Laimbeer ready to make jump to NBA
In seven seasons as a WNBA coach, he became so much more than "Bad Boy"
It was a chilly "yes, winter's coming" morning in Detroit in October, the day after the Shock had won the franchise's third WNBA title. Coach Bill Laimbeer called it particularly gratifying, considering what the team had been through, including a distracting midseason on-court fight with Los Angeles and the loss of a key starter to an injury.
Yet there seemed to be something else in his expression and voice then. He appeared ready to say goodbye to the Shock.
"I was," he confirms now.
He didn't say that outright at the time. Instead, he said things like he feared he was "standing in the way" for his assistants Rick Mahorn and Cheryl Reeve to move up the totem pole. He was indirectly indicating that he was seriously thinking about moving on, but wanted the Shock left in hands that he trusted.
"We always talked about it. Our phrase was 'If I get hit by a truck '" Laimbeer said of discussing the Shock's future with Mahorn and Reeve. "I'd say, 'If I got hit by a truck, what do you guys want to do here?' Then I'd take it one step further and say, 'Cheryl, what if I got hit by a truck and Rick's driving it? What do you want?'
"So this is something that didn't come out of the blue. Was it a surprise that I started this season? Did I surprise myself? Yeah, I actually was surprised. But then, it became clear."
Laimbeer faced longtime nemesis Michael Cooper in the first game of the WNBA season on June 6. After Cooper's Los Angeles Sparks won, Laimbeer told Cooper, "The Shock are going to be in the Finals, but I probably won't be there."
Some might laugh that Laimbeer, despite losing the game 78-58 and seeing spark-plug reserve Plenette Pierson go down with a serious injury, was classically cocksure about his team. He still thought the Shock could win it all. He'd taken the franchise to the Finals in four of his seven previous seasons with Detroit, winning three titles. So why wouldn't he be confident?
What he wasn't so certain of, however, was that he'd be around to see Detroit to the end of the season. And, in fact, he wouldn't make it further than the second week.
"I've gotta do things totally into it and 100 percent committed -- or I just can't do it," he said of resigning June 15, after three games. "It was fantastic in the WNBA, and I've told people I wouldn't trade it for anything. It was a great experience.
"I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about managing a basketball game. I learned a lot about how to work with players to get the most out of them. It's high-intensity basketball; I don't care if it's men or women. It's people playing at the highest level they can play."
Laimbeer, who played at that level for 14 years in the NBA, wants to experience those things as a coach in that league. That's his quest now, and it remains to be seen when and where -- perhaps even if -- he might get that chance.
So what's working against him? It's well chronicled that he made a great many enemies during his playing days, when part of his strategy was to irritate the living hell out of his opponents. He was astoundingly good at it.
I think the best players, regardless of male or female, just want to win. And they know there are things that need to be done in order to win; they understand that part of coaching, the tough decisions. Sure, there are physical differences in men's and women's players. But as far as X's and O's, you have it or you don't as a coach. And [Bill Laimbeer] has it.” -- Sun coach Mike Thibault
He joked about getting "hit by a truck" in speaking to his Shock assistants about planning what they'd do without him. The thing is, some of his former NBA foes might have had daydreams about a truck plowing over Laimbeer with them at the wheel. Some might still feel that way.
Have any of those old battle scars come into play -- and if so, will they continue -- as Laimbeer tries to get a coaching job in the NBA? He says the persona he took on as a player is not who he is now, nor is that what's needed for him to be a successful NBA coach.
"As far as maturing, I suppose I'm older," Laimbeer said, chuckling. "But the big thing is, I'm very cognizant of the responsibility factor you have as a coach. When you're a player, you know what you have to do to get the job done, and you don't care about anything else. At least I didn't, because winning was everything. I wasn't paid to play basketball; I was paid to win games.
"As a coach, you have a different set of responsibilities. You have to win, sure. But you also are the face of a franchise in an authoritative/management position. Coaches are looked at differently than players, and I take that very seriously."
Laimbeer did win a lot while coaching in the WNBA. But will that be taken seriously as evidence he could do the same on the men's side, or will it be dismissed by NBA front-office folks?
In assessing his WNBA coaching career's effect on his potential NBA value, let's get this out of the way: It should make no difference how anyone feels about watching the WNBA. Because that's beside the point.
Many NBA fans who understand basketball and team dynamics might have no interest in the women's game, but they should at least understand that the WNBA has the best female basketball players in the world.
So, just as when you deal with the best of anything, it takes certain kinds of skills to emerge as the best of the best. That's what Laimbeer was able to do in the WNBA, and he did it as both coach and architect of his team.
When he took over in Detroit 10 games into the 2002 season, many WNBA followers considered the franchise not far from extinction.
