They come at Bill Laimbeer like kids in a zoo. Look at the beast. You think he bites? This is Laimbeer’s life now, every day, in a store, in a restaurant. You don’t hide when you’re 6-11. Even at home, he’s sitting on his porch by the lake, and people approach in their boats and they kill the engine and float past, staring, whispering, “That’s him, there. Look.”
Because he is 33, and a four-time All-Star, he ought to know better; he ought to fight the whole thing with a smile. And yet Laimbeer still hates this, the pointing, the questions, most of all the interviews, and so, usually, he reacts this way: He behaves like a jerk. He is good at it. Ask his teammates.
“I don’t want anybody knowing any more about me than they have to,” he admitted privately. “I don’t want them to get to know the real me.”
And he makes sure of it. I have seen Laimbeer slice and dice out-of-town reporters; they’re in pieces when he’s done with them. A month ago, inside Madison Square Garden, I witnessed a triple execution. Three reporters in five minutes.
“Excuse me, Bill –” they began.
“What do you want? Who are you? Who do you work for?”
“Bill, I just wanted to ask a few questions –“
“About what? . . . That’s a stupid question. . . . Who do you work for?”
“Bill, do you think the violence in the NBA –“
“I’m not talking about that. . . . Pick some other subject. . . . Who do you work for?”
He has a glare that could freeze a greyhound. He will sit in silence until you hear yourself sweating. He has created this image of Mr. Dirty Player, elbows and attitude. Now here we are, the NBA Finals, and the national media has converged on the Palace. And besides that image, most reporters know nothing else about Laimbeer other than this: He is the guy who hears “SUCKS!” after his name in most NBA arenas. So they circle him like those kids in the zoo; some come to hatchet him, others to poke and probe. There is this fascination in American sports journalism; we want to find a soft spot inside every monster. Does Laimbeer have one? The answer is twofold: 1) Yes, and 2) He’ll be damned if he’s going to let you see it. You guys gonna stand there, or you gonna ask some questions?”
To watch Laimbeer in a group interview is to see a pose of intensity the way Rodin might have sculpted it. Eyes straight ahead, jaw clenched, hands locked together. Again, if he knows you, he will privately admit this is his defense against saying something foolish or explosive; he concentrates on every word as if he’s passing a kidney stone.
But that’s if he knows you. And Laimbeer, a kid who grew up rich in Southern California, attended a high school on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean — I would honeymoon in that high school — a kid who temporarily flunked out of Notre Dame (lack of interest), never held a real job besides basketball, and brags about how, when this career is over, he won’t be staying in touch with too many of these people, isn’t going to spend a lot of time getting to know you.
Here comes a question: “Bill, you guys shot 35 percent–“
“Thirty-six,” he snapped. Eyes forward.
“Bill, Game 3 in Portland, Can you win there?”
“We’re only up to Game 2.” Glare.
“Bill, have you ever thought about retiring?’
There are times you want to smack Bill Laimbeer — not because he’s being a jerk to you, but because he’s being one to himself. Away from the spotlight, Laimbeer can actually be intelligent, fairly humorous, and even has a kind streak. This is a guy with enough wit to whisper to Isiah Thomas after the captain hit those big shots Tuesday night: “Isiah, you’ve always been my idol.” Thomas cracked up. This is a guy who was quick to announce how much money he and Rick Mahorn would make off their Bad Boys poster last year. What he didn’t announce was that he gave his entire share to charity, while Ricky kept a lot of his.
Laimbeer is married to a sweet — and patient — woman named Chris. They lost a child once, a baby boy, born prematurely. Laimbeer will never bring it up. But I have heard him talk about it. Heard his friends talk about how he stayed at the hospital, so worried about his wife. I have seen him turn red with embarrassment when his father called in a radio show and said “Bill was always a good boy.” I have seen him agree to a charity roast and be genuinely flattered that media people would sit on the dais with him. “Thanks a lot,” he whispered, words you rarely hear from his mouth.
You work in this town, you hang around Laimbeer long enough, you’ll catch glimpses of this side he tries desperately to bury. It only makes you wonder more why he wants to behave like a dork. When most reporters had gone on to other bodies Wednesday, I asked Laimbeer whether, after all these years, he’s ever gotten comfortable with strangers asking him questions.
“I never have,” he said, suddenly candid. “You know, everything you do in this NBA life is watched by everybody. You live in front of 21,000 people a night. You can’t go anywhere without someone pointing at you. You always hear somebody whispering, “That’s Bill Laimbeer. That’s Bill Laimbeer.
“That’s why when people ask about my private side, it bothers me. It’s like that’s all I have left. That’s why Isiah got so defensive when people were asking about his son last year. It’s all you have that’s yours. If they take that, they have everything. . . .
“You know, I’d like to go to a bar one night and get blind stinking drunk and be rowdy and carry on, but I can never do it as long as I’m a member of this team. I’d read about it in the newspapers the next day. I’m supposed to represent us in a certain way. I have to live up to the image.”
You listen to that, and then you think of the night in Atlanta, when they buzz-sawed a cardboard stand-up of Laimbeer during halftime. Zrrrrrp! Right across the middle. “I ignore that stuff,” he said. “If anything, it makes me play harder.” Say this about Laimbeer: He takes his job at center seriously. And the Pistons need him effective to win their second NBA championship. Sometimes, I think work is the only thing he believes in. He considered retiring before this season. Most people don’t know this; he talked to Thomas about it. If you ask him about that conversation, he just says, “Isiah gave me a few good reasons why I shouldn’t quit.” You ask, ‘Like what?’ and he says: “Money.”
And once again, you’re not getting the whole picture; it’s doubtful any of us ever will. I know a lot of guys who hate Bill Laimbeer — some of them wear basketball uniforms — and I know a lot of guys who want to get his autograph. I even know the guy (Scott Hastings) who came up with the T-shirts
“Have You Hugged Bill Laimbeer Today?” But I don’t know anyone who really knows him.
So he gets his wish, he goes on as a cartoon, the NBA villain, a role he laughs at, and why not? He helped create it. He feeds it. And, in turn, it cloaks him in a way that allows him to be nasty without disappointing anyone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always serve him well. He is smarter than you think, more charitable and more respectful than he lets on, but actions speak louder than words, and his actions are loud enough.
So ask him about rebounding. Ask him about defense. Ask him about another championship ring. If he’s in a good mood, he won’t chop your head off. He’ll just leave you wondering, staring straight ahead.
“How long after you quit before you go to that bar and get drunk and make a scene?” I ask.
He laughs, long and loud. “The very next day!’
I’d like to be there for that one. I really would.