The Lost Season: Richard Dumas, 92-93

Photo from pinaryoldas via Flickr

With the threat of a shortened or even cancelled season upon us, there is very little we can do to restore a shred of basketball into our lives. What we can do, though, is reminisce over other lost seasons. Seasons which saw players or teams achieve extraordinary things that go beyond titles or awards, only to fade back into the background one year later. Here we will bring the tale of these lost seasons, the ones that touched us on a personal level, the ones we will never forget, though history itself might.

Previously on The Lost Season: Boris Diaw, 05-06Bobby Simmons, 04-05Seattle Supersonics, 04-05Spencer Haywood, 69-70, and Tracy McGrady, 02-03.

This edition is about Richard Dumas. 

The amygdala

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure within the brain. Researchers have observed its role in processing and storing memory of emotional reactions. The amygdalae influence how resonant a memory will be depending on the event’s emotional impact.

So when our eyes light up as we discuss the moments when basketball made us believe in love and magic, that’s the right amygdala lighting up, rediscovering every detail of the event as though it were the first time. But it won’t be the first time. It’ll be the hundredth, maybe thousandth time. Some memories we’ll never let go of.

As fans, it’s the gift that lays the foundation for our zeal.

For Richard Dumas, it was the demon he couldn’t outrun and couldn’t confront alone. It was the demon that chased him out of a potentially dominant career in basketball.

The right amygdala is important. Keep this in mind.

Perhaps Richard Dumas needs a reintroduction.

It’s been more than 18 years since his immortal Game 5 performance in the 1993 NBA Finals. In the game’s defining play, Michael Jordan drives left and runs into traffic. As he attempts to get his shot off over an outstretched Oliver Miller, Dumas swipes at the ball, knocking it out of Jordan’s hands and into Danny Majerle’s. He pushes the ball up court and throws a chest pass to a furiously sprinting Dumas for an uncontested, game-clinching dunk. For one series — and it was a great series to choose — Richard Dumas became one of the Phoenix Suns’ most valuable players.

His own words:

“My greatest moment in basketball? That’s easy. Game 5 of the Finals,” Dumas recalls. “I blocked Michael Jordan’s shot and then took it to the other end and got a dunk. Jordan said I fouled him. There was no foul.”

via Reflections of ‘the best’ | Bill Haisten, Tulsa World (8/18/03)

Along with Wayman Tisdale and Blake Griffin, he is considered to be one of the best (if not the best) basketball talents the state of Oklahoma has produced. Then why is the utterance of his name always followed by a “what happened to that guy?”

The answer lies in one simple and terribly complicated word — Drugs.

“From junior high on, I don’t think Richard ever played a game when he wasn’t under the influence of something,” said Suns coach Paul Westphal. “He thought playing high made him better, and that he couldn’t play unless he used something.”

via Suns’ Dumas drug-free and looking unstoppable | Terry Pluto, Knight-Ridder (3/1/93)

When substance abuse plays just as large of a role as basketball in your adolescent development, you’re asking for a future duel between a love and an uncontrollable compulsion. And when you’re forced to face it alone at such a young age, the compulsions will always win.

A unique compromise

Several of SI’s panelists answered this week’s question — who is this season’s most surprising rookie? — with a question of their own: “That Richard Dumas guy,” they asked. “Is he a rookie?”

via Inside the NBA | Jack McCallum, Sports Illustrated (3/8/93)

Dumas wasn’t a typical rookie. He was old for his class, left college early (on drug violations) and fled to Israel to play basketball professionally. He was drafted in the second round in 1991 not for a lack of talent, but because there were already serious doubts about his sobriety. Typical rookies, whether they play or not, find their way onto the team’s bench. Dumas was suspended for the entire 91-92 season for failure to pass a mandatory drug test.

But when he was able to step foot on court as a Sun for the first time in December of ’92, his transition to higher level basketball was seamless. Among peers and superiors, he fit right in.

Watching old game footage, it struck me how Dumas had the skill set of a perfect “stretch-4″ in today’s game. He had the body of a prototypical wing — 6’8″ with a 7’2″wingspan, with long legs and fantastic explosiveness off one or two feet, but the power and mannerisms of a modern power forward. If a current-day NBA comparison had to be made, it’d be a rich man’s (and we’re talking in the billions here) Hakim Warrick. But Warrick could only dream of having Dumas’ hands and basketball IQ.