Detroit was an expansion team in 1998, the second year of the WNBA's existence. Nancy Lieberman was coach and general manager the first three years, but was not retained after the 2000 season. She'd had a 46-48 record and one playoff appearance.
Greg Williams presided over a 10-22 season in 2001, then the team started 2002 with a 0-10 mark. Laimbeer had been hired as a special consultant to the team that season, and he took the reigns in June 2002 when Williams was fired.
After his playing career ended, Laimbeer had struggled in a business with his father and had some success as a broadcaster. He was still searching for the right vocation when he tried coaching.
With Laimbeer at the helm, the Shock finished 9-23, which did establish some momentum. He immersed himself in evaluating talent and building a game plan for the following season, which he predicted would result in a championship for the Shock.
Worst to first? Was this just Laimbeer posturing? Not at all. The Shock did just that. In September 2003, a year removed from being in the league basement, Detroit drew 22,076 fans to The Palace at Auburn Hills for the clinching game of the WNBA Finals, in which the Shock beat two-time champion Los Angeles.
"One of the things Bill realized before some other coaches in the WNBA is that you could have players who had different personalities and maybe didn't get along all that well off court," said Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault, who spent his career in men's basketball, including as an NBA assistant and scout, before moving to the WNBA in 2003. "But as long as they all bonded together on the basketball court for the same goal, it didn't really matter. He saw all that in his own NBA career."
And for those unfamiliar with the WNBA, Laimbeer did indeed have some different personalities on that 2003 title team. His first draft pick as coach/general manager, in 2003, was Louisiana Tech post Cheryl Ford, daughter of longtime NBA star Karl Malone. She joined the Shock's two previous top picks, Georgia's Deanna Nolan and UConn's Swin Cash, plus Ruth Riley and Elaine Powell in the starting lineup.
Suffice it to say, just in the contrast between Riley (a soft-spoken center Laimbeer usually thought was too nice) and Powell (a guard who gained YouTube infamy for punching an opponent in an overseas game) there was the entire spectrum of personality.
But Laimbeer made it work for that championship. The Shock lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2004 and 2005. But it was during the 2005 season that Laimbeer set the stage for further success in '06 through '08, adding two key players through deals that earned him the nickname "Trader Bill" in admiration for how little he gave up to get so much in return.
In June 2005, he acquired forward Plenette Pierson, who became the most effective "sixth woman" in the league and a driving force behind the Shock's success, from Phoenix. The Mercury then waived the player it had received from Detroit, Andrea Stinson, just days after the trade. Phoenix also got a second-round draft pick in 2006, which didn't pan out.
Then in July 2005, in what's almost universally regarded as the most lopsided trade in WNBA history, three-time Olympian and future Hall of Famer Katie Smith was acquired from Minnesota for Chandi Jones, Stacey Thomas and a 2006 draft pick, who turned out to be Shona Thorburn. None of the three are still in the WNBA or made significant contributions to the Lynx.
Smith has been a starter on two league championship teams for the Shock, 2006 and 2008, winning the WNBA Finals MVP honor last year.
"Bill and I had a great working relationship," said Smith, who was an All-Star again this season. "I have a lot of confidence in him and the way he does things. I trust him."
Smith credits Laimbeer for inspiring her to get in the best shape possible, which has extended her top-level effectiveness into her mid-30s. Pierson liked Laimbeer because he understood her typically grumpy, all-business intensity.
Ford felt that Laimbeer related to her as a post player and supported her through numerous injuries. And Nolan, one of the most physically gifted players in women's basketball with an accompanying keen understanding of the game, credits Laimbeer with pushing her when she needed it.
"Playing for Bill was a great experience for me," said Nolan, a four-time All-Star and the 2006 WNBA Finals MVP. "Bill molded me into the player I am today. He was very demanding of me and saw what kind of player I could be and develop into.
"As a bench coach, he expected me to be in attack mode at all times on the court. Just go out and compete for 40 minutes. Set the tone for the game. He expected me to be focused and into the game, because at times things came easy for me, and I would coast a little. So he helped break me of that and play hard all the time."
Enough rosiness? OK, here are some thorns. Not every player got along as well with Laimbeer. Most notably, the relationship between Laimbeer and Cash became toxic, as she felt he didn't respect her or what she was going through with injuries. Laimbeer felt Cash didn't bring the focus she needed every game.
Cash was traded to Seattle before the 2008 season for a draft pick. And while she has proven to be an effective player for the Storm, the deal also worked out well for Detroit, which drafted Tennessee's Alexis Hornbuckle, a solid contributor to last season's championship.
