THERE ARE few things more enjoyable in Detroit sports than a private conversation with Joe Dumars. I have been fortunate enough to have many of them over the years. As Dumars, 35, is winding down his career with the Pistons, I thought it would be fitting to share parts of our most recent conversation, held a few days ago over breakfast, when we talked about life, career, retirement, basketball and having your son as a ball boy.
Mitch: Was there one defining moment where you said, “That’s it. It’s time to quit?”
Joe: There’s not one. It’s just an inner feeling that you have that you know. I think I’ve given it all I can.
And, once you decided, was there any moment where you thought you were wrong?
I had about a two-week stretch of some great games this year. And everybody was saying, “Come back, come back, come back.” But every time I would think about another training camp and another preseason and 82 more games and flying out on a 10-day road trip — that would always bring me back to reality.
What will you miss the least?
Training camp. Training camp and preseason games really get old.
You think that’s why when Michael Jordan quit the first time — and the second
— he quit right before training camp?
Yeah. And when I heard Wayne Gretzky’s press conference, and he said just having to train for two hours every summer to go to a training camp didn’t appeal to him anymore — I was looking at the television, and I said, “He’s speaking to me right now.”
Do you relate more to Gretzky’s retirement than say Jordan’s or John Elway’s because Gretzky is leaving without a last championship?
In a way. Having the rewards come at the end as they did for Elway are great, but I enjoyed having the majority of my career defined by being a champion. It brings so much more respect from referees, other coaches, the media, the fans, your teammates and your opponents. I won a championship in the fourth year — this is my 14th year — so for the past 10 years, because of those two championships, you always walk in with a little bit more respect than some of the other athletes who haven’t.
When you look at the younger guys coming in, is there any connection between you and them at all?
Well, as a teammate you’re always gonna have a certain bond. But some of the things that peak my curiosity really don’t peak a 19- or 20-year-old’s curiosity.
Do the young guys use expressions you don’t even understand?
Yeah, occasionally I have to ask what does that mean? But more than that, when I hear them say, “I remember back in the day . . .” And I say, “Back in the day?” They’re talking about 1989 or ’90! I was already in this league winning championships. I was a 25-year-old man then! Or you hear a kid come in and say, “I remember when you guys won that first championship and me and my friends, we ran outside and we started playing ball after you guys won, and we were like ‘I’m gonna be Isiah, I’m gonna be Joe.’ ” And I’ll ask them, “How old were you then?” “Oh, I think I was maybe 10 or 12.” I’m like, “Oh, OK — almost my son’s age.”
What has it been like to be the last surviving member of the whole Bad Boys thing?
It was more noticeable to me when it first happened, when I first became the last one here.
And how did you deal with it?
It was kind of an awkward, funny, challenging feeling. Like, OK, I am the only one left, I am the one that knows what we went through, how we got there. I want to pass that along, but I want to be careful not to inundate these guys with, “I remember when . . .” You know what I mean?
Did you feel lonely?
Early on I did. When I first looked around — the first year or so — I kind of said, “God …you know . . .”
Who am I gonna talk to?
Yeah, who am I gonna talk to? Who understands what it’s been like?
Do you think being the youngest prepares you for any of that?
That’s a good point. It was totally parallel to me growing up. I grew up in a house full of people, I was the youngest, I soaked up everything that everybody did and said. Then one day, I was the last one home. Kind of an only child. Just me and my mother and father. But I could always recall what my older brothers had done and said and the way they acted. And it was the same thing with this team.
Let me get some thumbnail impressions of some people you’ve played with. Let’s start with Dennis Rodman.
A true rags to riches story.
Rags to riches to rags?
Could be. That’s yet to be seen. But he was definitely the shy, introverted, unassuming, unpretentious kid that has turned into what you see now. He is totally on the opposite end of the spectrum of the Dennis Rodman I met and knew here in Detroit.
Have you talked to him recently?
No. But when we’ve played the Bulls the last couple of years and I would see him, he would always smile and it would be almost like a knowing look like, like …you know what I’m doing …yeah …but you don’t say anything.
You never went up to him in all the time and said, “Come on, what are you doing?”
I knew he was beyond that conversation. Maybe you could have gotten to him when he was in San Antonio, but by the time he got to the Bulls, he was beyond that conversation.
Do you think it was Chuck Daly’s leaving that set him off?
