From Hall of Fame player to title-winning executive, Joe Dumars has always refused to fail
The Pistons legend on his new role with the NBA, the future of Black execs and his unlikely path into the front office
LAS VEGAS — Whether Joe Dumars was shooting a jumper, winning an NBA title as a player or executive, or making an imprint on the rules of the game, the Basketball Hall of Famer has worked by one motto.
“Everything from a player to the front office to this now, I walk in and say, ‘Failure is not an option,’ ” Dumars told Andscape recently. “What I need to do is succeed.”
Dumars began his new role as the NBA’s executive vice president and head of basketball operations on May 9 after working three seasons with the Sacramento Kings, the last two as chief strategy officer. The former Detroit Pistons star now oversees all NBA operations matters, including the development of playing rules and interpretations, conduct and discipline, and policies and procedures relating to the operation of games.
Dumars, who was the Pistons’ president of basketball operations from 2000 to 2014, will also have the task “to engage with players, coaches, team executives, officials and other key stakeholders to sustain the highest level of play and competition.” Dumars will also lead the overall talent strategy for basketball operations and reinforce a culture of inclusivity and innovation.
“Joe’s extensive track record of accomplishment as an NBA player and team executive and the leadership and expertise that he has demonstrated in various roles make him a natural fit to drive efforts to further enhance the game,” said NBA president of league operations Byron Spruell, whom Dumars reports to.
Dumars was the MVP of the 1989 NBA Finals. The six-time All-Star was the inaugural winner of the NBA Sportsmanship Award in 1996, which is now named after him. The Shreveport, Louisiana, native also received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 1994 for his outstanding service and dedication to the community. Dumars was named the 2003 NBA Executive of the Year, and while he was president of basketball operations in Detroit, the Pistons won the NBA title in 2004, made six consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference finals and recorded at least 50 victories in seven straight seasons.
Dumars talked to Andscape in detail about his new job, his tenure as an executive with the Pistons, his thoughts about Black people in NBA front offices and much more.
Why were you interested in the NBA executive vice president job?
The first conversations I had with [NBA deputy commissioner] Mark Tatum and [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver was about the impact that you can have on the game. And that was the whole conversation we had about, you’ve had an impact on the game from a player standpoint, from a front-office executive standpoint. This is the other place that you can truly have an impact on the game. And so, for me, as I thought about it over the three- or four-month period of time that we talked about this, the further along I went, the clearer it became to me this is an excellent, excellent, perfect scenario for me. And once I made my mind up that, yes, yes, I can do this and I will, and let Adam know and let Mark know, there was no turning back for me at that point. So, I’ve embraced it full force.
Did you get a chance to talk to Kiki VanDeWeghe, who held the job previously, for some words of wisdom?
Kiki and I talked on the phone for a long time, first week or two on the job. And then ironically [July 9], we sat at a summer league game together. We talked a long time about different aspects of the job. Just a well-rounded conversation, which was great because I enjoyed talking to Kiki. It was good. Yeah, we’ve had a couple of really good conversations about the job.
What’s the best advice he gave you on doing it?
He said the same thing that Tatum and Adam said: ‘Joe, you really are going to have a chance to imprint the game.’ He’s like, ‘On a big scale, you’re going to be making these decisions that’s going to have a direct impact on this game. And that part, I’m telling you, you’re going to love that. You’re going to love when you get into the weeds of what’s going on with this league and having to make decisions on that.’ So, that’s probably the best thing he told me.
How do you reflect on your playing Hall of Fame career now? What do you have the most pride about?
For me, it’s really easy. It’s really the way I conducted myself my whole career. A lot of players who accomplished a lot of great stuff on the court, great players, man. And I tip my hat to all of them. But for me personally, to be able to accomplish whatever I did on the court and then hold my integrity and carry myself the right way with respect and respecting other people and all, to me, as I sit here now, I look back on that and go, ‘OK, I’m really happy that I conducted myself the way I did over all of these years.’ And I would say, even on the court as a player and beyond, to just conduct yourself the right way, man. And I’ve tried to pass that along to a lot of guys along the way, man, conduct yourself the right way at all times.
