A Straight Piston

Nobody took more pleasure in inflicting misery than Bill Laimbeer

Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images
Remember the classic Bill Laimbeer clip from the 1990 Finals in Portland? The one where he cups his ear as they boo him off the floor with six fouls, he bows and eggs them on to give him even more of their leather-lunged bleating before taking a seat?

That’s the image of Bill Laimbeer I’ll take to my grave. The list of NBA players who have waded into raucous enemy arenas and not been flustered isn’t an especially long one, but the names on it are ones you would certainly recognize. Most of them are probably lodged in basketball’s Hall of Fame.

But Laimbeer is the only player I’ve ever come across who not only wasn’t flustered by such vitriol, he honestly, genuinely seemed to enjoy it. I don’t know that it made him play any better, but on some level it gave him a sense of almost perverse fulfillment, knowing he’d angered an entire set of people to the point of apoplexy, their faces red, their eyes bulging.

I was reminded of that again the other day when I talked to Terry Mills for the latest Pistons.com installment of Throwback Thursday. Unbidden, Mills began talking about the respect he gained for Laimbeer as a teammate once he joined forces with the Pistons in 1992. That was the tail end of Laimbeer’s playing career; it was his last full season, Laimbeer retiring after playing 11 games of the 1993-94 season.

But if Laimbeer’s physical skills were eroding along with the fire that pushed him to crank up a body never blessed with the quick-twitch athleticism so many of the competitors who came and went possessed, his ability to antagonize and infuriate remained as keen as ever.

Laimbeer’s name surfaced when Mills started to recount his best NBA memories. He began by talking about the competitiveness he sensed in those Pistons teams, and that led him to Laimbeer.

“Laimbeer – playing with that guy was unbelievable,” he said. “He was almost a cult figure. Every arena, the guy was getting booed ridiculously. He would just wave his hands and invite it. He thrived on it. But a great person you would want to have on your team.

“I could say that I was one of the guys who hated Laimbeer when he wasn’t on my team, but when he was on my team, you loved him. He was one of those guys, he’d tell you to your face, ‘I’m a Piston and we’re all about the Pistons. Forget those other guys.’ That’s the way he felt. He didn’t want guys from other teams to come to our locker room, the bus, nowhere. He was a straight Piston. That’s what he was.”

And remember this: Mills only saw Laimbeer as a teammate after the serious runs at NBA titles were over. Can you imagine how sharp his edges must have been four, five years earlier, when the Pistons were clawing their way up the backs of the Celtics and Lakers and kicking at the yapping Bulls at their heels?

Remember when the Pistons went to Portland, the NBA Finals tied at one game apiece, a place they hadn’t won in their last 20 games, covering 16 years? Conventional wisdom was that the Pistons would do well to win one game in Portland to force a return trip to The Palace, where they’d be set up to win games 6 and 7 at home.

Laimbeer sneered at that thought when it was suggested to him. To paraphrase, Laimbeer basically said: “Screw that. We’re going there and winning three games.”

Which, of course, they did. It took the amazing Joe Dumars Game 3 – the game where he scored 33 points and then learned afterward of the death of his father; a Game 4 score where a Danny Young bomb at the buzzer that would have forced overtime was waved off; and Vinnie Johnson’s clutch 0.07 jumper to win Game 5, but the Bad Boys fulfilled Laimbeer’s daring prophecy and robbed Pistons fans of getting to celebrate the win at home.

It’s tough to peel back the layers of that team and assign credit to any individual for what became an amazing force of collective will. Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman – right down the line – all brought their own simmering intensity to the cauldron. But Laimbeer’s willingness to wear the black hat – and, yes, he literally wore an audacious black hat throughout the Pistons’ stay in Portland that week – made him the symbolic face of the Bad Boys. And the way he embraced that role surely pushed the needle on the Bad Boys’ tachometer deep into the red zone. There was no greater, more consistent force in the Pistons’ universal philosophy of having each other’s back than the example Laimbeer set.

Here’s what Isiah Thomas told Eli Zaret for his book, “Blue Collar Blueprint,” about that emotionally charged Game 3 win at Portland: “Another thing I remember about that game was what happened when we ran out of the locker room. It was always Laimbeer, myself and then Dumars. As we ran out of the locker room and towards the court, there was a cameraman there. We’re about to enter the arena and the fans were all worked up and everybody’s (yelling) ‘Ah, the Pistons suck,’ and booing and all that. The cameraman was in front of us and Laimbeer took off full speed” – and here Isiah smacks his fist into his palm to indicate the cameraman’s unfortunate fate – “and knocked the cameraman over! And that really gave us like, ‘OK, we’re here, let’s get it on.’

“Throughout all of it with Portland, Laimbeer was really the rock. When we left Detroit for Portland, Laimbeer was the guy saying, ‘We’re gonna win. Don’t worry about it. Forget Portland. The streak means nothing.’ So he was the one who set the tone for us going out to Portland and he went on to play a great, physical series.”

And he exited as only Laimbeer could, hand cupped to his ear, begging for more abuse, a trail of carnage in his wake.