Boopie Dumars finally comes home this weekend. After the victory parade in front of 125,000 screaming fans through the streets of Detroit, after the Rose Garden ceremony with the President at the White House, after the presentation of a Jeep in New York City for being named MVP of the NBA's championship series and after a lot of other fuss he probably could have lived without, Joe (Boopie) Dumars III will finally return to Natchitoches, La. (pop. 16,000), where a two-day celebration in his honor is planned. It will culminate in the enshrinement of Dumars's size-13 footprints in concrete in front of the bank on Main Street. They'll be immortalized alongside the distinguished prints of Dolly Parton and Olympia Dukakis, who were in town a year ago to film the movie Steel Magnolias.
In light of Dumars's recent schedule, his hometown fete could be more than he can handle. "When he heard they were fixin' to honor him for two days, he said, 'I don't believe I want all that,' " says his mother, Ophelia, her drawl as thick as gumbo. "That boy, he's so shy."
Dumars wasn't so shy during the Detroit Pistons' improbable 4-0 sweep of the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. In the clincher, a 105-97 Detroit victory at the Forum on June 13, the Pistons overcame a 16-point deficit to win their first title since joining the NBA in 1949. Dumars, who led Detroit that evening with 23 points, finished the series with a 27.3 average while shooting 58% from the floor. During the series Laker backup center Mychal Thompson described the Piston guard as a "quiet assassin," though Dumars's performance had been fairly gaudy in Game 3. In that one he scored 21 points in the third quarter—including a run of 17 straight—to keep the favored Pistons within range.
The Lakers, who had lost their starting backcourt of Magic Johnson and Byron Scott to hamstring injuries earlier in the series, clung to a two-point lead at the start of the final quarter of Game 3, but they were dead game, in spite of shooting 74% in the third period. Each time Dumars buried another shot, L.A. general manager Jerry West and his assistant, Mitch Kupchak, turned in their seats at the Forum and stared at each other, their eyes wide with alarm. "That's how you win when you're the home team," said Kupchak, "by trading baskets until the other team begins to miss. But we couldn't break their backs, because Dumars wouldn't miss. We kept waiting for him to miss. You could feel the whole building waiting. But it was as if he had forgotten how. He was scary."
That wasn't the first time this season that Dumars, a 6'3" guard, had scored 17 straight points in a crucial game. He also did it in a 118-102 defeat of the Cleveland Cavaliers that clinched the Central Division title. However, in the third quarter of Game 3, Dumars found himself on another plane.
"When you're shooting that well, you feel like you're detached, away from the game," he says. "As soon as you get the ball, you just let it go, so that it just barely passes through your hands." Dumars was so oblivious to what was going on around him during his third-quarter feeding frenzy that he appeared shocked when he later learned that L.A. guard Michael Cooper, five times a member of the league's All-Defensive team, had been guarding him the entire time.
After the championship was won, Dumars, who doesn't drink, was the only player in the Detroit locker room not gulping champagne during the celebration—so carefully staged by CBS. When he finally broke from his teammates shortly before midnight in Los Angeles, he called home to Natchitoches, just as he does after every game, big or small. Ophelia answered the phone. He said, "This is your MVP calling," and his mother replied, "Hello, MVP."
She told him she noticed he hadn't been drinking any champagne, and Dumars just made a face at the phone. When he was 18, someone had taken him to a local hangout called Adrian's Place, where he saw people drinking liquor and having a high time. "He came home that night with a Coca-Cola and a bag of potato chips," says Ophelia. "He said, 'I'm not sure I understand the point of going out. You see the same people you see every day, only they're drinking. I don't see why anybody would pay a dollar to do that.' He was just standing there eating those potato chips and drinking his Coca-Cola. You could tell that was the end of that."
Dumars has always stepped slightly away from the rest of the Pistons, as if to detach himself from the team's Bad Boys reputation. "It's not me," he says. "I look at it and laugh."
When forward Rick Mahorn walked around the stage during last week's victory rally at The Palace of Auburn Hills, pretending to kiss each player on the cheek in a mocking imitation of Magic's exchange of pregame kisses with Detroit's Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre, Dumars looked at that and laughed, too. But he was the only player who did not get kissed. Perhaps most revealing of all is the fuss people made over the fact that Dumars is the only player on the team without a nickname.
His teammates, stalwarts like Dennis (Worm) Rodman, John (Spider) Salley, James (Buddah) Edwards and Vinnie (the Microwave) Johnson, seem concerned about this grievous omission. Yet in Natchitoches, Dumars is known as Boopie, a sobriquet given to him by his brother Paul while Dumars was still inside his mother's womb. "They really don't know him in Detroit," says Ophelia. "Detroit people, they can't understand him."
Detroit people may not have realized until now precisely whom they have in their midst, so successful has Dumars been at assimilating since the Pistons made him the 18th pick in the 1985 draft. Dumars, who had become the 11th-leading scorer in NCAA history while at McNeese State, was told by the Pistons' executives that they wanted him to back up Thomas for no more than a few minutes a game. But the transition to the pros still wasn't easy. "That was the first time I'd dealt with serious snow, being away from home and not getting much playing time," says Dumars.
