Greg Eno

Unwanted by the NBA, Laimbeer Is Now a Real Ladies Man

In Basketball on October 6, 2015 at 7:54 pm

When Bill Laimbeer played professional basketball, he could have been named any number of “of the Year” things.

Many of these aren’t suitable for a family blog.

Poll his fellow NBA players and Laimbeer could have been named anything from Flopper of the Year to PITA of the Year—and I don’t mean the bread.

Poll the referees and you’d have Laimbeer slotted in a whole other category of “of the Year” thing—such as Crybaby of the Year or Rule Bender of the Year.

Poll fans in NBA cities other than Detroit and you’d get a much more flowery response.

But Laimbeer, the pugnacious, arrogant, token white player on two Pistons championship teams, has found his milieu in the WNBA—the League of Women Players.

You probably missed it, but on September 17, the WNBA named Laimbeer, coach of the New York Liberty, as its Coach of the Year—for the second time in his career.

The announcement came on the eve of the WNBA playoffs, in which Laimbeer’s Liberty eventually bowed out in the Eastern Conference Finals last week, falling to Indiana, 2 games to 1.

Laimbeer first became WNBA COY in 2003, coaching the now-defunct Detroit Shock to the league championship.

For as much success as Laimbeer has had coaching the ladies in the WNBA, it wasn’t exactly how he would have charted his post-playing basketball career.

He’s 58 now, and he admitted in an interview last June that his dream of being a head coach in the NBA has likely been extinguished forever.

“My time has passed,” Laimbeer said.

Laimbeer did have a taste of NBA coaching, however—when he assisted Kurt Rambis, an old foe on the court, in Minnesota from 2009-11.

Laimbeer is more than a quarter century removed from his “Bad Boys” days, when he paired with Ricky Mahorn in terrorizing NBA opponents in the paint. Laimbeer’s slugfests with the likes of Boston’s Robert Parish and Kevin McHale put the black hats on the Pistons, who banged and elbowed their way to two straight league titles (1989-90).

Isiah Thomas—Laimbeer’s current boss with the Liberty—might have been the ringleader of the Bad Boys, but Laimbeer was the chief henchman. He was hung in effigy in Chicago. Celtics radio announcer Johnny Most screamed bloody murder into his microphone about Laimbeer and Mahorn’s “aggressive” style of play. Laimbeer would respond to the vitriol in opposing arenas by encouraging the boos by raising his arms and taking sarcastic bows.

He was the NBA’s unofficial Most Hated Player of the Year—several years running.

But now Laimbeer is a coaching lifer, though that life is in the league with the W in front of its name.

Laimbeer, in many ways, is the Kirk Gibson of basketball in Detroit.

Both players were hardly darlings of the press in their active days. Neither was warm and fuzzy with the fans, either.

But both identified with the blue collar fans of Detroit—from their no-holds-barred playing style to embracing the “Detroit vs. the World” mentality that has been pervasive in this town for decades.

And both have been mentioned ad nauseam as potential coaches/managers in the Motor City.

When Joe Dumars was burning through Pistons coaches like a teenager with his allowance money, Laimbeer was always being clamored for by the fans.

And when Jim Leyland retired after the 2013 season, it was Gibson—manager of Arizona at the time—who the fans wanted the Tigers to hire.

Even this season, some fans wanted the Tigers to replace the beleaguered Brad Ausmus with now-broadcaster Gibby in the dugout for next season, despite Gibson’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease earlier in the year.

Laimbeer, truth be told, will likely go down as one of the best coaches in WNBA history—if not the best.

Who knew?

He has all the decorations.

Three-time LaimbeerWNBA champion as coach (all with Detroit). Two-time Coach of the Year.

This year with the Liberty might be the most improbable success of Laimbeer’s coaching career, because the team gave Laimbeer the ziggy last year after two sub-.500 seasons (11-23 and 15-19), only to bring him back some three months later.

In 2015, Laimbeer resuscitated his coaching career and the Liberty, leading New York to a 23-11 record. But a 66-51 loss at Madison Square Garden in the decisive Game 3 on September 29 ended the hopes for another Laimbeer-coached WNBA championship.

Laimbeer long ago found a home in the WNBA after realizing that the league he played in wasn’t all that jazzed about bringing him back as a coach. There were never any serious interviews. We can only speculate as to why that was the case.

For sure, Laimbeer would have listened if an NBA team had come calling for a head coach.

