Maybe now that he’s retiring, Bill Laimbeer expects gratitude. A suspended sentence. A shrug, a grin, an “aw, heck, you weren’t so bad.” Maybe he figures, now that he’s hanging 14 long, bumpy years, the spotlight will fall on the good parts of his story — like his statistics — and not the bad parts
— like his elbows.
Well. He should know better. Not long ago, I asked Laimbeer whether he thought he’d ever make the Hall of Fame. He snorted a laugh, and said, “No.”
“Because the powers that be don’t want me in there.”
He said this with little emotion, like a mechanic tallying a bill. He was always good at that. Tallying the bill. Keeping track. Remembering his statistics during a game. Being realistic. He was good at being realistic.
So on the day that he is expected to say good-bye to the NBA, a league that he roused, bumped, aggravated, incited, angered, amused and financially supported through the biggest collection of fines this side of a New York City
parking violations office, it is only fair that we do the same.
Be realistic. The positives
Start with the things he did admirably. He showed up for work. He played with pain. He had a tiger’s eyes during a game, unwavering, locked on the enemy, he had the fiercest mood, he dripped competition, and if that meant shoving, pushing, elbowing, fopping, arguing calls, threatening opponents, he did it. In a league where winning is the goal, you can only fault that so much.
He also had a pride in workmanship. He was like a good mechanic with an ugly car. He made it go. Never mind that he ran like a crippled antelope, or jumped like a refrigerator during an earthquake. He showed up. He pushed himself. He rebounded like a madman, and amassed admirable numbers in his 14 years (becoming the 19th player with 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds). And he didn’t complain about money, not in public, anyhow. He was a rich kid, and if he learned anything from his privileged youth, it was not to bitch about being a millionaire.
He was kind to his own children, and most everyone else’s. And he has the world’s most patient wife (although she deserves the credit for this, not Bill). Now and then, he had a sense of humor, when it wasn’t directed at a victim. And he never bragged about his talent. That would have been stupid, seeing how limited it was.
Laimbeer was never stupid. Quite the contrary. The negatives
Which brings us to the rest. Although smart enough to be anything he wanted to be, this is what he chose: to be boorish, haughty and rude. He behaved, much of the time, as if he expected his nanny to show up after he left and apologize for his childish behavior. I have seen him completely belittle the most innocent of visitors. I have seen him snarl, “What paper are you from?” to an obviously young reporter, and when the answer came meekly, he’d bark, “I’m not answering any of your dumb questions. Your paper stinks.”
I have seen him ignore fans. Seen him rip on teammates. Seen him sneer at someone’s ignorance, and yell insults across the room at people who weren’t even talking to him. If you barked back at Bill Laimbeer, he usually backed down. But you shouldn’t have to bark back. He was old enough to know better. He was smart enough to have patience and manners. He simply chose not to.
He bent the rules of the game, and, let’s face it, he used every cheap trick in the book — on everyone from Robert Parish to Karl Malone. Maybe it was to help the Pistons win. Maybe you wanted the Pistons to win. That doesn’t make what he did right, or admirable. Only effective.
Laimbeer, 36, is arguably the most hated man in the game, by both players and fans. In his time, he has stiffed the biggest names in the league. He says he never congratulated anyone besides Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He didn’t love the NBA or its members. I’ve heard him say on more than one occasion, “I have no plans to stay friendly with NBA players after I retire. I have my world. They have theirs.”
As they say in the Sufi religion, “He will not be missed.” Why now?
His departure comes at an odd time, and yet, when you think about it, a logical one. He always joked that he was staying in the game “because I can’t find a job that pays like this.” But he leaves it now, not because of wages, but because of woes.
There is no fun left for Laimbeer. Also, no status. He looks around the locker room, and sees a struggling team with mostly new faces. Macon? Liberty? Elliott? Wood? These are Detroit Pistons? What do they know of the building years? What do they know of the Bad Boys legacy? What do they know of “the speech” that Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas used to give all new players, scaring the hell out of them, telling them this is Detroit, we have our way of playing
here and you better get into it?
They know nothing of this — and have no reason to listen to Laimbeer talk about it. He was once the second-most powerful person on team, behind Thomas; now he is a backup. One of the ironic reasons he and Thomas got into that fistfight a few weeks ago is that Laimbeer is now practicing with the B squad while Isiah remains on the A.
The team is mediocre, going nowhere, he’s in pain and he’s a sub. Where is the fun in this?
Besides, although he will not admit it, I believe Laimbeer is hesitant about continuing the season when Thomas returns to the lineup. All those questions on every road trip about “the fight.” Have you made up? Is all forgiven? What was that all about?
Who needs that? What next?
Not Laimbeer. He can have more fun fishing, and he will. Today, the TV stations will no doubt clip together highlight footage, fond memories, his defensive rebounds, his long, flick-wrist jumpers, his almost charmingly awkward celebrations after victories. Maybe they’ll put sentimental music behind it. Maybe they’ll run it in slow motion. Maybe you’ll feel sorry for the guy, like he was misunderstood all these years.
Don’t be fooled. Life is not a highlight reel. You are who you are not by how you look in the warm and cozy lights of a farewell, but by the final tally of every day you lived your life. Most days, to most people, Laimbeer behaved like a jerk. That doesn’t wash off. It stains him even today.
No More Mr. Nice Guy. How’s that for a farewell headline? Bill Laimbeer, fine player, fierce competitor, two-time NBA champion, nonetheless collected his mountain of dislike the old-fashioned way: He earned it.
He gets to take it with him, as he walks out the door.