ON THE LAST day of his amateur life, a kid named Joe Dumars waved good-bye to his sleepy hometown of Natchitoches, La., the smells of Creole cooking, the sticky humid days, the rocking-chair-on-a-front-porch nights. His father, a hard-working truck driver, pulled him aside and offered one last piece of advice.
“Son,” the elder Dumars said, “that’s a good job you got yourself there. Be grateful for it, and treat those people with respect.”
“OK, Dad,” the son said. “I will.”
Now, more than 14 years later, on a Sunday night in Auburn Hills, a 35-year-old Dumars jogged through the Palace tunnel to complete his promise. He was retiring, leaving the sport that brought him two NBA championships, leaving the team for which he had played more games than any man who had worn its uniform.
Sunday was his final regular-season home game. He approached it, as he does all individual milestones, as no big deal. Got to the arena early. Went through his warm-ups. He was the last Piston to come down the tunnel, all by himself, lost in thought. But as he turned the corner, he ran smack into a group of grinning faces.
His teammates, waiting in the wing.
They wouldn’t go out without him.
“C’mon, Joe….” they teased, grabbing him into their circle, bouncing him around, “get on out there, Joe….”
They pushed him in front, and as he led them onto the floor, the PA system launched into Roger Daltry singing, “Say It Ain’t So, Joe.” Then came the theme from “Sanford and Son,” Dumars’ favorite sitcom.
Finally, it came to introductions. And with the lights down, the entire Palace sang together, announcer Ken Calvert’s trademark invocation:
The man with the good job.
All night long, the scoreboard flashed his career in highlights. The night he hugged the MVP trophy. The night he dropped 45 points on Golden State. His backcourt partnership with Isiah Thomas. The head-to-heads with Michael Jordan. The Dream Team II experience. The six All-Star games. Those arching jumpers, that expressionless backpedal, that amazing night he hit 10 three-pointers, that amazing block on the Lakers’ David Rivers in the closing seconds of Game 3 of Detroit’s first championship.
The crowd sighed and cheered with each scoreboard memory. And yet, through all that glorious past — and a bit of glorious present, as Dumars hit another cloud-piercing three-pointer that helped push the Pistons into the playoffs — you couldn’t deny a certain tugging inside.
Something sad was happening here.
The stroke of midnight was coming for the 9-to-5 superstar.
Now, because I know Dumars, because I like Dumars, and because over the years with Dumars I have broken a usually strict rule of journalism by allowing him to become my friend, I am going to say something today that I almost never say.
This guy is a role model.
That’s right. This is that rarest of athletes you can finally point to and say, “Yes, kids, it’s OK to be like him.”
It’s OK, for example, to come to your new job shy and polite, as Dumars did in the mid-80’s, so overwhelmed on his first road trip to New York City that he locked himself inside his hotel room.
It’s also OK to stay humble. Even during the Bad Boys years — when Thomas played the assassin, Bill Laimbeer played the bully and Dennis Rodman played the annoying wasp — Dumars remained universally liked throughout the league.
He knew how to lose and how to win. No matter how many points he scored, or how many opponents he shut down, he never thumped his chest, pointed at himself, jumped on a table, did a victory dance, wagged a warning finger, or shoved two fists in the air in defiant celebration.
Heck, I can remember only five times he even dunked.
And he was still the MVP of the Pistons’ first championship.
Yes, kids, it’s OK to be humble. Not everyone has to wiggle, giggle or trash-talk.
There were more lessons over the years. Like working on your game. Joe Dumars taught us that. He arrived from McNeese State as a scoring machine with point-guard ability. He grew, adjusted and added a defensive skill that was almost unmatched. Michael Jordan — the best player ever — wound up calling Dumars his toughest opponent.
