by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The top rebounder in the NBA cannot dunk a basketball two- handed. His leap is a laugh. In a team footrace, he might finish behind the trainer.

The top rebounder in the NBA never struggled as a child. Never walked the streets. At age 17, he had a new car, a gift from Dad. His only summer job — in a tire warehouse — lasted a week.

“Manual labor,” he groaned. “I hate that.”

The top rebounder in the NBA is a self-professed “big, slow white guy” and makes no bones about it. He is almost . . . proud. The other day, we were sitting around the gym trying to think of any center in the league whom he could outjump.

“I don’t think there’s anyone,” said Bill Laimbeer, scratching his head.
“Wait — maybe Jeff Ruland down in Washington?”

He looked around for confirmation. He spotted Rick Mahorn, the Pistons’ bulky forward/center.

“Hey Horn! Horn! Can I outjump Ruland?”

Mahorn looked at him like he was rotten fruit.

“No, you can’t,” he yelled back.

Laimbeer shrugged. “Well, I guess not.” A white-collar story But to thine own self be true. So in these days when even Refrigerators are considered noteworthy, Bill Laimbeer, all 6 feet 11 inches, revels in what he is, and only what he is.

Which is?

“A guy who has a knack for rebounding,” he said. “A knack for getting in position before the other guy. It’s anticipation. It’s playing the odds. I’m not flashy. I’m not going to excite a crowd.

“But what I do, I do well. I rebound. That’s my pride. It’s not how, it’s how many.”

And how many is — going into Tuesday night’s game with Cleveland — 203 rebounds in 16 games, a league-leading average of 13.5.

Other players are more supersonic. None are as consistent in coming down with the ball.

But put this aside for a moment. For reducing Laimbeer to numbers is like watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” for the script.

Here is one of basketball’s great contradictions. A blue- collar player with a white-collar story.

Basketball is ripe with guys who saw the jump shot as a way out of poverty, crime, the ghetto. Those words never heard of Bill Laimbeer. And vice-versa. He played high school basketball within the roar of the Pacific surf. He turned down a chance to go to Harvard (his father’s alma mater) because, he said, “their gym was on the fourth floor of some building. Forget it.”

He flunked out of Notre Dame his freshman year. He wasn’t dumb. Hardly. He just didn’t bother to go to class. “It bored me,” he said.

He might have been the inspiration for one of those B movies, where the rich kid has to make good by his 21st birthday or lose his inheritance. But there was always basketball. He liked that. And he knew how to play it. His way.

So despite his chance to do almost anything else, despite an admittedly sheltered upbringing — “All my friends were white until I got to college” —

he eventually made his way back through Notre Dame and down the yellow-grit road of the NBA.

And to the Pistons, where he is now the man who goes up when the ball comes down.

And he leads the league. Mr. Big And Slow. The playmaker’s best friend You can find contradictions in Bill Laimbeer from breakfast until lunch. But perhaps none are as pleasant as his camaraderie with Isiah Thomas, his training- camp roommate, a friendship Pistons executives describe as the strongest on the team.

Talk about Mutt and Jeff! Thomas — who grew up hard on Chicago’s south side, whose mother once warded off neighborhood gangs with a shotgun — and Laimbeer? A guy who once said, “I’m probably the only player in the NBA whose dad makes more money than him.”

It makes no sense, which is to say you expect it from Laimbeer. Best friends?

“Isiah’s a great guy,” he said. “We educate one another. We’ll be shooting baskets and he’ll say, ‘Man, where I grew up the rims were bent and we didn’t have any nets.’ And I’ll say, ‘Really? I just went into my private court in the backyard.”‘

He laughed. You can hear Isiah laughing, too. This is sports at its best, leveling differences between men like sandpaper.

It’s nice. It’s rare. And so it’s welcome — as is a center who lacks almost every physical gift you need in the NBA and still has more rebounds than Malone, Sampson, Parish and Jabbar. ”There are times I dream about flying down the court, reverse dunking,” he said. “But I can’t. I know it. Still, there’s a place for me in the NBA. I had chances to do other things. Maybe I will.”

He smiled. “But hey. So far, nothing appeals to me as much. I get paid well. Why should I stop?”

He may be big and slow. But he’s not stupid.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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