THE NBA PLAYOFFS : DETROIT’S : Bruise Brothers : Laimbeer and Mahorn--They’re the Motown Enforcers
For those frustrated by the lack of coverage of professional wrestling, this is your lucky week. An entire NBA semifinal has been made over in that image, with heroes who are fairer than fair; dastardly villains who live to cheat; announcers calling down thunder from the parapets.
The good guys? You had to ask? The Celtics, starring men often identified on first reference by local TV sports anchors as Captain Larry, Kevin, The Chief and DJ.
The bad guys--doesn’t just looking at them make your blood boil?--are those up-and-coming disciples of the dark side, the Pistons and their tag-team of Rowdy Roddy Piper and Mr. T--er, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn.
Is Laimbeer bad? In the last series, an Atlanta fan carried a dummy of him onto the floor and cut it in half with a chainsaw. And the Hawk front office OKd it in advance.
The announcer is Boston play-by-play veteran Johnny Most, that gravel-voiced avenger of Celtic slights. Most had hardly finished complaining about the Bucks’ thuggery when the serious malefactors hit town.
Most long ago nicknamed Mahorn “McNasty” and his Bullets brother-in-arms Jeff Ruland, “McFilthy.” Invited by a local TV station to expound, Most gargled that Mahorn “has absolutely no compunction about hurting someone. Sometimes he commits atrocities and those atrocities are in full view of a national audience.”
Laimbeer replied that Most “has an ego bigger than any team in basketball. If I were on his team, I’d be right up there with apple pie. It’s just how it works. He’s a homer.”
Calling Most a homer, of course, is like calling the sun the sun. For good measure, Piston players said they wouldn’t be interviewed by Most’s station, WRKO, during the series.
NBC liked the exchange so much, Most was invited on the “Today Show.”
Thus, they embarked on Game 1.
Of course, the two combatants then spurned actual combat. Nobody got laid out. There was a minor brush when Mahorn and Robert Parish pushed and shoved in the low post. Kevin McHale gave Mahorn a little push after the play and K.C. Jones sent in Greg Kite for Parish. Whether Jones meant it that way, it looked like he was sending Mahorn a 250-pound message and Kite got one of the largest ovations of his career from the Boston Garden crowd.
You couldn’t say that the Pistons only have one problem because in this series, they have others. No. 1, they’re not the best team. They trail the Celtics in the series, 2-0. Game 3 is at 11 a.m. (PDT) today at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.
No. 2, they go through this stuff everywhere. Meet the most-hated team in basketball.
What’s a kid from the suburbs doing on everyone’s most-wanted list?
Bill Laimbeer could be the boy next door, provided you can afford Palos Verdes where he attended high school. His father is an executive with Owens-Illinois, Inc. When Laimbeer was still in the $150,000 range, he joked that he was the only player in the NBA who wasn’t making as much as his father.
To say that his background gives him little in common with his NBA peers is an understatement. He is conservative politically and outspoken.
“When I first met him,” Isiah Thomas once told Sports Illustrated, “he acted exactly like a rich kid from the suburbs. He knew how to eat lobster and go to the beach. He doesn’t think as white anymore.”
On the floor, Laimbeer fakes falls, plays physically and maintains a steady dialogue with opponents, seldom congratulatory.
Off the floor, his moods are said to be myriad, including grumpy, but sitting in a hotel coffee shop between Games 1 and 2, he couldn’t be nicer.
“Why do you want to talk to me?” he asks, grinning.
Take a guess. A lot of players are physical. Dozens flop. Moreover, he isn’t some marginally skilled side of beef. He’s been a top 10 rebounder all his starting career, led the league in ’85-86 and is a fine outside shooter also, although he hit only 1 of 6 shots in Game 2.
So how did he get so unpopular?
“I don’t help them up,” he says, laughing, of his fallen opponents. “I look at them with contempt, or whatever.”
In Game 1, he blocked a Larry Bird layup and then gave the fallen Bird a Class A glare, like don’t come this way again, chump.
Bird didn’t see it or that chump would have been back on the next play.
Someone told Bird about the glare later. “Must have been his first block of the year,” Bird said, amused.
Laimbeer is amused, himself, having heard it all before, but not as often.
“As we go farther and farther in the playoffs, the fans are really picking up on it,” he says. “Now the media is picking up on it. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad.
“All the fans know is me as a player. They don’t know me as a person. It’s the image I project. As long as people in Detroit appreciate me, what do I care about people in Boston and Milwaukee, places like that?
“I don’t have the physical capabilities to play any other way. I’m not a leaper. I’m definitely not fast. So I have to do what I have to do.
