PORTLAND, Ore. — Vinnie Johnson had the microphone. Isiah Thomas was next to him on stage, with his own microphone. Now and then he would sing a couple of words and Vinnie would sing, too. The band, watching, hooted its approval. Now Vinnie wanted Joe. “WHERE’S BROADWAY?” he bellowed to the raucous crowd. “WHERE’S BROADWAY JOE?”
Joe Dumars sat at a back table and dipped his head. Shy by nature, he didn’t relish stepping onto the stage in front of all these people. His wife, Debbie, nudged him. He shook her off. But Vinnie would not give up.
“THIS GUY JOE DUMARS, HE’S GOT THE BIGGEST HEART. COME ON UP HERE, JOE. COME ON UP HERE, JOE. YO, JOE!”
Thomas yelled: “DUUUUUUUUMARS!”
“JOE! JOE! JOE!” screamed the crowd. It was party time, a ballroom full of players, coaches, front office people. It was the celebration of victory, back-to-back NBA championships, a dream come true. And although Dumars had other things on his mind, sadder things, the death of his father mostly, he finally took the stage, working his way between the drum set and the amplifiers. Now they were all together. The Little Giants. The Blazer Killers. The Guards. Joe. Vinnie. Isiah.
Three Men and a Trophy.
Has there ever been a trio quite like this? Has there ever been three backcourt aces — the shortest regular players on the roster — who have made such a difference in a franchise’s fortunes? You watch them play, and they seem to move in and out of each other’s orbits. Joe is the point guard, oops, now he’s the shooting guard and Isiah is the point guard, but now here comes Vinnie, now Isiah is shooting and it’s Vinnie with his fingers in the air, but look, here comes Joe, again, jogging back in, taking the shot, and now Vinnie passes to Isiah, who passes to Joe, who works it back to Vinnie. . . .
Is this the best backcourt trio ever on NBA hardwood? Could be. Probably is. Can you think of any three better? West and Goodrich, you say? Frazier and Monroe? Sam and K.C Jones? I hear twos. I hear no threes.
So they could rule the roost. Though history will judge them on numbers and baskets, there is something that will never show up in the small print: how a 33-year-old sub from Brooklyn, a 29-year-old All-Star from Chicago, and a 27-year- old inspiration from Louisiana came together at this glorious moment, when the buzzer sounded Thursday night at the Portland Memorial Coliseum. They were three stories, as different as could be, and suddenly they were laced together forever.
Joe. Isiah. Vinnie.
Three Men and a Trophy.
This was hard, maybe the hardest thing I’ve done on a basketball court,” Dumars said, now off in a corner, talking about playing after his father’s death last Sunday. “Sometimes, I couldn’t concentrate completely. But I don’t think I ever got flustered to the point where I was really messing up. In some ways, the court was a relief, you know? It was, just to be out there, away from all this other stuff. . . . I really wanted to make sure we ended it so I could get to the funeral. We leave in the morning. I can go back home with a clear mind and do what I have to do.”
Do what he had to do. There are lots of stories about pain in the basketball history books, but few match the intensity or the spotlight of Dumars’ private tragedy in these NBA Finals. Here was a guy, a soft-spoken, sternly principled young man, who grew up at his father’s knee. He idolized him. Joe Dumars II was the sort of strong-willed, hard-working, family man, a produce truck driver, who never took any guff from his kids and never had to, they respected him that much. A few years ago, when Joe and his brothers were fully grown, they came home to Natchitoches to visit and, while in the house, one of them unwittingly cursed.
“What was that you said, son?” their father said, looking up.
“Me? Dad? Nothing. I didn’t say nothing.”
“Um-hmm,” he said, lowering his gaze. “That’s what I thought.”
Never mind that his son was in his 30’s. Never mind that Joe, the baby —
“Boopie” they call him back home — was making more money in a year than his dad made in his career. So? There was one boss, one man, and the fact that he had lost his legs to diabetes did not change that. The sons would help put their father in his wheelchair, or they would sit with him on the bed, watching TV, talking, feeling his warmth. Over the years, it was Joe, the youngest, who seemed to absorb most of the glow. Like his father, he learned to be nice to everyone, but to trust only a handful of people. Like his father, he learned to love one good woman, and not run around “making a fool out of yourself.” Like his father, he learned that when you take on a job, you do it well, you don’t complain, you be proud of your work. Driving a truck. Shooting a basketball. It’s all the same.
“We never really talked about death, so it wasn’t like I had a plan for this,” Dumars said at the party. “But I think this is what he would have done. I think it’s what he wanted. My mother told me there was nothing I couldn’t do after the Finals were over.”
And so Dumars, after spending all day on the phone with his family, jogged out for Game 4 Tuesday night, and an amazing thing happened in the Coliseum. The thunder of boos that showered the other Pistons suddenly halted when his name was announced. Then, quickly, a few cheers, then more, then a small roar, people even rose to their feet. His courage was transcending the game. And although he did not star in Game 4 or Game 5 the way he had earlier in the series, he played solid, effective basketball. He rarely smiled. Not until the end.
“This championship is awesome. It’s great. But I learned a lot about perspective. It’s just a game.”
Someone reminded him of the time his father called him up after watching him play on TV. He said, “Son, that’s a good job you got there. I’d hold onto it if were you.”
“Yeah,” Dumars said, laughing. “That was Pops. Hold onto that job.” And do it proud.
