One of the top shooting guards of his era, Joe Dumars was a consistent all-around player throughout his 14-year NBA career. He played his entire career with the Detroit Pistons and was a six-time All-Star, the owner of two NBA Championship rings, a defensive standout and a clutch shooter. Dumars quickly earned the reputation of being a defensive stalwart and a serious offensive threat but it was cemented with his 1989 NBA Finals MVP performance. Dumars was also well-respected for his sportsmanship that belied his intensity and toughness and for being a true leader in the NBA.
Dumars went from a small town in Louisiana to the top of the Motor City and the basketball world, as both a player and later as an executive as the architect of the 2004 NBA-champion Detroit Pistons.
Dumars’ road began in tiny Natchitoches, Louisiana (population 18,337). The cornerstones of hard work and dedication were put in place at a young age. Joe’s mom, Ophelia, was a custodian at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches while his father, Joe (Big Joe), was a truck driver.
Dumars grew up in an athletic family, but, surprisingly, basketball was not his favorite sport as a child. Football was more popular in the region and all five of his brothers were defensive standouts at Natchitoches Central High. His brother David later played professional football in the USFL. Dumars followed in his brothers’ footsteps playing defensive back on the football team until junior high school when a big hit on the field directed him toward basketball. Ever the supportive father, Big Joe built a hoop, made of an old bicycle wheel and half of a wooden door, in the Dumars backyard. Little Joe spent hours practicing his jumper.
McNeese State University became the beneficiary of the bicycle hoop. During his four years in college, Dumars averaged 22.5 points per game, including 25.8 ppg as a senior – good for sixth in the nation. He finished his college career as the 11th leading scorer in NCAA history.
Dumars performance during his senior year caught the eye of Pistons’ GM Jack McCloskey. From the first time McCloskey saw Dumars play in a Christmas tournament in Las Vegas, he knew that Dumars could succeed in the NBA. Unfortunately, the Pistons had the 18th pick in the 1985 NBA Draft and McCloskey was certain that Dumars would be gone by then. When draft day came, Dumars somehow managed to fall into the Pistons lap. McCloskey later said that it was the easiest pick he had ever made. It was also ironic for Dumars, as he had listed as his favorite athlete in the McNeese State media guide future teammate Isiah Thomas.
Dumars arrived just at the time the Pistons began to rise to preeminence in the NBA. The club was in the playoffs the previous two seasons, and won 46 games in his first season but was ousted from the first round of the playoffs. However, during the next five seasons the Pistons never won fewer than 50 games as they marched to the NBA Finals three times and claimed a pair of NBA Championships in 1989 and 1990.
When the club went into decline, falling below .500 in 1992–93 and losing more than 50 games in each of the following two seasons, Dumars provided continuity and leadership. Long considered one of the classiest players in the league, he served as a mentor to future superstar Grant Hill when Hill joined the Pistons as a rookie in 1994-95.
Not many predicted this greatness when Dumars entered the NBA.
Though Dumars had been a scorer in college, he recognized that the Pistons would need his presence on the defensive end of the court. He played sparingly off the bench for the first half of his rookie campaign. However, on January 15, 1986, with the Pistons having lost 15 of the previous 20 games, he was inserted into the starting line-up, a position he would maintain until his retirement.
Detroit promptly won 20 of its next 24 contests and. Dumars started 45 times leading all rookies with 4.8 assists per game. He finished his rookie campaign averaging 9.4 ppg, earning a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Team with Xavier McDaniel, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and Charles Oakley.
The team’s season in his rookie year ended in a first-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Hawks led by Dominique Wilkins. But the next three seasons were about the steady improvement of Dumars and the Pistons as a whole.
In 1987, the Pistons defeated the Washington Bullets and Atlanta Hawks on their way to an Eastern Conference showdown with the Boston Celtics. The first six games of the series had been hard fought, literally.
After Boston won the first two games at the Boston Garden, Game 3 included a bench clearing fight between Bill Laimbeer and Larry Bird. The Pistons won Games 3 and 4 back at the Silverdome. The Celtics won Game 5 on the famous last second steal by Bird and assist to Dennis Johnson. The Pistons held on to win Game 6 113-105, setting up a decisive Game 7 for the right to go to the NBA Finals. The Celtics won the game 117-114, but not before withstanding a 35-point outburst by Dumars.
