Original Old School: A Good Man Among Bad Boys
Before he was an executive, Joe Dumars thrived as a guard in Detroit.
Joe Dumars, current President of Basketball Operations for the Detroit Pistons—where he thrived as a player in the 80s and 90s—turns 48 years old today. To celebrate his birthday, we’re running this Old School from SLAM 98 (June 2006), which documents Dumars’ time both as an NBA All-Star and a quality executive. (Don’t forget, he was steering the ship when the Pistons won the Chip in 2004). Happy bday, Joe!
by Alan Paul
Joe Dumars was one of the best guards of his era. You already know that if you were watching the NBA from 1985 (his rookie year) to ’95 (his last season as a dominant player). But even if you’re too young to have ever seen Joe D in his prime, you should know how he played; as Detroit’s President of Basketball Operations, he has crafted the current Pistons in his own image, finding a host of players not unlike himself—talented ballers who are self-confident enough to not need constant affirmation of their own greatness.
Joe D could do it all—drive, shoot, distribute and defend. Too quick for strong guys and too strong for quick guys, he could control a game from either end of the court. And while his accomplishments as an exec—producing one title with hopes of a few more—have been well noted, Dumars has never quite gotten his props as a player who played a crucial role on back-to-back NBA title teams. He’s nowhere to be found on nba.com’s “History” page of retired greats, despite being a six-time All-Star, the 1989 Finals MVP and a four-time All Defense first-teamer. He averaged at least 20 ppg over four straight seasons and nearly 5 apg for his career despite playing with one of the greatest point guards of his era. He retired in ’99, still a starter for the Pistons, with career averages of 16.1 ppg and 4.5 apg, numbers that could have been far greater in a different setting.
His talents were often obscured by the blinding brilliance of backcourt partner Isiah Thomas and the outsized personalities of Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Dennis Rodman, thuggish big men who embraced the team’s Bad Boys image. Dumars was the Bad Boys’ good citizen—so good that the NBA named its annual sportsmanship award after him the same night his No. 4 was retired in 2000. He always seemed out of place with his team’s roguish image, though he insists it never caused him any discomfort.
“I had a tremendous amount of fun with everything that went on,” Dumars says while standing in a Palace of Auburn Hills hallway before a recent home game. “I looked on at some stuff with amusement and, at times, amazement, but I never thought my reputation was being blemished. I’m very comfortable with who I am, and never felt any pressure to try and be somebody I wasn’t.”
Charles Oakley, a Bad Boys rival (and a rather bad boy himself), laughs at the notion of Dumars’ rep being besmirched by association. “First of all, ‘Bad Boys’ was just a name someone stuck on and the team ran with it,” says Oak. “A name is just a name and a person got to make himself, and Joe did that. He wasn’t a bad guy. He was a guy who did his job, and anyone who played against him or watched him knows he was one of the best shooting guards in the game.”
Few could have predicted budding greatness when the Pistons drafted the 6-3, 190-pounder at No. 18 out of McNeese State in the ’85 Draft. But Dumars says he never questioned his ability to adapt from a small college to the NBA. “I don’t know why, but I never had a complex about playing in the NBA,” Joe D says. “The first time I stepped in here, I was ready to compete. Once I got the opportunity to show what I could do, I took advantage of it and never looked back. I really had a drive to be as good as I could be.”
After averaging 25.8 and 26.4 his final two seasons of college, Dumars seemed a good fit for the high-octane Pistons, who had just averaged 116 ppg and featured a cast of shot-happy players. “I got here and saw a lot of guys who liked to shoot—Isiah, Vinnie [Johnson], Bill Laimbeer, John Long, Kelly Tripucka. These guys were serious offensive players,” recalls Dumars. “I had always been the same way, but I realized that if I wanted to stand out and earn court time as a rookie, I better tighten up my D and distinguish myself that way. That part of my game took concentrated focus to excel in. The offense always came naturally.”
Before long, he was arguably the League’s premier backcourt defender, giving everyone fits. “He killed me,” recalls former division rival Steve Kerr. “He just put that big forearm on you and you were dead. Stronger guys didn’t have any more luck, because he’d out-quick them. No one enjoyed having to play against Joe.”