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DETROIT FREE PRESS

Time To Celebrate A Life In Long Pants

By Mitch Albom

When F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American lives, he could have been talking about pro athletes. Rare is the sports star who comes anywhere close to achieving in his slow years what he did in his fast ones.

Joe Dumars is different. He always was. Blessed with an athletic body, he wasn't afraid to use his brain. You could often find him by his locker, reading novels. On the road, he'd talk politics. Once, in a champagne-soaked locker room, I told him that winning the NBA Finals MVP award would mean "the end of your anonymity."

Most players would ignore such a comment, douse themselves in the bubbly and scream like a banshee. Dumars came back a minute later, looked at me curiously, and said, "What does that word mean? Anonymity?" I told him, and he said -- as his teammates partied around him -- "Good word. I'm gonna remember that."

So it should surprise no one that the multi-tasking Dumars, 39, once an All-Star on the court, is receiving recognition tonight for the "long pants" part of his life. At the Palace, before Game 5 against the 76ers, Dumars, the Pistons' president of basketball operations, will be named NBA executive of the year.

"You know why this means a lot?" Dumars said Tuesday. "This is the first award I've been given not for how I played, but for how I think."

Joe Office.

How to build a playoff contender

What's funny about this honor is that Dumars, early on, didn't see himself in this sit-down job for long. His vision of post-basketball life always had been traveling the globe, checking out sporting events. "I thought this would be a good transition into the business world," he said.

But something happened along the way: Dumars got good at it. Upon taking the job in 2000, his first directive from his boss, owner Bill Davidson, was to re-sign Grant Hill, the reigning superstar. It didn't happen. Hill wanted greener pastures, and Dumars' executive baptism became a salvage operation. Get what you can. Instead of losing Hill to free agency, Dumars got Orlando to trade for him, sending Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins to Motown.

As of now, there's no question who got the better deal.

After that, Davidson wanted Dumars to purge. Get rid of spectacular salaries on unspectacular players. He did that with the acumen of a Filene's Basement shopper. He cut. He traded. What he did to the Mavericks should be outlawed. Dumars got Dallas to take Christian Laettner, Terry Mills and Loy Vaught, all of whom were overpaid, none of whom is still there.

He also got Washington to take the soon-could-be-a-free-agent Jerry Stackhouse. For that, Dumars acquired Richard Hamilton, who has been the Pistons' leading scorer.

Meanwhile, Michael Jordan reportedly bragged that Washington had picked Joe's pocket in getting Stackhouse. Instead, Jordan wound up with a malcontent who bad-mouthed him at the end.

Oh. And Michael got the boot.

Which only proves these second acts rarely work. Many players try the broadcast booth, but are gone after a few years. Others try owning a business, but often lack the experience -- or advisers who aren't sycophants -- needed to make it a success.

And front-office positions? Well. Let's just say Jerry West doesn't come along very often.

All the right moves, eventually

"Worst move you made in this job?" I asked Dumars. He hesitated, not wanting to insult anyone. "If I could have the ninth pick in the 2001 draft again, I'd like to."

That was used on Rodney White. It didn't pan out. Neither did Mateen Cleaves, Joe's first-round pick in 2000. But to Dumars' credit, he didn't frame his mistake in gold. If the guy wasn't working, he dumped out, first-round pick or not.

Meanwhile, he also managed to: 1) Hire Rick Carlisle, voted coach of the year. 2) Acquire Corliss Williamson, given the sixth man award. 3) Sign Chauncey Billups, the straw that stirs the drink. 4) Get Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur in the draft -- with late picks. 5) Keep the payroll down -- so the Pistons can sign a lottery pick, likely coming this summer from Memphis.

He also built a team in his image: hardworking, defensive-minded, low-key and aversive to controversial headlines.

"Biggest lesson you learned on this job?" I asked him.

"At the beginning," he said, "I thought it was just about acquiring players. I found out acquiring them is only the beginning."

The rest is the kind of things people will never see. You can measure victories or attendance, but you will never be able to measure the intangibles Dumars brings to this job, the quiet respect, the tone that is set, the goodwill from around the league, the rapport between him and Carlisle. And the humility it takes for a guy with two rings and a sterling career to appease, cajole and compliment players who are 10 years younger and have done much less.

"At least you're not sweating for a living," I said.

"Oh, I'm still sweating," Dumars said, laughing. "I'm sweating a lot during these playoffs."

You won't see it tonight. He'll walk out there, without a number on his back, and accept what is bound to be the first of many awards honoring his intellect and insight. Hat's off to Joe Office, who's wearing long pants now. His second act is just getting started.