The Pistons and Dumars would get one step closer to the franchises first NBA championship in the 1987-88 season. To get to the next level, the Pistons need to get by the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. Jordan was the top scorer in the NBA averaging 35 ppg en route to his second NBA scoring title. And after defeating the Washington Bullets in the first round of the 1988 NBA Playoffs, Jordan and the Bulls stood between the Pistons and another trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
Jordan averaged 45 points per game in the Bulls’ first round series against Cleveland and in order for the Pistons to be successful in the series, Dumars was assigned something no one else had been able to do: contain Jordan.
It was during this series that “The Jordan Rules” came into effect. In a nutshell, Dumars was not to let Jordan drive to the right when he was at the top of the key or to the middle when he was on the wing. This philosophy was not only for Dumars, but for the entire Pistons team. The rules paid off, as the Pistons won the series in five games and advanced to again face the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Championship. The Pistons defeated the Celtics, but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in a tough seven game series.
Accolades began to pour in for Dumars in his fourth NBA season. After three years as a sidekick to Thomas, Laimbeer and the rest of the physically intimidating Pistons dubbed the ‘Bad Boys,” he began to cast his own shadow.
First, he improved his output during the regular season to 17.2 points per game, and solidified his reputation as one of the best defensive guards in the NBA. At season’s end both he and teammate Dennis Rodman were named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team. Dumars also shot a career-best .505 from the floor during the regular season and led the Pistons in free-throw percentage at .850. He scored a then career-high 42 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers, including 24 points in the third quarter, which tied a club record.
The only negative that season was that he suffered a serious injury for the first time in his career when he broke his left hand in a January game against the New York Knicks. He had surgery two days later and missed 12 straight games—but returned in three weeks.
His regular-season accomplishments were only a warm-up for the postseason, in which Dumars turned in a performance few Pistons fans will forget. Detroit romped its way through the Eastern Conference Playoffs, setting up a rematch with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1989 NBA Finals. Dumars averaged 27.3 ppg, leading the Pistons to a four-game sweep of the Lakers and their first-ever NBA Championship. He was an easy choice for NBA Finals MVP.
Dumars’ ascent to NBA stardom reached another milestone in 1989-90 when he was selected to play in the NBA All-Star Game for the first time. By season’s end he had also been named to the All-NBA Third Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team – and he had another NBA championship ring.
Dumars averaged 18.4 ppg through the first 68 games of the season, but then a broken hand sustained against the San Antonio Spurs late in the season slowed him for the rest of the year. Unfortunately for the Pistons’ playoff opponents, Dumars was the picture of health averaging 18.2 ppg in 20 playoff games.
However, during the Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, Dumars was beset with an emotional crisis. With the series tied at one game each, he exploded in Game 3 for 33 points. But after the game, he learned that his father had passed away. As Dumars prepared to leave the team and return to Natchitoches, his mother instructed her son to stay with the team and finish his job of winning another title. Dumars followed his mother’s instructions, leading the Pistons to another championship win, this time in five games.
Although for the remainder of his career the Pistons would not win another championship, Dumars would play at his highest level. In 1991, he played in the NBA All-Star Game for the second straight year, this time as a starter in place of injured teammate Isiah Thomas. He was a workhorse, logging more than 3,000 minutes (3,046.) and scoring at a clip of 20.4 ppg, the first time he would be the team leading scorer.
He slipped a notch to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team after having twice been named to the first team, but he earned a spot on the All-NBA Third Team for the second straight season. In addition, the Pistons were stymied in their attempt to “three-peat” as NBA champions. Detroit moved past the Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics in the first two rounds of the playoffs before losing to the eventual NBA-champion Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. Dumars averaged 20.6 ppg in 15 postseason games.
Dumars best individual season may have been in 1992-93. He led the Pistons in scoring for a third straight season with a career-best 23.5 ppg and once just an occasional threat from long range during his first seven seasons, Dumars exploded from the three-point line hitting 112 of 299 attempts to set club records for three-pointers made and attempted in a single season. He became an All-Star for the fourth straight year and also earned a fourth selection to the NBA All-Defensive First Team and his first-ever berth on the All-NBA Second Team. Despite those efforts, the Pistons finished the year at 40-42 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years
When Detroit selected two rookie guards — Allan Houston and Lindsey Hunter — in the 1993 Draft, it was clear that the club was starting a rebuilding process. Undoubtedly the duo would eventually serve as replacements for Dumars and Isiah Thomas, one of the most accomplished backcourts in league history. But Dumars wasn’t quite ready to relinquish his spot. In 1993-94, he led the Pistons in scoring for a fourth consecutive season with 20.4 ppg.
