Original Old School: The Piston You Love To Hate
SLAM 82: Bill Laimbeer was the baddest boy of them all.
After a successful stint in the WNBA as a head coach, Bill Laimbeer is back in the L as an assistant with Minnesota. Under Laimbeer, Kevin Love and Michael Beasley have developed into talented frontcourt players, giving the Timberwolves hope for the future. They’d both presumably be happy with a career like Laimbeer’s, who won two titles and made four All-Star teams. In SLAM 82, Laimbeer talked about his career and being one of the Bad Boys. — Ed.
by Alan Paul
Bill Laimbeer was not a player people had mild feelings about. He was, in fact, unforgettable. Pistons fans will forever recall him helping Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Chuck Daly win back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90, while the rest of the basketball world holds memories that are, well, not quite so sweet. They likely remember the hacks and flagrant fouls, or Laimbeer’s grimacing, shiner-stained face whining about a non-call, or him flying across the floor, sent sprawling by the most incidental of contact. And of course, the sight of Big Bill draining threes, pulling down crucial rebounds or pumping his fist after Zeke, Joe D or Vinnie Johnson scored after being freed by one of his bone-rattling picks.
Laimbeer was the ultimate guy you loved to have on your team, and otherwise hated-really hated. He was called a thug, a flopper and “His Heinous.” He was booed from coast to coast. He was punched by many of the game’s greatest players, including Robert Parish, Larry Bird, Bob Lanier and Charles Barkley. And he never minded any of it. In fact, getting under opponent’s skin and driving them to the point of distraction was a key-maybe the key-to his game. “I just did my job, played basketball and won championships,” says Laimbeer today. “I didn’t get distracted by the other stuff, and if other people did, it worked to our advantage.”
“I hated him before he was my teammate,” says fellow Bad Boy partner in crime Rick Mahorn. “In fact, I hated him for most of the first year he was my teammate. I thought he was an asshole and a cheap shot artist, but then I realized that he was a straightforward dude, and he played by the rules. We all did. We didn’t go beyond the rules, but we took them to the limit and they had to change the rules because our limit was just a little bit different than most people’s.”
Adds longtime Pistons announcer George Blaha, “Laimbeer rarely hit anyone; he just drove them nuts. He delighted in getting under your skin. He constantly was trying to gain not only the physical edge, but also the mental edge. If he could make you lose your concentration, then he’d won, because he never seemed to lose his cool.”
Still, Laimbeer was more than just a provocateur; he was, in fact, one of the best centers of the ’80s, a four-time All Star who became just the 19th player in League history to amass more than 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds. For his 14-year career, all but the first season and a half of it in Detroit after starting out with the Cavs, he averaged 12.9 ppg and 9.7 rpg. He led the League in rebounding with 13.1 in ’86, in the midst of six straight seasons averaging better than 10 rpg. It’s an amazing accomplishment for a slow-footed 6-11 guy who could barely jump. Laimbeer, who retired in ’94, is now the coach of the Detroit Shock, whom he led to the WNBA championship last year.
SLAM: How quickly did you realize that playing with Isiah was going to be special?
BL: Right away-as soon as I got to Detroit after being traded from Cleveland. Just playing a couple of games you could see the great talent and unselfishness in him. Playing with him was just a great, really fun experience because he took care of his guys. When I got there, he reminded me that I had played with him before at the Olympic Trials and I said, “Oh yeah-you were the guard no one could stop, and our team kept winning.” It was really a good fit, and I loved playing with him.
SLAM: Settle an argument: I say that Isiah was far better than Allen Iverson, because he could control a game without scoring, which Iverson can’t do, and that had he wanted to he could have been just as much of an offensive threat and scored 30 a night. A friend disagrees and says AI has more offense. Who’s right?
BL: Probably you, but it’s hard to say because that’s not who he was. Isiah didn’t want to score 30 a night. His whole focus is winning and winning championships. Could he have done that? Probably. Would he have? Absolutely not. He’d do whatever he had to do to win basketball games.
SLAM: When did you start thinking that you guys could be championship caliber?
BL: Isiah and I both always thought that we were going to win a championship. That was our sole focus and drive behind everything we did, which was one of the best things about our team. Everyone shared that. We always got better. We never took a step backward; we always kept moving forward, getting closer to a championship step by step, and we all believed that we were going to get there.
SLAM: You guys had some brutal seven-game series losses on the way, notably to the Celtics in the Eastern Finals in ’87 and to the Lakers in the Finals in ’88. Did you ever lose faith?
BL: Not at all, and that’s one of the greatest things about our team-we were mentally tough, able to go through very tough times and come out feeling good and looking forward. Our first championship was more relief than joy because we had been building to it for so long.
SLAM: I can assure you that some of those series nearly killed Pistons fans. Did any of them hurt particularly bad?
BL: They all did. Don’t get me wrong, any time you lose a tough, hard-played series in seven games, it hurts like hell. When you play so good and lose it makes for a tremendous basketball series and the losing team goes away shaken and disappointed. But we never quit or played badly. We just got beat, and you can take that. You can live with playing well and losing as much as it hurts. It’s not like panicking and blowing a series, and we knew if we kept pushing we were going to break through eventually, and that’s what happened.
