Winning breeds new friends. There was no shortage of extended hands as Joe Dumars walked off the confetti-strewn Palace floor Tuesday night,
title-starved fans wanting to offer congratulations or express their thanks.
But old friends give the proper context to these moments.
Standing there in the tunnel, bracing herself with a cane, was Terry Daly -- the First Lady of the Bad Boys.
"I'm so happy and so proud of what you've done," she said as she embraced one of "her boys" -- as she often referred to Chuck Daly's players. "You've
brought us back."
Returning to the NBA Finals for the first time in 14 years was definitely about "us." It was a family reunion at the Palace for the climactic sixth
game of the Eastern Conference finals. Dumars, a Detroit guard for 14 seasons, erected the bridge between the two most significant eras in this
It wasn't so much that the Pistons made it back to the mountaintop, but that one of their own charted the path. Returning to the Finals was sweeter
with Dumars in charge of the team's basketball operations. He's deeply invested in the franchise's heritage, not a hired gun from the outside with a
"Joe pretty much did it from scratch," said guard Chauncey Billups, one of the many complementary pieces Dumars acquired. "He didn't have much
experience in the front office before taking over the job, but he had a plan of what we wanted to do."
And where he wants to be.
Others in the organization felt a sense of accomplishment by modeling their conference championship hats and shirts, but that was lost on Dumars. He
passed on the symbolic tokens because he knows the toughest step still remains, although getting past Indiana was important.
If anything, he exhaled a huge sigh of relief.
"I'll be honest with you," he said, "It's probably more special, more gratifying for me to get to this point for the first time as an executive than
it was as a player as the first time. As a player, all you have to worry about is yourself. But in my role now, you're responsible for everyone."
There's vindication. Those who questioned the rationale of kicking Rick Carlisle to the curb and offering Larry Brown $30 million for five years must
forever hold their silence. And Dumars' reasoning for selecting Darko Milicic with the second pick in last year's draft was justified. He could afford
zero contributions from such a high selection.
"Why should I feel vindicated about anything?" he said. "Do you remember where we were when we started 3 1/2 years ago? Who would have thought that we
would be in this position right now, going to the NBA Finals?"
He might have been the only one who envisioned this day when he took over on June 6, 2000. If you recall, it wasn't the smoothest of transitions.
Dumars had little choice but to bring back interim coach George Irvine. He was poorly prepared for the NBA draft three weeks later, resulting in the
selection of Mateen Cleaves with a first-round pick.
"I remember speaking with Mr. D. the morning that we made the announcement," Dumars said of owner Bill Davidson. "I looked him right in the eye and
told him that this wasn't going to take forever. I wasn't going to con him with any these five-year or seven-year plans that people try to sell
They couldn't lure quality free agents to Detroit even with the keys to a Brinks armored truck and a full tank of gas, but Dumars gave the franchise
street cred in the player network. He promised a quick recovery, but that required two components rarely unearthed in sports executives these days --
a willingness to take risks and quickly cut losses.
He turned Grant Hill into Ben Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse into Rip Hamilton.
"I remember some folks criticizing me at the time for the Hamilton deal," Dumars said with a wink.
Hmmm, wonder who that might have been?
"Joe had confidence in me when they made the trade," said the Ripper. "Stack was a popular player here, but I remember Joe telling me that they were
planning on doing some big things here, and he didn't steer us wrong. We're going to the Finals."
Regardless of what awaits the Pistons in the next two weeks, winning the conference championship stamps this a successful transformation, a gradual
climb through successive years and playoff rounds.
But the Lakers -- and the Lakers, alone -- control the course of the Finals. The length of the series is predicated on how they want to define
If they're committed to playing their prime-time game from the outset of Sunday's opener, this could become a four-game sweep. If they choose to coast
emotionally, then a six-game series isn't beyond the realm of possibility.
"I don't want to deal with it," Dumars said of the Finals. "I'm just going to enjoy this right now."
Why let reality spoil a good thing?
Detriot Free Press
[Edited on 6/4/2004 by Ben]