Dumars scored his career-high of 44 points but the championship clubs of the recent past was a mere memory. The Pistons finished at 20-62 and missed the playoffs for a second consecutive year. But after the season, Dumars participated on Dream Team II, the U.S. squad that won a gold medal at the 1994 World Championship of Basketball.
In the 1994-95 season, an injury to point guard Hunter and Houston playing well at the off guard required a shift for Dumars to a playmaking role. He adapted to that well, ending the 1994-95 season with 5.5 assists per game. Dumars also tied a then NBA record when he hit 10 3-pointers in a game.
The quiet warrior played four more years with the Pistons at a very productive level, but also would became a mentor to future great Grant Hill, who was drafted with third overall pick in the 1994 Draft. Eventually though Dumars moved into the front office where he would restore the glory of a proud franchise.
However, Dumars was not yet done with receiving awards. Following the 1995-96 season, he was presented with the league’s first Sportsmanship Award. The award was created to honor the player who exemplifies the ideals of sportsmanship on the court — ethical behavior, fair play and integrity. Dumars so epitomized the award that the NBA eventually named the trophy given to the recipient, the Joe Dumars Trophy.
At the time he returned to the Pistons during the 1999-2000 season as vice president of player personnel and at the end of the season promoted to president of basketball operations, the franchise was not in great shape. The team had climbed back to respectability with a 42-40 season, but the team was swept by the Miami Heat in the first-round of the playoffs and Hill wanted out of Detroit.
Dumars traded Hill to the Orlando Magic for several players including unheralded Ben Wallace who though would become the backbone of a tenacious defensive oriented team. He also acquired Chauncey Billups, another player who had to work for every minute he got after a disappointing few years after being a high draft selection.
He also later made another bold trade by sending the team’s leading scorer, Jerry Stackhouse to the Washington Wizards for a young shooting guard named Richard Hamilton. He pulled an executive’s magic trick by acquiring Rasheed Wallace from the Atlanta Hawks after he had just been dealt from the Blazers at the 2004 trading deadline. He also drafted a four-year player out of Kentucky named Tayshaun Prince who many thought was too slight to succeed in the NBA.
At the end of the 2003-04 campaign, the Pistons completed their third consecutive 50-win season. Larry Brown had been hired as the head coach prior to the season and lead the team to the 2004 Finals where the Los Angeles Lakers awaited. After losing in the 2003 Western Conference finals, following winning three consecutive championships, the Lakers added future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to a club that already featured Shaquille O’Neal along with Kobe Bryant and was coached by nine-time NBA Champion Phil Jackson. No one gave the Pistons a chance to win the series.
There was only the question of how many games it would take the Lakers to win the title. But, a strange thing happened…the Pistons won in five games.
In his prime as an executive for the Pistons, Dumars ran the team just as he played – with hard work and tenacity. Ultimately, though, he would step down from his post with the Pistons in April of 2015 after a run of five straight playoff-less seasons.
The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame also recognized his contributions as he was elected to be a member of the 2006 class. One of Dumars’ building blocks to Pistons success, Chauncey Billups, in an interview with the Detroit Free Press captured the sentiment of many.
“What he meant to this game, not just to this city but to the entire league, with his sportsmanship and his class and his character, it doesn’t come around often,” Billups said. “Just the things that he did outside of this court, I think it’s long overdue. He’s definitely deserving.”
Dumars re-emerged in a new front office role in 2019, this time with the Sacramento Kings as Special Advisor to then-general manager Vlade Divac. When Divac stepped down from his role in 2020, Dumars served as interim executive vice president of basketball operations and assumed interim GM duties as well.
Later that year, he was named the new Chief Strategy Officer with Kings. In this role, Dumars helps to drive strategy across the organization’s entire portfolio of activities, including business, basketball, new ventures, entertainment and real estate.