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Bruce Newman
June 26, 1989
As the Pistons toasted their NBA title, Finals MVP Joe Dumars was the Most Invisible Player
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June 26, 1989

Man In The Slow Lane

As the Pistons toasted their NBA title, Finals MVP Joe Dumars was the Most Invisible Player

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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.

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