To the familiar question, "Don't you miss covering the NBA?" I
have a stock answer: "I miss watching Michael Jordan play live,
and I miss talking to Joe Dumars." In my years on the beat (1985
through '93) I rarely wrote about Dumars, the Detroit Pistons'
veteran guard, as a primary subject. (When he was MVP of the NBA
Finals in 1989, I was home recuperating from surgery.) But time
and again he was in the background of stories about more
colorful and controversial Pistons--such as Isiah Thomas, Bill
Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman--invariably described as "the
Pistons' stabilizing force" or the "team's glue" or some such
phrase that damned him with faint praise.

Dumars didn't hide from reporters, but he didn't court them
either. Because he is forthright by nature, he was uncomfortable
talking off the record. Yet because he hates controversy and
undue attention, he was uncomfortable talking on the record too.
So we usually talked about nonbasketball matters--wives and
kids, life and living.

I returned to suburban Detroit last month to write a story on
the Pistons' young star, Grant Hill, and saw Dumars for the
first time in several years. "Guess what, Joe," I said when we
shook hands. "I'm here to talk to you about somebody else.
Nothing changes, right?"

Dumars smiled, warm and gracious as usual. "Hey, Grant deserves
it," he said, inviting me into the off-limits-to-the-press
training room. "Come on and sit down."

The seasons in the early '90s were tough ones for Dumars, who
nevertheless soldiered on with mediocre Detroit teams. The
arrival of Hill has rejuvenated him (and the Pistons), and
that's what Dumars concentrated on when we discussed basketball.
Otherwise, we talked about kids, college tuitions (mine) and
tennis games (his). In the two Pistons games I covered for the
story, Dumars made 15 of 24 shots, scored 42 points and
generally played like a 23-year-old on the way up instead of a
33-year-old who should be winding down. It was comforting to be
reminded that--sometimes, at least--the best people make the
best players.

COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN EINSTEIN [Joe Dumars]
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