He has snuck into the spotlight like a surprise guest at the birthday party, a long-lost uncle who brought you lots of presents.

“HEY, JAMES!” the crowd screamed, slapping his hands, as he walked through the Silverdome tunnel after the Pistons beat the Celtics, 98-94, in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final. “WAY TO GO, JAMES! ALL RIGHT, JAMES!”

He was a hero. They were slapping his hands. Last week, James Edwards was just another body on the Pistons’ bench, a quiet big man who lives in a Troy hotel, living out of a suitcase, because his contract is about to expire.

And today?

“YOU’RE THE GREATEST, JAMES!” they yelled. “GO, JAMES!”

The greatest? James Edwards? Well. OK. So that’s a little extreme. But here is a Cinderella story in size-16 slippers. Three months ago, Edwards, 32, was playing out his career in purgatory — a.k.a. the Phoenix Suns — where he figured to disappear slowly into the NBA sunset. And suddenly . . . whappo! He is a major force in the Eastern Conference final. He plants. He spins. He pops. He scores. With Rickey Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer hurting, Edwards — acquired in a February trade for forward Ron Moore — has become the Pistons’ big man of choice against Boston.

On Saturday he came on midway through the third period, with the Celtics making a run at Detroit, and turned the tide: He scored nine points in four minutes — a post-up jumper, a post- up roller, a spin, a drop, a foul shot
— and helped build a cushion that Boston could never erase. Edwards. Number 53.

Jimmy-Come-Lately.

“Joe Dumars (29 points) carried it for them,” said Boston coach K.C. Jones afterward, “but James Edwards did the job of kicking our butts.”

And now they wanted him for star-of-the-game interviews.

“James, I’m Johnny Most,” said the famous Boston radio announcer.

“Hello,” said Edwards, in a soft, deep voice.

They handed him headphones. He pulled them over his head. The built-in microphone poked him in the ear.

“Uh . . . you’ve got them on backwards,” someone said.

“Oh,” he said. Well. Hey. What do you want? All this big-time stuff is new to Edwards, a sleepy-eyed veteran who is suddenly feeling like a kid again. True, he still has very little idea of how to get around Detroit. True, he does his laundry in the machines at the hotel where he lives. But what does that matter? They know who he is at the Silverdome. Everybody loves him now.

“How does all this feel, all these people cheering you, all the sudden interviews?” he was asked, even as fans applauded his walk back to the locker room.

“Hey, I’m just happy to be playing instead of watching it on television,” he said, smiling. “That’s what I used to do.”

What a turnaround. What a surprise. With each game you seem to say,
“Well, he’s not going to do what he did last time. That would be expecting too much.” And then he does it again. In the three games, Edwards has scored 35 points and averaged 25 minutes, and the Pistons have been able to go to a post-up center (something Laimbeer does not offer). Suddenly they have one more big man in the face of Robert Parish or Kevin McHale. Suddenly they have one more big man rebounding, one more big man shot-blocking.

“He’s been kind of like finding an extra Christmas present under the tree,” said Vinnie Johnson. “It feels like the guy’s been with us all year.” In truth, Edwards has been here just long enough to find his way to the airport. And with his free-agency, and the upcoming expansion draft, it is quite likely he will not be in Detroit next year.

So this may well be his moment. He is the guest conductor, the visiting professor, the uncle with the presents who mysteriously will have to leave before the party ends.

He stood by his locker Saturday, tall, quiet, answering questions with a bemused smile that seemed to say, “All you guys are here for me?” When did James Edwards ever get this much attention?

“How have you made such a difference? . . .” someone asked.

“Why have you made such a difference? . . .”

“How do you feel? . . . How do you feel? . . . How do you feel? . . .”

He answered them all, thoughtfully, patiently. Yes, he admitted, he was thinking about finishing his career in Phoenix. He was at home one day, playing a video game, and then- coach John Wetzel called and said, “You know we’ve been talking about trades, James. Well. You’ve been traded to Detroit. Thanks for playing with us.”

“What did you think when you heard the word ‘Detroit’ ?” someone asked.

“Playoff team,” he said quickly.

Playoff team, indeed. And partly because of Edwards’ inspired play, the Pistons have a 2-1 edge in this Eastern Conference final and have reason to be confident heading into Game 4. The Celtics’ advantage has always been the big men up front; Edwards helps make that a little less frightening. He wants the ball — even as several other Pistons have been reluctant to shoot — he wants the minutes, and he wants a ring. “It’s been 11 years. My career is winding down. This could be my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Jimmy-Come-Lately.

He is the visitor, the guest star, the guy who seemingly materialized one day, tapped Chuck Daly on the shoulder, and said: “Hey. Mister. I can help.” And now they are slapping his hands and interviewing him on CBS. James Edwards? Are they sure they got the right guy?

“Have you even had a home-cooked meal since you’ve been in Detroit?” he was asked.

“Well, a lot of my teammates have invited me to go to their houses for dinner. They say their wives are good cooks.”

“Have you gone to any yet?”

“Just one. Ralph Lewis. And his wife is a good cook.”

He smiled and shrugged and shuffled his feet. Who knows? Jimmy-Come-Lately has a few more cracks at the spotlight in this crazy Detroit basketball season. One day he may even unpack his suitcase and stay awhile.

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