He stepped inside the hospital room and took a deep breath. There lay his father, a strapping truck driver who had always been the image of strength. The sheets were pulled up to his waist.
“Come here, son. I want you to see this.”
Joe Dumars walked slowly to the edge of the bed.
“It won’t do any good to feel sorry for me, you know. I don’t need that now. Just look and get it over with.”
He pulled back the sheets. The left leg was gone, amputated at the knee. Diabetes. Dumars looked down and fought back the tears.
“Hey, hey,” said the father. “It’s done. We just go on with life. No feeling sorry for me, OK?”
“OK, Dad,” whispered his son, and nothing more was said.
This is a story about The Joe Nobody Knows, the good man behind the basketball star who has suddenly become nationally famous. On Friday night, the Pistons beat Chicago, capturing the Eastern Conference championship. They were heading, once again, to the NBA Finals. The locker room was a playground of noise.
“GOIN’ TO LA!”
Dumars emerged from the shower, pulled a towel around his waist and made his way to a quiet corner. If anyone had a right to celebrate, it was he. He had weathered a hurricane named Michael Jordan — for six grueling games — defensed him, shadowed him, lived inside his skin. And at a crucial moment in the fourth quarter, with the crowd screaming and the Bulls surging to within two points, he stripped Jordan of the ball, raced downcourt and dished to John Salley, who drew a foul.
The play seemed to break the Chicago spirit. It silenced the crowd. He stole the ball? From the Great One? Jordan came running up behind him, stared at his back, as if to say, “How dare you? I am King here.” But Dumars was already miles away, thinking about the next play, unflappable. That is the way he is. On the street. On the court. In that hospital room. People stare as he goes by and wonder, “What makes that guy so steady?”
But did you know Joe Dumars is also a “Sanford and Son” nut? Did you know he is part Creole? Did you know he can sing Zydeco music, and that he can gorge on crawfish etouffee and jambalaya and boudin? Did you know that he is mobbed wherever he goes in his hometown of Lake Charles, La., that he need never pay for a meal, that women there, according to his best friend, John Wesley, “nearly rip his clothes off”?
Did you know he loves to go to the library, and that he reads novels right up to game time? Did you know he is getting married this September to his longtime girlfriend? Did you know that his father suffered three heart attacks during this NBA season — each time Joe received a phone call in the middle of the night — yet Joe never complained, never made it an excuse for poor play?
Did you know that, back home, they don’t even call him Joe, they call him
“Boopie,” a name he has had since birth? Boopie? Even his teammates are unaware of that.
“Why are you so quiet?” people ask him over and over in Detroit. “Why are you so quiet?”
He shrugs. “I guess I don’t have much to say.”
This is a story of the Pistons’ youngest starter and oldest soul, their MVP — most valuable and most vanished player. In the days to come, Dumars will be center stage, the man who must stop the Lakers’ Magic Johnson if the Pistons hope to win an NBA championship. He will be interviewed nonstop. He will answer questions, softly, politely, patiently.
And nobody will learn one important thing about him. Quiet Joe. Shy old Joe. Nothing to say, right? Wrong. The first thing you discover about The Joe Nobody Knows is that he has plenty to say. It’s just that, in many ways, he has the whole world fooled. He was born in the heat, in the hot, sticky Louisiana air that hangs on your body like a wet rag. It was hot in the house. It was hot outside. It was hot in church. “You never stopped sweating,” he recalls now, sitting in his apartment in West Bloomfield. “My childhood was like the opening scenes of that movie, ‘Body Heat.’ People fanning themselves. People dripping perspiration. I can relate to that so much.”
When he was four years old, he had to be taken to a Shreveport hospital, where they operated on him for a hernia. A kid there had lost an arm in a car accident. Before he left, young Joe asked his mother to give the kid his toy truck “because he should have something to play with.” It was the beginning of a childhood that would always be a few years ahead of its time.
Joseph and Ophelia Dumars lived on Lee Street in Natchitoches, La., a small working-class town about 100 miles from Lake Charles. Their house was across from the liquor store, and they had seven children, six boys and a girl, and all the boys played football. Then, one day, Joe Sr. built a basketball court in the yard — the backboard was a sawed-off door, the hoop an old bicycle rim — and young Joe discovered a whole new world. “I was better in football, but all my brothers had done that. Basketball was a challenge.
“Besides, you needed other guys to play football. Basketball I could play alone.”
In the heat of the bayou sun, he would stay for hours, making up games, shooting 50 free throws, shooting 100 lay-ups, shooting left-handed, just to see whether he could do it. By the time he was in the eighth grade, he was good enough to play with the college guys from nearby Northwestern State University. They would sneak him into the gym, play for three hours every day. Boopie and the Big Boys. When the workouts were over, the college kids would slap each other, talk about girls and booze, and walk out to their cars. Joe got back on his bicycle and rode home.
“I learned a lot about college life,” says Dumars, now 26. “I couldn’t wait until I grew up.” That was obvious. One day, when he was 11, his mother came home to find a sign on the door of the bedroom where Joe and his five older brothers slept. It read: “NO GIRLS ADMITTED WITHOUT EXPERIENCE.”
“All right now,” she said, laughing, “who put that sign up there?”