The NBA Sportsmanship Award is named after you, the Joe Dumars Trophy, and is presented annually to the NBA player who best represents the ideals of sportsmanship on the court. You were the inaugural winner of the NBA Sportsmanship Award during the 1995-96 season. What do you recall about learning that the prestigious award would be named after you?
I got a call from the league office, and I remember that I was just blown away. ‘Wow, they’re going to name the award after me.’ I understood the importance of it, even on the first phone call. And then over the years, as time has gone by, it starts to mean even more to you because as you get older, you realize what’s really important. It wasn’t that jump shot from the corner. It’s having an impact where people respect what you’ve done enough, where they are willing to honor you with something like that.
“When I went there, he [then-Pistons owner Bill Davidson] said, ‘Got a proposition for you. I want you to take over the organization.’ I said, ‘Before or after the game tomorrow night?’ So, he laughed, ‘No, I’m talking about after the season.’ ” — Joe Dumars
You first became an NBA executive as president of basketball operations with the Pistons after you retired in 1999. How did you get that opportunity?
When I was 35 years old, Bill Davidson, former owner of the Pistons, called me in the middle of the season and said, ‘I want you to take over as president.’ I felt more of a sense of urgency about that at 35 than I do today [at age 59]. Today, I’m way more equipped to step into a role like this comfortably. At 35, when you’re stepping in and, ‘All right, you’re the president of a team.’ You’ve never done this before in your life. And everything is new. That’s a little bit tougher to me than stepping into this.
In my new job, I know a lot of the people in the office. This is about just learning the job. And so, for me, I don’t look at it as this huge task, but I do look at it as an important task.
You mentioned when Mr. Davidson called you. Did you have an inclination that that was possible at the time? What do you remember from that initial conversation?
I remember it was the middle of the season. Maybe January, February in Detroit, snow, practice, come off the practice court, got a note on my locker saying, ‘Mr. Davidson wants you to give him a call.’ And I picked up the phone, called him and he said, ‘Hey, can you stop by after practice?’ His building was right next door. I said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ When I went there, he said, ‘Got a proposition for you. I want you to take over the organization.’ I said, ‘Before or after the game tomorrow night?’ So, he laughed, ‘No, I’m talking about after the season.’ And so, I said, ‘OK, let me think about that. I don’t know. When do I have to decide?’ He said, ‘As soon as the season’s over with.’ And I was like, ‘Let me think about that because I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not. I really do think I need to have some separation of time. To retire one day and be the president of the year the next day, that’s tough. I need some time, probably.’ So anyway, we had a good talk about it, and a few months went by, we agreed upon that.
What was the determining factor that made you want to do it?
Thinking about it, leaving and thinking about, ‘OK, I think I could do this. I think I could be good at this.’ And just taking a couple of days and then getting back to him and going, ‘Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s do this.’ But if he never calls me, I don’t think I ever pursue a front-office job or anything. I was fully prepared to move on and not look back.
So, being in the front office, that wasn’t anything you had ever thought about?
I had never, ever thought about working in the front office. I had an automotive supply company that supplied GM, Ford and Chrysler in Detroit. I had a business called Joe Dumars Fieldhouse, which is a couple of large sports complexes. So, I was just going to retire and run my businesses. And I never thought about a front office. And he said it that day, and this is the first time I ever thought about it.
He knew about my businesses, especially the automotive business. And he said, ‘Look, I see this seat as someone that understands business and understands basketball, therefore you will understand the business of basketball and be able to run this.’ And I asked him that very question. I said, ‘Well, I mean, what do you see?’ He said, ‘I know what you’re doing with your companies. And I know you know this league and this game. And I think if you combine those two, I think you can be excellent at this.’
Did you ever get a chance to go back and thank him?
Well, not until he passed, but he had gotten sick, but he would stop by my office every day. And we had a really deep conversation about it one day because I asked him, I said, ‘OK, I understood the business of basketball and how you saw those two things combining, but you still had to pull the trigger on that.’ And he’s just like, ‘Joe, I’ve grown over the years to look at guys, young guys like yourself, and realize that I didn’t need to go get an old established business guy to do this. I got to the point where I looked at you at 35 and said, he can do this.’ And so, we went into a deep conversation about it.
