Joe Dumars dragged himself through the tunnel like a man headed for his own execution.
“Flu,” he croaked.
He shook his head slowly, as if to add, “Can you believe the timing?” His eyes were glassy. His head was clogged. And that wasn’t the really bad part. The bad part was around the corner, on the Palace floor, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were waiting.
Dumars would never let Jordan know his condition, of course. First of all, Dumars doesn’t complain, and at age 34, in the final week of a losing season, he’s not about to start. Besides, all Jordan would do is exploit it. The best player to ever play the game is fond of smirking, “If you’re not up to winning, you shouldn’t be out there.”
So Dumars sniffed and continued on with a slow, waddling gait, an aging bullfighter taking on the relentless El Toro. Over the years, there have been many wonderful battles between Jordan and Dumars, whom Jordan once labeled his
“toughest defender.” There was even a Sports Illustrated cover once, in which a smiling, full-sized Dumars had his hand on the head of a cut-out Jordan, over the headline “Who Can Stop His Airness?”
That was a long time ago. Dumars is no longer Jordan’s toughest opponent. He can no longer stop him on a regular basis. But Joe, who is actually a few months younger, was still an NBA champion before Michael, and inside every former champion beats the pulse of winning memory. And sometimes memory moves the muscle.
As the flu-ridden Dumars was introduced Wednesday night, too weary to even run onto the floor, there was still hope that this would be a night when those old ghosts danced. Why? Because with all the talk about this possibly being Jordan’s last season — and if not his last, at least his last with the Bulls
— then certainly, this could be the final meeting between these two warriors.
They came out for the jump ball, shook hands as they always do, and shared a laugh, a nod to their friendship over the years.
Seconds later, Jordan was laughing again, when, under his defensive pressure, Dumars’ first pass was stolen and converted to Chicago’s first basket.
“Oh no,” Pistons fans seemed to inhale, “not one of these nights . . .”
He hits the three
It would not be one of those nights. Dumars, a Piston for life, was not about to let that happen.
He cleared his sore throat, then buried a three-pointer with Jordan watching two feet away. Then he did it again, less than a minute later, for a 10-point lead. On the next play, he took a feed from Brian Williams and hoisted another three-point bomb, a 13-point lead. And finally, when Jordan went to the hoop and was blocked by a high-flying Don Reid, Dumars finished the ensuing break with a rainbow three that spun so delicately through the air you could count the stitches rotating.
Bang! Dumars had canned 12 points in under five minutes, providing a lead that Chicago would never take back. And not once did Joe have to exhaust himself by driving to the hole. He saved his withering energy for sticking to Jordan, who, at the end of the quarter, had no points and five missed shots. It was a smart, veteran performance.
Dumars went to the bench and pulled a black sweatshirt over his sweating frame to fight the chills.
Last year in the playoffs, when Jordan played through the flu, he was celebrated like the greatest soldier on earth. Here at the Palace, there was barely an acknowledgement of what Dumars was fighting.
It’s not the difference in effort.
It’s the difference in spotlight.
The final quarter
When the fourth quarter began — with the score, fittingly, tied — Jordan wandered up to Dumars.
“Well,” Jordan said, grinning, “this will be the last time we go at each other.”
And for one last time, it would end in Dumars’ favor. The Pistons played tight defense, the Bulls clanged shots (they were without star Scottie Pippen), and with less than two minutes to go, Jordan took a long try, it ricocheted off the rim, and Dumars sped to the ball. He was fouled, made a shot, and for all intents and purposes, the game was done.
When the buzzer sounded, the two men met at center court, as they have been meeting for more than a decade. And they shook hands and embraced.
“It’s been a good battle,” Jordan said to Dumars.
“It’s been good,” Dumars said back.
And they went their very separate ways. The Pistons won, but only losing teams play for Wednesday nights in April. Championship teams play for June. Jordan will do that, yet again, and as he left the court, he knew he’d never trade his spot for Dumars and Dumars knew it, too.
There’s a lot you could say about the opposite directions of these teams, how the Pistons made the Bulls, how the Bulls surpassed them. But that’s pro basketball. Teams go in waves. Only rarely do you catch both in an up cycle.
We had that here for a few years, Chicago and Detroit, and in those years, on those nights, Michael versus Joe was a highlight. Maybe Wednesday didn’t mean a thing for the immediate future. But it meant something for the past. As the two men said, “It’s been good,” and when you no longer fight the wars, you miss the battles.
Especially the good ones.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.