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A Crashing Success

Master of the theatrical fall, Detroit's Bill Laimbeer is one of the NBA's most disliked players—and its top rebounder

It is the lot of Detroit Pistons center William Laimbeer Jr. to collect both rebounds and scorn in quantity. He is the NBA leader in the former category, with an average of 12.9 per game at week's end, which should be enough to break Moses Malone's six-year stranglehold on the rebounding title. And speaking of strangleholds, that's what several NBA teams, the Boston Celtics in particular, would like to apply to the thick neck of one Bill Laimbeer.

"You want me to say something about Laimbeer, eh?" says Bill Walton. Walton says something, then flashes a huge grin. "But you can't print it."

Robert Parish, who has been involved in a fight with Laimbeer in each of the last two seasons: "I was always taught if you can't say something nice about someone, then don't say anything at all. So I'm saying nothing at all."

Larry Bird: "We don't like him that good."

The Milwaukee Bucks don't like him that good, either. On Nov. 1, 1983, Bob Lanier, then a Buck, coldcocked him in a game at the Silverdome, breaking his nose. Since then, Laimbeer has also had tussles with Alton Lister and Sidney Moncrief. Could it be that Laimbeer inspires hatred only among teams that wear green? "I don't even want to talk about him," says an assistant coach of a Central Division team that doesn't wear green. "Laimbeer's a crybaby and a faker." So much for the green theory.

"I was having breakfast with an NBA coach and his wife recently when Bill's name came up in passing," says Detroit assistant coach Dick Harter. "As soon as the wife heard it she slammed down her fork and asked, 'What's the deal with that guy? I mean, does he beat his wife or what?' I couldn't believe how fired up she was."

It remains, then, for Laimbeer's loyal teammates to refute these blasphemous charges. "Tell you the truth," says Isiah Thomas, Laimbeer's closest buddy on the Pistons, "if I didn't know Bill, I wouldn't like him, either."

What is the deal with this guy?

Laimbeer, 28 and a three-time All-Star, is a nice enough fellow off the court, a bit sarcastic, perhaps, but in an intelligent sort of way. His wife, Chris, 29, who could still slide into the court of most homecoming queens, bears no visible scars. They've got an adorable son, Eric William, who was born last April, six days before the Pistons' Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series against, fittingly, Boston. Laimbeer has never been into substance abuse. Visits his parents regularly. Sponsors a charity golf tournament in the summer. He is politically conservative—but then there aren't many deep thinkers of the liberal persuasion in the NBA. Loves fishing, like any number of good ol' boy athletes. Doesn't overrate his abilities or do much woofing off the court. "As far as centers go," says Laimbeer, "I'm not Moses or Kareem. But I'm striving to be the best of the rest."

There are, in fact, any number of contradictions swirling around the large (6'11", 265-pound) person of Laimbeer, like his close friendship with Thomas, who is as popular around the league as Laimbeer is unpopular. They both spent most of their formative years in Chicago, but thousands of symbolic miles apart, Thomas in the mostly black ghetto of K-Town, Laimbeer in the all-white, well-manicured suburb of Clarendon Hills. Thomas's mother, Mary, warded off neighborhood pushers with a shotgun. Laimbeer's parents drove him and his future wife, the former Chris Skiver, to formal-dance classes in which they learned funky steps like the fox-trot. Thomas chased basketball with a relentless passion to escape the misery and deadness around him. Laimbeer yawned and hoisted up a few jumpers in the driveway.

Though it's no longer true, as Laimbeer used to claim, that "I'm the only player in the NBA who makes less money than his father," William Laimbeer Sr. made more than a good living for his family as an executive with Owens-Illinois, one of the world's largest producers of glass containers and paper products. Laimbeer Sr. is now the executive vice-president of Owens-Illinois and makes more than $300,000 per year plus bonuses and perks. That's roughly half as much as his son, who signed a five-year, $3.5 million contract in June of 1984.

"I guess it was an easy life for Bill," says his father. "But he found his own niche and succeeded in it. Most lily-white kids, you know, don't know how to mix it up."

"Yes, I was lucky," says Laimbeer. "But in basketball, nobody ever gave me anything."

Least of all speed and jumping ability. "Bill's the epitome of the guy running in sand," says Detroit coach Chuck Daly.

"Now that the Whopper [Billy Paultz] is gone," says Laimbeer, "I can't think of anyone I can outjump." Despite his size and bulk, he has almost no back-to-the-basket moves—no turnaround jumper, no power drive and certainly no skyhook. In the words of Cleveland bruiser Lonnie Shelton, Laimbeer "tippy-toes" around the perimeter, arching long jump shots a la Dan Issel. The Pistons would love to deal for a truer offensive center and move Laimbeer to power forward. A Detroit sportscaster, in fact, recently suggested on the air that they trade Thomas for a center. A few nights later, one of the Pistons, fellow named Laimbeer, appeared on camera to rebut the idea.

