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.