s, McCloskey was sure the Mavs would grab Dumars with their next pick. Instead, they took another 7-footer – and another Dumars link to Bobby Knight – in German-born Uwe Blab, who’d played for Knight at Indiana.
Locally, Pistons fans were shouting for Michigan State star Sam Vincent – whose older brother, Jay, had been a high school rival and college teammate of Magic Johnson’s and at the time of that ’85 draft was an 18-point scorer for the same Dallas Mavs – to be the pick. Surely, the expectation of Davidson and Feldman was that the pick would be Vincent, Michigan’s first Mr. Basketball, who wound up going two picks later, to Boston.
When McCloskey told his owners the pick was going to be Dumars, Feldman blurted out, “Joe Dumars? Who’s he?”
Such are NBA champions built. It takes a lot of strange twists and turns sometimes. What if Bobby Knight had kept Dumars instead of Fleming, Wood or Alford? What if Dallas had passed on either of Wennington, a bit player with the Bulls champions of the ’90s, or Blab, out of the league after five forgettable seasons?
Or an even more mind-boggling possibility: What if Dallas had drafted Isiah Thomas No. 1 instead of Mark Aguirre in 1981 and then taken Dumars four years later?
The addition of Dumars made the Pistons a better team, but that wasn’t immediately apparent in playoff results. They went down in flames in a first-round playoff series in 1986 to Atlanta, and there was no question what was at the root of their inability to advance. We’ll get to that in the next True Blue Pistons.