AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – After the Detroit Pistons' magnificent run had ended, a long ownership sale paralyzed the franchise, the region's economy collapsed and the losing tore away at the fabric of the team, the most important lesson for general manager Joe Dumars had come in the deepest and darkest losses of all.
For twice within nine months blurring across 2010 and '11, Dumars flew home to Louisiana to bury a brother. He lost Daniel, 51, and Mark, 49, the kind of sobering losses that can leave a sibling searching and staring into the abyss of his own mortality. At the most trying time of his professional life, Dan and Mark delivered Joe one final gift in a lifetime of blessings for him.
"It really helped me learn to deal with stress better, and not allowing myself to grind myself into the ground about things that weren't working out," Dumars says. "What it crystallized for me was this: You work incredibly hard. You do everything in your power. But learn how to deal with stress better, because before that, I felt like every win or loss was life or death.
"And after I lost my two brothers, I realized that, no, these wins and losses are not life and death."
Slowly, surely, Dumars is regenerating the Pistons again. In three successive drafts, he's found three players on the back end of the lottery who can ultimately transform his franchise and grow together as a dynamic core: power forward Greg Monroe, point guard Brandon Knight and the suddenly mesmerizing teenage center, Andre Drummond.
Dumars has strengthened his bond with a coach, Lawrence Frank, who has returned accountability to the locker room. Most of all, Dumars has an owner now, Tom Gores, willing to invest wherever the franchise needs to become a contender again.
Through it all, Frank insists he never, ever hears Dumars talking about the glory days in Detroit. Sometimes, Frank pushes Dumars to tell him about how the great Chuck Daly would handle this or that problem, but it's always in the context of how the Pistons can become better today.
"You'll never come into the office and hear me talking about what we did in '04, or the Bad Boys days," Dumars says. "It's not a part of my conversation. These guys want to hear about how we're going to be successful now.
"I don't live in the past on our mistakes, and I don't live in the past on our successes. I don't think either one of them will serve us well going forward."
For a decade, the Pistons were the model mid-market franchise. The Pistons had no superstar, no luxury-tax payroll, and yet they were the blueprint for shrewd management and team building for most of a decade.
Nevertheless, the GM who constructed the Pistons into 2004 NBA champions – and into a team that twice reached the Finals and made six straight appearances in the East Finals – knows he made decisions on the back end that stalled Detroit's rebuilding process. From trading for Allen Iverson to extending Richard Hamilton, from the free-agent signings of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to the hiring of coaches Michael Curry and John Kuester, there were consequences, a price of progress to be paid.
"When your plans don't unfold the way you want them to, those are your greatest lessons," Dumars says. "Because you can always go back and look at those things and learn from them, and learn why they didn't work. Those are your greatest lessons – the plans that don't unfold."
Three straight trips to the lottery were three more than Dumars ever wanted in transitioning eras, but it happened and now there's light again. Detroit's young core now reminds him of a decade ago, when Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince and Hamilton joined Ben Wallace in the Pistons franchise.
As much as anything, Dumars needed to find a coach to tether his rebuilding process. Frank is the complete opposite of Dumars' Hall of Fame playing pedigree. He's a former student manager who worked his way through the scouting and assistant coaching ranks. Nevertheless, Frank offered Dumars something that his program desperately needed: an aggressive, day-to-day dose of player development and coaching fervor.
Few coaches are as organized and detailed as Frank, few as devoted to the grind of the craft. "I can live with the fact some players work out, some don't," Dumars says, "but I really wished I could've settled on a coach, and not to chase the 'win-right-now-at-all-costs' period that we went through.
"I really didn't enjoy that at all. Didn't enjoy that at all."
This has been a different experience for Dumars, a different relationship. For everything that the Pistons lost without a training camp coming out of the lockout a year ago, they gained in the connection that Dumars and Frank created in those summer and autumn months in 2011.
"I've spent more time with Lawrence here as a coach, than any other coach we've had," Dumars says. "We've just spent more time together talking, and I think that was a huge part of what we came out of the gate with together.
"What I wanted was this: Let's stay in constant communication with each other about what we want and what we see. It doesn't mean we have to see things the same way all the time, but let's never get disconnected from each other about steering this team in the right direction."
In the end, there's a connection that Dumars has had to Detroit and the Pistons that transcends everything. Two league ownership sources told Yahoo! Sports that they tried to hire Dumars away during the ownership unrest between the Davidson and Gores eras, and he wouldn't meet with them. He grew up as a young player in Detroit, raised his family there and sent his two children off to the University of Michigan.
For all the winning the Pistons have done, Dumars absorbed the shots of the inevitable rebuild and held onto the belief that he could do it again. For all the tough times these past three years, the toughest of all – the losses of his brothers – turned out to be shrouded with a final gift from them: a perspective that he desperately needed during times that tried him to his personal and professional core.
"It was so good for so long, and here was this three-year stretch where everything kind of hit at one time: the economy, Mr. Davidson [dying], my brothers, the team turning over. Everything.
"During that point, I just remember thinking to myself: 'Well, you can't walk away because it's the tough times. You've got to see this though. You can't walk away now that it's tough.'
"From 2000 to 2009, it was pretty good. I just couldn't see throwing in the white towel because we had to go through some rebuilding years to get it back right. I've been vested in this organization for a long time. This wasn't just a stop along the way for me where when things got tough I'd just say, 'Oh well, I'll move on.'
"This is been home since 1985. I've never needed to go anywhere else – not as a player, and not in this job. That's never changed."
All these years later, the Pistons are slowly, surely rising again, and it's still on Dumars' watch. He once constructed a champion here in a most historic way, and out of the darkness, out of a spectacular struggle, the elements of a contender are surfacing again. Yes, Joe Dumars had come to be reminded that none of this is life and death, so he took a deep breath, and kept coming and coming anyway.
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