And yet, it would be criminal to label Dumas a “tweener.”  He was incredibly agile; quick enough to guard either wing position. His complete lack of a three-point shot might’ve been a worry for any other team, but the Suns had an interesting dynamic with Charles Barkley and Dumas, essentially running two power forwards in the starting lineup. Dumas’ allergies behind the arc were masked by Chuck’s growing fascination with the line. That isn’t to say Dumas had no perimeter skills. His jumper from 20 feet and in was accurate in spot up and standstill positions (his jumper off the dribble was still a work in progress). Watching Dumas play is like entering one of Derrick Williams’ dream sequences — a dream where Williams is fast enough to keep up with point guards, let alone opposing small forwards; where possessing the skills of multiple positions isn’t considered a stigma. Williams will face questions about his position for as long as he’s in Minnesota. Dumas, due to talent and a bit of luck landing in the perfect situation, was able to thrive in his rookie season as a true hybrid forward.

“You don’t know what I’m going to do. Because I don’t.”

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25qWrha3crU&t=5m39s]

If the play at 5:39 looks familiar, maybe it should. Track the motion, the gait, the strides. The play itself is nothing too impressive, though I found myself watching it repeatedly. Dumas catches the ball at the top of the key, puts his head down, and takes a few dribbles before going up for a layup. This isn’t a good example of his athleticism (he is a far more powerful leaper than the clip indicates), or his ball handling skills. Watch it again at the 5:39 mark. There is patience in his movements, as if he’s finding the perfect angle of attack. The move — it’s Amar’e Stoudemire, isn’t it? There’s are shades of Kevin Garnett in the move’s deceptive power in both stride and elevation (or maybe it’s the lank), as he makes Scottie Pippen look like a fool. That would become a motif during the entire ’93 Finals.

Richard Dumas is bemused when he hears the description of himself as Julius Erving with a jump shot. “I really don’t think about it,” the Phoenix Suns’ rookie forward said. “It’s nice to have people think of my ability that way. But I just go out there. I have my own style of play. It’s the type of style where you don’t know what I’m going to do. Because I don’t.”

via NOTEBOOK; Suns Rookie Dumas Turns It Up and Around | David Aldridge, Washington Post (6/11/93)

It was John Lucas II, Dumas’ former mentor and rehabilitation coach, that called him “Dr. J with a jump shot.” Lucas wasn’t shy with handing out superlatives, but he wasn’t the only one voicing positive sentiments. After Dumas dropped 20 points in Game 1 of the ’93 Finals, Pippen noted that Dumas’ talent had surprised him. High praise from one of the best defenders in NBA history.

Dumas mentions his offensive unpredictability, and to a degree, it’s true. Watching a game, it’s clear that most of Dumas’ skills were at rudimentary levels. In the post, where he was extremely effective against Pippen, it wasn’t the footwork or the spin moves that edged his opponent, it was the crafty angles of his floaters and hooks. He was a basketball natural, but not in the same vein as someone like Tracy McGrady. He wasn’t impossibly graceful, nor did he possess a refined offensive game. But he knew how to score, and he knew how to score decisively in spite of his still-fledgling skills. There wasn’t an area on the court that Dumas favored over another, which forced defenders to guard him honestly.

But if there was anything that that proved exceptional right from the beginning, it’s his hands. Oh my. His hands. They’re enormous, and they simply did not fail him. Playing with Barkley and Kevin Johnson meant not operating with the ball in your hands, but it also meant having to anticipate some ridiculous passes when you’re open. Dumas was excellent on cuts, and in the sparingly-run pick and roll. In an offense that featured him more prominently, Dumas would’ve been a consistent weapon in the two man game.

When you’re able to catch anything that comes your way, scoring is essentially a given as long as you know where to be. Dumas knew the game, and he knew his team. And he gladly racked up the opportunities that laid hidden behind the more impressive sum on the roster.

Unfinished work kept in the cellar

Dumas wasn’t without weakness. He wasn’t a good defender, especially when guarding the wings. A proper defensive stance was neglected for the most part, so most side-steps eluded him. Gambling on defense was an all-too-common occurrence given Dumas’ superior length and size. And while it was effective for the most part (he averaged 1.8 steals a game), it wasn’t a stretch to call him a liability against more experienced scorers.

It didn’t happen often, but Dumas struggled when he was asked to create his own shot. His jump shot’s stylistic doppelganger today would be Udonis Haslem’s — not exactly someone you think of when you think of shooting off the dribble. Both have an extremely high release point, but there is a slight stagger before and during the release, which not only slows down the shot, but makes it fairly inconsistent under duress.

Dumas also didn’t show much in terms of advanced ball-handling or passing ability, though both made cameos in transition plays. In his one real season as an NBA player, Dumas seemed fixed on offering just a glimpse of his real abilities as a player. Almost two decades later, those who remember his game are still smitten.

When Dumas throws a no-look pass to a trailing Ainge on the break, what does that mean? When he escapes the clutches of his defender by going behind the back, was just a spur-of-the-moment type of maneuver? Or was it an assertion of better times ahead?