There was not a lot of Black representation in the front office at that time. What was it like for you?
I know there were no 35-year-old, young Black guys doing it at that point. I knew that. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years. I really did get the same treatment as every other really young GM [general manager] for the first time. You get the phone calls, these trade proposals that were laughable. But what I learned over the years was every young 30-some-year-old GM has gotten that same call. So, I got the same baptism that everybody else got. They throw it out there and see if you bite or not.
When you are a young Black male or female, and you’re the only one or the first one or whatever it may be, you do feel the responsibility of, ‘I can’t fail at this. I have to succeed at this.’ So, I know I carried that into the job of failure was just not an option because I knew success opened more doors and failure could close a lot of doors. I took that on with myself in that position.
When did you believe you were really good at being an NBA executive in Detroit?
The second year, we got to the second round. Third year, we were in the conference finals. The fourth year, we won. So, it was pretty quick. After the first year, I had a good feel for the job. And then the second year, we were in the second round for the playoffs. So, it took a year, though, to really get a feel for the job and go. I remember after the first year of thinking to myself, ‘OK, I understand what I have to do in this job.’ But you got to go through that trial by fire at first.
You were the architect of that 2004 Detroit Pistons team that won an NBA championship. What was the key to that crew?
I was willing to try to build a team without the one superstar or two superstars. That was the model, basically, for everybody at that time. And I was just willing to go that route and accept whatever came of it. And so, I tried to treat my 10-deep team like they were all the two superstars.
I tried to make every guy on that team feel like we cannot win without you as opposed to two guys. And then the other eight just knew that they were role players. I was willing to go that route to build a team. And fortunately, it worked out and those guys came through in a big, big way. But those guys were, lest we forget now, Rasheed [Wallace] was a lottery pick. Rip Hamilton was a lottery pick. Chauncey [Billups] was a lottery pick. These weren’t undrafted guys; Ben [Wallace] was. Tayshaun [Prince] was the first [Pistons] lottery pick.
But whether they were lottery picks or not, would you agree that those Pistons had a scarlet letter of some sort on them?
It hadn’t worked out for them in the previous stops. But my approach to each one of them was, ‘Oh, this is the place where you’re going to become what you’re supposed to be.’ From the first day they walked through the door, I embraced them like, ‘Hey, man, you’re the third pick in the draft.’ So, I embraced them. I never even talked about failure with them and all that. As soon as they walked through the door, ‘Hey, man, you’re the seventh pick in the draft, man. Whatever happened before, I don’t care.’
When you look back at those 2004 Pistons now, Chauncey and Darvin Ham are head coaches, Prince and Wallace work for front offices, Rasheed is an assistant coach and Rip has been working in television. What does that say about that group of guys?
I feel really good about it because, quite honestly, I don’t think any of them were really thinking about that as they were playing. And that’s why I said failure was not an option. What it did was give them the mindset that, ‘Oh, I can continue to be somebody impactful in this league after I finish playing.’ Chauncey, I talked to about this type of stuff while he was playing. And I talked to him about, after you finish playing, that you can be a GM, you can be a head coach.
So, I was talking to him [Saturday] after one of the summer league games. He was just talking about the trials, [of] the first-year head coach and all, and we were just talking about it like, ‘Yeah, I had that first year.’ So, that’s why I say the best predictor of success in the world that I live in, it is exposure. You take three kids, and you expose them to nothing. And then you take three kids, and you expose them to a lot of different things. That’s the best predictor of success for me.
And I think my guys on that particular team, being exposed to someone like myself, sitting in that seat, exposure gives you something to think about. It’s like Davidson with me. If he doesn’t say that, I don’t even think it. He exposed my mind to think that. And so, therefore, ‘OK, yeah. I can do that.’
What do you think about the state of Black executives now?
It’s getting better, but it has to keep getting better. There has to be a pipeline. There has to be a pipeline of guys coming. But I think there’s some good, smart, young guys out there in front offices. There are some good young guys out there that are coming, man, that are on their way up.
In terms of this job, do you have an approach? Do you have a style?