Often, those were the least of his problems. "The only thing he could cook was skillet toast and syrup," says Ophelia. "And he could pop popcorn."
Soon, Ophelia heard from several transplanted Natchitocheans living in Detroit, who came to the rescue by offering her son home-cooked meals. The plan had just one flaw. "That boy is so shy, he never would go," says Ophelia. "I'd call him up and ask him, 'Did you go?' and he'd tell me, 'Momma, you know I'm ashamed to eat in front of people. I'll just put another Lean Cuisine in the microwave.' "
During this year's championship series, Dumars described his off-season life as that of a Cajun rustic. "I'll hang out on the beach, eat crayfish, eat gumbo, do some fishing," he said. When Ophelia heard what he had said, she was incredulous. "I don't believe he even knows how to bait a hook," she said, "and I know he doesn't have the patience to stand there all day waiting for that fish to jump on his line."
Still, Dumars always had to exercise a certain amount of patience, for he was the youngest of six boys and the last of seven children. Like his brothers, he played football, the only sport that was taken seriously in Natchitoches. Such NFL players as Terry Bradshaw, Mark Duper, Sidney Thornton and Joe Delaney all came from the area, and Dumars's brother David played safety for three seasons in the USFL. All of Dumars's brothers were defensive standouts for Natchitoches Central High School, and Joe was a fine defensive back before he quit football in junior high school, after trying his hand at quarterback. "He got hit by a kind of big-sized boy," says Ophelia. "When Joe came home he said, 'That boy hit me so hard I saw stars. I don't believe I want to play that game anymore.' "
When Joe said he wanted to play basketball instead, his father, Big Joe, a truck driver, built a hoop in the backyard. He nailed the rim of an old bicycle wheel to a backboard that he made by sawing a wooden door in half. While chickens clucked in a nearby coop, Dumars spent hours shooting, often alone.
Ophelia worked as a custodian at Northwestern State in Natchitoches and was usually home for her children in the evening. Four days each week. Big Joe was gone at 4:30 a.m., and he wouldn't return until 11 o'clock at night. He pushed an 18-wheeler up and down the state highway, delivering produce from Natchitoches to Alexandria. "The quietness, that comes from his daddy," says Ophelia. "When he finished that road, his desire was to sleep most of the day."
Little Joe was so devoted to his father that he didn't want to go to school on days Big Joe was home. He once informed his mother that he had remained at home because the school had declared an official holiday to observe Mary Poppins's birthday. "I asked him who this Mary Poppins was," recalls Ophelia, "and he said he didn't know, but it was her birthday. So I called some other kids at the school and asked them if it was a holiday, and they said, 'No ma'am, Boopie just didn't come to school today.' "
Dumars's devotion to his family grew even stronger in 1985, when the family learned that Big Joe had developed diabetes. Within a year his condition had deteriorated so rapidly that he had to have one leg amputated at the knee and the other just below the knee. "My dad was the head of the family all my life," says Dumars, "so to see him confined to a wheelchair was a blow, a hard blow."
Despite his ability to score a lot of points, the Pistons drafted Dumars because they were looking for a role player who could play tough defense. "I wanted to score, but that wasn't what the Pistons needed," he says. "There was just no room for me to step in and score the way I had in college. I saw they needed a defensive player, so I focused on that as a rookie. That was when I realized it might take a little longer than I had planned before I got to do all the things in the NBA I knew I could do."
Dumars didn't really begin to assert himself offensively until this season, and even then not until his best friend on the team, Adrian Dantley, was traded to the Dallas Mavericks for Aguirre in February. The departure of Dantley's hefty scoring average (18.3 points) created a void Dumars was happy to fill. "Adrian was my idol," says Dumars. "He was my guy on this team. But I told him, "You're my friend and I miss you, but I'm glad you left.' I'm getting the ball a lot more since he was traded."
There was considerable speculation after the trade, much of it fueled by Dantley, that Thomas had engineered the deal because he and Dantley didn't get along. Dumars insists he has not let such talk affect his relationship with Thomas. "I had to play with Isiah every day," he says, "so I couldn't go out there resenting him."
Dumars is the first to acknowledge that he is not as "flashy" as Thomas, although you get the feeling that he doesn't lie awake nights worrying about it. In addition to being named MVP of the championship series, this year he was selected to the league's All-Defensive team, although his defensive statistics weren't overly impressive. "It was nice because I don't get a lot of blocks or steals," he says. "The media recognized that I play good position defense and work on containing my man."
Even if Dumars is not called upon next season to score as prolifically as he did in the Finals, he has certainly emerged as one of the finest all-around guards in the game. "What really burns me," said Thomas, "is that they talk about all the other guards in this league and never mention his name. But Joe is one of the best guards in this league."
For the past several seasons, whenever Dumars was asked by reporters—as he often was—how it felt to be so underrated, he would always answer, "How do you get rated?" He finally seems to have found the answer. "Every year, I was supposedly the most underrated guard in the league," he says. "Maybe now I won't hear that anymore."