BOSTON — The last time I had breakfast with Bill Laimbeer he stole my grapes. Just reached across the table and grabbed them. Didn’t even say thanks
— although he did close his mouth when he chewed. “These are good,” he said, swallowing.

Then he stuck me for the check.

So it’s risky business eating with Laimbeer. But I am doing it again, four years later. I am sitting here as he orders eggs Benedict, two bagels, cream cheese, large orange juice, coffee — and I am doing it because I want to know one thing: I want to know whether he is ready to quit.

Life without The Prince of Darkness? Well. There have been whispers that Laimbeer — who’ll be 34 May 19 — has considered retirement. Maybe next year. Maybe the year after. Some say he wanted to quit before this season, and was only talked into coming back by Isiah Thomas, who reminded him, among other things, that there is nowhere else on the planet where he can earn this kind of money. Bill admits the story is true. He also says, “Isiah was right
— about the money.” Call Laimbeer anything you want. Dumb, he isn’t.

But he is not made of steel, and the years take their toll. Laimbeer, in his 11th season, could never run or jump worth a hoot, and now he says, “I notice I can’t run and jump as well as I used to.” So where does that leave him? If he got any slower, he’d be a mailbox. Any more earthbound, he’d be topsoil.

And yet, he can still change a game — sometimes more than any other player in a Pistons uniform. No wonder coach Chuck Daly has called him “the most important performer on our team.” You want to win, you must rebound, you must box out, you must change shots and you must infuriate the other team. Laimbeer did all these things Tuesday night in Game 1 against the Celtics — especially the infuriation thing: In the first quarter, he took a charge from Kevin McHale and did a flop. The ref called McHale for the offensive foul. BOOOOOOO! Third quarter, Laimbeer pushed his way inside, grabbed an offensive rebound and tossed a quick shot as he fell to the floor. The ref called foul on the Celtics. BOOOOOOOO! With less than five minutes left and the crowd on its feet, urging Boston to rally, Laimbeer took a pass and launched a 20-foot jumper. Swish! Silence.

Infuriation. He specializes in it. Maybe it’s his sneer. Maybe it’s the awkward way he carries his body. Maybe it’s the faces he makes when he’s called for a foul — as though a cop just gave him a speeding ticket and he wasn’t even in the car. Whatever. He makes people crazy. Last week, in the Atlanta series, I was seated behind the Pistons’ bench, and there was this fan, a fat guy with a baseball cap who never stopped yelling at Laimbeer. The entire game. “YOU’RE FILTHY, LAIMBEER!” he screamed. “YOU’RE FILLLLLTHY!” Even when the game was no contest, even when Laimbeer wasn’t playing, even when his voice got hoarse, this guy wouldn’t stop. “YOU’RE FILTHY, LAIMBEER! YOU’RE FILLLLLTHY!”

Infuriation.

So you might say, “Gee, why should anyone care if a guy like that said good-bye?” There might even be a party. Something small, like Mardi Gras.

And yet, I maintain that when Laimbeer goes — and he says unless he suffers a major injury it won’t be this year — we will not see the likes of him again. A Bill Laimbeer comes along once a century. Which is good and bad. On the one hand, he is an inspiration, a guy who uses his brain and his nerve to became an NBA star. On the other hand, he wears a shirt to breakfast that reads: “Sometimes, I’m so bad, I don’t even like myself.”

“I think about quitting every day,” he says, smearing the cream cheese on the bagel. “But it would be hard for me to leave right now because I’m still an integral part of an outstanding basketball team. I’d feel like I was quitting on my friends.”

“What if they weren’t such a good team?” I ask.

“Then it would be easier. I couldn’t see staying around while we spent four years rebuilding.”

“What if some of your teammates were traded?”

“That would make a difference. Guys like Isiah and Vinnie, we’ve been together a long time. If they were traded, I wouldn’t feel the same things for the new guys.”

“What about your family? What does your wife say?”

“Sometimes I complain about being tired, how I don’t want to go through another season, stuff like that. She just says ‘You want to quit? Quit. Don’t expect any sympathy from me.’ “

He laughs. I should say that Laimbeer’s wife, Chris, is a sweet, thoughtful, giving woman — and what she is doing with this lug I will never know. But that is part of the Laimbeer mystery. You want to know something? He infuriates me, too. He drives me crazy. Not like a Guillermo Hernandez or Roger Clemens. Those guys are just jerks. Bill Laimbeer gets to me because 90 percent of the time he behaves as if someone stole his cookies and milk: He is cranky, whiny, annoying, loud, rude, boorish and immature. But the other 10 percent he is one of the most astute, knowledgeable and thought-provoking personalities in the game.

