by Yaron Weitzman | @YaronWeitzman
Bill Laimbeer always wanted to compete at the highest of levels and so, when he took his first ever coaching job with the WNBA’s Detroit Shock back in 2002, this league is surely not where he thought he’d still be today. But here he is, the baddest boy of the former Bad Boys, jogging up and down the other practice court at the Madison Square Garden practice facility, refereeing a scrimmage between the New York Liberty and a group of men who have been brought in off the street to provide a fresh level of competition.
In less than a week Laimbeer will make his debut as the Liberty’s head coach. He’s also the team’s GM and, since taking the job in October, has been burning the candle at both ends, as they say. There was the draft. There have been trades and free agent signings. A playbook had to be drawn up and implemented in practices. There was also an evening at a Rangers playoff game to help sell sponsorships and an afternoon at a ticket sales luncheon. “In our league, the GM wears multiple hats,” Laimbeer says.
But right now Laimbeer is doing the thing that he loves most, the challenge that he says keeps bringing him back to the game, even if it’s not in the role that he always wanted. Laimbeer wanted to be an NBA coach. He still wants to. Since retiring in 1993—a two-time champion and a four-time All-Star—he’s tried his hand at other jobs, tried to live away from the game. At one point he turned down a front office position with the Pistons. There was also a packing company that he and his father started, but that didn’t take. The game that he had spent his entire life playing, the thing he had devoted his entire life to doing, it never stopped calling. The way a person is is the way he is. It’s not something you can change.
Slowly, Laimbeer began to crawl back to the hardwood. First he became a Pistons broadcaster, a sort of happy medium. He could be around basketball and talk about basketball, but the strains and sleepless nights that come with being directly involved with the competition of a basketball game would no longer be his to deal with. Pretty soon after that, though, Laimbeer wanted more. “I really get off on trying to figure out how five players can beat five other players,” Laimbeer says today. “That’s what I enjoy. And that’s the thing I really missed when I was away—that instant gratification, the ability to go home at night and know whether you have won or lost.”
Laimbeer would eventually ask the Pistons’ ownership if he could “poke his nose around” the business side of the Shock. Under the title of a consultant, he would watch the team practice and look at the team’s budgets. He would also give recommendations. In 2002, when the Shock started the season by losing their first 10 games, he was asked for one. “You have to make a change,” Laimbeer told Shock management. “You’re really bad, you’re fans are falling by the wayside and if you don’t do anything the franchise is going to be in big trouble.”
What came next was no surprise.
“I knew they would ask me to coach,” he says.
Laimbeer thought it over for a day, discussed it with his wife, Chris. “I had to decide whether going to the WNBA was a worthwhile opportunity,” he says. On June 21, Laimbeer was standing on the sidelines, clipboard in hand, coaching his first ever professional basketball game. Yes, it was for the WNBA’s Shock and not the NBA’s Pistons, but still, he was getting the opportunity to build a team, to teach five players how to work as one. And either way an offer from the Pistons, or another NBA team, couldn’t be too far off.
Bill Laimbeer is standing in a piece of real estate that he used to own. Both his feet are firmly planted in the paint as he’s calmly instructs the players that Bill Laimbeer the GM has provided him how to feel for the balance and weight of a defender. Later he’ll show some of his guards how to properly curl off of an off-ball pick. Every now and then he’ll smile, too.
In their 16-year existence, the New York Liberty, one of the WNBA’s original eight teams, have never won a title. There have been three finals appearances, but the last one was in 2002. Last year they finished the season 15-19. Laimbeer, on the other hand, is a three time WNBA champion—2003, ’06 and ’08—the second most in league history. It took him less than two full seasons to lead the Shock to their first WNBA title. The Liberty are hoping for an even faster clock this time around.
“My players want to play for me,” Laimbeer says matter-of-factly when asked to describe what he believes is behind his WNBA success. “That’s more than three-quarters of the job for any pro coach, no matter what sport. If you know what you’re doing then once you get the players to want to play for you’re way down the road towards being wildly successful.”
Upon his arrival in New York, Laimbeer decided to build the Liberty using this same strategy—to import from Detroit players who had previously sworn fealty to him. When the Liberty opened their season May 25 in Connecticut, they had four former Shock players on the roster. The two most noteworthy off-season acquisitions were Katie Smith, a 14-year veteran and the WNBA’s third all-time leading scorer, and Cheryl Ford, a former Rookie of the Year and a four-time All Star. Ford (who is Karl Malone’s daughter) had been out of the league for the past three years. If it wasn’t for an opportunity to play for her former coach, she might still be sitting at home.
“I love playing for Bill,” she says. “He’s got so much knowledge and experience, and, you know, he’s just a big, gentle giant.”
Gentle is not a word that many have used to describe Bill Laimbeer. Giant, perhaps, but few in the history of basketball have carried around a less gentle reputation. Bill Laimbeer is known for stray elbows and menacing shoulders, for excessively falling, for implementing the Jordan Rules and repeatedly knocking His Airness on his ass, for getting under the skin of opponents like an itch that just wont go away no matter how much its scratched.
