Joe Dumars is 46. His coach and mentor, Chuck Daly, died. Pistons owner Bill Davidson, the man who gave him a chance to run a team, died. His team was mediocre for the first time in nine years, and Dumars took more criticism from fans than ever.
That is a lot for anybody to handle in a short span. Dumars sat down with me in his office this week for a lengthy interview. We talked about what Dumars called “a trying 12 months” and the various crossroads he faces in his life.
“Losing Mr. D has been tough,” said Dumars, the Pistons’ president of basketball operations. “I don’t know if there’s a lot of people you meet in life that you can say is a great man. For me in my life, he’s one of the few. …
“Losing Chuck, that’s definitely tough. … With a guy like Chuck, he was a really, really, really good human being. I knew very early on that I was really fortunate to come into this league under him and watch him, watch how he dealt with people and issues.
“You know, it’s been a tough year. But you’ll never hear me complain about any of it. Ever.
“Because when you’re fortunate enough to have a lot of good stuff happen, and then you run into a tough year, I think you have to be willing to handle adversity with as much dignity and class as you can, as much as you handle prosperous times.
“But make no mistake: It’s been a trying 12 months. That’s for sure. That’s for sure.”
"Don't trust happiness, Kid. It doesn't last."
-- Chuck Daly
Chuck Daly almost always called Joe Dumars "Kid," right from the beginning, right up to the end. Isiah Thomas was Zeke and Dennis Rodman was Worm, but Joe was just Kid. Oh, sometimes Chuck would get Dumars' attention by calling him "Jo Jo Dancer," a reference to a Richard Pryor movie that came out 23 years ago, when Joe was a rookie. But in conversation, Chuck always called him Kid.
"Kid," Chuck would say, "you gotta learn how to let things roll off your back." Or: "Kid, I sure appreciate walking in the gym and seeing you every day. Because you're the one guy I know I don't have to worry about."
When Dumars was a rookie, he naturally called Daly "Coach," only to be corrected: "Kid, call me Chuck."
"I had never called a coach by his first name before," Dumars said.
And yet, even without the moniker, Chuck Daly always was Joe Dumars' coach. Daly didn't teach Dumars how to play basketball; Joe could do that when they met. Daly taught Dumars to play better, and to live with class and dignity in the sometimes ruthless world of pro sports.
When Chuck left the Pistons in 1992, Dumars was disappointed. But this was another lesson. Chuck Daly knew the value of a graceful exit. Better to leave too early than too late, Kid.
"At the time, I was like, 'Why can't Chuck stay?' " Dumars said. "Selfishly, I wished I could have played my entire 14-year career for him. But I understand him now. He felt like it was time to move on."
In recent years, with Dumars running the Pistons as president of basketball operations, Daly would go to the Palace and talk with Joe before games. They would huddle in a little room near the locker room.
They could have reminisced for hours. But they never did. Reminiscing -- that wasn't Chuck's style. He did not want to finish his life as a museum piece. Chuck always talked about today.
In February, Pistons vice president for public relations Matt Dobek pulled the Kid aside before a game.
"Chuck has pancreatic cancer," Dobek said.
Dumars was stunned.
"Isn't that the worst kind?" he asked.
Yes, Dobek said. Doctors had given Chuck four to six months to live. Dumars said he watched the Pistons game that night "in a haze."
In April, when the Pistons were in Miami to finish the regular season, Dumars and Dobek got in a car with longtime trainer Mike Abdenour and longtime announcer George Blaha and drove to Chuck's home in Jupiter, Fla.
Daly was physically weak, but he was engaged. He leaned forward in his chair and talked passionately about basketball, about how the NBA had changed, about a play the old Pistons used to run: Would that work today, Kid?
Dumars always had admired how Daly dealt with the wacky personalities on the Pistons.
"Chuck could appreciate Rodman for who he was and make no judgment on him," Dumars said. "And Rodman could attach himself to Chuck because he saw him as an authority figure that didn't judge him harshly."
Daly knew he did not have much of a future, but he still did not want to live in the past.
Dumars couldn't help himself, though. He talked about the time Chuck had given him two audiocassettes.
Listen to these, Kid.
One was Frank Sinatra. The other was Mel Torme. Dumars never would have bought those tapes himself, but he came to appreciate those voices.
Chuck remembered and laughed. He finished the story for Joe.
A few weeks later, Joe's old coach was dead. Doctors had given him four to six months to live, and he had lived for three. Once again, Chuck Daly had exited gracefully, and too early.
"Joe, always surround yourself with good people."
-- Bill Davidson
A few years into Dumars' playing career, owner Bill Davidson invited Joe to his home for dinner.
Dumars was ... well, maybe not suspicious, but curious. The owner was 40 years older than he was. Why was he inviting a 20-something player over for dinner? What was his agenda? Davidson reassured him: I just want you to come over. I don't want anything. Just have dinner, that's all.
Dumars and his new bride, Debbie, went to Davidson's house. They did not talk basketball. Davidson asked Joe about growing up in Louisiana.
Joe was one of seven kids. His dad drove an 18-wheeler. His mom was a custodian. Joe talked about the year a family down the street did not have money for Christmas gifts, so Joe's parents took half the gifts out from under their own tree and gave them to the other family.
Sometimes, other kids would stay with the Dumars family for a while. On three occasions, elderly people in the neighborhood moved in when they no longer could take care of themselves.
Dumars asked Davidson about growing up in Detroit, and about founding Guardian Industries, which would become a multibillion dollar company.
After Dumars retired in 1999, Davidson asked him to run the team. But it was only a couple of years ago that Davidson told him why.
"I knew you were the right person for this based on all those stories about your family over the years," Davidson said. "That was a huge part, Joe."
Joe and Mr. D talked almost every day. Dumars is known as the calmest man in any room, but around Davidson, he was the nervous one. The owner advised him about making difficult choices: Don't even blink twice, Joe. Don't even stress. Make it and move on.
"I would always laugh and tell him: 'It's awfully easy for you to say, sitting there at 80 years old,' " Dumars said. " 'Were you thinking like that when you were 40?' He said, 'No. I was stressing. I'm trying to help you get there before I got there.' "
As Dumars knew, Davidson was at peace at the end of a full and joyous life. Davidson had stopped worrying about tough decisions when he died in March at 86.
"I know if you stay in this business long enough, you're going to ultimately be faced with making an excruciating decision. That is at the top of the list for me."
-- Joe Dumars, on the Chauncey Billups trade
When Dumars signed Chauncey Billups in the summer of 2002, he figured he was getting a great shooter, a point guard and a leader. Dumars did not realize Billups would remind him so much of himself.
"Other players, rookies, ballboys, media ... that's probably what separates him, in how he dealt with everybody, from his teammates to ballboys, coaches, whoever," Dumars said. "His professional approach -- that's what separated Chauncey."
Dumars never wanted to trade Billups. But he had determined that the difference between great general managers and bad ones is not brains or the ability to evaluate talent. It is guts.
As a player, Dumars had seen the Pistons hang on to their core players too long. They fell into a competitive abyss. He said he learned even more from those years in the NBA wilderness than he did from those championship seasons under Chuck.
So Dumars made the deal: Billups for Allen Iverson. He hoped it would work this past season. But he knew it would clear salary-cap space for the summers of 2009 and 2010. It would keep the Pistons from becoming a perennial lottery team.
But Iverson was the anti-Billups: selfish, pouting, alienating himself from teammates. The Pistons barely made the playoffs under Dumars' friend Michael Curry. And Billups led Denver to its best season, all the way to the Western Conference finals.
For the first time in years, Joe started taking heat from his constituents. A growing chorus of fans wondered whether he knew what he was doing.
Dumars says he has no regrets. Even Billups, who was hurt and stunned by the trade, says he understands it now. As the season progressed, Billups and Dumars exchanged a few text messages ("we're cool," Billups said in March) and Dumars wished him luck.
"You know, I learned a long time ago that you pull for people, you don't pull against them," Dumars said.
On the opening night of the playoffs, Billups hit eight of nine three-pointers. Afterward, he received a congratulatory text from Dumars.
But it wasn't from Joe Dumars. It was from Joe's son, Jordan.
"That's the toughest for me and Debbie. ... I find myself these last few weeks here, holding on a little bit tighter. Once he gets there, I think I'll be fine. It's the time leading up to it. The anticipation sometimes is worse than the reality."
-- Joe Dumars, on his son Jordan leaving for college
If you spent time around the Pistons over the years, you saw Jordan Dumars. He was a ballboy. He hung out in the locker room. He often traveled with the team during the playoffs. He became friends with most of the players.
Jordan looks like his dad and shares his dad's passion for basketball. Every year, when the school year ended at Birmingham Detroit Country Day, Jordan practically would live at the Pistons' practice facility for the summer.
Next week, Jordan will leave home to play at South Florida. Joe finds himself cramming advice into these final days, saying stuff he has said 100 times before, about drinking, drugs, girls. Jordan, always make good decisions ... Jordan, be careful who you let in your car with you ... Jordan ...
"I know he's tired of hearing that," Dumars said.
Jordan leaves for South Florida on Wednesday. The NBA draft is Thursday; Joe will catch up with the family in Florida on Friday. Then Joe and Debbie will come home, and it will be just the two of them and their daughter, Aren.
Every night since Jordan was a little boy, Joe has given him a good-night kiss on the forehead. Jordan is almost 6-feet-6 now. Joe is 6-3. If Jordan is lying in bed in a position where Joe can't get to his forehead, Jordan will sit up so his dad can kiss him.
These days, Jordan is usually awake when his dad comes in. But the other night, Jordan fell asleep with the television on.
He had been watching ESPN, of course. "SportsCenter."
Joe Dumars stood by the edge of the bed for 5 minutes, just watching his son sleep. He thought about Jordan as a little boy. When he felt like he was going to cry, Joe Dumars turned around, shut off ESPN and walked out.