Dumars was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. Dumars' mother, Ophelia, was a custodian at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches while his father, Joe (Big Joe), was a truck driver.
Dumars grew up in an athletic family, but basketball was not his favorite sport as a child. Football was more popular in the region and all five of his brothers were defensive standouts at Natchitoches Central High School. His brother David later played professional football in the USFL. Dumars followed in his brothers’ footsteps playing defensive back on the football team until junior high school when a big hit on the field directed him toward basketball. Big Joe built a hoop, made of an old bicycle wheel and half of a wooden door, in the Dumars' backyard where young Joe spent hours practicing his jump shot.
During his four years at McNeese State University, Dumars averaged 22.5 points per game, including 25.8 ppg as a senior – good for sixth in the nation. He finished his college career as the 11th leading scorer in NCAA history.
Drafted 18th overall in the first round of the 1985 NBA draft, he played guard for the Detroit Pistons for his entire career, from 1985 to 1999. He won two championships as a player in 1989 and 1990, and was voted the 1989 Finals MVP, averaging 27.3 points per game as the Pistons swept the Los Angeles Lakers in four games. The following year, he won accolades during the Eastern Conference Finals when, with Dennis Rodman, he was a cornerstone of coach Chuck Daly's "Jordan Rules" defensive playbook, which forced the Chicago Bulls to change their offensive strategy to include less of Michael Jordan and more of the other members of the team. According to Jordan, Dumars was the best defender he ever faced in the NBA.
During his career, he was selected to the All-Star team six times, and to the All-Defensive first team four times. In 14 seasons, all with the Pistons, Dumars scored 16,401 points, handed out 4,612 assists, grabbed 2,203 rebounds and recorded 902 steals.
Although he was a member of the famed "Bad Boys" teams known for their aggressive play and demeanor, he became personally known for his quiet and upstanding behavior. He was the first recipient of the NBA Sportsmanship Award which has been named the Joe Dumars Trophy.
His number 4 jersey was retired by the Pistons in March 2000. He has the distinction as being the only Pistons player to ever wear this number.
He played for the US national team in the 1994 FIBA World Championship, winning the gold medal.
Dumars became the Pistons' President of Basketball Operations prior to the 2000–01 season. He was voted the league's Executive of the Year for the 2002–03 season and quietly went on to build the team that won the 2004 NBA Championship – the first African-American NBA General Manager to win the NBA Finals – and became the 2005 NBA Eastern Conference Champions—doing so largely with players who had been discarded by other franchises. During the 2005–06 season, Detroit recorded its best regular-season record in franchise history (64–18). The Pistons made it to the Eastern Conference Finals six straight years (2003–2008) under Dumars' watch. This streak would come to an end in the 2008–09 season. The Pistons would get swept in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
On April 14, 2014, the Detroit Pistons announced that Dumars would step down as President of Basketball Operations, yet remain as an advisor to the organization and its ownership team. During his 14 years as President, Dumars guided the organization to a 595–536 (.527) regular-season record, 73 playoff wins, six Eastern Conference Finals appearances (2003–08), six Central Division titles, two Eastern Conference Championships (2004, 2005), and the 2004 NBA Championship.
Dumars was majority owner as well as CEO and President of Detroit Technologies for approximately 10 years. Founded by Dumars in 1996, DTI is an automotive supply company. He sold off his interest in the company in 2006 to pursue other business interests and focus on his role as Pistons' President of Basketball Operations. Dumars oversaw a joint venture deal in 2006 Between Detroit Technologies and TSI.
The Joe Dumars Fieldhouse, an indoor sports and entertainment facility, has two locations in the Metro-Detroit area: in Shelby Township at M-59 and Mound Road and in Detroit at the State Fairgrounds. In an interview with DBusiness magazine (link below), Dumars stated he was in talks to expand the fieldhouses to other states.