“There was a time when I would have — really, I was foaming at the mouth to get an (NBA head coaching) opportunity,” Laimbeer said. “It didn’t happen. OK, I’m getting old, just turned 58. My time’s probably passed. I’m enjoying doing what I’m doing. It works for me and my wife and our lifestyle. … It pays a lot better, I’ll tell you that, they pay a lot in the NBA.”

Old school Pistons fans might snicker at the line about pay, because when Laimbeer was a player, he once noted that he was probably the only one in the league wearing sneakers whose father made more money than he did. Laimbeer’s dad was a successful businessman.

Has Laimbeer mellowed? Well, he’s a teacher these days, not a whiner. And he’s finally found people who’ll listen to him, instead of rolling their eyes.

“The players want to be taught,” he said in June of the WNBA. “There’s a very distinct difference in the mind-set of players. In the woman’s league, they want to learn, they want to be coached. … Women listen much better than the guys — it’s dramatic. The guys, they think they know it all and they only listen when threatened with playing time or extinction of their job. But, hey, it is what it is, and the money is so great in the NBA, they think they can do whatever they want to and still get paid, which, in many cases, is correct.”

On the sidelines in the WNBA, Laimbeer still flashes that signature petulant behavior of his from time to time. He still has the derisive, dismissive smirk. He can still whine on occasion. After the games, he still has fun with the media in his own sardonic way. Just like when he played.

The NBA coaching dream is over but Laimbeer just finished another winning season with the women, coaching players who want to be coached.

Not bad, boy.

Larkin Has Chance to Follow in Yzerman’s Footsteps, Some 32 Years Later

In Hockey on October 2, 2015 at 6:43 pm

It was early in the rookie teenager’s first NHL season.

He was all of 18 years old, the age where high school graduation is either on the agenda or still a fresh memory.

Veteran Red Wings players dressed around him inside the Joe Louis Arena locker room, talking to reporters following a win, which was a lot more rare in those days than it is today.

Left wing sniper John Ogrodnick leaned back in front of his stall, his hands clasped around a knee, engaging the microphones and cameras after helping lead the team to victory on that October evening in 1983.

Thirty-five year-old defenseman Brad Park ambled up to a table and drew some water from a large cooler, a towel wrapped around his waist.

Other players milled about, laughing and teasing each other. Goalie Ed Mio, who got the win that night, rubbed mousse into his hair as he bantered with reporters and some joking teammates.

The mood was light. Players were tired, as they are after very game, but it was a good kind of tired. Victories will do that.

Covering the game as a cub reporter for the Michigan Daily,  I wedged myself between the cameramen and scribes. There was a moment when I tried to get out of someone’s way and took a couple of steps backward.

I stepped on someone’s foot.

I immediately turned around to apologize.

“It’s OK,” the voice of my victim said, barely above a whisper.

I recognized the youthful face, free of the stubble, scars and lines that pocked the mugs of his more veteran teammates.

It was that kid rookie with the funny last name.

WHY-zerman? EE-zer-man? Something like that.

I was done listening to Ogrodnick so I flipped the page of my notepad and decided to talk to the kid, mainly because nobody else was.

I asked a couple of questions, long since forgotten from the banks of my 52 year-old memory.

What I do remember, however, is that I had to strain to hear his answers. I also recall that he seemed almost embarrassed that I wanted to talk to him to begin with.

He was 18 and in his second week in the NHL.

Three years later I was directing Steve Yzerman in a TV commercial. I told him about our first encounter in 1983.

He smiled sheepishly.

“My dad always told me that the less you talk, the less people will realize that you have nothing to say,” he said, chuckling. Yzerman’s father had been a respected politician in Ottawa.

Yzerman, at that time, was the 21 year-old boy captain of the Red Wings, the youngest player to wear the “C” in franchise history. Coach Jacques Demers named Yzerman his captain not long after agreeing to coach the Red Wings in the summer of 1986.

For Demers, the move was a no-brainer, even though the roster was dotted with players much more steeped in NHL experience.

Cynics wondered when Demers would come to his senses and name a more veteran captain.

Yzerman remained captain until he hung up his skates in 2006.

No teenager has made the Red Wings roster out of training camp since Yzerman did it in 1983 as the fourth overall pick in that summer’s NHL draft.

That streak might come to an end.