“Most NBA players like to go from this spot to this spot and do their little thing. They don’t like somebody always running into them. Robert Parish used to get pretty mad.”
Laimbeer never apologized. Highly competitive (he’s a 1-handicapper in golf, he likes darts so much he carries a set on the road), he turned reluctantly to basketball after spurting from 6-4 as a freshman to 6-10 as a junior.
“I don’t really like basketball,” he says. “The accident was, I grew. But if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it well. If I was going to be a basketball player, I’d identify a way to be a good one.”
He has become a good one, in the $700,000 range. His best friend among the Pistons is Thomas, who came from the ghetto of Chicago. Laimbeer is fiercely loyal. When a Detroit writer knocked Isiah this season, Laimbeer stopped talking to the writer.
And, if they occasionally chain-saw your likeness, what’s the big deal?
Laimbeer wasn’t enchanted by it. “But,” he says brightening, “we’re in the entertainment business.”
Compared to Mahorn’s image, Laimbeer is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But, away from the game, Mahorn is as friendly as a puppy. Say a German shepherd puppy.
He has a mustache with a little gap under his nose, and a little gap in his front teeth, giving him a resemblance to Danny Vermin, the Joe Piscopo villain in the movie, “Johnny Dangerously.” Like Vermin, Mahorn smiles in the face of adversity, say when he’s knocked someone down and the entire arena is booing him.
Mahorn came up with the Bullets seven years ago, a mere 6-9 and 235 pounds, and quickly saw his destiny in the stars, after several collisions with the original Fridge, Wes Unseld.
“When I first got to camp,” Mahorn says, “he was there. Big E (Elvin Hayes) was there. I thought I could outrun those guys. But they had the veterans’ game--they were going to knock the hell out of a young player every time he moved.”
On the Bullets, rough picks were a tradition and Mahorn’s picks knocked people out. His specialty was picking guards off in the backcourt. Isiah Thomas went down with the others, prompting the big Isiah-Ricky mismatch in which Thomas ran all the way over to the Washington bench to take on a man nine inches taller and 60 pounds heavier.
“Ricky tagged Isiah,” Laimbeer says. “Ricky was taking it personally, tagging Isiah. Isiah will always fight back. Isiah was jumping in the air, trying to hit him.”
Mahorn’s big night came, however, against the 76ers. The 76ers used three guards and Mahorn knocked them all out of the game.
Asked about it, he grins.
“I started with Maurice Cheeks,” he says. “Then I got (Andrew) Toney. Then Clint Richardson. I didn’t get him too good, though. He got back in the game. I guess I gave Cheeks a mild concussion. I think I got Andrew in the shoulder.”
Chuck Daly was then a 76er assistant. What did he think of Mahorn then?
“McNasty, like everybody else,” says Daly. “It’s like Laimbeer. Everybody hates them until you have them on your team.
“Ricky and I have an interesting relationship. Last year, he was 30 pounds overweight and it was my fault he wasn’t playing. Basically, he didn’t want to talk to me. Now we get along much better because he’s getting pretty good minutes.
“You watch him in practice, I think he really likes to hit people. He’s one of those guys, it’s just his style, which isn’t all good. Whenever I walk by him, he’ll give me a little shot.”
Mahorn gives his teammates bigger shots and the better the friend, the bigger the shot. On the Bullets, he and Ruland were close, but when no opponent was available, they worked each other over in practice.
“We’d have scoreless games,” Mahorn says. “We’d have to check each other and neither would let the other go. I’d hit him just as hard as he’d hit me, all the time saying, ‘If I got traded, I’d be killing you like this.’
“The only difference between us, he’s white and I’m black. We got cars that were alike. Our first child was a daughter. We had the same dog. He had a male Doberman and I had a female Doberman.”
What did you expect, a French poodle? Mahorn is sitting in his hotel room in a T-shirt, watching one of those cartoon shows with the armor and the ray guns that can turn your kid into a warmonger in five sittings.
The discussion turns to the lack of black ultra-violence role models. How about Mr. T, a writer asks.
“Mr. T is a sissy,” says Mahorn, wrinkling his nose.
Ironically, Mahorn has made great strides as a player. He rebounds well, forces nothing, makes his shots and is a tough defender. “Which is nice for him,” Daly says, “because he’s a free agent.”
But the notoriety, itself. What’s it like to have 15,000 strangers booing you? Why does he pick such moments to smile? How is Johnny Most to contain himself?
“It’s nice to know people know who you are,” Mahorn says, not unhappily.