One day, when the basketball is over, they can get down to being real friends. You can see them sitting at the beach, wearing shorts and polo shirts, trying to beat each other at checkers. Jordan will take the offensive. Dumars will counter with defense. One will grin. The other will nod. Respect. Admiration.
Not today. Not on the court. Today, Michael Jordan and Joe Dumars, Mr. All-World and Mr. All-World Stopper, will put aside their fondness for each other and duel to the finish, move against move, every spin, every shot, every herk, every jerk. Take this, Joe. Swallow that, Mike. It is a backcourt shadow dance that will highlight the NBA Eastern Conference finals, which begin this afternoon, Pistons-Bulls, and if you are smart you might sell your car for tickets, because we are watching basketball history. One day, they may talk about Dumars-Jordan in the same hushed tones as Chamberlain-Russell and Magic-Bird.
Wait a minute.
Did we say friends?
Indeed. Dumars and Jordan. After five years of doing battle, they got to know each other at the All-Star Game in February, when Jordan called down to Dumars’ hotel room and said, “Why don’t you and your wife come up and visit a while?” They shared some food. Talked for hours. Later Jordan would tell reporters, “Hanging with Joe was the highlight of my weekend.”
Oh, don’t worry. There will be no kissing at half-court. That’s not their style. Both men shy away from public consumption. Besides, the public might have a hard time picturing Jordan, dripping with fame, exploding with flashy mid-air moves — a man Larry Bird once called “God in disguise” — chumming with the quiet Dumars.
But if you know the two men, you understand the relationship. Here is a perfect pairing of talent and humility, two guys who can dominate the sports pages, yet still mow the lawn at their parents’ houses. They were born three months apart. They were both recently married. They began with only a basketball between them. It’s just that, after all those nights battling each other, this nice thing called friendship has begun to stir. It began with respect
“I guess it’s mutual respect,” says Jordan, after practice in Chicago.
“I’d always had tremendous respect for Joe. Then at the All-Star Game, I got to see him on the social side. He’s a good guy, a quiet guy, not the type to search for stardom. I like that.
“We’ve built a friendship. Our wives get along great. I hope one day we can become best friends. But I’m sure he’s not gonna let us get too close right now, because of the playoffs, and I understand that. In a series like this, you have to have complete concentration.”
So while it is true, Jordan says, that he telephoned when Joe broke his hand in March, and Dumars telephoned when Michael was decked by the Bucks early in the playoffs, few words will be exchanged in this new showdown. Who has time? Jordan will be searching for a seam in a defense that tracks him like an ICBM missile. And Dumars will be trying to bottle Hurricane Michael.
“There is nothing like it,” says the Pistons guard, shaking his head. “He is the biggest individual challenge you can have in this league.”
To date, no one has handled him better than Dumars. Detroit plays a tremendous team defense that lets as many as three players drop down to help smother Jordan, block his path on the baseline, force his surrender of the basketball. But Dumars is the point man of this army. And last year, he won the war. With Jordan neutralized, the Pistons eliminated the Bulls in six games, then went on to capture the World Championship.
Now they go at it again.
The Cyclone vs. The Vacuum Cleaner. Good players, good people
What a wonderful rivalry. Two all-stars. Two members of the All-Defensive Team. And you know what? You kind of hope they do wind up best friends. Then they can travel cross- country, stop at every high school, and show kids what you can grow into if you keep your mind straight and your talent exercised. Both Dumars and Jordan are textbook cases of The Graceful Superstar.
Not that they got there the same way. Jordan was a bright light from his freshman year in college, when he won the NCAA championship for North Carolina with a last-second shot. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he could shave. He was a first-round draft pick — as a junior. He won Rookie of the Year, averaging 28 points a game, and served notice of his future stardom by setting new heights for dunks and reverse slams, prompting Nike to sign him and ride his rocket to incredible business. His contract with them is worth $12 million alone. Before his percentage.
Today, Jordan is a multinational corporation. Yet kids love him. So do their moms. “For all he’s done,” says Dumars, “you never see him shoot his mouth off, you know? He carries himself well. He shows a lot of common sense. I guess that’s why I like him.”
Dumars can appreciate humility. His alma mater, McNeese State, was small and not far from his Louisiana home, and, unlike North Carolina, never threatened anybody for a national championship. Joe was a quiet draft pick, and arrived in Detroit playing defense and speaking only when it seemed appropriate. No Sports Illustrated covers. No huge endorsement deals. On his first road trip to New York City, Dumars stayed in the hotel, a bayou kid wondering why anyone would venture into that concrete jungle.
And yet, his talent, like Jordan’s, was always there. And over time, it emerged. Partly because of his success against the likes of Michael and Magic Johnson, Dumars began to attract attention for his shut-down abilities. He used to whisper to his teammates, “I can shoot if they let me.” Eventually, they let him. Dumars is now an enormous defensive and scoring threat, and certainly one of the four best guards in the NBA. He exudes the kind of leadership that is slow in coming, but unquestioned once it arrives. Last June he was voted MVP of the NBA Finals. He has reached the top. Quietly. Common values
And it is a sort of quiet that he and Jordan now share. Both men prefer simpler, more basic values, and friendships that are strong even if unspoken.
“I never tell Mike he’s the best guy I ever played against,” Dumars says, “and he never tells me I’m his toughest defender. There’s no need. It’s just understood.”
Maybe it’s in the blood. Both Dumars and Jordan come from large, close-knit families, where the men of the house did what they had to do without complaint. Joe Dumars II was a produce truck driver. James Jordan worked as a plant supervisor for General Electric. Hard work was the house rule for the fathers.
It remains that way for the sons. So Dumars, despite his newfound wealth, goes back to Louisiana every summer and drives himself through daily three-hour practices in sweltering heat and humidity. And Jordan — who can’t even count the interest on his money — had a clause inserted into his Bulls contract allowing him to play whenever and wherever he wants in the off-season, no matter what the risk, that’s how much he loves the sport.
Sounds like a hell of a rivalry, huh? Watching each other
It resumes today. The Pistons, as a team, have adopted a set of “Jordan Rules” to close down the Chicago superstar, who averaged more than 40 points a game against Philadelphia in the last round. Dumars has his own rules: “First you throw out all the hype and buildup. You say to yourself, ‘I am gonna stop this guy. He’s gonna make great plays. But I have to shut him down.’ Patience.
What you need most is patience. If I lose my patience with Michael, it’s over.”
Jordan, for his part, says he watches Dumars as much as Dumars watches him. “Last year, I took Joe’s offense for granted, and he hurt me. I can’t let that happen this time. He’s too good.”
And they begin. It is the featured attraction, the showdown within the showdown. Dumars on Jordan. Jordan on Dumars. They will battle in sweaty silence. And when it is done, they will smile and finally speak, maybe just a few words: “Congratulations, man. Good luck in the Finals”
One day, when the basketball is over, they will sit around that beach and laugh at the memories. The friendship will wait. Good ones do. It says a lot that two NBA superstars, in a war for money and glory, can confess a fine and true affection for each other and a desire to see it grow. Mostly what it says is this: Sportsmanship is not dead. What a pleasant thought.