PALOS VERDES, Calif. — I am walking past the cliffs that drop into the Pacific Ocean. I am walking past the Corvettes and the BMWs and a dark blue Mercedes. I am walking past the tennis courts and the long turquoise pool.
I am visiting Bill Laimbeer’s old high school.
“Do people really go to class here?” I ask Laimbeer’s former coach, John Mihaljevich, 52, who greets me dressed in a red windbreaker, sunglasses, shorts and a deep tan. “Do they actually study, you know, math and science and all that?”
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “All that.”
All that. With all this? I am seeing ocean views and red- tile roofs and porches that go on forever. I am seeing palm trees and coiffured lawns and driveways that disappear into . . . who knows? High school? Can that be right?
Are they sure this isn’t a hotel?
I had heard all the stories about Laimbeer. He told me them himself: How he was the only player in the NBA who made less than his father, a wealthy executive. How he never worked a day in his life. How he had a new car on his 16th birthday. Palos Verdes High School. A privileged upbringing. I was never sure how much he was kidding.
“What do houses go for around here?” I ask Mihaljevich.
“Four to six million,” he says.
He wasn’t kidding.
This is not the way most NBA players went to high school. This is not the way I went to high school. I went to high school on a bicycle. We did not have cliffs. Cliffs would be bad for bicycles.
Here there are cliffs. Out in the distance you can see a sailboat. I look at the students who are walking through the schoolyard. Actually it is not a schoolyard; it is a campus. And they don’t look much like students, either. They look more like the cast members from “Less Than Zero.”
But back to Laimbeer.
“So tell me,” I say to the coach, taking a seat in his office. “Was Bill a good kid?”
“Oh, yeah. He was a good kid and the most successful basketball player to come out of our school. I’d have to say Bill’s approach to life was to do as little as possible in the easiest way possible. But he was a good kid.”
“Did he ever get into trouble?”
He pauses. “Well, once, during his senior season, we were in this all-star tournament — I think it was in Kentucky. And the bus was leaving for the game. I asked around, ‘Has anybody seen Bill?’ Nobody had, so I went looking for him.
“I went up to his hotel room, he wasn’t in it. Then I saw this other room and the door was open. I looked in and there was Bill playing poker with all these strangers. Grown men! This 18- year-old kid.”
“After that, I started to think maybe there was stuff Bill did in high school that I never found out about.”
There was the time Laimbeer broke his arm playing football his freshman year, and the time the coach yelled at him during a Christmas tournament and Laimbeer started crying. There was the time, lots of times, really, when the opposing teams said of the Palos Verdes Sea Kings, “Let’s beat these rich kids from the hill.”
This was not your typical rags-to-riches NBA story. When Laimbeer took his SATs and scored 1,100, the basketball recruiters said, “Great! That’s unbelievable! No problem!” And Laimbeer’s friends said, “1,100? Too bad. Maybe you can take them again.”
How strange to hear these stories. Most of us in Detroit know Laimbeer only as the center for the Pistons, a man who gets the most out of limited physical skills, a man considered the most hated man in the NBA. On TV lately, during this NBA final, he has been labeled “The Villain.”
The Villain had his prom at the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel.
“I’ve got some photos of Bill when he was here,” Mihaljevich says, pulling some photos from a yellowing file. “This was during the California state championships. That was his biggest game. His senior season. We upset a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country.”
“Wait a minute,” I say, holding up the black and white picture. “He’s shooting . . . a hook shot!”
“Oh, yeah. Bill had a great hook shot. And a good pivot to the basket.”
I stare in disbelief. “You mean he was . . . a post-up player?”
“Strictly. I never let him shoot more than eight feet from the basket. If he did, I’d break his neck.”
Somebody get me the smelling salts. Are we talking about the same Bill Laimbeer? The guy who thinks “inside game” means in front of the three-point line. That Bill Laimbeer? Top-of-the- key jumpers? Perimeter passing? That Bill Laimbeer?
“Yes. All the outside shooting came after he left here. Sometimes I would catch him in the gym, you know, after practice, and he was shooting jumpers, and I’d yell at him: ‘What are you practicing that stuff for?’
“My theory is, he has the mind of a point guard, trapped in the body of a center.”
We walk outside. The sun is warm. The coach points at the football field. He says when they put up the scoreboard, a resident filed a formal complaint because it interfered with her view of the ocean.
He tells me how there are no stoplights in Palos Verdes Estates — where Laimbeer lived during high school — and no street lights, either. (“Part of what they call ‘beautification’ of the neighborhood.”) There are no Friday night football games, because the traffic and the noise would be disturbing. He tells me many kids here have more in spending money than he earns in salary.
“Isn’t it tough to motivate kids to play basketball here when they obviously don’t need it as a career?” I ask.
“Well, that’s the challenge,” he says. “But sports has always been big around here, even if it’s just because it looks good on your college application.”
I mention how Laimbeer claims he never worked a day outside of basketball.
“That’s not true,” says a man overhearing our conversation. (I believe he was an English teacher.) “There was a summer where he got a part on a Saturday morning TV show for kids. It was called ‘Land Of The Lost.’ He played a monster. Him and a couple other basketball players. They were called Slee Stacks.”
“A monster?” I say.
“Yep. I remember telling my daughter, who watched the show, ‘Hey, see that monster? That’s Billy Laimbeer from the high school.’ She asked me to get his autograph. He signed it, ‘Bill Laimbeer, Slee Stack.’ That may have been his first autograph ever.”
A monster? A TV show? I leave the high school, walk past the Corvettes, get into my car, and stare at the ocean.
That night I see Laimbeer in the locker room. He asks me what I thought of the school.
“Pretty, uh, nice,” I say for lack of better words.
“Good view, huh?”
“Yeah. Hey, Bill. What’s a Slee Stack?”
He grins. “Oh, yeah. It was a TV show. We dressed up in these giant lizard costumes and stalked around making hissing sounds.”
“Actually, the hissing was dubbed.”
“Was this a job?”
“Oh, yeah. Three weeks’ worth.”
“How much did you make?”
“Let’s see . . . about $7,000.”
After the game, I return to my room. The phone is ringing. It is a radio talk show that wants some input about the Pistons.
“What do you think?” the voice asks.
I close my eyes. I see turquoise pools and hook shots and giant lizards. I see palm trees and Corvettes and a poker game in a Kentucky hotel room. What do I think? I think we know very little about these guys, when all is said and done. That’s what I think.
* Mitch Albom will be signing copies of his book, “The Live Albom,” this weekend. Schedule on Page 7D.
CUTLINE: Laimbeer puts up a shot during his high school days. Pistons center Bill Laimbeer shares a laugh with his former coach, John Mihaljevich, during a visit to Palos Verdes High School.