And as much as his WNBA players love playing for him, and as gentle as they say he is, they’ve all been forced to do their fair share of scratching as well. Take, for example, the “FU, Bill Jar” that made its way into the Detroit locker room when Laimbeer was coaching the Shock, a jar that would allow his players to scratch that itch by saying “F you, Bill” without consequence, save for being required to drop in some cash.
“You know, he’s just a straight shooter with no filter, and sometimes that can really get on your nerves,” says Smith. “He likes to talk, he likes to give you a hard time every now and then, and there are times when he can wear you down a bit—especially when he’s getting on you for a mistake that you know was a mistake. But, you know, if you snap at him, he’s not going to give you a hard time either. He understands. And as a player, you know he’s in your corner and just trying to give you the tools to succeed.”
Laimbeer says the jar never bothered him. In fact, when asked about it, he lets out a giant laugh, one that, when coming from the 6-11 house of man, sounds almost like a roar. And this is what Ford and Smith are talking about. This is what draws them to this Bad Boy, and what sits as the foundation of Laimbeer’s WNBA success—the ability to let adults be adults and to recognize which of his players actions should be focused on and which should be ignored. The self-awareness. The confidence in self.
“I can definitely wear on people,” Laimbeer says. “I’m very sarcastic with them. I know it, and I know it can frustrate players. But the thing is, they know I’m right, too, and they know I’m doing the right things. So if they want to yell at me or cuss at me, that’s really fine by me. It makes no difference because I know I’m right.”
Is Bill Laimbeer ever wrong?
“I tell the players that, when I was playing, I missed a shot every now and then.”
To this day, Laimbeer still regrets not taking the Pistons front office job that he was offered back when he retired. At the time he thought more offers would come—why rush into something right away? Why not take some time off and get away from the game a little bit? It’s not that Laimbeer dislikes his current position and the WNBA. (“I love what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m really happy now.”) For him, it’s more about competing at the highest of levels, working with and going against the best of the best. If a Scandinavian women’s basketball league was considered the greatest in the world, that’s where Laimbeer would want to be. It just happens to be that said title currently belongs to the NBA, and so Laimbeer is not shy about admitting that he stills wishes he would be given a chance. “The extra 0 or two at the end of the check, that wouldn’t be bad either,” he adds.
He got close to the NBA a few times. In 2005 he was considered for two head coaching jobs, both with teams being ran by former teammates of his. One was for Larry Brown’s position in Detroit, but Pistons GM Joe Dumars decided to go with Flip Saunders instead. The other was for the job that Brown would take with the New York Knicks. There Isiah Thomas wanted to hire him, but the former Knicks president, and another one Laimbeer’s Detroit teammates, has gone on the record in saying that MSG chairman James Dolan—ironically, the man currently signing Laimbeer’s checks—wanted the pedigree that came with Brown instead. Laimbeer says that such slights don’t hurt him, that “it’s just the way things are,” but one has to wonder, especially in the case of being rejected by his Dumars and beloved team, whether a brush off like this is something that human beings, even the most confident of all, are even capable of.
In 2009, Laimbeer decided to resign from the Shock and go about his pursuit of an NBA head coaching job in a different way—he joined then-Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Kurt Rambis’ staff. He stayed there for two years, but when Rambis was fired in 2011, Laimbeer once again found himself on the outside looking in. He would remain there for a year until the Liberty called. “My wife was really happy,” the 56-year-old Laimber says. “She really wanted me out of the house.”
So what is it about Laimbeer? Why is it so hard for him to get a shot? It is the enemies that he made in the NBA during his playing days? Is it that WNBA success, or respect among WNBA players (“He’s such a loyal, nice guy,” says Katie Smith. “He always has your back”) is not considered something valuable in NBA circles? Is it the strong personality, the belief in his way of doing things?
“He can be hard on you at times, but that’s because he knows the game and understands what it takes to win championships and survive,” says Brian Cardinal, who played a season for Laimbeer in Minnesota. “But also, that’s why I think it’s good that he’s a bit sarcastic—it’s his way of getting his point across, but doing it in a lighter way.
“I loved playing for him,” Cardinal continues. “He’s an awfully intelligent person who really understands the game, and, maybe my experience was different because I was a reserve and, as someone who played for coach [Gene] Keady at Purdue, I like and am used to playing for a rugged guy. I had a great relationship with him and thought he had a good relationship with a lot of the guys, including Kevin [Love].”
Right now, though, Bill Laimbeer is the head coach of the WNBA’s Liberty. And he’s doing everything he can—as an executive and as a coach—to get a fourth ring. If he does, he’ll be tied with former Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor for the most in league history.
The Liberty end up dropping their season opener against the Sun, 81-69. They follow that up, though, with consecutive overtime wins over the Shock and the defending champion Indiana Fever. “I’m almost completely gray now after the last two games,” Laimbeer would say jokingly after the second victory, the gentle side of the giant showing its face.