McNeese’s G.O.A.T.

Rick Sarro Monday, February 20, 2023 Comments Off on McNeese’s G.O.A.T.
McNeese’s G.O.A.T.

How can the man with the most accomplished and decorated sports career in McNeese school history be so grateful about having a simple basketball court named in his honor?

The answer is simple but complex at the same time.

Simple in that it’s Joe Dumars.

Complex because anyone with his caliber of resume can’t be that humble; not in today’s egocentric, spotlight-seeking, Instagram-chasing society.

But Dumars is a sincerely respectful, unassuming, self-effacing and modest person and the least pretentious person you are likely to meet. His achievements on and off the basketball court would give him the right and latitude to show much more vanity, conceit, smugness and even to have a pompous cocky air about him.  

I find myself cringing at even including those words in a sentence about Dumars. Those unseemly character flaws are so far from who Joe is and how he was raised by a large, close knit family of hard workers and overachievers from Natchitoches, La.

 At the risk of hyperbole, Dumars is one of the most honored and revered players in NBA history. You will see why as you read on. That said, Joe is without debate the greatest athlete, and possibly the most successful graduate, ever to wear the McNeese colors.

Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2006.  

By sheer luck, my second television sports job was at KPLC in Lake Charles.  I got here a year before Dumars arrived to begin his four-year reign on coach Glenn Duhon’s McNeese teams of the early ‘80s.

I was just a few years older than Joe and was struck by his politeness and quiet nature. He was a joy, easy to interview, and willing to cover for a young media guy still cutting his chops. Years later, after moving on to other locales, I came to appreciate Dumars even more once I had to deal with a different breed — college and professional egomaniacs in sports.

Two-time NBA Champion.

I often sat on press row at the Lake Charles Civic Center, where the Cowboys played at the time, and told anyone who would listen that they didn’t know just how good Dumars was and the fans really needed to appreciate his gifts now because McNeese would probably never see a talent such as his again.

 Dumars wasn’t just a generational star, but a once in forever player.

1989 NBA Finals MVP.

He was the SLC Freshman of the Year, one of only three players ever to be named All SLC four consecutive seasons and conference player of the year in 1985, even though he deserved it many times over.

I recall debating with fans who scoffed at the notion Dumars would be an NBA first round pick.  I laughed and said, “why do you think NBA royalty like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were in Lake Charles? They weren’t here to eat crawfish.” Joe was on their radar; he went 18th in the first round of the 1985 NBA Draft.

Six-time NBA All Star.

After his playing days at McNeese ended, I only saw him once years later while I was covering an Orlando Magic game when his Detroit Pistons came to Florida as the reigning NBA Champs. Decades later, after McNeese finally found a worthy path to honor him by naming the Legacy Center court in his name, I was able to talk with him again via a Zoom call set up by the university’s sports information staff.

Member of the 1994 

USA Dream Team that won the Gold Medal.

 Joe’s reaction to the hardwood honor at his alma mater was typical.  “Anything someone does for me and in honor of me, I know they don’t have to.  So I’m very grateful. Very thankful and very appreciative for this.”

Detroit Pistons’ president of basketball operations.

Dumars, with his wife and two children by his side, was moved to tears when a nearly packed Legacy Center crowd gave him a long overdue thunderous applause and standing ovation as school staff unveiled his name and No. 4 jersey number on the floor as it officially became Joe Dumars Court.

It only took McNeese 38 years to wake up, get out of their own way and bestow an honor and recognition commensurate with the stature of the university’s athletic G.O.A.T.

There is Rupp Arena at Kentucky, the P-Mac at LSU and the Dean Smith Center at North Carolina. Naming the court after him was special but why not the Joe Dumars Legacy Center? What better name to align with a corporate sponsor such as Legacy?

First winner of the NBA’s Sportsmanship Award, which is now called the Joe Dumars Award.

Joe’s relationship with his former school has not been warm, fuzzy or close over the years. He was busy with an NBA Hall of Fame career and later running his Pistons as president of operations. But he did make it to Lake Charles a few times for special events, fundraising and to visit longtime close friends.

NBA Executive of the Year.

Any alliance or bond with Dumars turned sour after past McNeese athletic directors contacted Dumars with no other goal than to solicit a six figure check. I imagine a phone call going something like this … “Hey Joe, how are you and the family up north? Look, I know you are busy so let me cut to the chase. The athletic department could use some help … Can you send a check next week?”  

