NEW YORK – Across the dining room table, Joe Dumars introduced Allen Iverson to Detroit with an unmistakable word of warning: The Pistons' basketball culture isn't for everyone. He told him about the burdens of sacrifice and selflessness over shots and scoring, about the practices, the professionalism. As the hours passed inside his home this week, the Pistons president probed Iverson to support his suspicions that this trade wouldn't doom Detroit to a lost season in the championship chase.
"The reason I made this trade," Dumars told Iverson, "is that I think this is the environment you're craving right now."
This wasn't the most popular trade in the Pistons' locker room and Iverson's new teammates wouldn't ask these things of him. They would demand them. For everything Dumars had done to create salary-cap space for a run at LeBron James in 2010, he understood that a season without Chauncey Billups promised an uneasy proposition.
Dumars keeps thinking Randy Moss and the New England Patriots. He keeps thinking that the Pistons will be Iverson's Patriots. He listened to Iverson tell him about how life had changed at 33 years old for him, that marriage and five kids, and a newborn that had him up for feedings at 6 a.m., spoke of a different place, a different time, in his life.
"I don't know if I would've made this trade for the 2000 Allen Iverson," Dumars said.
Dumars listened to Iverson tell him that he understood the unsavory perceptions of him, that they bothered him, and that he wanted them to change. Allen Iverson talked about how he wanted the structure of the Pistons, the chance for a championship, to play a part in changing the way the world sees him. Before Iverson is done with his career, he thinks it an important thing to do for his kids.
As much as anything, Dumars' success with reclamation projects – resurrecting reputations and careers, delivering second acts that no one would've believed possible – has always been rooted in players arriving with an understanding that they hadn't always been victims of circumstance, that whatever issues they had with unfulfilled potential, with a championship-free career, deserved a look inward.
"After you don't win for a long time – and I mean a championship – at some point, you have to say, 'Maybe it's me,' " Dumars said. "Maybe it's something I'm not doing. That's one thing he did say, and that stuck in my mind. To me, that's the first step. You've got to acknowledge first that maybe it's me. What can I do better?"
This is different for Iverson. Everything in Philadelphia had been about him. The world revolved around his talent, his whims, his dramas. When the Denver Nuggets traded for him two years ago, his arrival was met with a broad belief that he would elevate the franchise into Western Conference contention. It never happened. Now, he makes his Pistons debut on Friday night in New Jersey as a one-year rental, an expiring contract whose arrival will be described as a failure unless he plays a part in getting the franchise back to the NBA Finals.
"I want to be around guys who are tough, committed to win, guys who want to win as badly as I do," Iverson said. "I think I'm in the right place. They won 50 games six years in a row. They care about winning. They're dedicated to winning. Me being at the end of my career, that's what I'm all about. All I care about is winning."
It sounds good, but all that the Pistons care about is performance. If he had to alter his game to play with Carmelo Anthony in Denver, he'll have to bend far more in Detroit. Yes, he gives the Pistons a one-on-one breakdown scorer that they've missed in the past two playoffs, but they'll need Iverson to discover that less has to be more on a champion.
Maybe the Pistons still weren't good enough with Billups, and they won't be good enough with Iverson. It won't be judged that way. This is a pass-fail for A.I., and he knows it. This season turns into a referendum on a legacy that badly needs the validation that'll come with the Pistons' system.
Besides knowing those close to Iverson, Dumars kept reading the evolution of Iverson's interviews and began to believe that it could work with him in Detroit. Answers evolved and perspective grew. He isn't so sure that Iverson could've succeeded with the leap straight out of all-about-A.I. Philadelphia directly to Detroit without a stop in Denver.
"That put him in situation where he had to share the floor with someone else," Dumars said. "That was the first step. Before that, it was kind of all him. Now, he's already had to sacrifice and share the ball with someone else. Now the last step is the whole team concept. He did it with one other superstar in Denver. Now, you come and do it with a whole team – a championship-caliber and championship-culture team."
There's an idea that Iverson and Rasheed Wallace will be too much turmoil for Michael Curry to coach, but that won't be why this experiment succeeds or fails. The 33-year-old Iverson isn't the 23-year-old, and even if grudgingly, people have to give him that. Wallace hasn't been perfect in Detroit, but his time there has taught the league so much more about a beautiful basketball mind and a championship will.
Dumars' instincts tell him that Wallace's second act is a good barometer for belief that this can work for Iverson, too. These are thirtysomethings who wouldn't have worked within the Pistons as twentysomethings.
"I like having them now, know what I mean?" Dumars said with a laugh. "I like having both of them now."
So the most intriguing reclamation project of this Pistons era takes the ball in New Jersey on Friday night, and the Pistons' new point guard goes. For now, Joe Dumars is still thinking Randy Moss and the Patriots. At 33, maybe Allen Iverson isn't too late. Maybe he's finally on time.