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MAN IN THE SLOW LANE
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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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."

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