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.
He has all the decorations.
Three-time WNBA 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.