by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

For the last few summers, you might have seen someone who looked like Joe Dumars playing in local tennis tournaments. He never registered under his own name — he often used “Joe Dee” as a pseudonym — but it was he all right. Joe Dumars. Captain of the Pistons. NBA All-Star. He wasn’t the best one out there. Sometimes he got beat in the first round.

But there he was, swinging away.

Pro athletes love to win; some love it so much, they won’t try anything if they can’t be assured a victory. And then there is a rare bird like Dumars, who simply loves the experience of it all — win or lose — and doesn’t want to miss a thing. So he enters tennis tournaments and he starts a field house and he flies to Spain to teach kids basketball. All this from a Louisiana fellow who once was so shy, he hid inside his New York City hotel room and locked the door.

“It has all gone by so fast,” Dumars says, reflecting on his career while sipping a Diet Coke at Hogan’s restaurant in Bloomfield Hills. “Sometimes I wonder if I hadn’t been a basketball player, how far would I have gotten in the outside world?”

He would likely be as successful, but perhaps not as varied. Consider the roles he has already played in the Pistons Theater: young buck, overlooked superstar, team leader, elder statesman. He has played it sprightly and played it hurt. He almost played it right off the stage two years ago, when the losing under Don Chaney got so bad, he didn’t want to come to work.

“I was miserable,” he admits, “and I had every intention of retiring.”

But he found a light, and he followed it. And now, at 33, he is starting another playoff run and on the lip of a new two- year contract.

And here is the truest thing I can say about that:

It’s the Pistons who are lucky, not Dumars.

They seek his counsel

Let’s face it. When the Pistons were winning championships, they were called “Isiah’s team.” And nowadays they are “Grant Hill’s team.” And the truth is, in both cases, things had more to do with Joe Dumars than anyone will ever know.

He is the guy who holds the franchise together, a human epoxy that plugs all holes before they widen. He’s the guy they bring to dinner to meet prospective draft choices. He’s the guy they consult when they need to gauge team chemistry.

When Doug Collins has a problem, he talks to Dumars. When Hill has a problem, he talks to Dumars. When Bill Davidson — the owner! — wants to talk, he talks to Dumars.

Rookies, referees, reporters. They all seek him out. He’s like some Yoda of the hardwood. When the NBA had its labor showdown a few years back, commissioner David Stern called Dumars at home and asked whether he would come to New York to be a voice of reason. He came, and they solved the problem.

And they’re worried about replacing Michael Jordan?

Who’s going to be Dumars when Dumars is gone?

“What’s the one thing you have no tolerance for after 12 years in the NBA?” I ask him.

“Excuses,” he says. “Non-professional excuses. You know how they have Secretary’s Day? I’d like to have ‘No Excuses Day.’ “

What would the NBA be like on that day?

“Well, you’d hear a lot of guys saying, ‘I got lazy on that play. Sorry.’ And you’d hear a lot of coaches saying, ‘That was my fault, guys,’ and referees saying, ‘I blew it.’ “

Dumars sighs. He aspires to that kind of honesty. But he knows it is rare. So he has learned to float between the half- truths. He filters out the hype. He downsizes superlatives. He listens without speaking. He has always known more than he revealed.

And now he knows he has a chance at a full-circle career.

Another chance at glory

Do you realize it has been five years since Dumars and the Pistons won a playoff game? Five years! It wasn’t his fault. Yet did you once hear him demand to be traded? Did you once hear a public gripe?

It’s not because it didn’t hurt him. It hurt like crazy. The first year the Pistons were eliminated by Chicago, he couldn’t watch a game of the NBA Finals.

“It was like someone drove a stick through me,” he says. “I didn’t like being ‘former world champion.’ It sounds like some washed-up boxer.”

So Dumars shed that skin and now he has grown another. He is back in the playoffs with a team on the rise. And it’s not as if they’re carrying him. He finished the year as the Pistons’ leader in three-point shooting percentage, free-throw percentage, fewest fouls, and most assists by a guard.

And more than anyone else on the team, he seems comfortable with who he is. The once-shy rookie now moves effortlessly through cities and even foreign countries, lighting up any room he enters. He does charity. He does commerce. He handles himself impeccably.

Hill might be the star of this team, Collins the driver, Otis Thorpe the muscle. But Dumars is the mortar between the bricks. Take him away and the whole thing falls apart.

So Friday night he tries another playoff. That’s the good news. The better news is no matter what happens this time, there will be several more seasons in his tapestry.

Joe D. playing basketball. Joe Dee, playing tennis. It’s still Joe. Plain old Joe. Good old Joe. Sometimes the most ordinary of names casts the most extraordinary light.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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