Today the uniform is blue, his team is in Michigan, the games are deciding the Eastern championship and he is the hero. James Edwards is making all of the difference. If the Pistons did not have James Edwards, people are saying . . . "We would be in deep trouble," coach Chuck Daly says. "Deep trouble." "We would probably be down, 3-0," Isiah Thomas says.
James Edwards? The Pistons lead the Celtics, 2-1, and it might be 3-0 if not for a three-point miracle by Kevin McHale. Then you imagine the removal of Edwards, and every theme of this series crumbles, collapses. Back problems have reduced Detroit power forward Rick Mahorn to a 3.3-points-per-game bully, and a bad shoulder has ruined center Bill Laimbeer's shooting (6 points per game) and rebounding (7 per game).
Three months ago, Edwards was scoring his normal 15.5 points per game for a last-place team in Phoenix, his fourth team in a nondescript 11-year career. Today, he is wearing dark glasses and smiling, conducting instant press conferences wherever he appears. He has scored 35 points and controlled 15 rebounds against the Celtics, and he has been on the floor for each game's end.
"He gives us inside strength," Thomas says. "With Mahorn and Laimbeer being injured, we would have absolutely no inside game." This often has been Detroit's largest problem, and it reportedly maddens Thomas that Laimbeer has refused to learn post-up moves. "The biggest thing that hurt us last year in our series with Celtics was the inability of Laimbeer to take advantage of a small guy guarding him inside," Thomas says. "When the Celtics were switching, we were still constantly having to take jump shots. When it was going inside, their power forward (Kevin McHale) was playing our small forward, and their small forward (Larry Bird) was playing our center. That's a defensive mismatch. Now, with Edwards, we're able to take advantage of it."
Edwards is doing for the Pistons on a much larger scale what Dirk Minniefield did for the Celtics early this season. The Celtics hadn't been able to run until Minniefield -- who had been waived or traded by five teams -- showed them how. Edwards survived the Phoenix drug investigation ("It happened, it's over now, and I've kind of forgotten about it") and went to Detroit in the Suns' fire sale last February for Ron Moore and a second-round choice in 1991.
The Dirk Minniefields and James Edwardses are everywhere. The matter is finding them. "I pretty much knew him," says Daly, who was an assistant at Cleveland when Edwards and Laimbeer were the team's centers. "We ran more stuff for him there (Cleveland); here we have to fit him in. He was better then, he was younger, and he's sat out a lot the last couple of years. (Edwards has missed 111 games the last three seasons.) But he can score, and he's been very valuable."
Edwards keeps meeting the same people. "At Cleveland I started, and Laimbeer was backing me up," Edwards says. "Now he's starting and I'm backing him up, and Chuck was there for both situations." His career began with a 15.2-ppg rookie year with the Lakers. "That's why I got traded for Adrian Dantley, as a matter of fact," Edwards says. "AD went to LA, and I went to Indiana."
Three years later, he had moved to Cleveland. "Indiana had set on an amount they were going to give me, and (owner Ted) Stepien was going to give me a lot more," says Edwards, who signed a landmark $875,000 contract with Crazy Teddie (His Prices Are Insane). For that kind of money, he was expected to fill the role of a Robert Parish, but Edwards is not that type.
"People expected a lot," he says.
He produced his 16.7 points for several coaches at Cleveland in '82, and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery the following year. "I came back and played one game," Edwards says. "After the game, I was packing my bag and they said I was gone to Phoenix. I called my agent, and he told me to get on a plane."
He played with Dennis Johnson for one year, and the two of them can be seen conversing during this series. "Everybody thought the Rick Robey trade was a bad trade for the team," Edwards says. "I guess (DJ) and (coach) John MacLeod didn't get along, but I don't think he wanted to leave at all." Edwards was playing a video game at home last winter when coach John Wenzel called and said, "You know we've been talking about trades, James. Well, you've been traded to Detroit. Thanks for playing with us."
He averaged only 5.4 points with the Pistons in the regular season, and was held out of five games. But he indicated his worth with 16 points last month at Boston. "When we first got him, everybody thought his biggest asset would be in the Boston series," Laimbeer says. "Everybody says our second unit and first unit are two completely different squads."
"He's a serious threat, and he helps all of us," says Vinnie Johnson, the second unit's designated Microwave. "The play they run for me is a motion play where I come off a pick for the shot. Boston may have Parish and McHale switch out on me, but now I'm able to punch the ball into James and get him a couple of three-point plays. Now they have to think about him in there, and even if I get it going, they can't just switch out on me."
This is very important. "For this team to win, for us to get over the top," says Thomas, "Vinnie Johnson has to play well." So Edwards arrives, and Vinnie averages 14.7 points and 50 percent against the Celtics. Edwards comes off the bench, and the world stops talking about Mahorn and Laimbeer. Edwards is a free agent, and Isiah wants him again next year. "It depends on how much the organization wants to keep winning," Thomas says. "If they want to keep winning, then they should want to have him back. We have to have him back."
Why couldn't the Celtics get him?