Who was Richard Dumas, the player?

And how does one cope knowing that the questions one has will never be answered?

Where risk and reward converge

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IURqTyBHAwY]

The past is never too far behind.

[John] Lucas knows that one slip-up can be a disaster, how being a recovering addict means every moment is like leading by one, the other team with the ball.

via Lucas and the Separation of Life, Basketball | Michael Wilbon, Washington Post (5/20/93)

Three months after Dumas’ incredible Finals performance, he once again found himself suspended from the league for failure to comply with his rehabilitation guidelines. Current Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo (and president/part-owner at the time) saw his patience wear out completely. For Colangelo, it was a failed experiment — it was grounds for severance.

Harvey Araton of the New York Times rebuked Colangelo’s stance on the matter, implicating substance abuse as a serious affliction:

To embrace Colangelo’s thinking is to define Dumas’s setback as nothing more than capricious binging. It is to reduce a human being to a bottom-line investment turned sour, and to dismiss a painful struggle that often moved Dumas to telephone his counselors in Houston last season at all hours from hotels and cities laden with what Lucas calls “triggers.”

via Sports of The Times; Getting In Touch With Reality | Harvey Araton, New York Times (9/28/93)

There is no perfect cure for drug addiction. Rehab tapers a patient off the substance and provides a positive environment that keeps the body in a state that can best ward off relapse, but it isn’t the end.

Remember the right amygdala? Here’s where it comes into view. The triggers that John Lucas II mention in Araton’s article could’ve been the sight of others using drugs at clubs, or even overhearing a conversation about drugs. Such events can induce a “euphoric recall,” resurfacing the notion of getting high. That’s when the amygdala (which, as you can recall, stores emotionally resonant memories) is activated. The craving returns, and the uphill battle — even after months of rehab — continues. In an instant, positive progress can dissipate completely. All of this can happen, and the scary thing is the drug doesn’t even have to be physically present.

Scientists have linked the amygdala to fear, and the use of rewards as motivation. From the Hannah Storm interview video above, it’s clear that by the time Dumas recognized his future in basketball, drugs became the ultimate motivator and the answer that would assuage his fears. Upon entering the NBA in ’92, Dumas was withdrawn. Dumas isolated himself from much of the team, blocking off a support system that could’ve been there during a time of need. Unfortunately, this would serve as the death knell to any prosperity that might have come in the NBA.

From a retrospective interview with Dumas on Suns.com:

Suns.com: Did you have people that you could go to after that season that could help you?

Dumas: The only people I ever knew was my family back home, so I wasn’t with anybody in Phoenix but Oliver Miller. Me and him hung out sometimes. Other than that, I never really messed with anybody. I think it was a lack of maturity. I took care of myself all that time and trying so hard to get there that I felt like I was on top of the world. I think it was lack of maturity.

via Richard Dumas on 93 | Suns.com (6/13/03)

After his season-long suspension in 93-94, Dumas went on to play 15 games for the Suns as a late-season injury replacement in 94-95. The following year, he joined the Philadelphia 76ers and reunited with Lucas, who served as the head coach at the time. But he only played 39 games before trouble reared its head once more. That was the final strike. He was 26, and he never stepped foot in an NBA game again.

Coda

Suns.com: At this point in your life, do you believe all of your demons are behind you?

Dumas: It’s going good, but I keep all that to myself. It’s easier showing people than trying to tell them. That’s what I’m trying to do right now.

via Richard Dumas on 93 | Suns.com (6/13/03)

Dumas could’ve been an all-star. He could’ve been rich beyond belief. He could’ve. But none of it was thrown away. Addiction is too horrifying, too complicated, too powerful to use such an offhanded statement. Entering drug rehab is admitting a lack of control, but leaving rehab doesn’t mean regaining control forever. Life after rehab is resuming life as a “recovering addict.” That title remains for the rest of a lifetime.

Dumas’ NBA career may not have materialized how it could have, but the struggle for a championship seems irrelevant in the face of a greater struggle over one’s life. Dumas may have taken the long route in recovery and he may have burned a few bridges in the process, but he’s found stability in his life as a father and an aspiring youth basketball coach. The stories published in the 10-year anniversary of his Finals performance reflect the same hope and perspective he had in the Hannah Storm interview in 1993. So much can happen in 10 years, and yet so little can change. In this case, that’s a positive.

We recall the 71 total games of Dumas’ 92-93 season because it’s the closest we’ll ever get to Richard Dumas, the actualized player. We may never know Richard personally, but in that one season, the person and the player weren’t so far apart. Seeing as Dumas spent most of his life struggling to hold onto his self, 71 games of purity is all we can reasonably ask for.

All non-hyperlinked sources were retrived from subscription-based news databases.

Seth Carstens