Shut up and play. You used to hear that in basketball. Today, everything is noise, from bragging to headlines to recitations from “White Men Can’t Jump.”

Except with Joe Dumars. He still abides by the old credo: Shut up and play. On the soap opera that is the Pistons, he might be the only one who does.

And it is time someone appreciated that.

From last summer, when he was overlooked for the Olympic team — it was Dumars, not Isiah Thomas, who was the final cut; it was Dumars who had the right to complain, yet he said nothing, while Isiah conducted interviews
“forgiving” people — from that, to this most frustrating regular season, the sulking of Mark Aguirre, the embarrassment of William Bedford, the momentary disappearance of Dennis Rodman, and the recent, well- planned “spontaneous” explosion of Bill Laimbeer — through all this talk and moodiness right up to tonight’s playoff opener against the Knicks, Dumars has done but one thing: shut up and play.

He played every game. He played through injuries and exhaustion. He has been following this script for years, improving each season, and is without question the best player on the roster now. He leads the team in scoring, leads the guards in minutes, and, remarkably, leads the stars in silence.

“Why haven’t you grown more vocal as you’ve become bigger?” I asked him the other day. “Everybody else around here has.”

He clasped his hands. “What I do is what comes natural to me. I was brought here to play, I take pride in that, and that’s all I put my energy into.

“It’s enough for me, you know? I don’t need all the extra baggage that comes from being in the spotlight.”

He nodded, and awaited the next question.

Don’t you wish there were 12 of these guys?

Mask drops, revealing ugly truths

Let’s be honest. The Pistons that we knew and loved are a thing of the past. Oh sure, the old Bad Boys also had their problems. I always said the only thing keeping that locker room from exploding was winning.

But they had the winning. The wore it like an amulet around their necks, one championship, two championships, it warded off the evil spirits of controversy, of a nosy press, of the poisons that gnaw at the fruits of teamwork.

Now they lack the winning, these Pistons. Their shield has been dropped. And we are seeing sad truths: ego and selfishness. Aguirre’s ego is bruised when Orlando Woolridge gets more money and a better contract; Aguirre sulks. Chuck Daly’s ego is offended when others — Jack McCloskey and Isiah Thomas — usurp his authority as coach; Daly plans to leave. Laimbeer’s ego is bruised when guys like John Salley and Woolridge make more money than him; suddenly, coincidentally, he explodes at McCloskey, saying Jack ruined the team with his trades and management. And McCloskey’s ego is bruised that “his guys” no longer love him.

And in the middle of this is Dumars, who, when you really think about it, might be the only ego who deserves to be heard. He plays alongside Thomas, who gets most of the attention, most of the ink, and, at least nationally, most of the credit, despite the fact that it is more often Dumars who does the dirty work, Dumars who scores more, Dumars who draws tougher defensive assignments.

Dealing with Isiah’s ego and power is a hair-pulling experience for Daly, his coach. Imagine what it’s like to play in his shadow.

Yet you never hear a word.

He walks his own walk

I mentioned Laimbeer’s outburst to Dumars. He nodded, but avoided comment. I asked if Dumars felt entitled to a locker room pulpit also.

“Nah,” he said. “For me, it doesn’t work like that. I do my job, you do your job, people at GM do their jobs. I don’t feel like I’m entitled to speak out more than anyone else.

“Being good at my job doesn’t give me the right to tell the people of Detroit what I think about this or that. I don’t believe that. I don’t portray it.

“Other people? That’s their business. I can’t tell anyone how to walk his walk.”

The biggest influence on Joe Dumars was his father, a produce-truck driver who lost both his legs to diabetes. When he died, during the 1990 playoffs, Dumars left the arena and flew home, shed his tears, then came back and helped lead the Pistons to another title. He never mentioned his loss, never used the microphones to turn his father into a national hero.

When Dumars does charity events, he doesn’t stick his name on them, the way many players do. When he is injured, he keeps it private, although once, during the playoffs, I caught a glimpse at his foot which was swollen and infected and as ugly as you could imagine. I shuddered. He shrugged.

From the moment he arrived here, right up to tonight’s game, Dumars has been a monument of silent dignity. And that ought to be celebrated — especially now in a franchise suddenly full of whining and finger-pointing. Doesn’t it seem strange that the best player on this team is also the most quiet? They say men like this lead by example.

The other Pistons should start paying attention.

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