PORTLAND, Ore. — He had been braced for this death for weeks now, calling the hospital, hoping against hope, even instructing his wife, Debbie,
“If Dad dies during a game, I want you to promise me you’ll be the one to tell me, OK? And not until after the game is over. Just you, OK?”
She promised. Now the game was over. Sweat was pouring off his arms and face. Joe Dumars took a last look at the scoreboard and walked off the court, happy the Pistons were back in this championship hunt. He could hardly wait to call home and tell them — and then his coach, Chuck Daly, pulled him aside.
His wife was on the phone.
This is a story about courage and effort and life and death — and perspective. Yes, Joe’s dad was always big on perspective. He had no legs, no mobility, but he had a heart as big as Louisiana, where he lived, and he passed it on to his son, and his son has been passing it on to our city every day he pulls on a uniform. Once, early in his career, Dumars called home after a Pistons game and his father got on the phone. “I saw you today on the TV, son. You played good. And they pay you for that?”
“Yeah, dad,” Joe said, laughing, “they do.”
“That’s a good job you got there. Hang on to it.”
“OK, Dad. I will.”
It was that kind of love, one of those quiet relationships where you go right from childhood to adulthood and you never stop thinking your dad is the smartest man on earth. Joe Dumars thought that. Every day of his life. He thought it Sunday morning, before he went out and showed the country how great a basketball player he is, and no doubt he is thinking it this morning, as he sits in his hotel room, his mind a million miles from the NBA Finals.
“This hurts so much because we all know how tight they were,” said John Salley, shaking his head, after the 121-106 Detroit win in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, which went from very important to not important at all. The players had been slapping each others’ backs, proud of the spirit they had shown in this raucous, foreign arena, and suddenly the word spread and the room went quiet and nobody was slapping each other anymore.
Could there be a more poignant afternoon? Can fate really be this . . . ironic? Here was Dumars, playing the hottest game of these NBA Finals, scoring 33 points, leading the Pistons from the depths of their own despair to a victory that puts them right back on the track for a championship. He was making shots from the the ground and from midair and from ridiculous angles — he was amazing — and all afternoon, the whole time, he never knew. His father. Joe Dumars Jr., 65, had died just hours before the game, from congestive heart failure. The Pistons had gotten the phone call; Daly, the assistant coaches and Isiah Thomas had been informed. No one else. And not Joe. They kept Debbie’s promise. They said nothing.
Now here was Thomas running the floor with his teammate, trying not to look at him too often, as if his face might give it away. How tough was this?
“I knew something that would shatter his world,” Thomas said afterward, shaking his head. He sat in the office where Dumars got the phone call. Already now, Dumars was gone, whisked away so he would not have to deal with reporters prying into his private tragedy. Thomas got up, and carried his teammate’s No. 4 jersey, still soaked with the afternoon’s sweat. He folded it neatly and walked down the corridor.
“It really puts everything in perspective,” he said. Diabetes, amputation
Perspective. There was the time Joe Dumars went riding with his father on the produce truck, convinced, as children often are, that Dad’s job was nothing but fun. Nine hours later, his arms dead tired from lifting crates, he trudged back into the house. “You do this every day?” Dumars asked. His father
Perspective. There was the time when the diabetes first struck, and the first leg had to be amputated, and the father lay in the hospital bed, a sheet pulled over his tragedy. Joe stood in the doorway, not sure what to do, but his father beckoned him and spoke in a sure and steady voice. “Son, I want you to look at this,” he said, and he pulled back the sheets. “Take a good look. This is what it is now. We go on from here. I don’t ever want you feeling sorry for me, all right?”
Perspective. There were all those nights Joe would call home after an exhausting road trip, or 100 straight interviews, and his dad would get on the phone, his dad, who had spent all day in bed, smoking cigarettes, robbed of what you or I might think a normal life, and yet he was the upbeat one, cheering up his rich and famous son.
“I’d say, ‘Dad, how can you be so positive with all the things that have happened to you?’ ” Dumars once recalled. “He would answer me, ‘Son, I got everything I need.’ “
Perspective. So it was no surprise that last June, when the Pistons realized their dream of the NBA title, when the champagne was poured over their heads and they were dancing and singing, it was no surprise that Dumars told a reporter that “this ring goes to my dad.” The greatest thing he had accomplished should, naturally, go to the greatest man he knew, right?
Perspective. Dad’s first hoop
Suddenly, this whole championship is cast in that light, this whole crazy series that had people so up in arms about who had the better city and who got the bad foul calls and who pushed off when he shot — suddenly all that is very small, and it can never be that big again. Sometime this week, Dumars will be back in the house where his father constructed his first basketball hoop — a sawed-off door and a bicycle rim — and you can bet he won’t be thinking about his 33 points, or the fact that the Pistons are on the verge of another championship.
Why? That’s what you ask yourself. Why do these things happen, why now, why to him? The truth, of course, is that they happen every day, to one of us, to someone, and only the chosen few have it trumpeted across the newspapers. It doesn’t make it easier to swallow.
After the game, the other Pistons were noticeably upset by the news. Vinnie Johnson, who had his best game of the playoffs, who snapped out of his slump for 21 points, who should have wanted to be interviewed more than anyone in the building, stood before an army of reporters and said, “I don’t want to talk now, OK?”
Brendan Suhr, who lost his father to the same killing disease last summer, stood out on the court, wiping tears from his eyes. “We talked about the disease a lot, we compared stories,” Suhr said. “I told him how much it hurt when my father died, but how you draw strength from it in the end.”
In the end, that is the best any of us can hope for Dumars. That he draws comfort and strength. Whether he comes back to play in this series is really unimportant, and to talk about it at this moment is to insult his father’s memory.
And you would never do that. Not to this man, who, were this not the day he was called to heaven, would have liked nothing better than to sit at home, watching the television his son bought him, and see little Joe light up the game.
“There was this one shot today,” Thomas said, allowing a small smile,
“where Joe came down the lane, and he threw it up, real high, and it went way up and fell through. I looked at him and I said to myself, ‘Your father put that one in, Joe.’ “