Isiah Thomas wasn’t just doing it proud, he was threatening to rewrite the rules. Where did that shooting come from? How did he get so darn accurate? Game after game, the enduring image of these NBA Finals is Thomas falling back having just shot the ball, his arms still extended straight out, his wrists bent as if waving the shot bye-bye. Only when it swished through did he break the perfect pose and turn to race upcourt. Bingo.
Where did that shooting come from? “I noticed over the years that Magic and Larry Bird would always come into the Finals with some new shot, some extra weapon. I knew I wasn’t going to develop a hook shot at my height, so I began working on my three-point shooting.”
Night after night in his home gymnasium. Consider the experiment a success. Thomas took 16 three-point shots in the Finals, and made 11. That’s better than some people do with lay-ups. He dropped his load from everywhere, top of the key, baseline, corner. And when he wasn’t beaming in from long distance, he was flying into the jungle of the lane like some pint-sized Indiana Jones, whisking past all those giant bad guys and coming away with the treasure — a hanging, leaning, two-point bank shot. Oh, Isiah! Yo, Isiah! Whoa, Isiah!
For this — and his 27-point average against the Blazers — he was awarded the MVP trophy. It is, in some ways, the culmination of all he set out to do. “Individually, there’s nothing left for me to win now,” he said at the party. “We’ve got a championship. I’ve been an All-Star. Now this.”
But it hadn’t just fallen in his lap. There have been rough spots.
(According to reports on today’s front pages, there might be a few more.) Thomas is no longer considered an angel. It was foolish to ever think he was. Who is? And when the Pistons won their first NBA title last year, something Thomas had waited for as long as any current player, it was Dumars, not Isiah, who was named MVP. “I felt bad Isiah didn’t get it after all the time he put in here,” Bill Laimbeer said. Perhaps, deep down, Thomas did, too.
The captain has had to suffer a few slaps along with all those pats on the back. His image took a minor beating with the Larry Bird incident, and his periodic domination of games made some fans feel he was selfish. Some extremists even suggested Detroit would be better without him. So it was perhaps fine retribution that the man they call Zeke, at 29, was finally chosen the best player in the brightest arena. It suits him better, this award, now that he is, like all of us, a little smarter and a little more mature.
“You know what I’m happy about?” he said, holding hands with his wife, Lynn, as the music played Thursday night. “Joe got an MVP award. I got one. We can say we’ve got the best backcourt in the game.”
He laughed that deep, hearty laugh that always surprises you, coming from his cherub face.
“Now all we need is to get Vinnie one.”
Vinnie. Here was the most delightful surprise of all. A guy who had to answer countless questions of “What happened to your shot? Why are you in such a slump?” — and this was just a week ago — and there he is with one second left in the game, rising over an extended Jerome Kersey and arching an 18-footer dripping with destiny. How many shots like that had he taken in his life? “Back when I was on the schoolyard, hell, even now, I always count down in my head like it’s the last shot,” he said in the champagne soaked locker room Thursday night. “You dream about this shot.”
You dream about it going in.
Game over! Championship won! What perfect symmetry. Joe gets a trophy. Isiah gets a trophy. Vinnie gets the sweetest memory, one shot, one miracle shot, his to cherish for the rest of his life. Wherever he goes now, people will say, “Damn. Vinnie Johnson! I remember when you hit that jumper to win the Finals. What was it? Fifty feet?”
Not bad for a kid from Brooklyn. Not bad for a guy still hoping to be re-signed with this club for next year. Not bad for a guy who has taken his lumps in the backcourt, who has to fight for his minutes, who many felt was too old, too tired, too leg-heavy to do the job. Hey! Microwaves don’t break. You just have to make sure they’re plugged in.
And speaking of plugged in . . .
“YO, CAPTAIN! YO, CAPTAIN!” Vinnie screamed into the mike. “HOW MANY THREE-POINT SHOTS YOU MAKE, CAPTAIN?”
Isiah into the mike: “A LOT!”
“A LOT! A LOT! HEY, JOE! WHERE’S JOE?’
Joe looked up.
“YO, JOE! YOU’RE THE GREATEST GUY! IF YOU GOT KIDS OUT THERE, YOU WANT ‘EM TO GROW UP TO BE JUST LIKE JOE DUMARS.”
Joe grinned, shook his head.
Suddenly, a record came over the loudspeakers. It was a rap song by M.C. Hammer that has served as a theme for the Pistons throughout the playoffs. It has, in essence, three words: “Can’t touch this.” The Pistons use it to refer to their play, their defense, their championship rings. Now, they were laughing and singing to the beat: “CAN’T TOUCH THIS! CAN’T TOUCH THIS!”
Take the scene with you in the morning of another championship season. Isiah, Vinnie and Joe, arm-in-arm, on stage, swaying back and forth. Oh, the others were superb. Couldn’t have done it without them: Laimbeer, Edwards, Rodman, Salley, the bench, the coach, absolutely. But it was the three little guys, remarkably, who led this team to Shangri-la, and if you consider that in the past decade the championship shepherds have been big guys (Kareem, Moses) or at least forwards (Bird and McHale and Worthy) or one oversized miracle worker (Magic), well, you appreciate how special this is.
Three guards? Leading the way? Two MVPS and a buzzer- beater? Know what, folks? We’re looking at history in Nos. 4, 11 and 15.
Three Men and a Trophy.
“CAN’T TOUCH THIS! CAN’T TOUCH THIS!”
Truth is, they’re right. You can’t. Though nobody in the NBA can touch the Pistons, guard Vinnie Johnson was happy to reach out to the welcoming crowd Friday at Willow Run Airport. The backcourt trio of (from left) Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson and Joe Dumars might be the NBA’s best ever.