Against Jordan, defense never rested
History remembers Joe Dumars as one of the best defenders of his generation, strong and sturdy, swift and sure. As soon as the Detroit Pistons drafted him, Dumars understood his division dictated the most arduous job in basketball would belong to him for a long, long time: Defend Michael Jordan. Over and over.
Everyone has his stories of defending Jordan. Mostly, they are nightmares. Mostly, they never end well. Jordan wasn’t so much a basketball player, but a force of nature. He had a relentless resolve. On his way to his Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction, Jordan treated every game as a referendum on his greatness. From preseason to the playoffs for 14 years, Dumars’ was among the most thrilling and thankless job in the game. All M.J., all the time.
“The thing that I always felt was that I could never get discouraged,” Dumars said. “He could mentally and emotionally wear down a lot of guys, and it was so easy to let that happen when a guy is dominant, and can score with such ease. The thing was: You were going to witness phenomenal plays up close against him. And you could never drop your head or show any kind of emotion.
“You had to just turn back and go down the other end of the court, even though, in the back of your mind, you’re saying to yourself, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. There’s no way he just made that play.’ ”
Only, Jordan did. Over and over. Until Jordan had a complete supporting cast, Dumars and the Pistons made life hell for him. They were the late ’80s hurdle to the Bulls’ championship cusp. Chuck Daly transformed the NBA with the Jordan Rules, the defensive alignment that delivered help to Dumars on Jordan everywhere on the floor. From Bill Laimbeer to Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn to John Salley, the Bad Boys treated Jordan with a collaborative contempt.
The Pistons ended the Bulls’ season twice in the Eastern Conference playoffs late in the decade, and did it with a physicality and tenacity that began an era of brutish basketball born out of a belief that it was the way to stop Jordan.
“Wherever he caught the ball, I knew where the help [defense] was going to be,” Dumars said. “I wouldn’t have to look around, or call for it, or force him one way or another. When you were defending him, it was a big deal that you didn’t have to look around and call for help. When you have to turn around and start pointing to spots for guys to go, you had no chance.
“For me, you had to put yourself out there against Michael. You couldn’t play conservatively. You had to take some chances if you were going to have any success. He’s still going to make spectacular plays on you, and yet you have to be willing to not just sit back and play it safe and think, ‘Well, I’m going to play off him and just give up shots.’ That’s not going to work.
“If Michael was ever frustrated against us, he never showed it. He would never let anyone see it.”
Once the Bulls had a fully bloomed supporting cast around Jordan, the Pistons could no longer hold them off. Jordan would own the Eastern Conference. Indiana would rise and fall. So would the New York Knicks. “You could beat him in a game, and maybe stretch him to the limit in a series, but at the end of the day, you couldn’t conquer Mt. Jordan,” former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy says now.
Funny thing, too: Dumars would watch those series with the Knicks and Indiana Pacers, watch Jordan get into vicious trash-talking episodes with John Starks and Reggie Miller, and it amazed him. With Dumars and Jordan, that never happened. “Not in 14 years was there ever a negative word said between us,” Dumars said.
In fact, Jordan would ask about Dumars’ wife and kids, and Dumars would ask about Jordan’s, and there wouldn’t be much else for the next 2½ hours of basketball. “I would take a tough screen and get hit hard by another player and he would walk by under his breath, ‘You OK?’ And I’d do the same with him. But for us, that was it.”
Through it all, Michael Jordan had a way of testing and trying defenders like no one else. Now, he goes to the Hall maybe they can all take a deep, deep breath. Finally, the ball is out of his hands.