Joe Dumars is getting a rush from this he never got from playing. Wearing a suit during this NBA Finals series thrills him more than wearing a uniform as a key member of back-to-back championship runs.
Playing was great. Running the joint is better.
"This is way, way more satisfying than playing," Dumars said of being the Detroit Pistons' president of basketball operations. "As a player you drove to the arena, you got taped, you scored 20 then you drove home. It was great, really. But it's not like hiring the coach, putting together the scouting staff, acquiring players. I wanted to try to construct a championship environment -- that was the goal. And it becomes a referendum on whether you can do it or not. At the end of the day, you're driving home by yourself, you have to sit there and ask yourself, 'Can I get this done or not?' "
That question had been answered in the affirmative even before Detroit beat the Lakers in Game 1 on Sunday. Owner William Davidson hired Dumars four years ago Sunday, essentially to rebuild the Pistons. And Dumars has done that, putting together a club that has won 50, 50 and 54 games the last three seasons. It was a true building job. The Pistons didn't have a franchise draft pick like, say, the San Antonio Spurs did twice with David Robinson and Tim Duncan. In fact, because Pistons Coach Larry Brown doesn't much care for playing rookies, the Pistons' highest pick, No. 2 overall selection Darko Milicic, doesn't play at all. He was the only Detroit player who didn't see the court in the Game 1 victory.
So Dumars had to be resourceful, even shrewd. He traded his teammate, friend, neighbor and successor as star of the Pistons, Grant Hill. But in return, Dumars got Ben Wallace, whom the Wizards and Magic had discarded. After winning 50 games, Dumars figured out Richard Hamilton was a better player to grow with than Jerry Stackhouse, and traded his team's leading scorer to Washington for Hamilton. Davidson wanted Rick Carlisle out as coach even though Carlisle had won 100 games in his first two seasons. Dumars impressed upon his owner that if the team booted Carlisle, it had better move decisively and upgrade, and suddenly Larry Brown was out of Philly and in Detroit.
Dumars saw a late bloomer in Chauncey Billups, who others thought was a journeyman, and signed him as a free agent. He was thrilled to draft Tayshaun Prince, who in the kid's quiet, professional way reminds a lot of folks of a young Dumars.
And to complete the team, at least for now, Dumars traded for Rasheed Wallace, the unrepentant problem child from Portland, who has come to Detroit and done nothing but play, play hurt, score, defend, push his teammates and fit in. That move reminds Dumars of the Pistons' trading Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre in the middle of the 1989 season. For those who don't remember, the Pistons went on to win the championship that year and the next. For those (like me) who thought Dumars and Brown might be taking on, in Wallace, somebody who would continue to be more trouble than he's worth, Dumars said the other day upon reflection: "I was willing to live with whatever the results were, even if it hadn't worked exactly as it has. I didn't have to sit there and ponder it for a long time. I knew it was the right thing for the team."
The Pistons are a team without a franchise player, much like the one Dumars played for that included Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, James Edwards, Dennis Rodman and Aguirre. There's no wonder his philosophy of building doesn't start and end with stars. "If you don't have Shaq and Kobe," Dumars said, "then don't go out and just get two max (maximum salaried) guys and try to build around them because those guys still won't be Shaq and Kobe. I thought it was best to get size and depth."
Of course, we should have seen this success coming. For 14 seasons, Dumars was the quintessential pro. "The good guy of the Bad Boys," is the way former teammate and current Pistons radio analyst Rick Mahorn described Dumars after Game 1. Asked whether it was fair to call Dumars "shrewd," Mahorn said: "Is it fair? Of course, it is. Always has been. He's shrewd. It's the quiet ones you always have to worry about, and he was the quiet one. Look, luck has something do with the way moves turn out, but it's making the moves that's the key thing about building anything."
And Dumars doesn't just make moves to shake it up. As a player, he was organized to the point of being meticulous. He is CEO of Detroit Technologies, Inc., an automotive parts supplier in Detroit. Just after retirement, Dumars was appointed to the executive committee of the United States Tennis Association. In 1995, Davidson invited Dumars into the draft room and Dumars was fascinated. Even though he'd long been Davidson's favorite player, Dumars refused to just jump in when he retired after the 1999 season. He followed the club's general manager, Rick Sund, to simply observe and, when asked, consult. "I spent a year just trying to educate myself," he said. "I spent a year on the phone, calling people in the NBA office, talking with league attorneys, studying the salary cap. . . . [Nets President] Rod Thorn actually helped me a lot. He's been tremendously helpful to me. . . . I just had to be as prepared as I possibly could before I took the job."
Dumars was a six-time all-star, and ranks in the top three of virtually all of the Pistons' major statistical categories. Yet, he might be the most modest great NBA player ever. "You've got to know who you are," Dumars said, "and I know I'm not a coach. No way am I a coach. I know how to organize and lead from this position." Asked to go back to the time when he took the job, with the Pistons struggling, Dumars said, "Those lights at The Palace were flickering."
So why then, did Dumars do it? Why not just go to work for the USTA or take on something with less risk? "How do I phrase this?" Dumars said, knowing his own aversion to vanity. "I did it because I thought I could be good at it, because I didn't think it was rocket science."
His team is three victories away from a championship, without the help of Thomas and Laimbeer, but with the help of people he found, hired and manages. Maybe Dumars is the new Jerry West, a player who spent a successful playing career with one organization, then returned it to prominence as an executive. "There is," Dumars said, "a great sense of accomplishment."