CHICAGO — Oooh, they hate him now. They really hate him. They want to take his big, gawky body and break it in half and then break it in half again and then scatter his remains all over the basketball court and set the whole thing on fire.

Oh, goody!

“Hey, that motivates me,” said a grinning Bill Laimbeer, who had all of Chicago Stadium after his throat Saturday in the Pistons’ 101-79 blowout of Chicago in Game 3 of the NBA quarterfinals. “It gets me going. I want to be sure not to give them any ammunition.

“Besides, I’m used to it.”

True. Very true. Go to Atlanta. They will tell you: “LAIMBEER S—S!” Go to Boston. They will tell you: “LAIMBEER S—S!” And now, go to Chicago. They will tell you: “LAIMBEER S—S!”

“You’d think they’d come up with something original,” he said, “Geez, Atlanta’s been using that for years.”

What is it that got dear, sweet Bill in trouble this time? What is it ever? A skirmish. A fight that almost was. Laimbeer gets into these the way the cat gets into your socks. Only this time the opponent was as notable as the fight itself. You remember Larry Bird? You remember Robert Parish?

In this corner, weighing 198 pounds, the new challenger, with his tongue hanging out. . . .

Michael Jordan.

Oh, goody! Hit him? With what?

“We were standing there, and he elbowed me in the stomach — I have no idea why,” explained Laimbeer to a crowd of microphones.

Well. Uh. It went something like that. I think. It was early in the first period, Laimbeer committed an offensive foul on Jordan, and something got them going. A push. An elbow. And suddenly they were squaring off, the NBA’s reigning superstar and Mr. Personality himself, and the Chicago crowd, already deafening, became a thunderous monster.

“DON’T YOU MESS WITH OUR MICHAEL!” it seemed to roar. “BETTER YOU SHOULD COME INTO OUR HOMES AND STEAL OUR MONEY AND DRINK ALL OUR MILK BUT DON’T YOU DARE . . . MESS . . . WITH . . . MICHAEL!”

And Laimbeer was exchanging swings.

“Did you hit him?” he was asked.

“You’ve never seen me throw a punch in my life,” he answered.

“But it looked like. . . . “

“You’ve never seen me throw a punch.”

“But it. . . .

“You’ve never seen me throw a punch.”

Well. OK.

“Did you throw a punch?” someone asked Jordan, down the hall and a locker room away.

“I threw one, but I didn’t hit him,” Jordan said. “I . . . missed.”

That shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering the way Chicago played Saturday. To be honest, Jordan came closer with his left hook than the Bulls did with most of their jump shots. What is it about this series? Is it written somewhere that one side must shoot like Our Lady Of The Sacred Backboard?

Neither team could exceed 39 percent in Game 1. Detroit fell to 37.5 percent in Game 2. On Saturday, Chicago barely cleared 40 percent — and that was with garbage time.

They don’t trade baskets in this series. They trade rims. If this were a book, they’d call it: “I’m OK; You’re Way Off.” The movie would be “Bumping Iron.” Take Saturday. Ooops. There it goes. Off the glass. Sam Vincent, the new, was back to Sam Vincent, the old; he shot 3-for-12. Jordan, the superstar, hit 8-for-20. Hey. Guys. The little thing with the net hanging from it? Ready. Aim. . . .

But back to the fight. Jordan diverted from course

“That incident changed the momentum of the game,” Jordan said afterward.
“I wasn’t able to get into my flow after that.”

Whoa. Don’t tell Laimbeer that. He’ll bring gloves today. Remember, we are dealing with a center who is most at home in the doghouse, a guy who inspires hatred the way fine cuisine inspires a lick of the lips. It seems like in every good playoff series the Pistons have had recently, Laimbeer has been the arch-villain. Booing turns him on. Screaming turns him on. Saturday, following a Chicago technical foul, he stepped up to the free-throw line.

“LAIMBEER S—S!” the crowd began.

He smiled. He whispered to teammate Isiah Thomas: “I’m gonna put this in their faces.” He stepped to the line. He sank it.

“LAIMBEER STILL S—S!”

Not a bad comeback. Think he minded? Think he cared? He stood there for an extra moment, his bent wrist hanging in a frozen gesture, a “take that” follow-through.

“Why did you do that?” he was asked.

“Oh, well, I have a hurt wrist,” he said, grinning, “and if I, you know, snap it back too fast, it’ll hurt it again, so I just let it hang there. That’s why.”

“A hurt wrist?”

“Yeah.”

“A hurt wrist?”

He was laughing.

Oooh, goody! They hate him now. They really hate him. They want to pull off his nose and stomp it flat and stuff it in his sneaker and set the whole thing on fire. They see red. They see ugly. They’ll be lying for Bill Laimbeer in Chicago Stadium come this afternoon, Game 4.

We, as Pistons fans, can hardly wait.

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