The best thing you can do is just learn the job first. Your approach is going to be based on knowing the job. I got to really focus and lock in on knowing the job. I have an approach with people. I’m inclusive. I’m not the screamer, yeller, that type of guy. But I lead by example in terms of hard work. I’ll stay in the office as long as it takes. I’ll do whatever it takes to meet the deadline or whatever we have to do. I think for me, that’s always been my way of working. There’s no job too small for me. If I got to be there at 1, 2 in the morning, so be it. Let’s get it done.
How do you look back at your last days in Detroit?
We’d had a good run and all these good runs come to an end. And I was very self-conscious that, yeah, we’ve had an incredible 10-year run and this run is coming to an end and it’s time for a change. And I was totally OK with it because rarely do you see these incredible runs. They just don’t happen in sports. Usually, there’s a couple of years there where it’s like, ‘Ah, it’s going to take some new blood to come in here.’
You were very behind the scenes during your time with Sacramento. How would you reflect on that job?
I enjoyed being with the Kings in that particular role because it gave me a chance to not have to be in the seat of making all the decisions but having a huge impact. And what it also did was allowed me to really, for a couple of years, just know the league inside and out. Know every new player, follow the new coaches, the new front offices.
“I was very self-conscious that, yeah, we’ve had an incredible 10-year run and this run is coming to an end and it’s time for a change. And I was totally OK with it because rarely do you see these incredible runs. They just don’t happen in sports.”— Joe Dumars on the end of his tenure as Detroit Pistons president of basketball operations
Why did the NBA decide to get rid of the transition take foul?
My view on the competition committee is to be stewards of the game and to keep the game clean. And when the game gets diluted or anything like that, it’s competition committee’s job to look at that and go, ‘Let’s clean the game up.’ And it was obvious. I don’t think you could find anybody that would say, ‘Oh, no, we love the take fouls. Let’s keep it in.’ We’ve missed some incredible plays. People want to see incredible NBA basketball, and this is going to allow it again.
The NBA also has decided to fully implement the play-in game as part of the postseason. What was the thought on that decision?
I am a fan of the play-in game. When it first got instituted, I was like, ‘OK, let me see how this works.’ But after watching it a couple years, I like it now. And I remember watching Portland and Memphis playing in 2020 and thinking, ‘OK, whoever loses is done.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I like this.’ To me, it had a Game 7 feel to it.
How do you feel about your whole body of work as an NBA player, executive and a Black executive?
It was my responsibility not to fail. The second thing is I truly didn’t make it about me in terms of ego. I have to see. I truly tried to lift all those guys who has been given up on, I tried to lift every one of them. And then I was dedicated to the work. It’s hard work. You have to be really, really dedicated, and willing to work. And I’ve said this to a lot of young guys, you have to be willing to work post-playing career as hard as you did in your playing career. I always put that first, man. That is the God’s honest truth.
What advice would you give to somebody aspiring to do what you’re doing?
Be dedicated to being great at what you do. I think I heard Robert Smith say, ‘Be excellent at what you do.’ Being excellent at what you do gives you a chance. It gives you a chance to be great at it again. But be excellent at your work. Be excellent at what you do. Don’t have any holes in your game. I’m talking about post plan. I’m not talking about on the floor now. Don’t have any holes in your game. Don’t have anything where someone can point and say, ‘Well, he doesn’t do this.’ No.
You moved to New York City for this job. How is Manhattan treating you?
I’ve moved and got a place there. I really like it. My daughter lives there. She’s been there a year and a half. And I like it. I like it a lot. It’s a little different than Louisiana. And change is good.
Change is good. Just know this: I embrace it and failure is not an option.
When you reflect back on your everything, could you imagine all this from a kid from Shreveport, Louisiana?
No. What I imagined was 10 years in the league and return back to New Orleans or something. That’s probably what I imagined. But we never know. I don’t know one person right now who’s had an incredible journey that can tell you, ‘Oh, yeah, I saw every step of what [would happen]’ … We have these incredible journeys, and you don’t know it when you are a young teenager or [in your] early 20s, you have no idea. You have dreams. But you have no idea what the real journey is going to be like.