He has snuck into the spotlight like a sweet old uncle you never knew you had, the kind who brings 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 Finals. “WAY TO GO, JAMES! ALL RIGHT, JAMES!”

He was a hero. He was a star. They were slapping his hands. Last week, James Edwards, 32, was just another body on the Pistons’ bench, a quiet big man who is living in a Troy hotel, living out of a suitcase because his contract is about to expire.

And today?

“YOU’RE THE GREATEST, JAMES!”

The greatest? James Edwards? Here is a Cinderella story in size 13 slippers. Three months ago, Edwards was playing out his career in purgatory; a member of the Phoenix Suns, he figured he would slowly disappear into the NBA sunset. And suddenly — whappo! He is a major force in the Eastern Conference Finals. He plants. He turns. He pops. He scores. With Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer hurting, Edwards has become the Pistons’ big man of choice. On Saturday he came on midway through the third period, scored nine points in four minutes — a jumper here, a roller there, a post-up spin, a foul shot — and helped build a cushion that Boston could never erase.

Now they wanted him for star-of-the game interviews.

“James, I’m Johnny Most,” said the famed gruff-voiced Boston radio announcer.

“Hello,” said Edwards, in his 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 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 now. Everybody loves him.

“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. In the three games of this series so far, 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.) They have one more big man in the face of Robert Parrish or Kevin McHale. They have one more guy rebounding, one more guy shot-blocking.

“It was kind of like finding an extra Christmas present,” said Vinnie Johnson of Edwards’ recent contributions. “It’s like the guy’s ben with us all year.” He stood by his locker now, 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 took them all with the patience of a man who has waited a long time, and is going to chew this food just a little while longer, thank you.

“Yes,” he admitted, “I was thinking about finishing my career in Phoenix. I was at home one day, playing a video game, and (then-coach John) Wentzel called and said ‘You know we’ve ben 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.

Playoff team, indeed. Partly because of Edward’s inspired play, the Pistons have a 2-1 edge in this playoff and have reason to be confident heading into Game 4. The Celtics edge is always the big men up front. Edwards’ presence makes that a little less frightening. He is the secret weapon, the guy who seemingly materialized one day, tapped Chuck Daly on the shoulder and said “Hey. Mister. I can help.”

Who knows where this will all go? Who knows how long until midnight in this basketball fairy-tale. For now, James Edwards is enjoying the ride, even though he never gets to eat at home.

“That’s OK,” he says, “My teammates invite me over to their houses for dinner all the time. They say their wives are good cooks.”

“Have you gone to any yet?” he was asked.

“Not yet,” he said.

The latest to be greatest smiled and shuffled his feet. Who knows? One day he may even unpack his suitcase and stay awhile.

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