Legends profile: Bill Laimbeer

The rugged big man known for his low-post defensive tactics was a key member of Detroit's title teams.

Bill Laimbeer was one of the NBA’s most rugged big men in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Bill Laimbeer was one of the most notorious players ever to throw an elbow, thrust a hip, or feign being fouled. Certainly, no player was ever showered with more boos or unflattering nicknames. Laimbeer was called “the prince of darkness,” “a street thug,” “an ax murderer” and “His Heinous.”

In 14 bruising NBA seasons Laimbeer made up for his minuscule vertical leap, slow feet, and sluggishness by becoming a master of posturing, muscling, and anticipating — plus fomenting trouble, pretending to be fouled, and drawing his opponents’ ire. Laimbeer always seemed to be nursing a brawl-induced shiner or broken nose. He was punched by some of the league’s best players, including Robert Parish, Bob Lanier, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley. “We don’t like him that good,” Bird once told Sports Illustrated.

The Laimbeer “flop” became the stuff of legend. A grimacing Laimbeer would often go careening to the floor in reaction to the slightest tap from an opponent. More often than not, the whistle went his way. With aggravating if not refreshing candor, Laimbeer never disavowed his on-court histrionics.

Nevertheless, Laimbeer was one of the league’s finest centers throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s. In 12 seasons with Detroit, Laimbeer became the Pistons’ all-time leader in rebounds and second in games played. Playing the role of head villain, he led the “Bad Boys” of Detroit to back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990.A four-time All-Star, Laimbeer became the 19th player in league history to amass more than 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds. He had a special talent for defensive rebounding, and he could pump in outside shots and hit free throws. Despite his frequent injuries, Laimbeer was an iron man; his consecutive-game streak of 685 remains among the longest in NBA history.

Laimbeer once told Sports Illustrated, “I don’t fight. I agitate, then walk away.” Longtime teammate and friend Isiah Thomas said of Laimbeer in the Detroit News, “I wouldn’t say fans hate him. They love to hate him. It’s a love-hate relationship. Tell you the truth, if I didn’t know Bill, I wouldn’t like him either.”

Laimbeer was raised in the affluent Chicago suburb of Clarendon Hills. As a child, he shot baskets in his driveway. His college academic and athletic career hardly portended later success in life. Laimbeer flunked out as a freshman at Notre Dame and had to attend a technical college for two semesters to get his grades back up. In his final two seasons playing for Digger Phelps’ Fighting Irish, Laimbeer averaged just 7.3 points and 6.0 rebounds.

Laimbeer was not a hot prospect in the 1979 NBA Draft. He was the 65th overall pick, going to Cleveland in the third round. The Cavaliers were so ambivalent about Laimbeer’s skills that they didn’t offer him a contract until mid-August. By that time, he had agreed to play for Pinti Inox of Brescia in the Italian League. He starred in his only season in Europe, averaging 21.1 points and 12.5 rebounds. Laimbeer then returned to the United States, put in a solid year for the Cavs in 1980-81, and was traded to Detroit in February 1982 with Kenny Carr for Phil Hubbard, Paul Mokeski and two draft picks. Also joining the hapless Pistons that year were Laimbeer’s Notre Dame teammate, Kelly Tripucka, and Thomas, a then 20-year-old point guard from Indiana University.

The Pistons struggled through the mid-1980s, playing in the shadow of the Milwaukee Bucks in the Central Division. Laimbeer put up fine numbers, scoring 15 to 18 points and pulling down 10 to 13 rebounds per game. He won the NBA rebounding title with 13.1 boards per game in 1985-86, snapping Moses Malone’s five-year streak as league leader. Laimbeer was most effective off the defensive glass. From 1982 to 1990 no player in the league totaled more defensive rebounds.

With a teamload of stars assembled by the 1987-88 season, the Pistons reached the NBA Finals. They lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in a seven-game series marred by some of the roughest play and sharpest rhetoric in league history. Laimbeer took part in more than his share of the discord.

The Pistons then ran off two consecutive NBA titles. Detroit’s championships in 1989 and 1990 made the club only the second team since the 1968-69 Boston Celtics to repeat as champions. While continuing his rugged inside play, Laimbeer tied an NBA Finals record by hitting six 3-pointers in Game 2 against the Portland Trail Blazers.

With both Laimbeer and Thomas aging and other stars leaving the team, Detroit gave way in the early 1990s to the newest dominant team, the Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan. The Detroit-Chicago rivalry was one of the most bitter of the era.

His back and knees aching and his pride smarting from falling productivity, Laimbeer retired 11 games into the 1993-94 season at age 36. Players throughout the league rejoiced sarcastically. Laimbeer’s former Bulls nemesis Horace Grant told the Detroit Free Press, “There’s going to be a big party at my house tonight. Everybody’s invited.”

Laimbeer left as the Pistons’ all-time leader in rebounds, with 9,430, and in games played, with 937 (which was surpassed by Thomas later in the 1993-94 season. For his 14-year career he averaged 12.9 points and 9.7 rebounds. He shot .498 from the field and .837 from the free-throw line. On Feb. 6, 1995, in a special pregame ceremony at The Palace, the Pistons retired his uniform No. 40.

Late in his career Laimbeer was asked by Sports Illustrated what he hoped to achieve as a player. He replied, “As far as centers go, I’m not Moses [Malone] or Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. I’m striving to be the best of the rest.”

Soon after retirement, Laimbeer began competing in another arena, the business world, when he became president of Laimbeer Packaging Corp., a corrugated box-making factory in suburban Detroit. Then he returned to the court as the coach of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, leading the team to a championship in 2003, ’06 and ’08 before the team folded and was moved to Tulsa in 2009.

Bill Laimbeer found immense success as a WNBA coach after his playing days ended.

Citing a desire to coach in the NBA, Laimbeer resigned as Detroit’s coach on June 15, 2009. Roughly two months later, Laimbeer received his first job as an NBA coach, becoming an assistant coach in Minnesota on Kurt Rambis’ staff. He spent two seasons as an NBA assistant coach before being let go as part of the Timberwolves’ house-cleaning.

Since then, Laimbeer returned to his post-playing home of the WNBA, serving as the New York Liberty’s coach and general manager since 2012 and coaching the team from 2013-17. He then left the Liberty to coach the new Las Vegas Aces in 2018, a role he has filled since then.

Aside from his three WNBA titles, Laimbeer has been named WNBA Coach of the Year twice: in 2003 and in 2015.