It was one of those buzzing nights at the Palace, a sellout, lots of “Long time, no see” salutations, people shaking hands in the stands, like a class reunion. Inside the Pistons’ locker room, Joe Dumars, maybe the loneliest man in the building, sat with his thoughts. In a few minutes he was about to guard his oldest NBA nemesis, Michael Jordan, an enemy he thought he’d seen the last of two years ago, when the guy retired. “Good riddance,” Dumars had thought then. How many pounds of sweat had he lost over the years keeping Jordan mortal? Back when King Air was still stoppable by a single defender, it was Dumars who did it best.

“He’s the toughest,” Jordan always admitted. Had they been gunfighters, Joe would have been Wyatt Earp, the low-key sheriff in charge of keeping the town safe from dunks and slams. Those were hot, intense nights for the Pistons and Bulls, when the crowd hung on every basket and the Eastern Conference title hung in the balance and Jordan and Dumars dripped all over each other, maybe the best guard battle in the NBA.

That was a long time ago. The Pistons are a losing team now. Two stars who’d led the championship years, Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, were sitting

in the stands Wednesday night, wearing suits, and another, Vinnie Johnson, does play-by-play at the radio table. Yet Dumars was still there, in his old No. 4 uniform, and suddenly, here was Jordan again, like some Wild West ghost, busting down the saloon doors and saying “Guess who’s back in town?”

And Dumars instinctively rose to do battle, never needing to look up.

“Did you look at the game film?” he was asked before the game.

“No need,” he said. “I’ve seen that picture before.” They’ve always been friendly

Although Dumars and Jordan have always been friendly, the two did not talk before taking the court Wednesday night. Jordan, a baseball player the last few seasons, is intent on proving he hasn’t lost a thing. He isn’t about to go sentimental now.

So they came out, and the whistle blew and the ball went up and they were back at it, Jordan backing in, pounding the ball, Dumars bent at the hip, plugging the dam, his eyes locked on Michael’s hands. There were moments where Joe won the battle, stopping His Airness from going baseline, or poking the ball just before Jordan made a great pass. But there were far more moments when Jordan did the success dance — whirling in a three-pointer, racing across the lane for a lefty lay-up, spinning away from the basket on the baseline, losing Joe for a split second, then firing as he leapt. Swish.

“I think his release has actually gotten quicker,” Don Chaney, the Pistons coach, would marvel after the game.

Or perhaps it’s just that Jordan is playing his 12th game in the last two years and guys like Dumars are playing their 157th, not counting exhibitions. Everything is fresher, the arms, the legs, the brain. So Jordan looks like he’s flying over statues.

Still, Dumars — playing mostly point guard now with two groin pulls — did his battle. He showed no frustration, only concentration even after the most audacious Jordan exploits.

“The thing you learn about guarding Michael is to relax,” he said. “You have to expect some incredible plays. You can’t get uptight when he makes one. You have to say to yourself, ‘I was expecting a 720-degree dunk. That was only a 360. OK. Let’s go now.’ “

The Pistons trailed, but were still in it with a few minutes left. And then Jordan spun and fired a deadeye 16- footer from the right corner, over Joe, his 29th point of the night, and Chicago was up nine and smiling, and the fans headed for the exits. No Bulls would die tonight.

Jordan took a seat. Jordan: ‘It was good to see him’

“How did it feel going against Dumars again?” Jordan, mobbed by reporters, was asked in the victorious locker room.

“It’s always great to go against Joe,” he said. “He’s got so many tricks that I forgot about. He’s a tough defender, and I knew every minute I played, he’d be playing on me.

“In a way, I wish he could be on a stronger team. He’s going through all the rebuilding and all, but he’s keeping good spirits, and he’s playing hard.

“It was good to see him.”

The Bulls are 9-3 since Jordan returned. They are now a serious threat for the conference title, maybe the whole banana, the NBA crown. Jordan’s return
— to old teammates like Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong and an improved Will Perdue, makes that possible.

Down the hall, Dumars walked slowly, a towel wrapped around him. He passed Oliver Miller, Rafael Addison and Negele Knight, guys who have no recollection of what Pistons-Bulls used to mean. He is the last of the Mohicans, alone around the campfire.

“You know what was weird?” he had said before the game, “With Michael coming back, I wanted to turn to someone and say, ‘Remember the time he did this or that against us’ . . . but there’s nobody here who remembers.”

So much of basketball is talent, and so much more is timing. The Pistons had their years. The Bulls, thanks largely to Jordan, may have a few more. When Wednesday’s game ended — Bulls 124, Pistons 113 — Dumars lowered his head and jogged towards the tunnel.

Waiting for him was Michael Jordan, his hand held high.

Dumars slapped it, the two nodded, and kept going. You needed history to appreciate that moment. But then, what history often teaches is that nothing stays the same.

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