JORDAN OUT, LAIMBEER IN DOESN’T SEEM RIGHT

All right, America. The time has come. Here, on the morning of the new NBA season, the basketball question you’ve been wanting to ask for weeks:

How come Michael Jordan retired and Bill Laimbeer didn’t?

“Ha!” Laimbeer says, sneering. “That’s easy! I don’t have $300 million like he does.”

Cute. But not the answer.

True, Jordan, 30, may be resting his still-lean body while Laimbeer, 36, gets up each morning with a different joint creaking in his freckled white frame.

And true, Jordan may be zipping in private jets to some tropical golf course while Laimbeer looks at his beloved clubs and sighs until next summer.

And yes, if Laimbeer announced today that he were leaving the game, the world would not weep, as it did for Jordan. It might cheer. It would not weep.

But there is more to it. Laimbeer, the only man in NBA history to have his cardboard image chain-sawed by fans, does not play the way he once did. He doesn’t even play at the speed he used to, which, if he were a car, we would call “park.”

“I’ve cut down on my moving around at home,” he says. “Basically, I sit around and do nothing.”

Ah. Aging like a fine wine. Old Piston wouldn’t want farewell tour

So, if you think about it, this whole thing is backwards. Jordan was beloved, worshiped, and at the top of his game. Laimbeer inspires the world’s loudest boos, and is generally thought of by NBA peers as something out of
“Jurassic Park.”

Yet Jordan quit, and Laimbeer stayed. He stayed as his skills diminished. He stayed as his minutes withered and his scoring average dipped. He stayed as players, coach, GM, and many fans who composed the glory years of this franchise disappeared.

Could it be? He wants a farewell tour?

“Hah! I could care less.”

I know. Another look at Boston Garden?

“I could care less.”

Wait. Don’t tell me. He wants to say farewell to the worthy opponents he has battled over the years.

“I could care less.”

What then? It’s not like he’s using this season — which he says will be his last — to prepare for his next career. He doesn’t know what that will be. It could be golf, fishing, “or maybe TV commentary.”

I can see Laimbeer on the mike, working with a play-by- play guy.

“Wow, Bill, what a move by Olajuwon!”

“Big deal.”

“There goes Pippen. Some dunk, huh, Bill?”

“Great. Where’s the food?”

The fact is, it is hard to imagine Laimbeer, and his 6-foot- 11 perplexing persona, doing anything other than playing Pistons basketball.

And maybe that’s why he’s still here. Kareem taught him about longevity

Do you know the only opposing player who ever heard Bill Laimbeer say good-bye? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. After the Pistons beat the Lakers in the 1989 Finals. Abdul-Jabbar was retiring, and Laimbeer found him, leaned in, and said, “I don’t care about all the points and rebounds you got. What impressed me was how many years you played.”

And what did Kareem say?

Laimbeer shrugs. “Nothin.’ “

Well, what did you expect? Sentiment? This is still Bad Boy Bill we’re talking about. The man who’d cross a crowded highway to annoy an opponent. The man, when you ask if he has ever had a surprise party, says “My family knows better than that.” Sentiment? You have a better chance of seeing him high jump in the Olympics.

And yet, you learn something from the Abdul-Jabbar story. This is what Laimbeer admires: guys who put in their time. Laimbeer himself has played 13 seasons and almost never missed a game. When he started, he took it seriously, and now that he’s a bench player, he takes that seriously, too. On Thursday, in the final preseason practice, he was yelling at teammates during scrimmages, same as always. Part of the reason he has stayed, he says, is because the franchise needs him to work with the younger guys, and he feels an obligation. I don’t know if that’s true. I’d like it to be.

Over the years, I’ve traded a lot of venom with Laimbeer. But I’ve also seen the side he loves to bury. As he nears the end, that may be harder to do.

When I ask, for example, the toughest part of playing today, he says,
“Focus. You don’t like to admit it, but sometimes your kids start creeping into your mind out there.”

Bill Laimbeer? Kids?

When I ask about his legendary temper with the media, he says “Hey, it was my job to harass the media, to draw the attention, and keep them from getting on my teammates.”

Laimbeer? Admitting his tricks?

When I ask about his body holding up, he laughs and says, “After the first exhibition game this year, I couldn’t play for three days!”

He laughs? Tells secrets? Admits shortcomings?

Ah. Now we see the answer. Jordan left because he could no longer be a 24-hour superstar. Laimbeer will leave because — no matter how hard he tries
— he can no longer be a 24-hour jerk.

In which case, I don’t blame him for going.

Some legends are better left intact.

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