On the defensive boards, though, Laimbeer does everything anyone could ever ask of a center. He had 2,103 defensive caroms over the past three seasons, more than Malone, more than Buck Williams, more than anyone.

Other contradictions? His work ethic during the season could serve as a model for most NBA players, but in the off-season he confounds management with his absolute refusal even to pick up a basketball. He has an agile mind, yet rarely exercised it during his college years. He flunked out of Notre Dame after a freshman year spent "sleeping in," as he explains it, and finally graduated in the summer of 1979 by the skin of his teeth "with a two-point-oh-oh-oh-oh something." Today he plays golf on lush country-club courses (he is a one handicap-per) and throws darts in shot-and-beer joints around the NBA with equal fervor.

"Guess I'm a hard guy to figure out," says Laimbeer.

He takes both a hard-nosed attitude and a gallon of whine to battle. He knocks people down but is more comfortable wearing the cloak of victim. "The master of the theatrical," says Sacramento's Rich Kelley. Indeed, Laimbeer's thespian flair seems to be the principal reason he will never be the game's most popular player. Ex-Celtic Cedric Maxwell expressed the sentiment memorably, not to mention ichthyologically, a couple of years ago when he said, "Laimbeer flops around like a fish out there." Says Kevin McHale, "I got to know Bill a little at the Ail-Star Game. He's really a nice guy. He might even be a good guy to have on your team. But he flops. That's why players don't like him."

O.K., Laimbeer admits it. He flops. His ability to fake contact and take a fall borders on wretched excess. "But I don't do it nearly as much as I used to," he says.

The subject of flopping came up as Laimbeer rode the team bus from Boston Garden to Logan International Airport after a 129-109 loss to the Celts on March 2. It had been a typical Laimbeer-Boston game. He was booed vociferously. He had shoving matches with Greg Kite, Bird and McHale. The Celtic bench hooted at him and, after sinking a long jumper, he hooted back. Near the end of the third period he was hit with a technical foul, then walked to the Piston bench and kicked over three chairs, all the while wearing an expression that suggested Norman Bates in the midst of Oedipal therapy. Asked later why he drew the T, Laimbeer said with a smile, "Oh, I really didn't curse anybody. I was just roaming around making a spectacle of myself." But now the game was over, and Laimbeer was a good guy again.

"Hey, Zeke," he called to his buddy, Isiah. "How 'bout when I was with Cleveland. I used to get a charge on you all the time." Thomas shook his head ruefully. "I hated going in the lane with you standing in there," he said.

There are reasons besides the flop that no one flips over Laimbeer. "I'm used to being disliked at a national level because I went to Notre Dame," he says. And though the sun never stops shining around Isiah, Laimbeer doesn't play for the most popular band of guys in the world now, either. Another Golden Domer, Kelly Tripucka, he of the pouty expression and the perm, is soundly booed around the league, as is Rick Ma-horn, erstwhile Bullet Bruise Brother. Daly's flashy wardrobe and coiffure make him a favorite target, too.

"But I'll tell you the main reason people don't like Bill," says Harter. "He plays hard all the time. He comes at you. He doesn't give an inch."

Laimbeer's strong points on the boards are position, intelligence and tenacity. They have to be, because he jumps in cement sneakers. "Rebounding is hands and balance," says former Cleveland coach George Karl. "Laimbeer holds his position and jumps only the four inches he has to." Says Sacramento's Kelley: "His timing on the boards is nothing short of magnificent."

Laimbeer's scoring is down this year (to 16.3 from his 17.4 for the last two seasons), but that's not a major concern for the playoff-bound run-and-gun Pistons, who think posting up is taking a letter to be mailed. Shots must be found for outside bombers like Thomas, Tripucka, Vinnie Johnson and rookie Joe Dumars. Actually, Laimbeer, a career .810 foul shooter, may be as good an outside sniper as any of them. That's general manager Jack McCloskey's opinion. Laimbeer's jumper is accurate up to 20 feet and he gets it off fast, snapping the ball to eye level like a man pulling a heavy object out of the mud, then letting go with a quick flick of the wrist. "That thing's not in his hands a full second before he lets it go," says Cleveland's Shelton. Says Bucks coach Don Nelson, "Laimbeer has made a pretty good living taking big people away from the basket. He could still learn some low-post moves, but I'm not sure it's a priority."

The off-season would be the time to learn them, but Laimbeer steadfastly refuses to use the summer months for anything except golf, bass fishing and relaxing. That's in character for a kid who quit the only summer job he ever had, in a tire warehouse when he was 19, after two weeks. "I play hard and I play often," says Laimbeer, who has never missed a game since being traded to the Pistons from Cleveland in 1982, and who now leads the league in consecutive games played with 475. "My off-season time is my own. I don't really think it would help that much if I worked out."