SLAM: I noticed that in the Pistons Hall of Fame at the Palace, you, Joe D and Isiah all have your own lockers, and Adrian Dantley and Mark Aguirre share one. That makes sense, because while Aguirre got the rings, both were essential to what you guys achieved. Do you agree?
BL: Yes, actually, though I never noticed that [laughs]. Both of them did a great job and were important to our success, but neither of them was here long enough to be huge players in the long-term history of the franchise.
SLAM: But when Dantley was traded to Dallas for Aguirre, it was a huge source of controversy, because a lot of people saw it as Isiah sending off someone who’d had the nerve to stand up to him and bringing in his childhood buddy.
BL: The only controversy was in the media, not in our ball club. Adrian did a fine job for us on the court and also in teaching some of the youngsters like John Salley and Dennis Rodman about being professional. He came in during a transitional period when we were moving from being a free-wheeling offensive team to a more methodical defensive-oriented team, and he fit right in to a disciplined offensive structure. But I think our team just outgrew Adrian Dantley. Joe D was about to come into his own, and it was important that we had more ball movement, and that was not Adrian’s strength.
SLAM: Isiah really pushed the Bad Boys image, and you all seemed to embrace it.
BL: Well, I certainly did. Someone like Joe, who is more of a quiet, unassuming person who kept to himself, may not have liked it that much, but many of us did. It was our identity, it was fun and we used it as a tool.
SLAM: You seemed to revel in being hated by other teams’ fans.
BL: Well, I don’t know if I’d say “revel,” but it didn’t bother me. It was cast upon me through my style of play, and I wasn’t going to run away from it or alter my game to please anyone else-particularly my opponents or their fans.
SLAM: How would you describe your working relationship playing with Rick Mahorn?
BL: We played well together. It wasn’t the best at first because Rick came in here overweight and out of shape and didn’t understand how to play an intense team style, but he changed overnight and became a really important part of what we were doing.
SLAM: Do you have any regrets about the way your run ended, with you guys walking off the court refusing to shake hands with the Bulls after they swept you in the ’91 Eastern Finals?
BL: No, I have no regrets. They had said some things about us personally over the course of a year and half in the papers. Not stuff about us as players, but personally, and we weren’t going to forget or ignore that. And time has shown that we were true champions and hasn’t treated them all as kindly. [Huh?-Ed.]
SLAM: You led the League in rebounding in ’86. How did you manage to outrebound people like Moses Malone?
BL: Being relentless and wanting the basketball. You take a lot of abuse down there, so you have to really want the basketball. I wanted to be a great rebounder, so I spent a lot of time working on my timing, positioning, anticipating when someone was going to shoot and where the ball would go. I was a position rebounder, so the key was to get between your man and the basket and want the ball more than he does.
SLAM: You had a very unusual game, in that you were a great rebounder who scored most of your points from outside.
BL: I was always a perimeter shooter, and we had a ball club that was structured differently in that our post scoring came from our forwards and guards, not our center. I was a great pick-and-pop player for our guards, had great success doing that and loved playing that role.
SLAM: How would you compare the feeling of winning as a player to winning as a coach?
BL: There’s no comparison. Winning as a player is much better. You’re the one out there doing the doing and putting your mental and physical well-being on the line. As a coach, you’re happy for the players because you helped put them in a position to experience that great feeling.
SLAM: A lot of people compared this year’s Pistons team to your teams. What do you think of that?
BL: Just like us, they are mentally tough, have strong internal leadership in the locker room and are a well-prepared ball club that puts the emphasis on defense. But you really can’t compare the two eras because there is just not the same depth today. You can get one or two very good players on the bench but you don’t go 10 deep like we did. You don’t have great offensive players like Vinnie Johnson and James Edwards or defensive stoppers like John Salley and Dennis Rodman on the bench. It’s not that the players are worse now; it’s just that there are more teams so they are spread thinner.
SLAM: This team was very unusual in not having a single focal point, a la Isiah, Michael, Bird or Magic.
BL: Ben Wallace is a very strong leader. He was the guy and everyone on the team knew it. It is certainly unusual to have a defensive rather than offensive player in that role, but leadership is leadership and it doesn’t matter where it comes from.
SLAM: Let’s play a little name association. Isiah Thomas.
BL: Winner. Great leader.
SLAM: Larry Bird.
BL: Mentally tough competitor.
SLAM: Robert Parish.
BL: Solid role player.
SLAM: Joe Dumars.
BL: Quiet leader, true professional.
BL: One of the best ever. A great team player.
SLAM: Vinnie Johnson.
BL: Two things-close friend, and sacrifice. He sacrificed a lot for us. He never made the All-Star team, which he would have done easily on another team, and he got rewarded by winning championships.
SLAM: James Edwards.
BL: Buddha! A very underestimated post player.
SLAM: Rick Mahorn.
BL: Great teammate, great personality.
SLAM: Chuck Daly.
BL: Knowledgeable, non-egotistical.
SLAM: Bill Laimbeer.
BL: A great complementary player who won championships. That’s really all I want to be remembered for-just winning championships. That’s what we played for, and that’s what was fun.