And about last season there were ups and downs for Laimbeer. The on-court scuffle with the Sparks in July drew suspensions for players on both sides, plus Mahorn. And Ford, who had injured her knee earlier in that game, went to the floor while trying to restrain Pierson. Ford ended up missing the rest of the season.
But as much as the skirmish was so-called "negative" publicity, the reality is it didn't do any lasting damage. It might have been a bigger deal had those teams met again in the postseason, but only the Shock made the Finals.
And they did that in large part thanks to another wise move by Laimbeer, who knew he had to bring in a dependable post to replace Ford. Once again, he did it without giving up any players he truly needed. He got Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a popular veteran with tons of WNBA and overseas experience. With Detroit, she won her first WNBA title.
"Bill became very, very good at making sure that he ran plays offensively to get his best players the ball in their best spots on the court when the game was on the line," Thibault said. "That's crucial for any high-level coach -- men, women, pro, college -- it doesn't matter. It's an NBA-necessary skill at the end of games.
"Over the course of his stay in this league, Detroit's offense evolved each year into lending itself better and better to that concept. He knew how to put the opposing defense at a disadvantage. It helps, obviously, when you have really great players. But those players were there because he remade that team."
What Thibault and others have wondered is whether Laimbeer is willing to put in time as an assistant at the NBA level, to take that step rather than hold out for an NBA head coaching job.
Laimbeer said he will gladly do that if necessary.
"To accomplish my ultimate goal, there may be that path," Laimbeer said. "If it is, then sure. And I'll do a great job at it."
Laimbeer said there were things he learned in coaching in the WNBA that he didn't necessarily expect.
"It made me more cognizant of the human side of the players," he said. "When I was playing, it was 'This is business, this is how we do it.' I never thought twice about anything else. Coaching women made me think more, before I said something or made a decision, on how it would impact the individual person."
Laimbeer sees the men's game as more a "brutal business," yet things have changed somewhat in regard to players' personal well-being in the years since Laimbeer played. Mental-health issues such as social-anxiety disorder and depression are at least acknowledged more readily now in professional men's sports, with treatment openly sought.
And there's also this dichotomy: While the business side in the NBA is more "brutal," the handling of NBA players is actually more delicate. To wit, coaches who've worked in both the NBA and WNBA say that, generally speaking, women's players more readily recognize authority figures and accept them.
"The women really want to learn, and they're more respectful," Laimbeer said. "But it's something I understand. I'll be much different in the NBA in a lot of areas. The NBA is more established, there is more of a culture of how you act and how you carry yourself.
"In the WNBA, I was much more demonstrative on the sidelines than I would be in the NBA. The referees in the NBA are so established, I'd probably get pitched about 15 times if I did everything I did in the WNBA.
"And the players, also, in the NBA are very sensitive to image. They don't want to be shown up at all. If a coach is too intense in how they treat a player in the heat of battle, a lot of players will take that as an affront."
Laimbeer has watched the demeanor of other former players turned coaches, such as his onetime Pistons teammate Isiah Thomas, on the sidelines.
"Isiah sat there like a stone wall when he was a coach, and he is the most fiery person that I know," Laimbeer said, laughing. "Sometimes I'd want to say, 'Damn, at least show some emotion! It's an emotional game!'
"I won't be a stone wall. But I won't be as demonstrative on the sidelines as I have been in the WNBA. I probably pushed the envelope as far as I could go."
And he also accomplished as much as he could in the league. Now, the Shock, with Mahorn as head coach and Reeve as GM, have a 9-11 record but are still firmly in contention for a playoff spot in the logjammed Eastern Conference.
But Laimbeer looks for his future elsewhere. Did he burn too many bridges in the past, even within his Pistons family? Will NBA organizations think of him only as the ultimate Bad Boy? Will they understand what he has done the past seven years is, in fact, fully applicable to what he wants to do now?
Thibault and Laimbeer are not "pals," but they have mutual respect for each other. Thibault says he doesn't know the politics of what Laimbeer might be facing as he wants to enter the NBA coaching ranks, but he has no doubts about Laimbeer's coaching ability.
"I think the best players, regardless of male or female, just want to win," Thibault said. "And they know there are things that need to be done in order to win; they understand that part of coaching, the tough decisions. Sure, there are physical differences in men's and women's players. But as far as X's and O's, you have it or you don't as a coach. And he has it.
"It's harder in the NBA when you are talking about huge salaries, entourages, lots of people in a player's ear. But Bill knows about all that. I don't think there's any magic, set formula for being a successful NBA coach; it depends a lot on your organization and how much the players perceive management is in support of the coach."
Laimbeer hopes to have that kind of support in the NBA someday. Because he promises he will give it back.
"I'm one of the most loyal soldiers there is," he said. "You ask anybody I played with."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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