by | Nov 18, 1993 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Bill Laimbeer entered the Pistons’ front offices Wednesday morning thinking maybe he should quit. He told the brass that he didn’t do anything, he didn’t start the fight, and here he was getting blamed for it.

“I set a pick,” he said, by way of defense. “That’s all.”

Later, when he met with reporters, he said he hoped they wouldn’t blow the thing out of proportion, and what he meant by that was he didn’t want the home fans hating him the way the rest of the country did.

In the first quarter of the evening’s game against Orlando, he came off the bench and heard a few people boo. He tried to ignore them.

Two hours later, when it was over, he had played his best game of the season, scoring 26 points. The Pistons had won, and, suddenly, everyone was cheering Laimbeer’s name.

Such is the nature of blown-up controversy. It loses air fast. This big
“fight” that brought a horde of reporters out to the Palace on Wednesday night was, indeed, nothing more than a common occurrence during practice that got out of hand. Laimbeer has been pulling this crap for years, setting hard picks, throwing an elbow or shoulder in for good measure. He has less-than-average talent, by NBA standards, and he often makes up for it with cheap shots.

Anyone who has played with him — or against him — knows this. Heck, Laimbeer wasn’t in Wednesday’s game more than five minutes before the whistle blew, and Scott Skiles was on the floor, and Laimbeer was waving his arms, yelling, “What? What?” and the opposing coach was screaming, “Flagrant foul!”

You paint a portrait of Laimbeer’s career, this is it: Everybody screaming; Laimbeer with that big-eyed look, saying, “Who, me?”

From behind — that mattered

Which brings us to Isiah Thomas, who knows this better than anyone. He has, after all, been playing with Laimbeer for a dozen years. Isiah is one of three captains on this team — Laimbeer and Joe Dumars are the others. Still, Isiah is in charge. He’s the one they look to. He has power. He’s the owner’s favorite. He is, to use basketball lingo, The Man in Detroit. That used to mean you set the example.

Instead, for whatever reason, when Laimbeer hard-checked him in practice Tuesday afternoon, Thomas — already playing with a broken rib thanks to a Laimbeer poke — lost his cool like a frustrated rookie. The two men scuffled. They exchanged words. As practice began to resume, Laimbeer walked away, and Thomas came after him from behind with a punch to the back of the head.

From behind.

And that’s what this whole thing was about.

Forget the fact that they scuffled or disagreed. They do this face to face, there’s no story, no residual anger, they’re back laughing at each other an hour later.

But somebody throws a shot at you from behind, someone you consider your friend, and suddenly, you’re questioning everything.

Isiah has had this effect on people. He is a chameleon. You can think he’s your pal, and then something happens, and you’re out. You see his fangs. The smiling angel he plays is gone. Several people have fallen prey to this over the years. But it had never happened to Laimbeer.

“Put it this way,” Laimbeer said after the two men made up Wednesday,
“outside of my family, I love this guy as much as anyone, OK? So now you understand why I was upset.”

Right. He felt stabbed in the back.

Or, in this case, punched. Scuffle, yes; meaningless, no

Which still leads us back to Thomas, who sat on the bench Wednesday night, in a grey sweater and charcoal pants, sidelined for a month with a broken hand. He made a sympathetic picture. He looked forlorn. But there is something to remember here.

Laimbeer didn’t break Isiah’s hand.

Isiah did.

“He’s a captain, and yes, I expect him to set an example for everybody,” coach Don Chaney said. That’s not much of an example — going for a teammate from behind. Isiah dismissed this as best he could Wednesday night, saying,
“You’re making too big a deal out it.” Well, that is the nature of media attention. Everything is too big a deal.

But give the press a little credit. We know fights occur all the time in practice. We know a meaningless scuffle when we see one. Most meaningless scuffles don’t require long, apologetic phone conversations, face-to-face meetings requested by the front office, and a veteran player considering retirement from the game.

Isiah is right about one thing: If he hadn’t broken his hand, this wouldn’t be so much of a story. But if he hadn’t gone after Laimbeer, he wouldn’t have broken his hand.

Now, he cannot help his team on the court. That will hurt the Pistons, a team that was already struggling. For this, Isiah, the captain, should take responsibility.

For trying to blind-side a friend — even in a moment of anger — well, that’s something Isiah will have to live with. For the record, the other Pistons say, “It’s over; forget it.” In private, they say, “This guy, man, watch out for him.”

That may not be a big story.

But it’s real.


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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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