As soon as his attorney called with an invitation to deliver a college commencement address, a surreal sense of certainty washed over Joe Dumars. Yes, it was time. All these years, all the wisdom and accomplishment that inspired Central Michigan to honor the Detroit Pistons president, and finally those lingering 21 credits crashed into his consciousness.
"How could I accept a doctorate," Dumars said, "and not have a degree?"
Dumars left college with a terrific education in 1985, but no diploma. He always planned to finish, but the world came fast and whisked him out of little Lake Charles, La. There were short summers with those Pistons' playoff runs, a growing family, and eventually the move upstairs to run basketball operations at 36 years old. There was always something.
On his way to three NBA championships and an Olympic gold medal, a Naismith Hall of Fame induction and the league's model front office, Dumars' days of grace and accomplishment made him the most famous son of McNeese State University.
"But when we got the alumni newsletter in the mail," Dumars' wife, Debbie, said, "it would always be addressed to me."
So Dumars picked up the phone some 18 months ago, called McNeese State University and enrolled in the online course needed to complete his bachelor's of science in business management. He thought about his parents, Big Joe and Ophelia, a truck driver and a custodian, who had the intellect for college but never the opportunity. He thought about his wife, a teacher. He thought about his son and daughter. He thought about his front office, his players and everyone else with whom he felt obligated in life. He called McNeese and told them: It's time.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that this has been the year when Dumars had never held his franchise so publicly accountable, never sounded so unimpressed with a sixth straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals. He fired his coach, Flip Saunders, and walked into that news conference threatening to trade everyone on his roster.
"I thought we had become a complacent team, living on past successes," Dumars said. "For the majority of teams in the league, six straight Eastern finals is great, but resting on that was nothing that was going to be acceptable."
Despite low draft positions, Dumars kept replenishing the Pistons with talented, young players to go with the core of Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace, the cornerstones of the run that included an NBA championship and a seven-game Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs. No one does a better job restoring veteran players and mining young ones. The Pistons have always had the best business model, controlling payroll without ever compromising championship contention.
As front-office structures go, Dumars is the envy of his profession. Dumars made it easier for the next generation of ex-players to run franchises. He cleared a wider path for African-Americans to get the chance, too. For great players becoming great executives, there's just Jerry West, Joe Dumars and everyone else.
For a life of such relentless accomplishment, there was still one relentless regret. He wanted that degree.
"It always gnawed at me," Dumars said. "It just gnawed. I'm always talking to my players, and my organization about, 'No excuses.' You play 14 years, and become a president of a team and you just haven't had the time – or rather, you didn't make any time – to get it done. The academic theme surrounds my entire household. Anytime it would come up with my wife, with our kids, this would be in the back of my mind. …To me, that wasn't just a piece of paper."
Debbie Dumars had her bachelor's and master's in Education from McNeese, and it was always a jab when he dared suggest that she didn't know something. "Not only do I have one degree," she gently told him, "but I have two." That would always stop him. She had him, and they both knew it. As a player, Debbie had always marveled the way with which he constantly prepared for his post-basketball career. After a corporate appearance, a motivational speech, he would always seek contacts and counsel. He had a natural curiosity about leadership, about running organizations.
"I teased him a little bit, only because he accomplished so much without his degree," Debbie said. "But I think it bothered him even more than I knew."
Their son, Jordan, is an all-state player at the prestigious Detroit Country Day School and on his way to the University of South Florida on a basketball scholarship. For all the family discussions of balancing academics and athletics, Debbie understood that nothing made more of a profound impact than her son coming home to find his father completing his course work in his study late at night.
"If you're going to talk about falling through in life, you've got to show it," she said. "That's why it was important for Joe to get his degree, and say, 'Hey, look what I did.' It kept in line with everything he was preaching."
In August, the McNeese State president arranged a private graduation ceremony at his house on campus. With the playoffs, Dumars had to miss the June commencement. So, Dumars invited some 15 family and friends in Lake Charles, and told his daughter, Aren, and Jordan that they had to come, too. Sometimes, the unspoken nature of Joe Dumars makes it hard for even his family to understand what matters most to him, but it wouldn't take long that weekend.
The most famous alumnus in the history of McNeese State University wore his cap and gown and his wife wasn't sure that she had ever seen anything – not the NBA titles, not the Hall of Fame, nothing – that left him seeming so … so … satisfied.
Finally, there was a quiet moment when Jordan walked up behind his father, and delivered a dig into his ear, "What took you so long, Dad?"
Even Joe Dumars had to laugh. His kids had him on that one, but never again. No more gnawing, no more excuses. No more regret. The final answer in the Dumars household is framed and hanging on a wall.