Let me give you an example. After five minutes of complaining to me that all reporters “only want negative stories” and how he feels justified in
“abusing young writers who ask stupid questions because they’re stupid,” after five minutes of that drivel, he suddenly switches gears. He wants to explain the life of a professional athlete. He is passionate. This is what he says:

“We have this drill every training camp, the mile run? I hate it. I think it’s stupid. So when we do it, I just look at my feet, putting one foot in front of the other. I never look up. I just watch my feet. One- two, one-two, one-two. I keep running and looking at my feet until someone tells me to stop.

“That’s the way the NBA life is. That’s how you survive, especially the regular season. You travel, you play, you eat, you fall into a routine. The way to get through it is to treat it like that mile run, looking at your feet: One-two, one-two, one-two. You don’t look up until you get to the end and someone says you’re finished.”

And then he stops. He sighs.

Damn it. I hate when he gets smart like that.

Do you know what Bill Laimbeer wants to do when he retires? He wants to host an outdoors show. He is hoping to try it this summer. A sort of
“American Sportsman” starring, of course, himself doing all those outdoorsy things he loves so much.

“I’d like to do a show where I take Vinnie Johnson salmon fishing,” he says. “Or maybe a show where I take Dennis Rodman pheasant hunting. Stuff like that.”

You can see this, right? Laimbeer goes onto the lake, looking for salmon, and when his line breaks he throw a fit, jumps up and down, splashes the water
— and the fish are so scared they just jump into his boat. Here! Take us! Just don’t hurt us!

“Of course what I really want to do is be a pro golfer,” he says.
(Laimbeer is already a one-handicap.) “It probably won’t happen, though. My age. And the travel.

“Of course, I could go into business with my father.”

“Oh,” I say. “What kind of business?”

“Corrugated boxes.”

Corrugated boxes?

Hmmm. Somehow I don’t see corrugated boxes. Not for Laimbeer. For one thing, nobody boos you in the corrugated box business. I mean, if they do, you must be really bad. And I think Laimbeer has gotten used to the boos. Maybe even come to like them. After all, he has been booed from Orlando to Los Angeles. It’s not the best reputation, but it’s his. “It’s funny,” he says. “I used to enjoy the booing a lot more two or three years ago. But now, when I’m introduced and they boo me, I really don’t even notice. It’s just noise. It’s like the national anthem.

“Besides, people don’t hate me the way they once did. I don’t arrive in towns and read newspapers where they call me The Prince Of Darkness anymore. I think it’s because we’ve won two world championships. They figure I must be doing something right. “You know, I was reading a business magazine over the summer, and there was this item about conventional wisdom from the past versus the present. And they used the LA Raiders football team as an example. They said the old conventional wisdom was that the Raiders were only
‘a team full of Bill Laimbeers.’ The new conventional wisdom says ‘Maybe Bill Laimbeers are not so bad.’ “

A whole team’s worth?

Catch me before I pass out.

But all right. We are not talking about more Laimbeer, but less. So when will he retire? He says the only milestone he still covets is the 10,000-rebound mark — he needs 526 — to go with his 10,000 points. He says the money is not that big a factor, that he would leave even with years left on his contract. He says he will quit “when I wake up one morning and don’t feel like going to work anymore.”

(Under that principle, most of us would be unemployed by now.)

“The main thing is health. Right now I can still walk around a golf course. I don’t have any permanent injuries. I don’t want to push my luck. Every summer, it gets harder and harder to come back. I think about training camp and I say, ‘God, I don’t want to do it anymore.’

“People don’t realize how hard this is mentally. I don’t mean playing basketball. I mean trying to win a championship. It’s excruciating, mental torture. You can’t do it forever.”

So when will he leave us? This year? “Probably not.” Next year? “Maybe.” The following year? “I don’t know.”

He chomps the last of the bagel and washes it down with coffee. In the book, “The Natural,” Roy Hobbs tells his sweetheart that one day he wants people to point at him and say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the greatest to ever play the game.” I ask Laimbeer how he would want people to finish the sentence
“There goes Bill Laimbeer. . . . “

“World champion,” he says.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“But they can say that already.”

He grins. “I know.”

I bet I get stuck for the check again, too.

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