PORTLAND, Ore. -- On a villainy scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing a Christmastime Salvation Army bell ringer and 10 standing for a force of such surpassing international evil that Albania and the Vatican would seek to join forces in order to destroy it, this was Bill Laimbeer’s perfect 10.
Portland coach Rick Adelman said it all by saying, well, nothing.
“What did you think of Bill Laimbeer today?” Adelman was asked.
First, a three-second pause. Then, a throat-clear.
“I have no comment on Bill Laimbeer,” chirped the downtrodden Trail Blazers mentor.
Funny. When Detroit coach Chuck Daly was asked the same question, he started answering before the question was even asked in full.
“Ahhh,” cooed Daly. “Unbelievable. He just controlled the game. What a great rebounding job. He got tough rebounds, fighting off four or five people. He was determined. Maybe only Billy can do that.”
There are players who can match Bill Laimbeer’s determination, but none who can duplicate his ability to disrupt opponents’ concentration and infuriate crowds. And the fans of America are such well-meaning fools. When Laimbeer fouled out of yesterday’s game with 3:15 remaining, they gave him the kind of serenade that is symphonic music to a villain’s ears. They jeered and booed. Laimbeer acknowledged them with a let’s-hear-it gesture and a mock bow as he walked to the bench.
With Dennis Rodman unable to play because of a severe ankle sprain, the Pistons responded by playing a game that oozed professionalism. Seven men crashed double figures during the satisfying 121-106 destruction of the Trail Blazers. Heroes abounded, from Joe Dumars to Isiah Thomas, to Vinnie Johnson to John Salley. But based on Detroit’s individual job requirements, no one came closer to playing a perfect game than Laimbeer.
The stat sheet says Laimbeer had 11 points and 12 rebounds. What it doesn’t say is how many of his 11 defensive rebounds were in heavy traffic, nor does it state that on three occasions he stopped fast breaks. It also neglects to note that he induced an astonishing five offensive fouls, taking some legitimate charges and also pulling what Johnny Most would refer to as a Stanislavsky, or “phony flop,” on both Kevin Duckworth and Buck Williams.
How badly did he antagonize the Blazers? Consider Buck Williams’ final three personals. Nos. 4 and 5 were charges taken by Laimbeer. No. 6 came about when an angered and frustrated Williams elbowed Laimbeer while the re-heated Microwave was hitting a jumper.
“I wanted him to know I didn’t appreciate the way he was playing,” explained Williams. “But in the long run, I lost in that situation, because I picked up my sixth foul.”
What absolutely, positively infuriates opponents is that not since Jerry Sloan hung ‘em up has there been a man as adept at taking charges and drawing bogus fouls. If Dave Cowens ever played against this guy, the fight would start in the first minute.
“As a player you go into the game expecting he’ll be flopping, because that’s the kind of game he plays,” says Williams. “But when he starts getting calls, that’s when it gets frustrating. If Game 4 is going to be a flopping contest, I’m calling a friend of mine who’s an actor and get some pointers.”
An interested onlooker was former Hawks coach Mike Fratello, who is working the series for the SNN television network. “It’s not a matter of preparing your players to play against Bill Laimbeer,” he explains, “what you want is Bill Laimbeer on your team. Then you can allow your emotions to display that you really like what he does.”
And if you’re his coach, what’s not to like? People can throw at their Bill Laimbeer dartboard all they want, but the man is out there for one purpose, and that’s to win the game. He accomplishes this by hard rebounding, intelligent position defense (which includes putting so much body on people off the ball that they eventually start looking for help, whether from teammates or officials), outside shooting, solid pick-setting, and the kind of ceaseless hustle that embarrasses teammates into playing harder.
A typical Laimbeer sequence: With 5.6 seconds remaining in the half, he hit a left-corner jumper. With 1.7 seconds left, he took a charge at the other end from Clyde Drexler.
With Rodman out, roles had to be adjusted. You can be sure nobody had to tell Laimbeer what would be expected of him.
“My job is doing the dirty work,” said the impish Laimbeer, whose postgame inquisition attire was a towel and a -- what else? -- black fedora borrowed from mini-villain Mark Aguirre. “With Dennis out, the rebounding responsibility falls on me, the defensive rotation responsibility falls on me, and that’s what I do best -- the dirty work.”
Some big men get it done defensively by blocking, altering or discouraging shots. Since Laimbeer can’t jump over a menu, he does it by sniffing out plays and getting to Point A before an opponent does. Then he stands straight up, raises his arms and hopes for a friendly toot. And if the opponent gestures ever so slightly with an arm or elbow, Laimbeer acts as if he’s been hit with a 2 by 4.
Yesterday’s game continually gravitated to Bill Laimbeer. “He very definitely seemed to be everywhere,” admitted Portland’s Terry Porter. “He took at least four charges that I know of, and when guys drove to the basket, he seemed to be there. We felt we drew contact, but no foul was called.”
But for every Stanislavsky, there are 10 extraneous elbows to his face by angry foes. “Bill was getting pounded off the ball,” said Detroit assistant coach Brendan Malone, “and he just kept on playing. He took a lot of abuse out there.”
And the more the opponents whine about the flops, and the more the fans scream, boo and invoke sorcerers’ curses, Bill Laimbeer just laughs and waves his championship ring.