At the Midnight Hour


Bill Laimbeer, a backup center with Cleveland, was considered a throw-in to the Feb. 16, 1982 deal that brought him to Detroit.
Courtesy: Cleveland Cavaliers
Deadline Deals, Part 3: Laimbeer arrives …
At the Midnight Hour

by John Maxwell

A 60-loss season in the NBA is definitely a low point, which makes consecutive 60-loss seasons pretty close to rock bottom. That’s where the Pistons were after collecting 127 losses between 1979-81.

But with great losses come high draft picks, and Jack McCloskey, who took command as Pistons GM during the ’80-81 season, made the most of his. He drafted Isiah Thomas No. 1 overall and Kelly Tripucka later in the first round to begin the Pistons’ resurrection. But the Bad Boys wouldn’t be the Bad Boys without McCloskey’s deadline deal later in the ’81-82 season.

On Feb. 16, 1982 with midnight fast approaching, “Trader Jack” pulled the trigger on a deal that sent Phil Hubbard, Detroit’s third leading scorer from the previous year (14.5 ppg), backup center Paul Mokeski and 1982 first- and second-round draft picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

At the time, most NBA observers and fans believed McCloskey made the deal to acquire 25-year-old forward Kenny Carr, who had averaged 15.0 points over the previous season and a half. The Cavs’ backup center, Bill Laimbeer, was considered a throw-in to the deal. But McCloskey knew better.

“Everybody said, ‘You got a great player in Carr,’” McCloskey recalled in Eli Zaret’s 2004 book Blue Collar Blueprint. “We’d drafted Carr when I was (an assistant coach) with the Lakers and we knew he was a good player, but I really wanted Laimbeer.”

I was talking to the [Cavs] owner, Ted Stepien. I knew he was Polish and I said to him, ‘In Mokeski, you’re getting a Polish guy on your team.’ And he said, ‘I didn’t know he was Polish.’ I said, ‘He is, and he’s a great guy and a big guy.’ And that’s how we completed the deal.”

Pistons coach Scotty Robertson also viewed Laimbeer’s acquisition as the steal of the deal. “We were playing at San Antonio the day after the trade and I had Laimbeer come to my hotel room at three in the afternoon,” Robertson recounted in Steve Addy’s book, Four Decades of Motor City Memories. “I said ‘Bill, as of 7:30 tonight, you’re my starting center. Show me what you’ve got.’ That night he gets 12 points and 16 rebounds.”

Laimbeer had been eager to leave Cleveland, where he was averaging 6.7 points and 5.5 rebounds, and was vocal about doing so, saying “I’ve got my fingers crossed, my toes crossed, everything that’ll cross,” in hopes of a deal out of town. One person hoping Laimbeer would stay was Cleveland head coach Chuck Daly. Yes, that Chuck Daly.

The Pistons’ future all-time wins leader was in the midst of a 41-game run at the Cavs’ helm before parting ways with Stepien. Daly left the Cavs owner with some parting observations: “I think this team has a chance to be a really good team; we need to tweak it with one or two players and I’ll tell you why. You have Laimbeer, who’s a high post center, and you have James Edwards, who’s a low post center,’ and we were starting to come together.” Stepien had other ideas - and Laimbeer, Daly and Edwards reunited in Detroit to win back-to-back NBA titles years later.

Laimbeer is generally remembered as the player who defined the “Bad Boys” image during those years. He had the faculty to get under the skin of some of the NBA’s greatest players, including Larry Bird, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Kevin McHale and Scottie Pippen. Despite the villainous persona Laimbeer fostered, he was more than an instigator. He averaged a double-double during the 1990 Finals with 13.2 points and 13.4 rebounds, and also tied the former Finals record of six triples in Game 2, the Pistons’ only loss to Portland in the series. Before that he was among the NBA’s rebounding leaders, finishing in the top-5 for five straight seasons in the ‘80s, including a league-leading 13.1 boards per game in 1985-86. He is the Pistons’ franchise rebounding king with 9,430 boards.

While Laimbeer made four All-Star Game appearances, the other players in the deal struggled to put together four complete seasons. Hubbard remained with the Cavaliers until his retirement in 1989, although injuries limited him to an average of just 49 games his last five seasons in the league. Mokeski stayed in Cleveland for just 51 games before being dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks during the 1982-83 season. He played eight more seasons but averaged just 4.0 points over his career. Carr played in 28 games for Detroit to close out the ‘81-82 season before the Pistons sent him to Portland for a first-round draft pick. Carr continued to average double figures in scoring but failed to play in more than 55 games in his last three seasons.

Laimbeer’s surprising emergence from unknown trade commodity to All-Star is the biggest reason why Harlan Schreiber of www.hoopsanalyst.com ranked this deadline deal one of the five worst trades in the history of the Cavaliers franchise.

It doesn’t take much to convince Pistons fans that it was one of their best.

Deadline Deals Series:

  • Part One: Dealing Dantley
  • Part Two: Dog Days Come to an End
  • Part Four: The Perfect Storm