BILL LAIMBEER: MR. POPULARITY

“Hey, if I were somebody else, looking at me? I’d think I was an a—— too.”

— Bill Laimbeer

BOSTON — Wait. Don’t tell me. You hate his guts. He’s a stiff, a boor, a spoiled brat, an actor, a loud-mouth; he can’t jump, he can’t block shots, he runs like a pregnant deer, his nose is pointy, and, when he high-fives, it looks like opening day at nerd training camp.

“Who cares?” says Bill Laimbeer, sitting across the breakfast table. He reaches over with one of those long arms. “I’m gonna have some of your grapes. Thanks.”

Yeah. Who cares? Have a grape. Just 12 hours earlier, during a playoff game in Boston Garden, Laimbeer, the Pistons’ center, had been roundly booed, cursed, despised; the hate rained down. Who cares? During the previous Atlanta playoff series, a sold- out Omni chanted in unison, “LAIMBEER S—-!” And, after Detroit beat the Hawks, someone threw a glass of beer in his face. Who cares? Knock, knock. Hey! It’s Mr. Popularity.

“I do what I have to do. That’s my style of play. I bump people. I’m not fluid. I’m herky-jerky. That’s why people don’t like me.”

He smirks.

“These grapes are lousy.”

William Laimbeer Jr. To paraphrase Kojak: Who bugs you, baby? Anyone more than this guy? Unless, of course, you are a Pistons fan. And even then . . .

What is it about him that gets under your skin? No. Wait. What doesn’t? Here is an NBA star who never set foot on a ghetto playground, a rich kid who had a car by his 16th birthday, who flunked out of Notre Dame as a freshman
(“too much sleeping in”), who quit his only summer job after two weeks; a guy who is sarcastic, caustic, who moans, who complains, who would rather be playing golf, and who, by his own admission, takes off his dirty clothes and lets them drop wherever, figuring his wife will pick them up.

Are you ready to smack him yet?

And look. He’s laughing. That’s the thing about Bill Laimbeer. You rattle his faults in front of him and he laughs like a kid in a crib. Is that what makes you shake your head, grinning, every time you go to insult him? Is it that curious Laimbeer ego that, instead of proclaiming greatness, seems to send him loping down-court, pounding his chest and screaming: “I AM . . . MEDIOCRE!”

Who bugs you, baby? Laimbeer is vilified by everyone from opposing centers to radio announcers (like the Celtics’ Johnny Most, who says: “He’s a phony, a flopper, he hurts people, I don’t like him”). And yet Isiah Thomas, everybody’s favorite NBA cherub, calls Laimbeer a best friend.

What we have in this 6-foot-11, 260-pound jigsaw of a body is either an enormously misunderstood man or the world’s largest dork.

Or something in between. It is true, if not caring is a sin, Bill Laimbeer
— who turned 30 on Tuesday — is guilty right down the line. Like a child in the house of mirrors, he sees all of his unkind reflections. And they only crack him up.

“Look, I’ll never be able to fly through the air like so many guys in this league,” says the center who has still managed to win an NBA rebounding title, average 15.4 points and 11.6 rebounds this season and shoot 18-footers like a silky guard — and who is a critical player if the Pistons hope to win this Eastern Conference final against Boston. “I realized pretty early I was not going to be an all-time great player.

“So I do what I have to do to survive. I jostle people. Like when a guy is going to his favorite spot, I step in his way; I bump him; I don’t let him get there; I bump, bump, bump.

“I laugh at my reputation as a tough guy, though. I never fight. I walk away from it. I may have some altercations, but they’re never real fights. People don’t like that style? So what? As long as people in Detroit appreciate me, what do I care about Boston or Atlanta or Milwaukee?”

OK. Laimbeer has, of course, given those opposing crowds more than just an occasional bump to remember him by. Last time the Pistons met the Celtics in the playoffs (1985), Laimbeer was knocked to the ground by Robert Parish and came up swinging (he missed). And after an insinuation by Larry Bird that Boston would sweep that series, Laimbeer found the star forward during the Pistons’ second win and yelled, “Where’s your bleeping broom now, bleep bleep?”

Already in Game 1 of this series, he goaded Parish into a technical foul. So he’s not getting any free passes to Boston Garden. Or anywhere else. His license plate should read: “Born to Irritate.” He pushes. He bad-mouths. When he is introduced, he runs out and points at his teammates (no hand-slapping) with this tight-jaw expression that is supposed to be his tough look, but actually suggests that he needs to use the bathroom.

“If you were somebody else playing against Bill Laimbeer, wouldn’t you want to take a swing at yourself?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I guess I would.”

Case closed.

And yet there is surprise to Bill Laimbeer, an itchy feeling that — no matter how often you speak with him — always leaves you wondering if you weren’t this close to discovering a whole different guy.

