AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Dave Cowens, former Boston Celtics great and current Detroit Pistons assistant coach, was leaning against a wall in a back hallway trying to bridge the gap between accomplishments.
Detroit had just dispatched Orlando, 91-86, to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the sixth consecutive year. It's an accomplishment not done since 1990 and only managed by a few teams ever, including Red Auerbach's Celtics of the 1970s and '80s.
Red was a flamboyant character in NBA lore, unafraid to make a scene or light up a celebratory cigar before a victory was even complete. He knew talent, he knew teams and he knew winning. And not only did he know he knew it, he wasn't afraid to let everyone else know it either.
The current architect of sustained excellence soon tried to shuffle by and flee from a hallway filled with backslappers and media. The unassuming Joe Dumars has always been content to leave the focus on his players and coaches. He's quick to shrug off any genius label for being the general manager who has made Detroit a most unlikely year-in, year-out power.
"Personality wise, he and Red have some similarities," Cowens said. "Red wasn't a big speech maker. Red was pretty much tell-you-how-it-was, straight up. He had that tough demeanor but was kind of soft on the inside from an emotional standpoint.
"I don't know Joe as well as I did Red, but he seems to be that kind of person. He seems to have empathy for folks."
And an understanding of them, too, particularly ballplayers. These Pistons haven't enjoyed a run of championships that make them one of the game's great dynasties – they've managed just one title and two trips to the Finals.
But what they've done is notable, particularly because they've done it without a parade of megastars any of those championship Celtics teams or Showtime Lakers had that managed eight consecutive conference finals in the 1980s.
To win in the NBA without a central megastar – or two – is unheard of. Even this era's other great "team," the San Antonio Spurs, have been anchored for two decades by David Robinson or Tim Duncan, a pair of franchise No. 1 picks.
Through the years, though, Dumars has put together both a solid core and a rotating supporting crew made mostly of castoffs that other teams either misused or misunderstood.
Dumars' best attribute may just be that empathy. He sees qualities in people others miss.
"Red always used to say, 'You have to draft character as well as talent,' " Cowens said. "(You) look at players not so much what they do 'X' and 'O' (or) statistics-wise, but at the quality of the person. A lot of stuff can disintegrate in the locker room no matter how good a player is.
"Joe knows that (character) because that is what he is."
Dumars grew up the son of a custodian and a truck driver in little Natchitoches, La. He became a self-made player at McNeese State who blossomed into a star with the Pistons. He won two titles, reached the Hall of Fame and presented himself, even as part of the Bad Boys, as one of the classiest players in league history.
He can quickly identify the difference between a passion for winning and a passion for points, some of his staff says. It's what has driven some of his greatest personnel moves.
Chauncey Billups was on his fifth team when Dumars saw the kind of leader who could be a Finals MVP. Tayshaun Prince was a steal at No. 23 in the draft, a guy who slipped because few knew what to do with his unusual physique. Where others labeled Rasheed Wallace a malcontent, Dumars saw a guy with who was simply too competitive at times.
He snagged Ben Wallace out of Orlando as a throw in when Grant Hill was going to sign there anyway. He saw the difference between Jerry Stackhouse and Richard Hamilton and made a shrewd swap. Antonio McDyess was a glue guy who was more valuable than his stat line.
It's about people, Dumars said.
"I don't think you can accomplish this with talent alone," he said. "I think you have to have character. I try to get character guys who are all about winning."
Conversely he isn't patient when personalities change. He can be as cold and calculating as necessary. He's twice seen difficult coaching personalities – Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown – get shown the door. He smartly let Ben Wallace sign with Chicago when he was demanding monster money. Big Ben has never been the same since.
"If you don't want to be here, he'll get you out of here," laughed Hamilton.
And for his celebrated mistake of selecting Darko Milicic second overall in the 2003 draft, he has still managed to reload the roster with young talent while competing for championships.
His best skill might actually be adding the short term complementary pieces that tend to make the difference. He once brought in Elden Campbell mostly to play Shaquille O'Neal for a few minutes. Jon Barry added some outside shooting once. Chris Webber helped with his passing.
"He has a great feel for teams," said Scott Perry, the Pistons vice president of operations. "He knows how to constantly tweak his roster at a level that can compete. He drives the whole organization; coaches, players and staff, we settle for nothing less than success."
Tuesday night was vintage Pistons, which means they won via a lot of things a lot of people call boring.
There was free-throw shooting (16 of 16 from Hamilton), a playoff record-low three turnovers (including none after the first quarter) and a relentless 15 offensive rebounds despite a disadvantage in size.
Former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause once received heat for claiming it was organizations, not just players, who won championships. But the Pistons are a testament to what he was talking about.
"(We share) one goal and that's a championship," Hamilton said. "We're supposed to win. (A sixth conference final) is something we feel as though we're supposed to (do). That's our confidence."
Later, Dumars smiled at that sentiment and shrugged. It's true. He doesn't take this lightly and he doesn't undervalue the accomplishment, but the goal isn't to reach the conference finals. It's to win a fourth NBA championship, a second as an executive to match his two as a player.
Auerbach wouldn't have been satisfied yet either. So Joe Dumars will leave the cigar and the celebrating for later.
- Red Auerbach
- Joe Dumars
- Dave Cowens