ROYAL DEMEANOR

Tayshaun Prince is telling me about the first date he had with a particular woman. This was back in college at Kentucky. They went to the movies.

What movie, I ask?

“You’re not going to believe it.”

What movie?

“I really didn’t want to watch it.”

What movie?

“She picked it.”

What movie?

“…Tarzan.”

Tarzan? The cartoon?

“Yeeeuup.”

Which only proves that Tayshaun Prince does what he has to do – whether guarding the other team’s biggest star, hitting key three-pointers or seeing a cartoon movie to win the right girl.

That first date led to others. The others led to an engagement. The engagement led to a wedding.

They’ve been married nearly two years.

Tayshaun Prince does what he has to do. In that way, he reminds you of the man who chose him in the 2002 draft: Joe Dumars. If you live long enough, you see everything come around again. And for my money, with Prince, the Pistons are developing the second coming of Dumars, albeit in a slightly longer frame.

Think about it. Both Dumars and Prince were the quiet guys in an often boisterous starting five. Both Dumars and Prince were defensive specialists and drew the opponent’s biggest stars (for Dumars, it was Michael Jordan; for Prince, this week, it’s LeBron James).

Both Dumars and Prince were capable of lighting it up offensively – but didn’t need to for their egos. Both had great court sense. Both refused to engage in trash talk.

Both were raised, despite difficult economic conditions, in solid, two-parent homes. Both had strong mothers for whom church was a major influence. Both met their future wives well before the blinding glory of the NBA.

“It would be hard to trust somebody you met after you were in the league,” says Prince, 27. “You’d never know if they were there for you or your money.”

It’s funny. I heard someone tell me the same thing years ago.

Dumars.

Just like Dumars

A few weeks back, I asked Dumars which player on the current roster reminded him most of his own game. He didn’t hesitate.

“Prince, definitely,” the Pistons’ team president said. “The way he’s willing to do whatever it takes, the way he carries himself. Definitely Prince.”

Which is one reason not to worry about the minor shooting slump Prince is enduring in these Eastern Conference finals. True, he is 1-for-19 in the first two games. But he has been doing plenty of other things against the Cavs – he leads Detroit in assists and minutes played, and has committed the fewest fouls of the five starters. And he is bound to snap out of the shooting woes, perhaps tonight. (Hey, would you have worried about Dumars losing his stroke?)

Besides, the Pistons are up 2-0, which is all he really cares about.

“People see my shots going short and the first thing they think is ‘tired legs,’ ” Prince says. “But I’m not tired. I’m not worn out from playing defense on LeBron. Cleveland is playing some good tough defense … I’ll just try to get out of it.”

No drama. No excuses. Prince’s greatest strength – and most potent weapon – is his steadiness. He rarely gets emotional, rarely gets angry, never pounds his own chest and sees no profit in trading smack talk with an opponent. “When someone trash-talks me, I usually just step up my game on the defensive end. Eventually, they give up because they see they’re not getting in your head. If anything, when you don’t speak back, it bothers them more.”

In that case, the soft-spoken Prince has bothered a lot of opponents.

Soft-spoken leader

Did you know the angular Prince – whose long, thin frame suggests a garment bag with no clothes in it – once was too fat for his own liking? His freshman year at Kentucky the team wanted him to bulk up. So, through a combination of weight training, frequent meals and lots of evening milk shakes, he swelled to 219 pounds from the 184 he’d weighed the year before. Now, mind you, at 6-foot-8 (his height at the time), 219 pounds is hardly Dom DeLuise range. But it was too thick for Prince.

“I just felt it was too much weight gained too fast for my body,” he says. “So I lost some of it.”

You would think, looking at Prince’s visible rib cage, that the man pecks at food like a finicky cat. Not true, he says. It’s just metabolism. “To this day I can still eat pretty much anything I want,” he says.

He could also say anything he wants – if he wanted to. He has earned that right with his steady excellence. But you will rarely hear Prince speak up. When he does, you’ll notice. In the Chicago series, he stepped forward when Rasheed Wallace was simmering at refs for a technical and he let Rasheed know, in no uncertain terms, this was not the time for that.

