He came back to the bench during every time-out, sweating like a coal miner. He did not look up, not at the screaming crowd, not at his teammates, not at his coaches. He had a semi- dazed expression that seemed to say,
“Don’t bother me, now. I’m working.”
Work out, Joey. If that’s how you do it. People may have paid big money to come to the Palace Tuesday and watch Michael Jordan play basketball. But what they got was a stage full of No. 4 in your programs, Mr. Average Joe, doing everything Jordan was supposed to do: scoring, driving, leaving his defenders with drool hanging from their lips.
“Broadway Joe!” cooed John Salley in the locker room, after Joe Dumars led the Pistons to their sixth victory in a row, 100-90. “Broadway Jooooooe!”
Well, not exactly. Yes, he did score 28 points in 33 minutes, shooting as if he’d never left those hot gymnasiums in Natchitoches, La. And yes, he did defend Jordan — which some folks say is like defending God — with sticky, sweaty stubbornness, holding his highness to just 16 points, or as many as Dumars had in the first quarter.
But the only thing Broadway about this Joe is his statistics. The rest is pure steel worker. How tough was his defense? I can’t remember one significant play Jordan made. And he was in there for most of the game. He did not get a dunk on Dumars until 17 seconds were left in the third quarter. By then the Pistons led by 15 points. Gee. What will ESPN show on its highlight program?
How about this: Dumars swishing four in a row to start the game, a 17-footer, a 16-footer, a 15-footer, a top of the key bang. Dumars driving the lane, losing the ball, chasing it down, and throwing up an archer that bounced in anyhow. Dumars taking Jordan to the baseline, spinning away as if rocket- propelled, and coming underneath the backboard for a reverse lay-up.
“I didn’t expect him to do that,” Jordan would admit later, sheepishly. “I studied the film on him. He usually goes to his left.”
Dumars vs. Jordan: A Classic
And no surprise. The news came out Tuesday morning that Jordan and Magic Johnson will be paid $1 million to play each other one-on-one this summer before a nationwide TV audience. Notice how Dumars wasn’t invited?
“What do you think you versus Jordan would fetch on the pay-per-view matchup?” Dumars was asked in the locker room.
He laughed. “About $100.”
I’ll take that ticket. And so should you. Because, here, folks, in our own backyard, is a player who is no longer up and coming. He has arrived. He deserves to be mentioned with the top guards in the game, every time, every bit of him.
“Everyone knows he’s great defensive player. But they don’t realize how great he is on offense, too. Hey, he was the MVP of the playoffs.”
You know who said that? Michael Jordan. His continual match-ups with Dumars — remember last May? — are classic duels, every bit as significant in their own way as Chamberlain vs. Russell, or Bird vs. Magic. Oh, it may not seem that way at first glance because Dumars — the son of a Louisiana truck driver, who once told his son “You got a good job there, playing basketball. Hang onto it” — refuses to bathe in the waters of self-promotion.
The fact is, I am yet to see his head turned by the success of 1989. Not one inch. His voice is just as soft. His words just as unassuming. Which is more than I can say about some of his teammates.
“Aw, we just got off to a good start,” he said of his performance Tuesday.
“Getting hot like that allowed us to take more chances on defense.”
“But you were the one who got hot,” a reporter pointed out.
“Well, that’s what I meant by we.”
“Can you tell when you’ve really got your shot going like you did in the first quarter?” someone asked.
“Uh-huh,” he said, straight-faced, “it’s just common sense.”
Stay just the way you are, Joe
Exactly. When they fall, he’s hot. When Jordan can’t score, he’s doing a job on defense. And when a guy is this good, he shouldn’t have to be second-tier in anybody’s opinion. Why doesn’t Dumars have the huge shoe contract? Why doesn’t Dumars get the commercials? Do you know how hard it is to defend Jordan and score 28 points?
Well. You know what? Personally, selfishly, I hope he never gets interested in that national spotlight. Who needs all that noise? It’s more fun this way, a Tuesday in the middle of winter, where, without fanfare, without music, basketball history is being made. We are getting to watch Joe Dumars play basketball. One day, that’s going to make a helluva story for the grandkids.
“Did you know the Pistons are 11-1 when you score 24 points or more?” Dumars was asked.
He shrugged. “I just happened to play well in those games.”
And they’re paying Jordan and Magic Johnson a million bucks?
They ought to let Dumars get the winner.
Double or nothing.