Many of us spend our lives trying to escape the physical realities of our bodies. Too short, too skinny, too tall, too fat – you name it. It’s a shame that it’s true, but it is.
Bill Laimbeer became a rebounding champion, an All-Star center, and an NBA champion because he embraced his body.
Too wide, too slow, too frumpy, too constrained by gravity.
In spite of these limitations, Laimbeer became one of the most talked about, loved (and loathed) players in the NBA in a 14-year career spent almost entirely with the Detroit Pistons.
“I am big and slow and white, and I had to do things other than drive to the basket and get my shot rejected,” Laimbeer said in the mid-1980s when he was finally getting respect.
As a rich kid growing up in southern California with big feet and a nose that seemed to be turned up both literally and figuratively, Laimbeer didn’t have to work too hard at anything growing up, and he didn’t really seem to care. He flunked out of Notre Dame, was exiled to a community college, went back to the Golden Dome, and played for the Fighting Irish where he did enough (and grew to 6 feet, 11 inches tall) to earn a selection in the 3rd round of the 1979 NBA Draft. But just like in college, Laimbeer was still not quite ready to leap to the next step (leaping is something Laimbeer never really mastered). He spent a year playing hoops in Italy before making the Cavs’ roster for the 1980-81 season. Two seasons later, Detroit GM Jack McCloskey snatched him from Cleveland in one of his shrewd moves unknown Bill Laimbeer was on his way to becoming Bad Bill, an All-Star center.
What did McCloskey see in Laimbeer that caused him to surrender three players to acquire perhaps the slowest and lowest-jumping center in the NBA? “Trader Jack” liked Laimbeer’s wide body and his guts.
“Billy had something that separated him from other players at his skill level,” McCloskey said later. “He had a look in his eye [that] I loved.”
Laimbeer quickly blossomed in Motown, becoming the main tent pole in the middle of the Pistons’ lineup. He was the tall, immovable tree-like object in the lane who sent opposing guards flying with his hips. He was the wide load that set devastating picks for puny Isiah Thomas. Laimbeer was the white guy who got his big body an inch or two off the floor and manhandled his way to rebounds. Of all the things he did on the hardwood, rebounding was what suited Laimbeer’s attitude the best.
“Basically, I’m a rebounder,” Laimbeer told Mike Weber of The Sporting News in 1986. “[A rebounder] has to want the basketball and make sure he gets into good position. You learn where the ball will be coming off the board. You put your body between you and your man. Rebounding is how I make my living.”
It was a good living. Laimbeer led the NBA in rebounding in 1983-84, and again in 1985-86. As he established himself as a star, he also made enemies. Robert Parish, the glowering center for the Boston Celtics, was a famous foil. Laimbeer hip-checked, body-slammed, and elbowed just about every player in the NBA in the 1980s. He also got under the skin of opponents with his tenacious play. He was routinely voted the least popular player in the league by both players and fans.
Shortly after becoming a Piston, Laimbeer accelerated his offensive game. Aware that he lacked the skills and speed to be an inside scorer in the league, he dared NBA centers to leave him unguarded on the perimeter, and if they were silly enough to do so, he launched three-pointers that often found the bottom of the net. Laimbeer’s tippy-toe “jump” shot became an important weapon in the Bad Boys’ arsenal.
By the time the Pistons won their back-to-back titles in the late 1980s, Laimbeer was a Detroit icon. Legions of mom’s and slow white guys counted him as their favorite player. Tall, goofy-looking kids with no inside game were free to imitate Laimbeer and drain long range shots on the playground. He was the anti-Air Jordan and it was cool for a big man to want to bang his body in the paint and then pick-and-roll at the other end of the floor.
Laimbeer retired in 1994, his big, wide body finally wearing down after years of missing very few games. In recent years he’s been a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame, and with two rings, another as a coach in the WNBA, a pair of rebounding titles, and more than 13,000 points and 10,000 rebounds to his credit, there’s a very good chance that the rich kid who never looked like a basketball superstar, will one day earn a place in the Hall of Fame.