AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- If ever there was a time for Joe Dumars to be front and center, preening, sticking his chest out for all of Detroit to see, it was Tuesday night, in the bedlam of the Palace of Auburn Hills.
The critics, who had been loud as the cicadas for months, were now wet and whimpering in a corner somewhere, forgotten, consigned to eternity with those who said Clay was a loudmouth with no heart and that Elway could never win the big one. Dumars' Pistons -- and there is no questioning this now, they are his Pistons -- are back in the NBA Finals, five years after he took the general manager's job and told Bill Davidson that it wouldn't take him that long to restore a great franchise's luster.
For one night, the talk radio yahoos and the know-it-all columnists who'd ripped Dumars from pillar to post had nothing to say, nowhere to hide. A year after getting swept in the Eastern finals, Dumars' Pistons had pushed through without Rick Carlisle and with Larry Brown, just as Dumars had believed they could. He had built the Pistons his way, with his kind of players, winning in his kind of system.
Of course, Dumars stood off in a corner -- literally, almost behind a door, speaking in a near-whisper.
The Pistons, like the Grizzlies and a few other teams, have become successful without breaking the bank for any one player. That was Dumars' vision.
"There's been a traditional way of doing it for so long," he said. "You go out, you get two All-Stars and then you build around that and then you build around that, and you get a chance to get to the Finals. I've been, sometimes, preaching almost out in the forest by myself the last two years that you don't have to go out and acquire two max players and then try to piece together a team around them. ... You can go out and get really good players like Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups. It helps to add a big-time talent like Rasheed Wallace, but he was the last piece, not the first one."
The triumph was Dumars' because he'd brought each one of these guys in, guys who had to pass his own personal test of integrity and toughness and intelligence. Those he'd found wanting or too expensive had been dispatched. He trusted in the core group he put together: Ben Wallace, Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Billups. He thought it was good enough to win now, and that's why he thought it was worth the gamble last summer to take an 18-year-old from Serbia-Montenegro instead of the Final Four MOP, because the 18-year-old was 7-foot-1.
The thing about trust, see, is when you give it, you usually get it back. Dumars' history with his players gave him the benefit of the doubt in their eyes when draft night came.
"You're definitely surprised," Hamilton said. "You watch a kid like Carmelo. Everybody watched him play, wins the national championship. He does all the great things over here. And then you've got a kid that nobody's ever seen. I'd never seen him play. A lot of other people ain't seen him play. But you go on the trust of Joe and the people that scouted him. They wouldn't do anything that wouldn't help us. They've done a great job around here since, so you just go ahead and roll with it."
But, of course, Milicic isn't ready to do anything on an NBA level. Brown took about three seconds to determine that neither Milicic nor Mehmet Okur were going to be regular members of his rotation this season, which is why Okur is going to be a primary free-agent target this summer. So Dumars needed to get another big. He zeroed in on Rasheed Wallace early.
"We were talking about him before training camp even started," Dumars said. "We talked about Rasheed. I was on the phone with (Blazers GM) John Nash and those guys the first week of the season. We would talk and talk and talk and talk. It was a two-, three-month process to get something going."
It took awhile, and a circumnavigation through Atlanta, but Dumars was finally able (with the not-unimportant assistance of Danny Ainge in Boston) to acquire Rasheed Wallace without giving up any of his core players.
"I have this tremendous loyalty. Not loyalty ... I have a tremendous belief in these guys," Dumars said. "A guy like Ben Wallace, I know they're going to give me everything they've got. I thought the only way we wouldn't get a chance to get back here was if I didn't go out and get the right piece. It was just my mission to add the right piece. Because I knew all the other pieces were here. I knew Chauncey was going to be solid. I knew Rip was coming on. I knew Tayshaun would be a solid big for us. I knew Ben would do great things. I knew we had a pretty good bench. I kept saying, 'We have to get that one real guy.' I just felt a tremendous responsibility to get that next piece."
With Wallace Squared, Detroit has taken a giant step defensively. It's hard to think of a team in recent memory that has used shot-blocking as such an intimidating weapon. What Hakeem Olajuwon and Alonzo Mourning did on their own, the Pistons do with their whole frontcourt. You never know when they're coming, but you know they are coming. Obviously, the offense is still a work in progress; there are too many nights when Billups whitens what little black hair Brown has left with questionable shot selection. Prince is still MIA for far too many halves to give the Pistons comfort; Brown called him out at halftime of Game 6 after a scoreless, 0-for-4 first half.
"I told the guys we weren't moving the ball, and don't pass it to Tayshaun; he don't want to shoot, anyway," Brown said.
Every Piston could laugh about it on Tuesday. They didn't yet have to think about the task of stopping the Lakers' Magical History Tour ("LB will come up with something," 'Sheed said. "Once Pound for Pound [Brown] comes up with the scheme, we've just got to follow it to a T."). Nor did they have to contemplate the difficulty they'll have keeping both Okur and 'Sheed in the offseason. Nor does making the Finals one time mean the Carmelo/Darko debate is over. As Prince said, "They'll say, 'If Carmelo would've been there, how much easier would it have been?' "
But Dumars was still smiling. He'd been a key part of a championship team here, but just one part, responsible for himself. This team was his creation. The lost atmosphere that had made Detroit a tough place to play -- and had been lost during Dumars' waning days as a player -- had been retrieved. The last laugh, if he wanted it, was his.
"I could sit here and try to throw it back in people's faces," he said. "But it would be just so shallow of me, because we're playing in the NBA Finals. And I think that kind of speaks for itself, more than anything else I could possibly say. All those people, I'll look at them with a great big smile. While I'm at the Finals."
David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. David will take your questions in his weekly chat on Thursday. Send him a question here! Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.