“You know, I don’t really even like to play basketball,” he says suddenly, grabbing a glass of orange juice. “It’s not fun to just go out and play basketball. The competition in a real game is fun. But just to play pick-up? That’s stupid. Isiah likes that stuff. I’m not good at it. All those guys do is shake and bake, run and shoot. I stink at that. I need referees.”

Yeah, say his critics. He needs referees like Don Rickles needs the front tables. There’s no act without them. This, after all, is the man Sports Illustrated once dubbed “a crashing success” and “master of the theatrical fall.”

But what Laimbeer is saying is he needs rules. So that he can bend them. Like him or not, here is a player of limited ability who has figured out just how much he can get away with, an ugly duckling set loose in a makeup factory. “As long as I don’t break the rules,” he says.

So what is it with this guy? You can list 100 things to hate about him. He’ll list them for you. Why do some of us still find him, well, kind of intriguing?

Maybe it’s the notion that the most hateful crime is pretending you are something you’re not. Of that, Bill Laimbeer is completely innocent.

Unlike most of us, he wears his faults on the outside. His good qualities, like long johns, remain underneath. “He makes a terrible first impression,” says Steve Glassman, 34, a Cleveland restaurateur and a close friend. “I introduce him to people and they walk away saying, ‘Where does that guy get off being like that?’ But they don’t know him. And he doesn’t care, or at least he says he doesn’t.”

Although Laimbeer can dish out some exaggerations, he remains steadfastly true to his slouching view of life. He does not try to fit in the slick black subculture of his NBA peers. He does not try to win friends and influence people.

“Do you have a conscience?” I ask him.

He pauses. “Uh . . . well . . . with regards to what?”

That has to be an original answer.

“OK. Basketball,” I say. “Do you have a conscience during basketball.”

“No.”

He doesn’t even hesitate.

“How about off the court?”

Now he hesitates.

“Well . . . yeah . . . I suppose.”

Nothing like putting your best foot forward.

Here is something you probably didn’t know about Bill Laimbeer. Four years ago, he and his wife, Chris, lost their first child. A baby boy. It was born prematurely, lived two days, and died. “We buried him and said our goodbys,” Laimbeer says, speaking, ironically, on the anniversary of the child’s death. He does not use the statement to launch into a speech about being misunderstood. Few people even know the story, because Laimbeer thought it was nobody else’s concern. He admits he cried, if that makes a difference. But he shrugs off any sympathy.

“He felt that loss more than he lets show,” says Glassman, who was with Laimbeer at the hospital that day. “The whole time he was worried about Chris,

about us, about everybody else. That we shouldn’t be down. He kept the other stuff to himself.

“I think about that time and I hear people say he’s the biggest agitator in the league, and, I don’t know; I can’t put those two things together.”

And this is the paradox of the man people love to hate. Just as you are convinced he is a selfish cynic from his sneakers on up, somebody tells you a story. His charity golf tournament. A surprise gift he paid for. Some little thing. And you look at him, smirking, that “I-know-something-you-don’t-know” look, and you say, “Well. . . .”

“I don’t let people get too close to me,” he admits. “I always want a buffer zone.”

“Is that because you’re afraid what’s inside might not be worthy of their attention?”

And instead of laughing at the pseudo-psychology of the question, he says quietly: “Yes. Possibly.”

So there is more than just the lonesome, scowling boy behind uniform No. 40. There is also this: Laimbeer is critical to the Pistons’ success. Check the box scores. Isiah Thomas can go lava-hot or suddenly cold; with the right adjustments, the Pistons can still win. But when Laimbeer has a bad night, they almost never do. “The record bears that out,” says Pistons coach Chuck Daly.

And yet this is something Laimbeer rarely mentions. His bragging is almost always about the team, what the team can do. Could that be a dash of . . . humility?

“Not everybody can be a hero and a nice guy like Isiah,” he says.

Well. I guess that’s sort of humble. Sort of.

So what are you going to do with this big lug? You may hate his guts and you may be sure he is lazy and cynical and a crybaby and a stat-keeper and annoying, aggravating, infuriating and a jerk. But you don’t know everything. And that gnawing sense he may be smarter than all this keeps you from walking away from Bill Laimbeer convinced you really understand him.

And that is the way he wants it. Give him your boos, your heckles. Your grapes. “I’m never gonna be small and cuddly,” he says. “So I figure I might as well play the part that’s already here for me. People aren’t going to change their minds about me. I could come to Boston Garden for six years and give up 60 points every time and they’d still think I was a bleep. So forget it.”

There goes Mr. Popularity, off to another game. Who bugs you, baby? Everyone expects him to push, grope, complain and probably make a few more All-Star teams.

Do you know what I expect? I expect one day to accidentally bump into Bill Laimbeer somewhere, in a grocery store, or a nursery school, or just a quiet corner of the Silverdome, and catch him in an act of niceness.

And I will do him a favor. I will not tell anybody.

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