HIS ROAD BACK TO THE FINALS

Five years ago, I did a breakfast interview with Joe Dumars. It was his final season as a Detroit Piston, and he was talking about life after he hung up his sneakers.

“I want to take a year and go see every major sporting event in the world,” he gushed, barely able to curb his enthusiasm. “I want to see the Australian Open, the World Cup, the Tour de France. Everything I couldn’t see when I was playing. Does that sound crazy?”

Crazy? Around the world in a box seat? It sounded like a blast. I congratulated him, wished him well, maybe even envied him.

Then, a few weeks later, following a practice, Dumars was summoned to a lunch by Bill Davidson, the owner. Dumars went, still wearing his sweat suit. By the time that meal was done, a new plan was on the table.

And the world would have to wait.

“I remember that day very clearly,” Dumars says now, on the cusp of the first NBA Finals game in Detroit since he was a skinny shooting guard in his 20s. “I came home to my wife, Debbie, and said, ‘I had an interesting lunch with Mr. D today.’

“And she said, ‘Oh, yeah? What did you talk about?’

“And I said, ‘Me sticking around in some capacity.’

” ‘What capacity? Coaching?’

” ‘God no!’

” ‘What then?’

” ‘Well, basically, running the team.’

” ‘Wow. Well, what do you think?’

” ‘I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do that or not.’ “

Debbie nodded, told him to give it time. But she knew. She knew instinctively. This was the perfect job for him. And there was no way he wasn’t going to take it.

Life turns on spits and sputters, on a meeting here, on a chance encounter there. What if Joe Dumars had skipped that lunch? Had followed his dream? Had gone off to Wimbledon, or the Paris-to-Dakkar car race? Where would the Pistons be today? Where would Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince — any of the players that Dumars put together — be today?

Instead, tonight, at the Palace, Dumars, the Pistons’ 41-year-old president of basketball operations, will welcome the world to Detroit, media from Argentina to Israel, TV audiences from South Africa to Russia. He also will welcome back a number of his old Bad Boys teammates, and a viewing audience may ask, “Where are they now?”

Here’s a sampling: Isiah Thomas is working for the Knicks. Bill Laimbeer is coaching in the WNBA. Rick Mahorn is working in the media. John Salley works in every media. Vinnie Johnson is around. Dennis Rodman wants a comeback. James Edwards? Parts unknown?

But only Dumars — who was this close to skipping around the planet — is still coming to work every day for the Pistons.

What a short, strange trip it’s been.

No longer one of the guys

“I was very comfortable with moving on, leaving basketball altogether,” Dumars says, sitting now at a breakfast table in Beverly Hills, this one a good deal fancier than the diner of five years ago. “I wouldn’t have looked back and said, ‘Man, I wished I done this or that.’ “

As proof, Dumars does not touch a basketball anymore. Not one dribble. Not one pickup game. Not even a private jump shot session, just to see what he has left. His feeling is, why watch yourself deteriorate? Watch yourself grow instead.

The day after his lunch with Davidson, Dumars went back to the locker room, but with a different set of eyes. “I knew if I took that job,” he says, “that eventually I was gonna have to make some decisions on some guys who were in that room with me.

“Lindsey Hunter was there. He wound up being the first real trade I made — and Lindsey was really close to me. Grant Hill was in that locker room. Jerry Stackhouse was in that locker room. That was the hardest part, man, I don’t care who you are. You’re playing with guys and then, suddenly, you have an effect on their lives?

“GM’s aren’t usually in the locker rooms, you know? They don’t get close. I knew — if I ended up cutting guys or trading guys — I knew what they’d be saying about me, where they’d be saying it, I even know how they’d be saying it!”

Because of that, Dumars told Davidson he needed a year. He wanted some distance between him and his teammates. He also wanted to learn about things like salary cap, trade clauses, luxury tax. Davidson thought it was a prudent idea, and so, for one year, Dumars made phone calls and met with people and hung around without an office — “I would just sit in with Rick Sund, who was GM at the time.” He had an amorphous title like Vice President of Player Personnel.

