Bill Laimbeer--the Heavy Hitter of the Hardwood

You would think he shot Jesse James. Invaded Afghanistan. Kept a picture of Stalin over his fireplace. He comes into focus like a guy wearing a spiked helmet and goose-stepping. Compared to him, Al Capone was a victim of society. In the little world of basketball, he’s Public Enemy No. 1--and 2 and 3 and 4. Take every villain of every movie you’ve ever seen, multiply him by two--and you have some idea of the venom Bill Laimbeer of Detroit arouses in an audience. People are sure he poisons canaries for kicks. He gets the same lovable press notices as a pit bull.

Consider the playoffs last year. In one tangle under a basket in the Boston Garden, suddenly Larry Bird--Larry Bird!--was hurled to the floor. By Bill Laimbeer. You would have thought he burned Joan of Arc at the stake. Replays on television compounded the outrage. Boston center Robert Parish came into the game frowning and all but hung Laimbeer by his heels from a tall building--and let go. But the officials pretended not to see.

Bill Laimbeer, in short, plays basketball the way the Mafia collects bills. Cossacks were kinder. His approach is part-caveman, part-mugger.

What’s a nice Notre Dame boy doing with this kind of reputation?

Well, at first, the league thought he was just clumsy. After all, Bill is 6-foot-11, he weighs 250, he has these thick, heavy legs and he can’t jump very high or run very fast. He bumped into more people than a Paris pickpocket. And for somewhat the same reasons, they found. Laimbeer isn’t trying to separate you from your senses, he’s trying to separate you from the ball.


If you’re Magic Johnson, you do this niftily. Painlessly.

If you’re Bill Laimbeer, you do this with a bludgeon. Or a forearm. Or an elbow. It’s pretty hard to get rebounds politely in this league. And Bill Laimbeer gets 1,000 or so a year. He never looks up to see whether he’s getting them from Larry Bird--or some backup center. Nor does he pick on guys less than his size. He took a swipe at a ball in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s hand in the Piston-Laker game at the Forum Sunday. He missed the ball--but not Kareem’s head.

Now there are easier ways to try suicide than hitting Kareem in the head. Jumping off a bridge comes to mind. Kareem has been known to get homicidal over an elbow in the ribs. So, you can imagine what a rap upside the head might evoke.

Confrontations like that not only solidify Laimbeer’s reputation but bring the whole team into the light as a kind of an outlaw gang riding into town to take it over with a reign of terror. You picture the Detroit Pistons screaming into town on motorcycles. Or tiger tanks. The Wehrmacht of the NBA.

So, the next question is, what pool hall did the Pistons get Bill Laimbeer out of after he left Notre Dame. The answer is none.

It’s really called playing the cards you’re dealt. When you can run the 40 in 4-flat, jump 7 feet in the air from a standing start and have the peripheral vision of a shark, you can play the finesse game of basketball. When you can make the ball materialize out of thin air like Magic Johnson or take those flying takeoffs to the basket from mid-court like Michael Jordan, you can play the game the way Dr. Naismith intended. When you can run just faster than paint can dry and jump just high enough not to trip on a crack in the sidewalk, you call on other skills.

“Hey!” exclaims Bill Laimbeer. “I know I’m not a pretty basketball player. I know I play ugly. But I play with what I have.”

What he has, actually, is a pretty good perimeter game on offense. “You can’t leave him out there,” explains the Laker assistant, Bill Bertka. “He shoots like a forward. He can’t jump an inch but if you leave him out at the top of the key, he has this jump shot. He’s made himself into a pro player.”

The Lakers’ James Worthy agrees. “He has evolved this style of play and it works for him. Detroit has this modified attack: They take your head off and Laimbeer leads it.”

Adds Bertka: “He puts this game face on and he slips into this role. An enforcer? No, just kind of the leader of a wolf pack. He plays smart. He blocks out. He’s one of the top rebounders in the NBA, he gets good position. He never quits. Off the court, I’ll bet he’s a teddy bear. On it, he’s a grizzly.”

Off the court, if he’s not exactly a teddy bear, Bill Laimbeer is at least a long way from the Attila the Hun. “Look!” he protests. “I’ve never been arrested. I never hit a bartender or even picked a fight on the street. In basketball, I play to win. But I play within the rules. When I don’t, I get a technical. I go for the ball, not the jugular.”

There once was a biography of the former German rocket expert, Werner Von Braun called “I Aim For The Stars,” and the film studio wanted scenarist Herman Mankiewicz to adapt it for the screen. Mankiewicz said he would--if he could make one slight change in the title. He wanted to call it “I Aim For The Stars--But Sometimes I Hit London.”

Bill Laimbeer aims for the ball. But sometimes he hits Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the head. Sometimes, he knocks Larry Bird to the floor.

Nobody’s perfect.