Yeah, I think Dennis was a guy who definitely needed some stability, and you really didn’t know it until that happened.
If they told you he was available and asked you whether you’d welcome him back on the team?
Only because I played with him before, and I think I have a little bit more insight about him, would I have said yes. Maybe that’s idealistic.
When they say Jordan was the reason he could exist on the Bulls, do you buy that?
I do think this: Wherever he’s gone where he’s respected the other people around him, where they have accomplished what he has, he worked out and they won. He went to two other teams that didn’t have that, and he went off the charts. He went to San Antonio; those guys hadn’t accomplished anything. And the guys at the Lakers hadn’t accomplished anything. And you could see the difference in his behavior. He says to himself: “I don’t really have to respect this situation, and I’m not going to.”
How about Bill Laimbeer?
Bill Laimbeer was a lot of different things. He was tough as nails, determined, all those adjectives that you use — down-and-dirty, hard-nosed player — but he was also very bright, very intelligent. You get into a conversation with him, and you enjoy it, even though a lot of times he and I took the opposite ends of the conversation. Republican vs. Democrat a lot.
What would you talk about it?
Social ills, government spending — he and I had some great, deep, conversations. Usually on the plane. I remember we had huge conversations when Clinton was first running for office in ’92. Bill was not a Clinton fan — as you might figure.
How about Isiah Thomas? A lot has been written about your relationship with him? What do people misunderstand?
What gets lost a lot of times is the admiration I had for him before I got here. I’m telling you — in college, I had one poster on the wall. It was Isiah. I had no idea that I would ever play with this guy. I don’t know how I can explain to people how huge that was for me to come here and say, “Wow, I’m playing in the backcourt with this guy here.” I’d try to soak up everything I could from him. I would watch the way he’d practice, the way he warmed up — I would watch every single thing. He was definitely the best basketball player I’ve ever played with in my life. Definitely.
What about the time Isiah said Detroit wouldn’t have lost the championship if you hadn’t gotten friendly with Jordan?
(Smiles.) We got beyond that.
What did you think of that when it happened?
Obviously, I disagreed with it.
You don’t have any contact with him now, though?
Occasionally we run into each other.
Why isn’t he with the Pistons in some capacity?
I don’t even think he can give a definitive answer on that. I know I definitely can’t.
What about Chuck Daly? Do you appreciate his coaching skills more as you get older?
Yeah. That’s exactly what I was gonna say. He’s almost like a parent that way. Your parents will tell you something, you hear it, you say, yeah, OK, I’m gonna do it, but as you get older and you become a grown-up and a parent yourself, you realize, wow, now I see why he was saying what he said.
Give me an example of something he said while he was here that you didn’t value until he was gone.
“Seize the moment, guys. You never know when it’s gonna come back around.” Now, when you’re 25, 26 years old, that goes in one ear, slows down a little bit, and quickly gets out the other side because you think “I’m invincible” or
“I’m young, I’m strong — we’re gonna always be here.” No, you won’t. No, you won’t. Seize the moment. ‘Cause you never know when it’s gonna be gone.
Would you like to go back and play for him now knowing what you know?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
How would you be different with him?
I’d probably bend his ear a little bit more. Learn more. Because he definitely has some knowledge there. He was an older coach, and I find, through basketball and away from basketball, you deal with older people — there’s so much wisdom and knowledge there.
You’ve always gravitated toward older people.
Is that one of the reasons you’ve grown closer with Bill Davidson over the years?
Yeah. I respect anybody who has kind of done and seen it all. I respect the adage of been there, done that. I gravitate to that.
Can you remember when you played him the first time in tennis, saying to yourself: “He is my boss, let’s not put any shots right past him?”
Well, I was definitely conscious of who was on the other side of the net. Hey, that’s Mr. D over there. Yeah.
No overhead slams?
No. I promise you there won’t be any overhead slams on Mr. D!
Do you think, in retrospect, you’ll be fortunate that you played all those games against Michael Jordan? Is your career defined a little bit by him?
Yeah. Oh, there’s no question about it. And I consider him the greatest basketball player to ever live. He and I are the same age. We came through it
— at the same time. And to be able to compete against him at that particular level — with the things that were on the line — and to be successful doing it — it has to mean something to you. And it wasn’t like I was a forward and he was a guard — we were both two-guards, and we had to go head-to-head, night after night after night after night. And that gives you kind of a different perspective of your career — and his.
Do you envision yourself as the general manager of this team? There are people out there already openly referring to you as that, the GM next year.
That has never, ever, ever been discussed. Never. I can sit here and look at you right now and say never. We’ve talked about staying within the organization in some role, and we said it’s a yet-to-be-determined role. But in terms of a GM — no, I have never, ever discussed that.
Do you wanna do it?
I can’t necessarily say I would. I can’t say I wanna wake up and go to work every day from 9-to-5 and be the GM every day.
Coaching is definitely out?
(Laughs.) I’ve been on record for a while with that. I have no aspirations to do that.
I just want to make sure you’re not changing your mind.
No, no, no, no — absolutely not!
Uck — no. No, no, no.
Don’t wanna be on a bench unless you’re wearing a uniform?
Right. Actually, you’re right. I don’t. More than anything, it’s the thought of not having to be on an 82-game schedule appeals to me. I don’t wanna turn around and be a coach or an assistant coach. You’re still a part of that grind.
Are you going to keep your dream that once you retire, you’re going to attend every major sporting event in the world?
Yep. When they ran the Kentucky Derby last week, I was thinking: “Next year I’m gonna be there.’ Absolutely. I’m gonna start. I absolutely will. I think one of the toughest places it’s gonna be for me to go, though, is to the Australian Open — tennis.
I heard that’s a 22-hour flight. That might be my last trip right there. I might save that for last.
Do you actually have a list of the events you want to see?
I know exactly what I wanna see.
Rattle off a few.
I gotta go to Wimbledon. Gotta go to Wimbledon. I gotta go to the Kentucky Derby. I have to go to at least one World Series game. I’m going to the Super Bowl because it’s the Super Bowl. I’ve already gone to the Indianapolis 500. And I have to make the World Cup. I think there’s so much energy at the World Cup. That appeals to me.
That’s a toughie right there. It’s kind of tough for me to get into that Augusta National thing. I guess the one golf event I would make is the U.S. Open.
Have you been to the Olympics?
No. But that’s on the list.
A lot has been made of the fact that you play with “class.” Writers and broadcasters always talk about your “class.” Do you think you get rewarded for being a regular guy in a field full of rich egomaniacs?
I’ve always known that. I’m just a regular guy here in an irregular business
— a high-profile, very hyped, very irregular type of business. And I just happen to be a non-hype, regular guy. I’m gonna show up to work for 14 straight years and play a thousand games and get it done and try to handle myself the way good, decent people do. And for that, I’ve been given all this honor of being this classy and professional person.
But to you, it’s no big deal?
I’ve done nothing special. I am no different from my brothers, my sister, my mother, my father — at their job. I did the same, exact thing that they did. And it’s no different from most of these people in Detroit at Ford or GM or Chrysler who’ve been getting up and going to work for 20 years and doing their job. Don’t make trouble. Say things like, “Hey, how you doing? Thank you. Please. No, thank you.” Regular things. And in my profession, man, you’re considered to have this incredible class because you do that. Why? It’s just what normal people do. Really, I’ve always thought that.
Why do you think you weren’t tempted to become abnormal?
The only thing I can figure is my upbringing. I was just so grounded growing up. And humility …that was pounded in my house. I mean, my father and mother were like, “You better be humble at all costs, and if I see you getting boastful at all, it’s gonna be a major problem here.”
Did you ever get disciplined for what was perceived as boastful?
I think my mom was the only one. She would pull me aside and say stuff like,
“You know, it’s only because God is blessing you that this good stuff is happening to you.”
Do you still talk to your mom in that way?
Oh, yeah. And she still talks to me in that way.
Does she come here to visit?
Oh, yeah, she’s come up occasionally. But my mom is very — what’s the word — inconspicuous? — when she comes here.
I’ve never met her.
You won’t see her. She comes in — very quiet. She’ll stay for four or five days. That’s about as long as she can take. Then she quietly gets on out of here. “Oh, gotta go back home. Gotta go back home.” Somebody asked her one time, “Why don’t you move up to Detroit where your son is?” (Laughs.)
That’s like asking a fish to leave the water?
That’s blasphemy. That’s blasphemy right here. “Me leave Louisiana — what? Leave Louisiana? He can move here. He can have his old room back.”
How about your dad, who died during your second championship run? Do you miss him at times like this?
