Dumars says his defensive success came as a result of his own unswerving standards, not some endless analysis of his opponents. “I stayed consistent with my own principles, which is what really helped me,” he says. “I watched enough tape to understand guys’ tendencies and primary moves and try to cut those off, but then I just stuck with what I did night in and night out, no matter who I was playing.”
As a rookie, Dumars cracked the Pistons’ formidable Thomas-Johnson-Long backcourt rotation. When Long took a few days off to be with his wife at the birth of their child, he lost his starting job for good. Dumars was a fixture for the next 14 years, while Long, an eight-year vet who had been a 22-ppg scorer just a few years earlier, was traded in the offseason. He still grimaces at how he lost his job but says it was clear from the jump that Dumars was not going to be spending a lot of time on the pine.
“We knew Joe had a ton of talent from day one,” says Long. “The way you practice is the way you perform in games, and we never, ever took it easy on each other. We all got better that way. It didn’t matter who was in the game at any given time, you really didn’t lose anything, and even as a rookie, Joe slid right in there with us.”
With Long gone, the Detroit backcourt became Thomas and Dumars, with Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson coming in to relieve them both. It proved to be a devastating three-guard rotation, with a combined average of nearly 50 ppg and a great deal of versatility.
“I started at the two and Isiah at point guard, but all of us could play either position, which made it easy,” Dumars says. “It never fell on one guy. The first time I saw Isiah get overplayed, I went back and got the ball and he went to the two, and that’s what we did for the next 10 years.”
The Pistons went 46-36 Dumars’ rookie year, losing in the first round of the Playoffs. The following year, they began their torturous march to greatness. They won 52 games and advanced to the conference finals, where they took the 59-win Celtics to seven games in a taut, tension-filled series that turned on an errant inbounds pass thrown by Thomas in the closing seconds of Game 5. The Celtics won a bitter Game 7, 117-114, at the Boston Garden. The following year, they finally vanquished the Celtics to make the Finals, where they fell to the Lakers in a brutal seven-game series. They lost the deciding game 108-105.
As crushing as these losses were, the team always seemed to be growing, clawing and scratching ever closer to a title. But was there a point where the players felt like throwing in the towel? Was it difficult to get it up again the following season after some of these defeats?
“Those losses were extremely devastating, but it never got us down to the point where we felt like quitting,” says Dumars. “Losing to Boston on the pass, falling to the Lakers in Game 7, that was some major, major heartbreak. But rather than making you want to quit, it truly, truly motivates you. The losses stayed with you all summer, all through the regular season, but when the playoffs came it was time to get revenge or prove yourself, to avoid having that feeling again. That motivated you big time.”
The Pistons came back from their ’88 heartbreak with one of the great seasons in NBA history, going 63-19 and romping through the playoffs with a 15-2 record. When they finally won their first title, Dumars was the Finals MVP after averaging 27.3 ppg in a 4-0 sweep of the Lakers. The previous years’ tears made the champagne taste all the sweeter.
“There’s no question that winning is all the more rewarding after going through heartbreak, because you know the other side of the coin,” says Dumars. “You understand what it feels like, how well you can play and lose, how close you can come without getting over the hump, and you don’t take anything for granted.”
The experience also illustrated for Dumars the value of keeping a central group together through thick and thin, letting them grow, suffer and celebrate together. This is what he has allowed the current Pistons to do. “We’ve had our core together a few years now, and they’ve been through some wars,” Dumars says. “That creates a bond. You can look into someone’s eyes from across the court and have an understanding: ‘We know what each other are thinking. We know what we have to do.’ You reach a level of familiarity, understanding and trust that is really invaluable.”
So, too, was having a guy like Dumars.
“Joe was just complete,” says Oakley. “He had the offense and the defense, he was a team player, he made great decisions. Finals MVP, championship winner. Joe brung it every night and he shined against the best. That’s why he’s a hero.”