“Sometimes, when he gets a technical foul, he helps us. It can spark our team. But that time it was a disappointment. We were trying to close them out. So I said so.”

And you know what? Rasheed didn’t get another one.

Maybe there’s something to this speak softly stuff.

Captain potential

If Chauncey Billups ever leaves Detroit, I see Prince as the next captain of the Pistons. I really do. I see him as captain the same way Dumars eventually became captain after Isiah Thomas left, the way Nicklas Lidstrom became captain after Steve Yzerman left the Red Wings. Quiet, defensive specialists have a way of commanding respect over the long run, and Prince is gathering that kind of currency every year.

It is strange to think that Prince is only in his fifth season. He has averaged more than 20 playoff games a year, and if the Pistons go deep into the NBA Finals, he may play his 100th postseason game in June.

“I was less nervous in the first one than I am for these,” he says. “Believe it or not, the first ones I wasn’t nervous for at all. I had a nothing-to-lose mind-set. Nobody expected me to do anything and I figured if I went out there and did something good, they’d say ‘Where has the guy been all his life?’ “

Now, he admits, he feels the pressure more. Why not? The Pistons are only relying on him for the toughest assignment in the playoffs: stopping James. Tonight could be a particularly long evening for Prince, as most expect the Cavs – and LeBron- to play their best game in their home building.

But for Prince, it’s just another day. No worries. He will do what he always does. He will do what he has to do.

He will not, however, swing from a vine while pounding his chest. Unless his wife asks nicely.

SIDEBARS

Tale of the tape: Joe Dumars vs. Tayshaun Prince

…………………..Joe Dumars……………………………..Tayshaun Prince

Nickname Joe D………………………………Tay

College McNeese State……………………………….Kentucky

USA basketball Won gold as tri-captain in 1994……………………….Joins team this summer

Drafted 18th overall in 1985………………………….23rd overall in 2002

Pistons significance JOE D: Silent type, known for his defense and helped the Pistons win championships in 1989 and 1990 TAY: Silent type, known for his defense and helped the Pistons win the championship in 2004

NBA all-defensive first team 4 times…………………0

All-defensive second team 1……………………….. 3

Reg.-season scoring average 16.1Ö 12.2Ö Postseason scoring average 15.6Ö 12.7Ö Played in the shadow of:

JOE D: Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Grant Hill TAY: Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber

Long-range distinction

JOE D: Hit 10 of 18 threes against Minnesota in 1994 TAY: Tied Kentucky school record, hitting seven threes in the first half of game against North Carolina

Playoff games 112Ö 93Ö

Playoff highlight: JOE D: Scoring over 27 points a game en route to earning 1989 NBA Finals MVP honors TAY: Blocking Reggie Miller to preserve an Eastern Conference finals victory All-Star games 6…………………………0

Off the court: Plays tennis…………. Attends plays

QUICK HITS WITH PRINCE

Do your long arms come in handy off the court? “Off the court, no, there isn’t too much stuff I do off the court besides kick back and spend time with my family. But I use them in basketball. They create space, especially on the defensive end. And on the offensive end, it allows me to keep distance and make a lot of different moves. I can contest shots really well and get my hands on loose balls.”

Why are you known among your teammates as a source of information? “They say that because I watch other players and am aware of what is going on around the league. I watch a lot of film. I am a big-time sports fan – all sports – and I watch a ton of it and read.”

What are you reading? “As of right now, I don’t read that many books during the season because it takes my time away from basketball. But I read a lot of newspapers, magazines and ESPN.com. I look at gossip magazines, like Us Weekly, but I also read Motor Trend.”

Most entertaining teammate you have ever played with? “Elden Campbell. He is an actor and a clown; he could just do it all. Lindsey Hunter would be a close second. He is a big-time comedian.”

Favorite pregame meal? “I don’t really have one. But I love lasagna and salmon.”

FREE PRESS NEWS SERVICES

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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