And Dumars taught us more. Like it’s OK to be courteous to the press. Like it’s OK to be honest. And, at the same time, know the value of silence. For years, Dumars kept quiet on many explosive topics that could have made him look good and others look bad. He never spoke publicly about Isiah Thomas’ power-hungry, behind-the-scenes manipulations, even though he knew more about them than anyone. He never spoke publicly about Doug Collins’ nearly pathological rants and raves, even though he witnessed them all.
It’s OK to be that way, too, kids. It’s called discretion.
It’s also OK to have outside interests. Dumars proved that, too.
Unlike so many pampered athletes, he realized early on that a pro career left many hours of usable free time. Instead of playing video games or partying all night, he read books. He started a business. He took his son one time to Children’s Hospital and was so impressed with the work the people did there, he invented a charity event to raise money for their efforts.
When he met people — be they presidents or janitors — he didn’t dismiss them with a “Yeah, how ya doin?” He grilled them, with questions about their lives and their work. He knew there is something to be learned from everyone. He embodied the Rudyard Kipling poem, “Walk with kings, but never lose the common touch.”
He also remains the only athlete who ever asked me to show him how a newspaper functioned.
Finally, in the autumn of his career, Dumars offered a true role-model lesson: Share what you know. It would have been very easy for him to say, “I’m the big shot in Detroit. Grant Hill can wait until I’m done.”
Instead, when the Pistons were thinking of drafting Hill, Dumars took him to dinner, and told him, “If you come here, you will be the man — with my blessings.”
That night, Hill went home and told his father that Detroit was where he wanted to play.
See that, kids? “Looking out for No. 1” isn’t everybody’s philosophy. In fact, Joe would often recite a different mantra, a thing they say down in Louisiana.
“Don’t be like a bucket of crabs.”
Which means, don’t be so threatened by who’s getting ahead of you that you have to pull them down.
You don’t see that in a Nike ad, do you?
When the game was won against Philadelphia on Sunday night — and the Pistons were once more back in the playoffs — Dumars came to meet the press wearing his old white, red and blue warm-ups.
“I feel like I cut my teeth in this uniform,” he said.
He sat down and began talking, making eye contact with reporters. Funny. The old Joe — the young version — would have shyly stared at his feet and waited for someone to say something.
You live, you grow. So now Dumars was talking, typically not about himself but about the group he was leaving behind. “This is what I envisioned when I thought about retiring, a young team going on to the playoffs. This is a special group of guys….
“Kids, I call them. A special group of kids.”
He laughed at his age, his eyes narrowing happily, that same little mustache he’s had since he’s been here rising above his teeth. He never spoke about his place in history. He never tried to make the moment large.
But then, the truth is, if you really want to sum up Joe Dumars, you consider all the things he never did. He never held out. He never demanded a trade. He never said things like “This is my house.”
He never got into trouble. He never showed up drunk or high. He never yelled at reporters, invented a dance, choked his coach or went AWOL from the team.
He came to work. Did what was asked. And never believed that he was any better than the young man with a suitcase who looked his father in the eye and promised to treat the job with respect.
History will show that 1999 was the farewell year for many legends: Jordan, the best ever in basketball; Wayne Gretzky, maybe the best ever in hockey; John Elway, maybe the best to ever take an NFL snap.
But let the record show that Dumars belongs, if not in that line, at least in that parade. He won as many titles as Elway; played with one team, like Jordan, for his whole career; and was the most popular and respected superstar in his league, same as Gretzky.
And now he moves on.
This year, knowing it was his last, Dumars allowed his 8-year-old son, Jordan, to be a Pistons ball boy. And it warmed your heart to see the kid Sunday night, laughing and slapping hands with the other ball boys when his Daddy hit free throws that helped ice the win. He looks like his father, has those same sleepy/happy eyes, and in those eyes lies the future for old No. 4.
“Does Jordan mind that you’re retiring?” I asked Dumars.
“Yes and no,” he said. “On the one hand, he says he thinks I could play another year.
“On other hand, he knows he’ll be seeing a lot more of Daddy playing him in the driveway.”
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM