STOIC THORPE IS ALL ACTION — AND LITTLE TALK

It was the first real basketball game of Otis Thorpe’s life. Junior varsity. He was sitting on the bench. His coach tapped him on the shoulder and told him to “get in there.” Otis figured he meant right now, so he ran onto the court while play was in progress.

Tweeeet!

The referee whistled a technical.

Communication has been a bugaboo ever since.

Otis Thorpe forget to check in back then. And he chooses not to check in these days — at least when it comes to controversy or talking or dealing with media. But he is the story for the Pistons. Maybe the biggest story as they start the playoffs tonight.

Here we have the linchpin of Detroit’s playoff hopes, the only thing that stands between them and total destruction by an opposing big man, and fans don’t know whether he’s happy, miserable, fighting with his coach, not fighting with his coach. They don’t know what he’s thinking. In fact, ask the average fans what they do know about Otis Thorpe and they’ll say, “He wears No. 50.”

But Thorpe is the story, not only because the Pistons desperately need him, but because his relationship with coach Doug Collins shadows the future of this team. Most insiders agree that one of them has to go. They are too intense for the same locker room. They have fought. They have exchanged words and looks. Now they mostly ignore each other. To call things “chilly” between them is to call the Grand Canyon “a little hole.”

I have talked to Doug.

So I went to talk to Otis.

He wants his back to the wall

I asked to speak to him privately, because I felt it important to get to know him better. Collins is not shy about talking, but Thorpe is just as happy if no one speaks to him, not today, tomorrow, or the rest of his career. And there’s a danger of assuming a guy like that is somehow bad, which is often not true.

So I sat with Otis and we talked. He talked about growing up as one of 12 children in Boynton Beach, Fla. He mentioned that his father split and his mother died. He got into basketball only to help deal with his mother’s death.

And then he said this: “I like my back against the wall.”

And I said, “You like your back against the wall?”

And he said, “I don’t like to be in the center of the room.”

And I said, “Why?”

And he said, “I don’t trust people behind me. I like to see everything in front of me, especially strangers.”

And I said, “Did you have a bad experience once? Someone hit you from behind?”

And he said, “No. That’s just Otis. I want my back against the wall.”

And he sort of smiled and squinted at the same time. And I told myself, whoo, this could be a tough interview. And it was. But it always is. I find Thorpe, 34, to be an intense, professional man, with an intense distrust of outside things, and an intense focus on following the same organized life pattern he has always followed. He is not part of the New Age, Show-Some-Emotion generation. He would take one look at Richard Simmons and call the cops.

“I show emotion at times,” he said, “but it’s once every blue moon.

“Fans are used to seeing players who sweat, who turn red, who are out there pumping fists, rolling on the floor, high- fiving, whatever. But I say, look at that stat sheet after the game and tell me if that guy has done anything more than me.”

You can’t argue with Otis’ stats. He’s averaged 15 points and nine rebounds a game his entire career, and has never shot less than 50 percent for a season. He knows how to move. He slams with authority. He rarely misses a game.

So what’s the problem?

That’s Otis, that’s Otis

Well, when it comes to Collins, those close to the team say Thorpe doesn’t deal well with Doug’s constant banter, and has felt embarrassed by many of Doug’s antics. Thorpe, for his part, doesn’t want to talk about it. He allows this much: “I feel the story was created and is untrue. And I wish not to talk about something that someone created.”

Of course, no one created the nights when Collins and Thorpe locked horns. No one created the day Grant Hill said, “Guys who don’t want to be here should get out.”

But you won’t get Thorpe into a mudslinging match, and that’s good, because how would that help the team? The important question isn’t how Thorpe and Collins get along — but if they can coexist enough to win in the playoffs?

Thorpe — the only Piston besides Joe Dumars and Rick Mahorn with a championship ring — says you can count on him to “do my job.” He calls himself a “details person” and said attention to detail wins games.

When I asked whether he expected to be back next year, he said, “I don’t know. I have two years left on my contract. And as long as I do my job I’m happy with that. Anything else that happens — it’s a business.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But you know what? If things were great between him and Collins, you’d probably get the same answer.

As Otis says, that’s Otis. It is not anyone’s job to change him. He is single. He stays home a lot. He shuns the spotlight. He likes his emotions contained, his back to the wall, and he checks in when he feels like checking in.

Come to think of it, he’s been doing that since junior varsity.

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