JOE DUMARS INTERVIEW
The sixth installment of the acclaimed ‘Our Story’ series on WXYZ-TV-7, ‘Our African American Story’ will represent the largest single ‘ethnic’ group in Detroit. ‘Ethnic’ in quotation marks, of course, because unlike the Greek, Italian, Polish, Arab and Indian communities we’ve profiled, African Americans are neither a minority in Detroit, nor from a single, isolatedv background.
In one of the most dynamic interviews we’ve done so far, Piston’s superstar and franchise President Joe Dumars shared some of the triumphs and tragedies of his life…
The week of Bill Davidson’s funeral might seem a tough one to interview Detroit Piston’s President and Hall of Fame legend Joe Dumars, but it proved to be the opposite. The entire Piston’s front office was draped in a sort of subdued and thoughtful air, and Dumars, characteristically candid but perhaps more reflective, was eager to reminisce about his long-time relationship with the late, empire-building Piston’s owner.
In his comfortable office atop Piston’s Training Center in Auburn Hills, seated with his powerful hands folded beneath his chin, Dumars said, “Somehow, Bill could see things through ‘other eyes’. He was color blind when he dealt with people. I remember quizzing him about it once, asking him how he could see the world and not see race, and he didn’t hesitate. ‘It’s the way I was raised,’ he said. ‘My mother passed that on to me.’ He was eighty at the time; I asked him if he thought that somebody without that kind of upbringing could learn to see the world like he did—and it was the only question I ever asked him that he really couldn’t answer.”
The place that Davidson occupies in Joe Dumars heart is unique—after all, the world-renowned philanthropist who passed away March 6 after a short illness, was instrumental in steering Joe’s career away from the courts and into the front office, recognizing early that the point guard had talents that outweighed even his prodigious athletic prowess.
But the trajectory that took Joe Dumars from a blue-collar childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana to the rarified atmosphere of the Palace of Auburn Hills began long before he was snapped up by Detroit in the first round of 1985’s NBA draft. That furnace was stoked by his own upbringing among folks who instilled in him—and his six siblings—a sense of self-pride and self-confidence rooted in humility.
‘Stand on right’ is a shibboleth from Joe’s past which he shares as having been one of his father’s favorite lessons. His mother’s too. “They knew I had what it took physically, to be a professional athelete, so the idea that I should work hard and push myself was never, ever, ever a conversation we had. No need; they had already built that ethic into me. What they did was remind me that however high I rose in the world, I should do it the right way—that I should always treat people well. They said, ‘We come from the low end of the totem pole, and if you ever treat folks bad? You’re doing it to us’.”
Joe’s beloved father passed in 1990, near the pinnacle of Joe’s pro basketball career. It was a loss that in ways, haunts him today. “My father was a rock in my life; nobody else that I could call and discuss any subject under the sun and always get sound, practical advice.”
Loyalty to his team kept him in Oregon immediately following news of his father’s death; that very night he scored 22 points in the fourth quarter against Portland, making twelve straight points as the Pistons rallied with three minutes remaining to take a 118-115 lead.
Joe Dumars practices what he’s been preached. In the course of any conversation, humility is a subject that he returns to again and again both in words and attitude. Unlike many superstars, he’s a bit gun-shy at the interview gate, too modest to spend long talking about himself—he’d rather discuss business, conference finals, or what you’ve been up to, but if you can get him going, his stories return, again and again, to that childhood kitchen in Shreveport with family ties and a bubbling pot of gumbo.
“If you’re an African American who grew up in the South, especially in the Sixties and Seventies, you know about those kitchen tables,” he shares with a nostalgic smile. “That’s where us kids would hear stories about what my mom and dad had to deal with in their own lives; both of them were strong people. My father was a World War II vet, and my mother had seen the worst of what the world can offer. It made them warriors, really, for right and truth. They were both warriors. In that era, there was a lot of expectation of how you were supposed to behave as an African American, but neither of my folks went that way. You might have an image of black people in the South being subservient, understanding their place and all that. I can tell you, that’s not the way it was in my house. These were some strong people. There was a clear idea of pride, how you carried yourself and how you treated others—and how they needed to treat you. Didn’t matter what color you were, we were raised with standards of behavior we applied to others.”
Detroit was, perhaps, the best place that Dumars could have ended up. As a child, he remembers hearing about Detroit as a sort of dream-world for African Americans: “You had a black mayor, you had a real, recognized black middle class. We didn’t have that in Shreveport. And then there’s Motown music. Louisiana is all about blues and gospel—when I heard the beats that were coming out of Detroit, we all started to listen. And Berry Gordy was a mogul, an African American man running one of the largest music companies in the world.”
Joe Dumars was born in 1963, the youngest of five brothers and one doubtlessly well-protected sister. Growing up, the way he heard it, God and family came first, education next, and sports somewhere in the non-essential background. Even then, even for Joe, it was football, not basketball, that took up most of his energy. “It never occurred to me that I’d wind up in pro basketball,” he says with irony, shaking his head. “With me and my brothers, it was all about football, especially at Natchitoches Central High School. But I was the youngest, and I needed something that would make me stand out. Football was their thing, all five of them were defensive standouts and my brother David went on to play pro ball. I don’t thing anybody even played basketball when I was a kid. So I figured that I’d give that a shot, try to make my own mark.”
Fair to say, he did. Dumars was selected to the All-Star team six times, and to the All-Defensive first team four times. In fourteen seasons (all with the Pistons), Dumars scored 16,401 points, handed out 4,612 assists, grabbed 2,203 rebounds and recorded 902 steals. His jersey, number 4, was retired by the Pistons in 2000. But in fitting with his persona, the accomplishment that means more to him is having been the first recipient of the NBA Sportsmanship Award, which has since been renamed the ‘Joe Dumars Trophy’.
Joe Dumars’ DNA might have been NBA, but his dreams have hardly limited to hardwood floors and metal hoops. Ask him now, he’ll get a tad wistful perhaps, but he won’t hesitate a moment when asked what career he’d have followed if it hadn’t been for the Pistons. “Law,” he replies. “I always thought of sports as the springboard, something that I was good enough at to give me opportunities to do other things—things I might not have been able to do without it. When I talk to kids now, I don’t play ‘holier than thou’ or stand on a soapbox. I simply tell them that I came from a time and a place where the rest of the world tried to define my dreams. I didn’t let them. Advice for today’s young people? Carry yourself with integrity and look for dreams of your own, not the dreams that others impose on you.”
Once more, Dumars practices what he preaches. Formerly the majority owner and CEO/ President of Detroit Technologies, which he founded, he oversaw a joint venture deal in 2006 between the company and TSI.
Then there’s the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse, an indoor sports and entertainment facility with two Detroit-area locations which he’s looking to expand to other states. If that’s not enough, Dumars is also on the board of Directors of the First Michigan Bank.
For those of us who grew up hearing the signature cry of PA announcer John Mason introducing him as Joe Duuuuuuu-mars, it’s now pretty obvious why the emphasis was on the ‘do’.