“Boopie did, Ma,” the brothers said.
What did he know about girls? Nothing. What did he know about history? Nothing. But that didn’t stop him from sneaking off to the library four or five times a week, finding a cool corner in the back and lowering himself into a book. “I never told anybody where I was. It was like my secret place, the one place I didn’t have to be a tough kid. I read about famous people. John Kennedy. George Washington Carver.”
Today he reads “Presumed Innocent,” “Mob Boss,” “Paris Trout,” he reads Robert Ludlum and Elmore Leonard; he reads a host of biographies; he reads nonfiction and fiction. He sits by his locker, bent over a book, even as his teammates are flicking towels and throwing jockstraps across the room.
“Yo, Joe,” one of them once said, “what the hell you reading, man?”
“I’m reading about the Iran-contra thing.”
End of conversation. Not that he need worry about being accepted. For one thing, he’s too nice a guy. And then, there’s his hometown. “Joe Dumars,” says Salley, “has got the most unbelievable deal of all of us. You ever been to Lake Charles, Louisiana? The man is king down there. I’m telling you, he’s king.”
Dumars laughs, but the description is true. Not many small- town Louisiana kids get to star in professional basketball, and because the closest NBA franchise is probably Houston or Atlanta, it’s a big deal when Joey comes marching home.
“I can’t wait till he gets back here every summer,” admits Wesley, Joe’s best friend since their college days on the McNeese State basketball team, where the Dumars legend grew. “We get an apartment together and hang out from July to October. Wherever we go, people stop him. Everybody wants to talk. Last year they gave him the key to the city. I tell you, if we stopped the car every time someone honked at us, we’d wreck the thing. Just going out to the store is an adventure.”
It is not, however, expensive. According to Wesley, the hometown hero never has to pay for anything. A movie? An ice cream cone? Dinner? Gratis.
“There are even people down here who offer Joe Cadillacs to drive around if he needs them,” Wesley says. “I save so much money when he’s back home, it’s unbelievable.”
When the Pistons played an exhibition game in Lake Charles last season, the crowd erupted every time Dumars touched the ball. Superstars such as Isiah Thomas and Adrian Dantley walked away shaking their heads. Wait a minute. Our Joe Dumars? King of the bayou? Yes. And yet, typical of his personality, he seems to let it wash over him like tide. He remains friendly to every hometown soul, never haughty, never too busy. He expects nothing, is gracious when something is given, and speaks always in the throaty whisper of a voice that, from the moment you meet him, suggests a humbleness that is warm and soothing. Elvis in a sweat suit. Except that Joe has never been much for big parties, booze or drugs; you are more likely to find him at a barbecue than at a late-night saloon. Back when he turned 18, his brothers brought him before his mother.
“Ma, Boopie’s old enough to drink now. We want to take him to the club. Is it OK?”
“Well, I suppose,” she said. “But you all stick together and keep an eye on him.”
Off they went. It was around 10 p.m. An hour later, Mrs. Dumars came down to the kitchen. There was Joe, sitting at the table, eating potato chips and drinking a Coke.
“Boopie, why are you back so soon?”
He shrugged. “Didn’t seem like there was anything to do there except drink. And if you didn’t drink, you just stood around watching other people drink. Who wants to do that?”
As we said, slightly ahead of his time. Father to father, son to son, come and tell me what you’ve done. That was the rhyme Dumars’ dad always sang, and it always worked, the boy came running and told him everything. Joseph Dumars was a husky, physical man, a truck driver, delivered produce, and his youngest boy was crazy about him. For a while the old man had Mondays off, and his kids would search for any excuse to stay home with him, to sit with him on the porch, to talk, to eat his cooking.
One day, Ophelia Dumars came home from work, and her husband said, “You know, Boopie didn’t go to school today.”
He smiled. “I think you better ask him.”
She found him out in the yard, playing. “Why didn’t you go to school today?”
“The teacher told us it was a holiday,” Joe said. “She said we didn’t have to come.”
“Mary Poppins’ birthday.”
“Mary Poppins’ birthday?”
OK. So it wasn’t a real good excuse. But, you know, father to father, son to son. “I wanted to be with my dad,” Joe says, impishly. When he got older, he actually went out on the truck for a delivery route. He was giddy with excitement, sitting up front, feeling the powerful engines beneath his seat.
“Then I started lifting all those crates. By the end of the day, I couldn’t even move my arms. I never knew how hard my father worked until then.”
The work ethic is only one thing he inherited. There is the calm. The strong principles. Mostly, however, there is the belief that you should never complain about anything. After all, Dad doesn’t. And Lord knows he could.
The diabetes struck in the mid-’80s. It robbed him first of his left leg. When they scraped to fit a prosthesis, they found the infection had worsened, and they had to amputate more. The following year, he lost a toe off
his right foot, and eventually the foot itself. Suddenly he went from a vibrant, working father to a handicapped man. “You know the amazing thing,” Dumars says, a faraway look in his eye. “He was more upbeat than any of us. He kept saying, ‘There’s no point in acting sorrowful. That won’t help.’
“That’s why, this past year, when he had the heart attacks (also brought on by the diabetes) I didn’t say anything to my teammates. What’s the point? I still had to go out and do my job. What would be accomplished by hanging my head?