This is scary, he thought. Something bad could happen here, he thought. He looked down through the window — how many stories high are we? — all those people, the cars, the noise, the glint of steel reflecting in the glass skyscrapers. Whoa. It’s so big. He sat on the bed in the Grand Hyatt Hotel and called his father and mother back in Louisiana. They assured him New York City was survivable for one night, stay in the room, be careful. He double-locked the doors, just in case.
The next day he sat at the NBA draft and waited nervously for his name to be called. He expected Denver to take him, but they passed, then Dallas, but they passed, too, and so he figured he was going to Houston, with the 19th pick. Houston needed a guard.
Then, the strangest thing happened.
“WITH THE 18TH PICK,” commissioner David Stern announced, “DETROIT SELECTS
. . . JOE DUMARS, McNEESE STATE.”
He stood up, shook a few hands, all the while thinking “Detroit? Why Detroit?” He pushed a smile on his face and faced the TV cameras. Soon he was back in his room, packing his stuff. Detroit? Over the phone, the Pistons had asked if he would fly in for a press conference, but he was too shy for that.
He wanted to get back to dirt roads and Bayou heat. Before he left, he pulled out a map and tried to locate this new employer. He had no clue. Detroit?
“If you stripped away the names of the states and said, ‘Pick Michigan,’ ” he admits now, “I probably would have pointed to Wisconsin.”
That was a long time ago. Dumars has overcome his shyness, his fear of cities, and his poor geography. He has blossomed into a shining star of American sports, an All-Star, an NBA Finals MVP, a Dream Team II captain, a charity spokesman, a husband, a father, a community leader, a great interview.
But for all that has happened, he never lost touch with the scared Louisiana kid in that hotel room that night, and so he remembers the lessons he had packed with him then, from people who spun wisdom over lemonade glasses and shaded porch chairs. One of those lessons was this: “Don’t be like a bucket of crabs.”
It means, don’t be the type who is so threatened by others getting ahead that he has to pull them down.
Last summer, in another NBA draft, the commissioner’s voice sounded again.
“WITH THE THIRD PICK, DETROIT SELECTS . . . GRANT HILL, DUKE.”
And Dumars exhaled. He was 31 years old now. And once again, he talked to himself.
“Well, Joe, you have just gone from being a star — to being a mentor.”
He would not be a crab.
No one here will ever appreciate that enough.
JUNE 1994, Ginopolis restaurant. Dumars is having dinner with Grant Hill, Calvin Hill, Tom Wilson, Billy McKinney and Don Chaney. Hill is shopping for teams. The Pistons want him badly. After dinner, Dumars takes the kid aside.
“Listen,” he says, ” I’m the veteran on this team. And I promise you, you can come here and not have to put up with any ego or attitude. No one will say
‘Who does this kid think he is?’ I will make sure of it.
“You can come here and be The Man — with my blessings.”
When Hill leaves Detroit, he tells his father and his agent, “This is where I want to play.”
The morning air is brisk, and so is the traffic. Joe Dumars is steering his four wheel drive along the Detroit highways. He is stiff, tired and, as is common this season, coming off a loss. The night before, he faced old nemesis Michael Jordan, who returned to the Bulls after two years away. Jordan, playing in only his 12th game of the season, had the bounce of a teenager heading to a rock concert.
Joe had to guard him. In the old days, he did this better than anyone, but he also had help, Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer. These days, Dumars, suffering a double groin pull, is on his own. He did what he could. Jordan scored 29.
“How old do you feel this morning?” Dumars is asked.
“Oooold,” he says.
The Pistons are finishing another terrible season. They will miss the playoffs again. Tuesday is their final home game in the final week in the final years of Dumars’ career.
This is no way for a two-time NBA champion to close the show.
“At least this season I think of us as a team that isn’t winning — not as losers. Last season, I remember coming out for the tap a few times and thinking, ‘We have no chance of winning this game. None.’ “
Dumars was at his peak when the franchise began to crumble. He could shoot like a rifle and his defense was like flypaper. He was a perennial All-Star, coaches loved him. He could have asked for a trade. Go to a contender. Win another title.
Instead, he chose to lay down his career like a cape over the muddy waters of mediocrity, so that Hill and Lindsey Hunter and Allen Houston might have a bridge to a golden era. He would be their teacher. That would be his final legacy. Laimbeer tried to do this last season with the big men, but quit midway through. Isiah Thomas lost a step and quickly retired to front office glamour; he wasn’t going to stick around just to show younger guys the ropes.
But Dumars? Well, hadn’t he always gravitated to older people himself? He used to sit on his bunk bed in Natchitoches, La. listening to his five older brothers talk about school, sports, and life. When he got to college, he befriended the older players and hung around with them.
Even his wife, Debbie, was the second person in her family that Joe fell for. The first was her father, who used to sit on the porch telling stories. The guy was in his 50’s. Joe thought he was great.
“I’ve always said that once I got to seniority status, I knew how I would treat the guys coming behind me,” Dumars said.
So he met with Bill Davidson, the Pistons owner, and said if Davidson wanted Joe Dumars here, Joe Dumars wanted to be here. For the rest of his career. No matter what.
Here he stays.
FALL 1994. In a meeting in Tom Wilson’s office, Dumars insists that Grant Hill be given the proper treatment.
“You have your star for the next 10 years,” he says. “You have to build around this kid. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. Don’t worry about not overdoing him because of me.