Yeah. Yeah. Because I’d like for him to see me finish this. ‘Cause I told you once what his parting words were to me coming up here: “Son, that’s a good job you got there. Now you do well, and be respectful of those people up there when you get there, OK?” He didn’t say: “Have a great career.” He didn’t say:
“I hope you get your jump shot going.” He said: “That’s a good job you got there.”
Don’t blow it.
Don’t blow it.
Is your appreciation of fatherhood part of the reason you had Jordan be the ball boy this year?
First and foremost, he absolutely loves basketball and the NBA and all. And second of all, I just, as a father, wanted him around. I wanted him there. There have been so many times this season that the game is going on and I’m sitting there looking at him sitting on the floor with all the rest of the ball boys and I just kind of find myself gazing at him, watching him — eyes wide open and he is just mesmerized. And he’s gotten to know all the players from the other teams. They come in. He shags for them. Rebounds for them. And he’s gotten to know Iverson and Kobe Bryant and Shaq — and they all know him.
Does he say I’m Joe Dumars’ son?
No, never. Ever. Ever. ‘Cause I asked him one time — I said, “Jordan, how have you gotten to know all these guys?” He said, “Well, Dad, I rebound for them.” And he said they all ask, “What’s your name, little man?” And he says,
“Jordan.” “Jordan what?” “Dumars.” “Joe’s your dad?” “Yeah.” He will not offer it himself. Remember I told you what was preached in my house about humility? Well, it’s preached in my house, too.
Are you aware he’s carrying a burden you didn’t have to?
Yeah. That’s why the one small thing I can do is name him Jordan instead of Joe Jr. And even his basketball. He’ll ask me sometimes, “Dad, what should I work on?” I’ll say, “Having fun. That’s what I want you to work on.”
Are you finding as you get to your final games that you’re doing a mental countdown?
No. What I have done, though, is going into certain buildings and looked around and said I won’t ever play in here again. I did that at Madison Square Garden. I did that in the city of Boston — not so much the building — but when we were driving to the hotel, I was looking around and saying wow, I had some great, great times in this city.
Have guys been saying good-bye to you?
A few coaches and some referees and some of the guys who knew. One night, a couple of the older referees, Joey Crawford and Tommy Newnaz, they both came up before the game and Joey said, “You know, I’ve been refereeing for 22 years, Joe. People ask me all kinds of questions: What’s it like to referee Jordan? What’s it like to referee Magic? And I’ve always told people, Joe Dumars is the best person that I’ve ever refereed in the game in 22 years. I mean that.” So we had that nice little exchange, and that’s something you can take with you for life.
What’s been your biggest moment of contentment?
This season right here. If you had asked me five years ago: “Joe, the end of your career is coming up at some point, what would be your perfect scenario?” I would have said to you then as I do now, “Well, Mitch, the perfect scenario for me is about 50 games, I play pretty well, and we get into the playoffs.”
Really? Why not perfect scenario — 82 games and we win the championship?
Well, if I thought that we were on the verge of just winning it all, that would be it. But five years ago, we were not even a playoff team. I’ve always been a realist.
What do you picture in your mind for your last game?
Well, you can’t picture a last game as a loss. As an athlete, you cannot do that. There’s no way that your perfect game ends with a loss. So, just from an athletic standpoint, from a competitive standpoint, how do you say it’s a perfect game if you lose? It just doesn’t happen. But if we were to get deep in the playoffs and be right there knocking at the door, and let’s say we came up short, I could leave pretty content and happy with that scenario.
Think you’ll do anything that game differently? Hang around the locker room a little longer?
I won’t hang around the locker room. I’ll probably say something to my teammates before all the media got in. But, no, there’s no hanging around.
Grab your clothes and go?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Because if you hang around, maybe it means you really don’t wanna go or you have some reservations. I have absolutely no reservations. None at all.
How do you think you’ll be remembered? And how do you want to be remembered? And are they the same?
I don’t know if they’ll be the same. I hope so. I just wanna be remembered for accomplishing some great basketball things but just being a good person.
Does your son want you to keep playing?
I asked him. I said, “Do you think I should retire, Jordan?” He said, “Well, I thought about this. You could help ’em one more year, Dad. You really could.” And I said, “But will you be upset if I retire?” And he said, “No, no, no.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because we
can play in the driveway one-on-one all the time.” So I was like, OK, then. Well, I’m gonna retire. We’re gonna do that.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).