Dylan Larkin is 19 years old, can skate like the wind, has immense hockey sense and to hear observers tell it, the kid has ice vision so impressive that he must have eyes in the back of his head.

New Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is giving Larkin, the team’s first round pick (15th overall) in 2014, every chance to show off his mad hockey skills.

Blashill has been putting Larkin, a center, on a line with wingers Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader in recent exhibition games.

That’s not what you do if you’re thinking of sending Larkin to the minors to start the season.

And with fellow centers Pavel Datsyk and Darren Helm on the mend and not ready to be in the lineup for Opening Night next Friday, this just may be Larkin’s time. Already.

The thing about the NHL is that pretty much every front line forward in the league was, at some point in his hockey life, a dominating player, somewhere.

But not every player dominated his competition like Larkin has.

In 2013, the Waterford-born Larkin played 26 games for the United States National U-18 team. In those 26 games, he registered 17 goals and 9 assists. In 2014, his freshman year at the University of Michigan, he tallied 15 goals and 32 assists in 35 games. He also got his first taste of professional hockey, being sent to play with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins during their playoff last spring. In his six game sample, he scored three goals and two assists.

This exhibition season with the Red Wings, Larkin scored three goals in his first four games. One of them, in Pittsburgh, was a beauty.

Larkin used his blazing speed to beat the Penguins defenseman around the outside, then he swooped in on the goaltender and scored on the blocker side.

There’s also some great irony when it comes to Dylan Larkin—a direct connection to Yzerman, no less.

Larkin hails from Waterford, and when the Red Wings traipsed to the NHL draft in Montreal in 1983, they had their eye on another Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine.

The fans wanted the local hero LaFontaine, also a center. Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano wanted LaFontaine. Badly.

But three teams picked ahead of Detroit.

The first, the Minnesota North Stars, selected Brian Lawton. The second, the Hartford Whalers, picked Sylvain Turgeon. The New York Islanders, despite being the four-time defending Stanley Cup champions, held the third overall pick thanks to a trade.

The Islanders, Devellano’s old team, slugged their former executive in the gut by picking Pat LaFontaine.

So Jimmy D “settled” for Steve Yzerman, center for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League.

So here’s Dylan Larkin, from Waterford, threatening to make the Red Wings roster out of training camp as a teenager, the first player to do so since Steve Yzerman, who the Red Wings settled for after the Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine, was taken ahead of them in the 1983 draft.

Funny how things work out sometimes, eh?

Larkin, not as shy as Yzerman was (and still is), has made no bones about it. His intention is to make the Red Wings. Right now. He’s trying to avoid a bus ticket to Grand Rapids at all costs.

“It is what I have been waiting for and I’m ready for it,” Larkin said about playing in the NHL, sooner rather than later.

“I think I’ll be a dominant player all over the ice,” Larkin continued. “I’ll be a player than can play against the other team’s top line and can still produce offense. It might take a while, but it does for everyone to become a dominant player.”

You never heard Steve Yzerman talk about himself in that manner at age 19—and Yzerman never really did, not even after he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, for goodness sakes.

Coach Blashill is helping by letting the teenager show off his wares against other top-line NHL players in the pre-season matches, and Larkin has been responding.

GM Kenny Holland has said that there’s no rush in getting Larkin to the NHL.

But that was before training camp and the exhibition schedule began.

Sometimes if a kid has it, he has it. Sometimes there really is no need for him to play in the minors, where even at age 19 he would be a man among boys.

They talk a lot around Hockeytown about the Red Wings’ streak of 24 straight playoff appearances.

Here’s one streak that might come to an end: the 32 years between teenagers making the Red Wings out of training camp.

Some Fontes-Like Boldness Might Be What Lions Need in 2015

In football on September 30, 2015 at 3:17 pm

The Lions offense was sputtering.

A jackrabbit, 7-2 start to the season had blown up after three straight losses, threatening to turn a promising year into a bitter pill to swallow.

And Lord knows the Lions had swallowed their share of those.

The culprit was mainly on one side of the football.

Quarterback Rodney Peete was having trouble leading scoring drives. The rebuilt offensive line was having trouble blocking.

But most of all, the play calling was suspect.

The great running back Barry Sanders was out with a minor knee injury, and that didn’t help matters.

So after an early-December, 13-0 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, head coach Wayne Fontes had seen enough.

This was 1993.

Fontes, so often portrayed as a lovable bear of a man or a buffoon—take your pick—was neither when he fired offensive coordinator Dan Henning.