It could have been “Team President In Waiting.”

A series of shrewd moves

When Dumars finally accepted the job — on June 6, 2000, exactly four years ago to the day when the Pistons returned to the NBA Finals — first, he dealt with Hill’s free agency. He salvaged that into a sign-and-trade deal with Orlando. The first “normal” trade he made came a few weeks later, when he swapped Hunter for Billy Owens, mostly due to salary cap reasons.

Dumars called Lindsey at home. As he dialed, he thought about how much players hated GM’s. He thought about all the times he heard teammates moaning about the cold-hearted men who manipulated their fate.

Dumars decided to be straightforward, no sugar coating.

“Lindsey, it’s Joe D,” he said.

“Yehhh . . .” Hunter said, cautiously. “What’s up?”

“Milwaukee.”

“Milwuakee. That’s my stop?”

“That’s your stop.”

Hunter paused. “OK. I can deal with that.”

Dumars is eternally grateful that Hunter made it that easy, that he admitted to Dumars “it’s probably time for me to make a change.” Such maturity was part of the reason, Dumars says, that he ultimately brought Hunter back to the Pistons.

And since that first trade, Dumars has not looked back. Those guys he mentioned — Hill? Stackhouse? Not only were they dealt, but they proved to be among the most prudent deals in the history of the franchise. Hill, who never starred again, brought Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins in return. Stackhouse, whose star has faded, brought Hamilton, whose rise seems limitless.

“Can you even remember all the trades now?” I ask Dumars.

“Uhhhm man, there’s so many guys. If you gave me time, I probably could.”

But who has time?

They’re in the Finals.

The world comes to his place

Today, Dumars reigns over a roster that is unique in the NBA. He did not follow the “get one superstar and surround him with affordable role players” model. Oh, they told him he should. They told him that’s what works. But he said no thanks. Using his knowledge of players that he had bumped against, he built around defense. He built around personalities. He built a layered structure, where young overlaps old, defense overlaps offense, foreign overlaps American, and motivation comes from without and within.

“We have a team that is hungry at every position,” he says, “because nearly all of them were told at some point that they weren’t good enough. Ben Wallace wasn’t even drafted. Chauncey Billups has bounced around four or five teams. Rasheed was supposed to be too much trouble. Rip wasn’t good enough to hold onto. Tayshaun fell down to late in the first round on draft day.

“They are united by the idea that someone doubted them. That’s a good spirit to bring together.”

Not that it doesn’t have its moments. Dumar’s stomach is still in knots over the excruciating Game 2 loss Tuesday night to the Lakers. As a former player who once won a Game 1 in Los Angeles but still lost the Finals in seven games, he knows how critical every close chance can be. But unlike those days, when he could go out and score 30 in retaliation, now he can only watch and hope the lessons aren’t wasted.

They haven’t been when it came to him. Dumars, who won NBA executive of the year in his second season, has helped fortify a whole new generation of front-office executives, younger men, not long removed from their playing days, men who still have a working knowledge of today’s personalities. Chris Mullin in Golden State. John Paxson in Chicago. Danny Ainge in Boston. Isiah in New York. He’s quietly proud of that.

“I still have never been to a World Series game,” Dumars says. “Never been to a Super Bowl. Haven’t gotten up for the 22 hours of flying to the Australian Open. But I like what I do now. It’s fun for me. If I ever feel like a crotchety old man, angry about coming in, well, then, I’ll stop doing it immediately.

“But for now? My wife was right. This type of job really does suit me.”

Tonight, the reporters from Brazil and Italy chart their maps to the Palace. The fans from Asia and Africa tune their TV sets for the tip-off. They will watch the Pistons’ players play, and the Pistons’ coaches coach, but everything they see is united by a single thread: Joe Dumars, at some point, made a decision about it.

In the back of his head, a plane engine is still running, and the cabin door is open. But for now, he’ll settle for the biggest stage in basketball, and a belief that if you can’t get to the world just yet, bring the world to you.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com

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