HUNTER AGELESS AT BEING BABY-SITTER

Let’s drop in on Lindsey Hunter at 11 years old. There he is, in Jackson, Miss., already in the sixth grade at Bradley Elementary. There he is, playing quarterback for a football team. There he is, dreaming about becoming a star athlete like his hero, Jerry Rice. And there he is, being asked to help with a new baby brother, Tommie, who is born a few days after Christmas.

Lindsey must do “everything” with the baby. That means hold him. That means change his dirty diapers. That means push him in a stroller. Wherever Lindsey goes, that baby is likely to go, too.

“I’d push that stroller to the gym with me,” he says.

So the baby is there when Lindsey shoots baskets. The baby is there when Lindsey comes home from school. The baby is there in Lindsey’s lap, taking his bottle — soy milk, because he’s allergic to regular milk. (“What kind of baby is allergic to milk?” Hunter remembers thinking.)

Here is the future Detroit Pistons guard, about to enter junior high, already feeling like an old man compared to this infant who gurgles and cries.

This is Lindsey Hunter at age 11.

And, meanwhile, miles away, in the city of Chicago, another baby is born.

And his name is Dwyane Wade.

And 23 years later, in the Eastern Conference finals, here is Hunter facing Wade, a kid born just weeks after Hunter’s baby brother, and he is playing him straight up, body to body, all the while knowing that when he was 11 and dreaming of a pro career, this superstar coming at him had drool rolling down his chin.

Speed is smartest bet

“Yeah, there’s that age gap, but I’m kind of used to it now,” Hunter says, laughing, after Pistons practice on Wednesday. “All the young kids coming out of high school (and into the NBA) — I just thank God I’m able to keep up with them.”

He doesn’t just keep up. He glues. He sticks. He is flypaper. Saran Wrap. If basketball were salsa music, Hunter and Wade could be in “Dirty Dancing 3.” They bump. They bang. Hunter messes with Wade’s rhythm, grabs at the ball, does anything he can to disrupt his performance.

“If you give him space, (Wade) can pretty much do whatever he wants,” Hunter says of the Heat’s star guard, whom he has guarded — and harassed — with surprising efficiency this series. “If I can keep the gap narrow, I can pretty much know where he’s gonna go — instead of me guessing.”

Now understand something. At 34, for most guards, even a good guess won’t mean good defense. Someone asks Hunter if the smarts that come with being a veteran make up for the speed his opponent possesses.

“No,” he declares. “You can be as smart as you wanna be. That ain’t gonna help.”

You need quickness. The thing is, Hunter has that quickness. Still. He will turn 35 this year, and he can still front and harass everyone from Wade to Reggie Miller. It is the kind of thing that impresses and delights the few members of the organization who are older than him, including Joe Dumars and Larry Brown.

“I wouldn’t be as surprised if it was a 34-year-old big guy,” Brown says, “because big guys have a tendency to last longer and play at a high level longer. Little guys who depend on quickness and speed tend to have a shorter span. …

“But Joe and I were talking about this yesterday. Lindsey is as good an on-ball defender as I’ve seen in the league. And to do it at this age is amazing.”

Still strolling along

Ah, the age. The gap. The 11-year crater. Hunter admits that “everything” is different for a 34-year-old veteran and 23-year-old budding star, from the music to the lifestyle to the cultural references.

But Hunter remembers taking his kid brother along when he learned how to drive. He remembers bringing him on dates because there was no one else to baby-sit him. He even remembers, when he got to college at Jackson State, walking his then 8-year-old brother to a nearby private school before heading to campus for his classes.

And, tragically, he remembers losing that brother to a car accident when Tommie was just 19 years old.

Those of us who have watched Hunter over the years, who have seen his unflappably cheerful disposition, are not put off by the idea that the energy of his brother’s young soul somehow found its way into Lindsey’s heart. Instead of quitting the game, as he once contemplated, Hunter seems to have revitalized himself, and the years pass and he is still out there, still hustling, still moving those feet, still sticking like glue.

“The thing about it is, if I felt old, it would probably mean something,” he says. “But I don’t really feel that much older than (Wade) is. It’s just the fact that I am.”

It’s the fact that he is that makes it remarkable. And the fact that Hunter, had they lived in the same neighborhood, might have pushed Wade in a stroller that makes you marvel at life’s clock and the people who defy it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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