HOUSTON — Because it was Monday and it was cloudy and humid and I was already feeling like a grouch, I figured this would be a perfect time to check in with Bill Laimbeer.

Laimbeer, the Pistons’ center, is, after all, the kind of guy you can count on for a hard time. Drop dead. See if he cares. He plays his big, stiff game of basketball and goes on, right? Argues with referees, infuriates other players, sticks out that jaw and that pokey nose and goes loping along like a giraffe singing, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.”

Find me five people who like him. I’ll wait here until Thursday. He is a rich kid in a poor kid’s game, a guy who can barely jump and who counts his own stats and yet he’s good and he’s smarter than most and so he doesn’t care. That’s the beautiful part. You can count on Laimbeer for nasty, I figured, and that’s what my pad was aching for.

So I dropped by the Pistons’ practice and found him engrossed in a shoot-out contest — Laimbeer, Chuck Nevitt and Kurt Nimphius against Sidney Green, Tony Campbell and Vinnie Johnson.

“Pressure, Sidney!” Laimbeer taunted.

Sidney missed. Laimbeer grinned.

When Laimbeer’s team won the first round, he barked, “Naturally.” When it won the second round, he yelled, “Are we awesome OR WHAT?”

“Bill, you got a few minutes?” I asked when he came off the court.

“Ah, bleep,” he said. “Today? Bleep. How long you need? I don’t know. I’ll call you. What’s your room number? Bleep.”

I had found my man. Trying nice on for size Or so I thought. There I sat in the hotel lobby a few hours later, waiting for him to come back from lunch. Keep me waiting, I figured. Good. And then in he walked, wearing wraparound shades. He didn’t see me.

“Hey, Mike,” he yelled to Pistons trainer Mike Abdenour, who was standing by the elevators. Laimbeer reached into a shopping bag and pulled out a brand new Canterbury rugby shirt.

“For me?” Abdenour said.

“Yeah, take it,” Laimbeer said, smiling. “It’s even the right size.”

“Hey, thanks, Bill.”

“Oh, no,” Laimbeer said, “thank you.”

Whoa. What was this? Thank you. No, thank you. Make me sick. Then a kid came up and asked for an autograph. Abdenour was holding his new shirt and Laimbeer was beaming like Santa Claus and by this point I had wandered out in disbelief. “Oh, good,” Laimbeer said. “I was just going to call you. Do you want to talk now?”

“Uh . . . ” I said. Meaner is better on court We met in his room a short while later. OK, I figured. Let’s shrug off the earlier incident as a freak of nature, like a solar eclipse, or disco. “You’re not really getting nice, are you?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “I am much more mellow now. I’ve taken a lot of heat in the past and I wanted to tone down my act this year because I think we have a better team, and I don’t want the referees to give us a bad reputation –“

I must admit my pencil stopped at the word “mellow.” Mellow? Him? We can all cash in now. Bill Laimbeer doing mellow is like Pee Wee Herman joining the Marines.

“Why?” I asked, not only because he was ruining a column, but because I was

concerned.

“I don’t know,” he said, lifting his long legs onto the couch. “I’m just trying to develop a little better reputation. I’m not as surly to other players. I want to see what kind of reaction it would –“

The phone rang. He got up and answered it.

“See,” he continued after he hung up, “if you’re not so much of a pain in the butt to the referees they’re not gonna stick it to you as much, and –“

The phone rang again. He grunted as he rose. He dismissed the caller quickly.

“In the past,” he went on, “I wanted as many rebounds and points as I could get. But now I’m not pushing for stats. I don’t care as much. It’s being substituted for by the winning and –“

The phone rang again. “ARRR!” he barked. “I’M GONNA SHUT THIS OFF. . . . HELLO!” Whoever was on the other end was not there long.

When he sat back down his eyes had a familiar glare. “So,” I said, “about this mellow thing. . . . ”

“Ah, don’t make too much out of it,” he said. “It’s just a slight adjustment. It’s not like I’m gonna become a nice guy on the court. . . . “

Well, good. Glad to hear it. The fact is, the Pistons need Laimbeer to be effective more than any other player. The box scores prove it. When he is on
— as he was Monday with 19 rebounds and the clinching free throws against Houston — the Pistons win. When he’s off, they lose. And when he’s charged up, surly, he’s more likely to play better, right? You don’t want some mellow guy in there. He’s liable to give out raisins.

“I gotta take a nap,” Laimbeer said, ending the conversation. “You got everything you need?”

“Enough,” I answered, happy at last.

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