Talking With Bill Laimbeer
(This originally ran in the 6/21/04 issue of New York Resident)
You remember Bill Laimbeer, the center for those “Bad Boys,” the Detroit Pistons squads of the late ’80sand early ’90s, as well as for the Fighting Irish? The same Bill Laimbeer dubbed “the Prince of Darkness” adecade before Ozzy Osbourne made his famous speech on MTV?
Is Bill Laimbeer a monster? Of course he is. He played a Sleestak (a sort of giant lizard man) on TV’s Land of the Lost in 1974.
Today he’s the coach of the Detroit Shock, the reigning WNBA champions. But don’t worry. He hasn’t gone soft.
While meeting with reporters after the Shock received a recent drubbing at the hands of the New York Liberty, Laimbeer had a stat sheet in one hand and a can of Bud Light in the other.
Laimbeer took a few minutes to talk with New York Resident after that game, discussing Title IX, former Pistons teammate and current Knicks president Isiah Thomas, and his coaching philosophy.
New York Resident: When you left the Pistons, you looked like you were a little burned out on basketball. How did you get back in?
Bill Laimbeer: Well, I kind of missed it. I did the regular business thing for a while, which didn’t really fly with me. I need more instant gratification that sports can bring about. I started getting back into the Pistons organization. You know, helping out. I was going to help them out with ticket sales and some marketing, and also with the Shock, and I just kinda ended up being the coach after all.
NYR: What’s the biggest difference, coming from a male sports background, coaching a women’s sport? Is there any?
BL: No, no, there is nothing … except you can’t go into the locker room when you want to. I think coaching my daughter’s team in AAU basketball, after I was done playing, prepared me to understand how competitive women are and how well they listen and how much they want to win and how much they want to play competitive sports. So I came in with a background that women are just the same as men as far as how they want to compete and how they want to play hard, so that really helped me.
NYR: Besides the Shock, who’s dangerous in the WNBA this year?
BL: Well, a lot of teams. But, you know, we look at our conference first. You have to win the conference before you win the final.
I think New York is going to be tough again. They’ve got good mental toughness. They’ve added a few good players. We think Washington, although they’ve gotten off to a bad start right now, and we think Charlotte, who’ll probably be a little stronger than they were last year, [will be tough as well].
NYR: Let’s talk a little bit about the psychology of the game, as you are pretty much the undisputed master of taking people out of a ball game. Was there a specific technique you used?
BL: No, I don’t think so. All games are mental, and I don’t care what game you play, whether its tiddlywinks or chess or professional basketball, all games are fought with the brain. Execution, mental intimidation, getting their player off their concentration – all those things factor into it and that’s one of those things I’ve always been good at, throughout my whole life, playing games, especially the mental part of the games.
If I’m not good at something, I won’t play. So when I find something I’m good at, I continue to play that way.
NYR: And do you teach any of the mental intimidation techniques to the Shock?
BL: No, I teach the mental part of the game, there’s no mistake about that – you know, to get out there and be hardnosed, gritty competitors. To not make any mistakes. To always be focused on the little things.
What we talk about on our team, any time you walk on the court, whether it’s practice or it’s a game, you are mentally – and physically – but mentally into what you are trying to do, or step off.
NYR: Any aspirations of moving on to the NBA proper?
BL: Everybody asks me that question and it’s intriguing. You know, it’s the highest level of sports in basketball. It also pays very well. But right now I’m happy doing what I’m doing. My daughter’s a junior in high school, and I’m going to wait until she’s out of high school before I make a decision on what I’m going to do.
NYR: You’ve been an ESPN analyst for a year. You’ve seen a few Knicks games, and I understand you might know the general manager over here.
BL: A little bit.
NYR: What do you think of the general state of the Knicks right now?
BL: I think hiring Isiah was a great move. I think he brings a very competitive fire about him, and that’s what the New York franchise needed. They need somebody to lead, and lead aggressively, and be the person out front taking all the hits. He’s more than capable of doing that. And he’s smart, one of the smartest basketball men, if not the smartest, I’ve ever seen. He’ll do just fine here. He knows what he wants. He’s a little hamstrung on cap space and so forth, but he’ll figure it out.
NYR: Do you have any advice for parents with aspiring hoopsters?
BL: Yes, especially on the topic of the women’s game. Women’s basketball, and women’s sports in general, is a great avenue for scholarships. It’s not mature yet. Title IX has given the opportunity for just as many scholarships for women as for men, so it’s a great avenue.
The women’s game, especially in the younger ranks, is becoming more competitive every day. Make no mistake about that. But it’s still a great avenue to keep kids out of trouble, to keep them focused, not only on their physical well-being, but also on their mental well-being.
Sport is a great thing to teach concentration. And also, you can get scholarships – get free education,that’s what it’s about, because [with] women’s sports, there’s very few pro leagues. We’re about the only one left in the United States, but you can earn a college education, which is a significant amount of dollars, through some sports.
NYR: Any funny stories you’ve had happen to you in the league lately?
BL: [After claiming not to tell jokes and trying to duck the question] My relationship with the players is what I enjoy. I’m a lot older than they are, but I also try to be their teammate and their friend, at times, and the boss. But I use my humor and my sarcasm in order to motivate people, not yelling and screaming. That’s my tool, and they understand that, and they respond to that, because they’d rather have someone telling them the truth in a sarcastic way than somebody yelling and screaming in their face.
NYR: Coming from your background as an agitator, are you able to agitate all the coaches in the league or just L.A. Sparks coach and former Lakers nemesis Michael Cooper?
BL: [Laughs] Well, I don’t think [Liberty coach] Richie Adubato cares too much for me, either. There’s a fair amount of coaches in this league that probably have a little bit of resentment towards me.
I walked into a good situation. We won the championship. We got all the pub. And I’m fairly arrogant about what we’ve accomplished. I worry about ourselves first and I don’t care about the other teams, and I don’t give them much respect, so I think some of their coaches, it probably grinds on them.