The quietest Piston stays on the court after practice ends; dribble, shoot, rebound, shoot again. The big stars are on their way home. The camera crews pack up and leave. Pretty soon it’s just the ball, the basket, and Joe Dumars. Plain ol’ Joe.
In a world full of swirling dunks and swaying egos, where every big man has a story and every small man can leap one, we have here, in Detroit Piston No. 4, a real rarity. Tell us what you know about Joe Dumars. We’ll wait.
“Let’s see,” you say, “he’s the other guard alongside Isiah Thomas, he plays good defense, he’s . . . um . . . he plays good defense. . . . “
Plain ol’ Joe.
When was the last time he was news? When was the last in- depth TV interview? When was the last time he claimed to be from another planet, or threw a dozen gold chains around his neck, or did a shoe commercial that made him fly like a god? For Pete’s sake, when was his last controversy? In a recent game against the Lakers he was actually called for a technical foul. Eyebrows were raised.
“What did you say to the ref?” reporters asked afterward.
“I told him to call them both ways.”
“That’s it,” said Dumars.
Shoot, even the controversies are low-key.
And yet Joe Dumars is a star of this Pistons team as sure as Isiah Thomas or Adrian Dantley or Bill Laimbeer. Some games he’s more important. Remember that Dumars — in addition to his steady, if not overwhelming, scoring — is also the starter who draws defensive assignments for guys like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan (whom he guarded Saturday night in Chicago).
It wasn’t always that way. Joe Dumars came out of college with a sack full of points. He was a scorer. In 1984, he ranked sixth in the nation. To which everyone said: “Who?”
You get that when you play for McNeese State.
“It wasn’t until I got here that my role became mainly a stopper,” says Dumars, the slim, boyish-faced guard who averaged 22.5 at McNeese (in Louisiana). “But that’s fine by me.
“On this team, I guess my image is a low-key guy who comes to get it done, not a whole lot of glitter or flash.”
“Are you happy with being known that way?” he is asked.
“I am that way,” he says.
Which is good news. The Pistons are an excellent team, and for the most part, nice guys. But they are not exactly the Brady Bunch. Isiah Thomas is a superstar, complete with its privileges. Adrian Dantley has always been aloof. Vinnie Johnson needs his minutes to be happy, Rick Mahorn will knock your head off, John Salley is Eddie Murphy inside a basketball player’s body, Laimbeer is, well, Laimbeer. . . .
I’ll tell you this: I bet Chuck Daly thanks his lucky stars every time Joe Dumars walks in the locker room.
Plain ol’ Joe.
And maybe not so plain. After all, there’s a difference between plain and private. One day during last year’s playoffs, a pack of reporters was gathered around Adrian Dantley’s locker. Dumars was standing nearby drinking orange juice from a can. He looked over at the crowd, then stuck the can like a microphone in front of Dantley’s face. He never said a word, he just grinned, and Dantley didn’t even notice it among the other mikes. Dumars pulled it back and continued dressing.
I remember thinking: I gotta find out more about this guy.
And as it turns out, there is plenty. Here is a man who is strictly business on the court, yet he spends his off-season in cutoff shorts on the beaches near Lake Charles, La., eating crawfish and listening to Zydeco music (which Paul Simon helped make famous on “Graceland”). He lives in a small apartment. His town is a small town. He was brought up in the womb of Cajun influence — Creole festivals, Creole language. Shrimp, oysters, frogs, gumbo. Did you know that about Dumars?
“I speak a little bit of Creole,” he says. “Just stuff I picked up from the older people down there.”
“Really? Speak some.”
“Aw, you know. Parlez francais? . . . Comment ca va? . . . “
To hear Joe Dumars whisper broken French phrases while sitting alongside the Silverdome court is to realize how very little anybody really knows about anybody.
That’s right. Fred Sanford. From “Sanford and Son.” Joe Dumars loves that show. I’ll bet you didn’t know that either. He has 80 episodes on tape, and he watches them all. “I know every line, every gesture, sometimes I even know the next commercial.”
“Do you have a favorite episode?” I ask.
“The one where Lamont gets a traffic ticket and has to go to court. Fred defends him.”
“Lamont gets off free. Fred gets fined $25 for contempt of court.”
He laughs. “That one always cracks me up.”
Now, OK. Maybe crawfish and Fred Sanford are not what you call average pastimes. But hey. Who are we to judge? The point is that Dumars, a black and white ball player, has a colorful personality every bit as noteworthy as that of Isiah Thomas or John Salley. He just keeps it to himself.
And this, I think, is more than shyness. I think it is smarts. Dumars knows whom he can trust and whom he can’t. He has no objection to headlines, but he has no need for them either. He does not fall into the cliques that exist within the Pistons team. He pals around lately with Dantley, because
“we seem to share a lot of the same attitudes. Take a low-key approach. Try to be consistent.” Yet he is not a lackey.
Nor is he a shrinking violet. Remember that during last year’s playoffs against Boston, it was Dumars — not Thomas or Laimbeer — who had his biggest game when the Pistons needed it most, scoring 35 points in Game 7. Had they won that finale (they lost, 117-114), he would surely have been hailed as the hero.
So there goes plain ol’ Joe, who works out summers in 100- degree heat, who is a legend in Lake Charles, who can shift from scorer to defender, who can mimic Fred Sanford, eat a ton of crawfish and sing lyrics to Clifton Chenier records. Plain ol’ Joe, who, at 24, owns a personality more solid than that of many of his older peers.
“You make a lot of money now,” I say, “why don’t you get a bigger house back home, or take on hobbies more extravagant than watching reruns?”
“Why should I do that?” he says.
I admit I have no answer.
There goes plain ol’ Joe. The Pistons will be in the news quite a bit these next few months. And most reporters, as usual, will run first to Thomas and Laimbeer. But they should know this: The quietest Piston is not shy, not dull, and most of all, not insignificant. He just keeps certain things to himself — and he may not be the only one.
“Tell me,” I say, “is Dantley a ‘Sanford and Son’ nut, also?”
“No,” Dumars says, smiling, “Adrian is a ‘Leave It To Beaver’ man.”
See what I mean?