“I’ll be the veteran guy. I’ll make sure the rest of the team is in line. But give Grant the full treatment. Press conferences. Billboards. Marketing. Everything. He’s your franchise now.”
Do you know how many times Joe Dumars has dunked? Five. That’s right. Five times in 10 seasons. The most recent one was a game against Atlanta this year. He was on a breakaway. He went up and slammed, then looked over at his bench. The players were whooping and high-fiving.
“I told them, ‘Guys, you have just witnessed history.”
This is the genius of Dumars. In a league where the next star can’t be too down, too cool, Dumars is a hero for being . . . square. He doesn’t believe in showing off (hence the no dunking, which, by the way, he can do with his eyes closed.) He doesn’t party. He cannot remember the last time he was in a nightclub on the road.
“Sometimes I’ll hear the younger guys talk about where they’re going that night. And just for laughs, I’ll say ‘You know, tonight I’m gonna meet you guys. I really am. About 10:30? I’m gonna be there. Wait for me now, OK?”
Do they ever believe you?
Nah. But they’d like to. Dumars would be welcome at just about anyone’s table. He has held counsel with such jammers as Shaquille O’Neal and Shawn Kemp, during Dream Team II last August — both thought the world of Dumars — and he has gained the friendship of even the most reclusive superstars, like Jordan and Adrian Dantley. People simply like to be around Dumars. He is principled without passing judgment, and as friendly as a country neighbor.
He also breaks the mold. Instead of parties or women, he reads on the road. He goes to movies by himself. He watches CNN and ESPN and gets the Wall Street Journal.
And he is curious.
A few summers ago, Dumars ran into a newspaper reporter. They got to talking about the media. Dumars said he’d like to see how a newspaper worked. The reporter said, yeah, sure, someday. Dumars said “How about tomorrow?”
The next day, Dumars was at the newspaper, sitting in on editorial meetings, visiting the printing presses, studying the vats of ink.
Most guys can’t do enough to stay out of the papers. Dumars is the only one who ever asked to come in.
WINTER 1994, in the locker room after practice, Hill sits with Dumars. He tells Joe about this guy he’s going to hook up with.
“He’s a friend of yours,” Hill says.
“No, he isn’t,” Dumars says.
“But he told me he knows you really well.”
Dumars smiles. “Listen. A lot of people will tell you they know me really well. Just as there are people out there right now telling people how well they know you. No matter how sincere people are, no matter what they say, it doesn’t mean you can trust them, OK?
“Don’t ever let people’s words be what you base your opinion on.”
Hill nods, taking it all in.
“Hey, Bean . . . come here . . . look out . . . come here . . . look out . . .
Dumars is playing with his baby daughter, Erin, in the kitchen of his airy Bloomfield Hills home. His children — on several visits — seem much like him, quiet, observing. You don’t notice much crying when a stranger is in the house. Just big eyes looking at you.
Dumars found refuge in his family as a way of dealing with the Pistons’ slide. In the championship years, there was barely time to breathe between media requests, appearances, and, of course, a two month post-season.
These last few years, Dumars has been finished with basketball by the first week in May. The time was reinvested into his family. His first child, Jordan was born not long after his father died, during the 1990 NBA Finals against Portland. It was the perfect catharsis for Dumars, who adored Joe Sr., his work ethic, his simple way of looking at life,
“I went from being a son to being a father in less than a year,” he says.
“That will make you grow up.”
WINTER 1995. During a game, a little past halfway through the season, Grant Hill goes to pass the ball in-bounds to Dumars. Suddenly a worried look comes over Hill’s face.
“Joe,” he says, “my legs are just gone. I can barely feel ’em anymore.”
Dumars takes the ball and walks alongside Hill upcourt.
“You ever hear of The Wall?” he says. “You just hit it.
“Another few games, and you’ll come out of it.”
Fate will not be as kind to Dumars’ career. Barring a miracle, he will end his Pistons tenure during the rebuilding process. The likelihood of another championship during his time is as slim a Oliver Miller is hefty.
“What makes it easier to deal with is that I’ve already won two championships and a Finals MVP award. I’ll be honest, if I hadn’t done that, it would be tougher. Maybe I wouldn’t like a young kid coming in and taking things away.”
Instead, Dumars teaches. he teaches Hill about the media, time usage, ego, life, he teaches Hunter about the point guard position and Houston about the off-guard position. He plays hurt and wounded so that he can teach the tea, about grace under fire, about work ethic.
He sets a tone. Think about it. How many other teams could be dead last in their division, and almost never spill venom into the media? No swiping at each other? No finger pointing?
It is Dumars who makes this possible. In some ways, this year, this dismal, statistically smelly Piston season, may be his greatest team contribution — if only for what he sacrificed.
Funny, no? A kid who had no idea where Detroit was 10 years ago is now insuperable from this city. On a recent visit to Childrens Hospital, Dumars was introduced to a young patient. The boy shook his hand.
“I never met a real player before,” he said.
“Are you a Pistons fan?” Joe asked
“I am now,” he said.
What better legacy than that? JOE ON…
* GRANT HILL: “You have your star for the next 10 years,” Dumars told Pistons president Tom Wilson. “You have to build around this kid. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. . . . He’s your franchise now.”
* LOSING: “At least this season I think of us as a team that isn’t winning — not as losers. Last season, I remember coming out for the tap a few times and thinking, ‘We have no chance of winning this game. None.’ ”