THE BUDDHA TRAINPISTONS HITCH A RIDE ON EDWARDS’ LATE-RISING STAR

He likes boats. You probably didn’t know that. He keeps one in a Detroit marina, complete with bathroom, shower, microwave, couch — “That ain’t a boat, that’s a house!” says teammate Mark Aguirre — and sometimes during the season he’ll go down and sit in that boat, not going anywhere, just rocking on the water and taking it all in.

You can picture James Edwards that way, rocking gently, maybe a pipe slipped under that Fu Manchu mustache. Although he is an athlete in superb physical condition, there is something almost grandfatherly about him, something warm and sleepy- looking, a quality that has earned him the nickname “Buddha.” Or maybe it’s the company he keeps. After all, he is the oldest Piston. Some of his teammates weren’t even in high school when he turned pro. For a while, they might have called him “Grandpops.”

Not anymore.

“We’re riding the Buddha Train right now,” says John Salley, referring to the Pistons’ success following Edwards’ resurgence. “In practice, we say,
‘Ride that Buddha train tonight, baby! Buddha Train!’ “

Well. You can’t knock the ride. Last November, on a warm night in Sacramento, Edwards jogged out for the opening tap, alongside Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer and Aguirre. And Detroit has been almost unstoppable ever since. The Pistons have averaged three victories out of every four games since Edwards became a starter. His points (around 15 a game since) are double last year’s average. His minutes (29 a game) have increased dramatically. He has given the Pistons their first real low-post threat in years. In fact, they are looking for him so much, that Aguirre figured he’d get the ball more if he weren’t starting alongside Edwards and asked to come off the bench.

Funny, no? Here was an aging veteran who figured he was gone last summer. Had his bags packed. And now he’s a star. Funny, but then, for Edwards, who loves the water, this is hardly the first time the tide has changed.

I was drafted by the Lakers in the third round of 1977, and nobody expected me to make the team,” he says. “I remember Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) told me not to get discouraged. He invited me and a couple other rookies to his house one time. We were like ‘Oh, god! This is Kareem’s house! Look at all this stuff!’

“Anyhow, I did make the team. Then, one night against Milwaukee, Kareem hits Kent Benson in the face, hurts his hand, and suddenly, I’m in the lineup. I’m playing a lot. As a rookie. Then Kareem comes back, and I get called into the office. Jerry West is in there. He says, ‘We didn’t want to do it, James. But we traded you to Indiana. For Adrian Dantley.’ Just like that. And I say,
‘WHAT?’ “

Thus began the education of a Buddha. He flew to Indiana that afternoon, landed in a snowstorm and played that night, alongside strangers. It would happen again, in the years that followed in Cleveland, Phoenix and Detroit.
“This is the NBA,” he said to himself.

Not that it had been his lifelong dream. James Franklin Edwards, the only son of a Seattle engineer, was a reluctant athlete, a kid who liked to hang out by the water, a kid who shied away from aggression. But he was always so much taller than his schoolmates. And so he was nudged toward sports, until one day he said to himself, “I guess this is what I am supposed to do.”

Today he is 34. In 13 seasons, this is what pro basketball has given him: three trades, free agency, injury, wealth, a championship ring and a nasty drug controversy that left him believing “you can’t trust anyone.”

No wonder he looks so . . . experienced.

The drug thing was the worst. They called it the Phoenix Witch Hunt. In 1987, Edwards and several Suns teammates were indicted on charges of trafficking cocaine and marijuana. Edwards’ name was mentioned in rumors of point-shaving.

It was an ugly, drawn-out affair. Eventually, Edwards was found guilty only of a possession of marijuana charge and, after a year of counseling, his record was wiped clean. But the incident haunts him today.

“It still affects the way I think,” he says. “I learned people will smile in your face but be looking out only for themselves. I was an easygoing guy in Phoenix. I would have helped anybody. I learned my lesson.’

Edwards, traded from the Suns the following year, maintains his innocence in the affair, saying “I don’t do things like that.” But the testimony given against him by former teammate Walter Davis has made him wonder whom he can trust. Wouldn’t you feel the same? So he turned inward. Once, his parties were well-known. But these days Edwards is more private. He prefers his boat or his Detroit home. He is single (“I would marry the right woman, but I just haven’t met her yet”). And he spends more time with Nintendo games than with party invitations.

“I have all the friends I need,” he says. “It takes me a long time now to trust anybody or to open up. That Phoenix thing really hurt me and my family. I’m still not over it.”

Detroit fans, however, seem less interested in Edwards’ past than in his present. His trademark fade-away jumpers have been so consistent, the bench players yell, “FADE, BUDDHA, FADE!” Like a branding iron, he heats up quickly, often from the opening tap: bang, bang, bang, he’s got six fast point. Then, when the opposing team doubles up on him, he swings the ball out to Thomas or Dumars for easy shots. He bangs his body and plays sticky defense, like the job he did Sunday afternoon on Utah’s Karl Malone. And the Palace crowd eats it up. “Buddha” has crept into its affections, not only because he is the type of hero that goes over well in Detroit — quiet, blue-collar — but because he has done something few thought possible: Taken the sting out of losing Rick Mahorn.

Everyone knows the story. Last summer, two days after the Pistons won the NBA title. Someone had to be sacrificed in the expansion draft. Edwards was sure it was him.

Surprise. Mahorn went instead. The news hit Edwards in the head and the heart. The heart said he was losing a buddy. The head said: “The Pistons think I’m valuable.”

Last November, he got the chance to prove it. After 12 games of the new season, Detroit was floundering. Salley had been starting in place of Mahorn. The chemistry did not work. Following a bad loss in Portland, Chuck Daly pulled Edwards aside: “I’m starting you next game.”

The rest has been glory. What once seemed like a good stretch has turned into a habit. And the Buddha Train chugs on and on. Which leads to the question: How long can a 34-year-old keep this star stuff up?

“Well,” he laughs, “I’m the old man, you know. I’m not used to all this starting. That’s for the young kids.”

Then, more seriously: “I think I can play at this level the rest of the way. I’m more confident now. It’s definitely the most significant I’ve been to a team in my career.”

He talks of one day taking an easier road. Of putting the boat in the water near his native Seattle and “enjoying the peace and quiet.” Third-round draft pick, four trades, one drug scandal, one championship ring and now, finally, stardom. If you were to draw James Edwards’ career, you might draw an upside-down Christmas tree, with all the presents coming at the top.

“Is it better to have success early or late in an NBA career?’ he is asked.

He smiles and squints.

“Better late,” he says, “than never.”

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