Henning was hired by Fontes after the 12-4 1991 season, with the idea that Henning’s expertise in power football was needed to transition the Lions from a Run-and-Shoot circus to a more traditional, pro-set style offense.

Henning was a two-time failure as a head coach (Atlanta and San Diego) but he was well-respected as an offensive mind, having been the architect of some good offenses in Washington, where he was OC on two different occasions for Joe Gibbs (1981-82 and 1987-88, including two Super Bowl wins).

But it wasn’t working out in Detroit.

The 1992 Lions, in Henning’s first year, went 5-11—a huge disappointment following a year in which the team went to the NFC Championship game.

Despite possessing the world’s greatest running back at the time in Sanders, the Lions had trouble transitioning to Henning’s style, which had worked so well in Washington with the likes of John Riggins and George Rogers carrying the water in the running attack.

But Riggins and Rogers were power runners, and Barry…well, wasn’t. The offensive line needed to be revamped.

To give Henning more to work with, the Lions went out and signed three trenchmen during 1993 free agency—veteran offensive linemen Bill Fralic, David Richards and Dave Lutz.

But after the 7-2 start, which was mainly the bi-product of a stingy defense, the Lions dropped three straight games—scoring a total of 23 points.

Fontes fired Henning the day after the Vikings game, which dropped the Lions to 7-5 and put their playoff hopes on thin ice.

Fontes, no offensive genius he (his forte was coaching defense), handed the playbook to assistant Dave Levy, who at the time was more famous for driving his boss around in a golf cart during training camp than anything else.

Fontes also demoted Peete and made Erik Kramer the starting quarterback.

Pretty urgent, gutsy stuff.

“These were decisions I had to make that I think are best for this team,” Fontes said at the time. “We’ve been struggling on offense all year.”

The Lions responded by finishing the season 3-1 and winning their division.

A gut-wrenching loss to the Packers at the Silverdome was the Lions’ playoff reward.

But this isn’t about what the Lions did in the playoffs. How can it be, when the franchise has exactly one post-season win to its credit in 58 years?

This is about the boldness of Wayne Fontes.

Say what you will about Fontes, but his firing of Dan Henning and promotion of Erik Kramer saved, at least temporarily, the Lions season in 1993.

If you have perused the Internet and listened to sports talk radio over the past couple of days, the need for some Fontes-like urgency appears to be nigh.

Fans want OC Joe Lombardi’s head on a stick.

They want head coach Jim Caldwell to make like Fontes and give his coordinator the ziggy—that Detroit word for firing a coach.

The Lions offense is, like in 1993, sputtering along. And this year’s platoon doesn’t have Barry Sanders.

In 1993, the Lions had talented receivers like Herman Moore and Brett Perriman.

This year’s version has Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.

Fontes had Peete and Kramer—decent QBs but neither possessed as much talent in their whole bodies as Matthew Stafford has in his right arm.

1993’s Lions had Sanders; this year’s squad has Joique Bell and Ameer Abdullah.

So it might be a wash, comparing 1993 to 2015. But the reality is that both offenses were/are guilty of underperforming.

Caldwell has been steadfast in his support of Lombardi, who is proving on a weekly basis that football genius isn’t necessarily hereditary.

The fans are practically begging Caldwell to at least snatch the playbook from OC Lombardi, if not fire him altogether.

Wayne Fontes saw a season crumbling around him in 1993. He had been on the precipice of the Super Bowl two years earlier and after a nosedive in 1992, Fontes didn’t want to miss out on another chance at playoff glory.

So despite a 7-5 record, Fontes blew things up at the Silverdome.

And it worked.

Jim Caldwell is a fine man of high character. I know it likely goes against his grain to embarrass Lombardi by taking over the play calling. And Caldwell doesn’t seem to have the demeanor to fire a coordinator in mid-season.

But it’s exactly this kind of “nice guy” stuff that the owner, Bill Ford, displayed for years, to a fault—particularly as he aged.

A younger Ford, in the 1960s and ’70s, made some bold moves based partly on impatience.

The older Ford was more content to hang his hat on loyalty and patience.

Of course, neither tack really worked, but those are the facts.

It doesn’t look like Jim Caldwell is going to do anything rash, even as his team flounders to move the football amid reports that other team’s defenses know what the Lions are going to do before they do it.

It’s a level-headed, even-keeled sort of approach.

But it may not be the wisest one.


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