McCloskey begs to differ: "He doesn't help the team by not working out in the summer. If he put in three hours a week he would improve vastly." But management, prohibited by the basic bargaining agreement from mandating off-season workouts, doesn't want to push the issue. "Nobody is more competitive than Bill Laimbeer during the season," says Daly. "It's what sets him apart."

"Competition," says Laimbeer, "dominates my life."

Indeed, given Laimbeer's college profile, only an extremely competitive person could have made it in the NBA. Even after he worked his way back to Notre Dame by taking two semesters of courses at Owens Technical College in Toledo, he averaged just 7.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in his final two years under Digger Phelps. He was surprised when the Cavaliers picked him in the third round of the June 1979 draft, but the Cavs didn't call back to talk terms until mid-August, by which time Laimbeer had signed a $40,000 contract to play for Pinti Inox of Brescia in the Italian League. (Don't rich kids always tour Europe after college?) He averaged 21.1 points and 12.5 rebounds in Italy, then made the Cavs' roster off his performance in the Southern California summer league. After being traded to Detroit in February 1982, he slowly but surely blossomed.

Only an extremely competitive person would have managed to land the estimable Chris Skiver, too. Despite the fact that Chris was virtually the girl next door, she never really thought much of Bill in their fox-trot days. "He was tall and skinny, with braces," she says. "No catch at all." They went their separate ways after the Laimbeers moved to California during Bill's junior year in high school, but got reacquainted at a party years later when he stopped back in the old neighborhood. "I had come with another guy and left with Bill," remembers Chris, a University of Michigan grad. "I never saw the guy again." In short, she flipped for the Flopper.

Only an extremely competitive person, moreover, would approach casual games the way Laimbeer does. Although his wife is no stranger to competition herself, being an avid skier and outdoors-woman, she refuses to play golf with him because he is such a bear on the course. "Bill's a good team player in golf because he's not afraid to get on you," says one of his frequent partners, Evan (Big Cat) Williams, a professional long-drive champion. "When he's playing regularly, Bill is almost a tour-caliber putter because of his concentration. He told me it was just like shooting free throws. He just locks himself in."

He brings that same competitiveness to a game of barroom darts, in which the stakes have foam. One evening around midnight in an Irish bar near Pontiac, Laimbeer got into a game with two of that establishment's better players. Even the opposition was impressed by his intensity. "Boy, the big guy really takes it seriously, eh?" one of them said. Laimbeer's drive might well be a legacy of his background, the flip side of the rich kid as complacent and unmotivated. He is used to getting his own way. He is used to being the best. He expects it. Laimbeer thinks about his background a lot. He admits that his forays into barroom dart games (he carries his own set of darts with him on the road) may well be a reaction to his affluent upbringing.

"My father's a registered Democrat," says Laimbeer. "Everything else about him—all his friends, contacts in business, everything—is Republican. But he just walks into that voting booth and says, 'Where's the Democratic lever?' My mother and I call it his guilt trip. Maybe I have one, too."

Sometime during Laimbeer's first season with the Pistons, he and Thomas had a long, stormy debate far into the night. Black vs. white, ghetto vs. suburb, that sort of thing. Each scored some points.

"When I first met him he acted exactly like a rich kid from the suburbs," says Thomas. "He knew how to eat lobster and go to the beach. But now he doesn't think quite so white anymore."

Laimbeer says that his friendship with Thomas has given him a "clearer perspective on the world." And, as with most white athletes, it is Laimbeer who talks with black inflection and in black idioms around the locker room, not vice versa. But there's still a distance between them. On the road, Laimbeer doesn't go to black clubs with his buddy, and he has a circle of well-to-do friends from his past who have almost no contact with blacks. "I don't want to start bringing Isiah around them just to show him off," says Laimbeer. "That would make both of us uncomfortable."

From Laimbeer, Thomas has learned to "stop feeling so much guilt about being successful." Not exactly Moral Precept No. 1, but a lesson is a lesson. "It was always very hard for me to go back to where I came from," says Isiah. "It wasn't anyone else's fault. It was my problem. Bill helped me look at it a little differently."

Back in Clarendon Hills, a black woman has helped to break the color barrier by moving into a house across the street from the old Laimbeer place. Her name is Mary Thomas, and her son, the most valuable player in this year's All-Star Game, bought the house for her. The world works in strange ways.

And so does Bill Laimbeer, the Pistons' inside-outside, hardworking-gone-fishing center. You can recognize him easily—he's the one with a set of darts and a silver spoon in his travel bag.



Opponents get steamed at his thespian descents, but Laimbeer's steady performance on the boards proves that even a flop can be a hit.



Although Laimbeer admits that he can't outjump anyone in the league, his floor sense and great timing make him a rebounding marvel.



Laimbeer, who takes a lot of heat from critics, cools out with his best buddy, Thomas.



Wife Chris has the benefit of a soft touch as she picks up the fine points of darts.



Son Eric William may be in for some tough sledding if he follows in his dad's footsteps.



Bill Sr.'s six-figure salary is surpassed by Junior's.