J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award.

  Dumars and his old school found their way back to each other a few years ago when then Cowboys’ head basketball coach Heath Schroyer began seeking insights and advice from Dumars. Their friendship grew after Schroyer became AD. But Schroyer didn’t make the same mistakes as his predecessors by wanting or asking for anything from Dumars other than friendship, advice and good conversation.

“Most good relationships unfold organically,” Dumars said during that recent Zoom call. “There is no agenda or ulterior motive. It’s organic, authentic, and I think that more than anything else is how the relationship (with McNeese) has developed. And for me, those have been my best relationships.”

I think anyone can easily read between the lines to find the best explanation of where his relationship was with McNeese and how it changed moving forward.

McNeese Sports Hall of Fame inductee in 1994.

Both McNeese and Dumars would like things to get even more cozy. But true to his nature, he says he would never presume or force his opinions on anyone. “I am as open to helping McNeese basketball as anyone. I would be happy to be involved if Heath or anyone else thought I could help. I’d love to be a resource to help in any way I can.”

A resource? Help in any way I can? Dumars is a former NBA champion, former team president and now executive vice president of NBA basketball operations in the league office.

Resource? The man is a gold mine of basketball knowledge, and knows how to build winning programs and do things the right way.

  It’s mindboggling to me that it’s taken nearly four decades for McNeese to figure that out. But they have, and I give the school’s administration credit for correcting the ills of the past and building a bridge from Lake Charles to Detroit to New York.

NBA executive VP and head of basketball operations.

Dumars has won many awards for season-long excellence and for his MVP efforts in the 1989 finals win over Magic Johnson and the Lakers. But he really cherishes the more long-term legacy honors, namely induction into basketball’s Hall of Fame, the NBA Sportsmanship Award. And, yes, he puts the McNeese court naming in that category.

“The legacy awards, those are the ones that end up meaning more to you as you get older. You end up appreciating the legacy awards more than any others,” Dumars noted.

2003 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee.

The 59-year-old Dumars went back into his archive of memories about those long McNeese bus rides when he was unable to sleep, so he read his Bible or just talked to the driver for hours on end. His fondest memories from his collegiate days were of those tough rivalry games against Lamar and then U.S.L. and those sold-out games at the Civic Center against the Cajuns or when Karl Malone came down from La. Tech.

I tried to get Joe to put his humility aside for a second when I asked him if he thought he was the best defensive player during his NBA era. “I don’t know if I’m the greatest defensive player ever.  I did OK. The guy in Chicago (Michael Jordan) was pretty good. He was a challenge.

“I will say this — I absolutely loved playing in that era (1985 through 1999). A lot of people call it the golden era of the NBA. Loved playing in that era. I would not trade it for anything in the world. It was incredible to walk out there 82 nights a year and get into the playoffs and just absolute wars that you were involved in. It was a challenge. Guarding Magic or Michael or whoever it was was a challenge.”

Challenges are nothing new for the country boy from Natchitoches Central High School, who grew up shooting jump shots on a homemade hoop, often deep into the night when nearby bar neons helped him see the rim.

He went from there to McNeese, where he quickly became one of the best players in Southland Conference history.

Dumars was hardly ever injured. I can’t recall him ever missing a game. He led the Cowboys with unmatched team work, brutal man to man defense, respect, sportsmanship, supreme confidence and control. His 2,607 career points are still the McNeese benchmark and record after 38 years. 

It was an emotional night back on January 5 when Joe and his family walked off Joe Dumars Court, so gracious and appreciative of the fans who helped celebrate the moment and humbled by the honor and attention at the Legacy Center. “I’d love to help McNeese make new memories in the new building. That’s what it’s all about. It’s great to have my name on it, but let’s make some new memories in there,” Dumars added.

Despite a few extra pounds and a few gray hairs, he hasn’t changed much, if at all. His easy demeanor, respect for others and quiet presence are ever present. They are qualities he has carried from his  childhood through his college days at McNeese, his Hall of Fame NBA career and now his leadership role at league headquarters in New York.

McNeese G.O.A.T. 

I added that to his illustrious resume, not Joe.

Catch Rick Sarro’s commentary and latest opinions on Soundoff on CBS Lake Charles on Tuesday and Thursday at 10:05 pm and on Saturday at 6 pm. Follow Rick on Twitter @ricksarro.

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