League loses one of its best coaches
After all he gave to league, Laimbeer has earned right to do what he wants
Bill Laimbeer was in Kansas City, coaching his Detroit Shock team in a WNBA exhibition game a few years back, and talking animatedly beforehand. Never mind that the game didn't really count and the venue was so much smaller and farther away from the spotlight than the places where Laimbeer had once himself played.
He was still fired up. Among other things, he was lamenting how the 40-minute games limited his options to utilize his bench as much as he wanted to. He would have liked more minutes to tinker with, certain that he could make the most of them.
The more variables added to the sport, the more decisions to be made, the more of a chess match it was, the better Laimbeer liked it. Because that was something not everyone realized about the former Detroit "Bad Boy" who made his name as an NBA player with that famous smirk and his bruising style of play.
Sure, he had liked to mix it up physically. But just as much, Laimbeer enjoyed out-thinking and out-maneuvering opponents. He had supreme confidence he could do both.
And that's just what he did in six and a half seasons in charge of the Shock, the WNBA franchise he saved from collapsing. He won three titles as head coach/GM. He cracked jokes, stormed the sidelines, had to get "bleeped" a fair amount when he wore a live microphone during televised games, scowled, smiled, made smart trades and brought success and attention to a team that otherwise would have struggled to stay in existence.
Laimbeer has opted to step away from the franchise, announcing his decision Monday. Former Pistons teammate Rick Mahorn will take over as head coach.
After the Shock won their third title last season, Laimbeer had told a group of us reporters that someday soon he really wanted to see assistants Mahorn and Cheryl Reeve get the chance to be head coaches in the WNBA.
Now, that will happen for Mahorn, while Reeve will remain in her assistant's role but also take on the job of general manager. If Laimbeer's departure at this particular time -- one week into the season -- was in part to assure Mahorn and Reeve would move up as he wanted them to on the totem poll, it wouldn't be a surprise.
There has long been the thought that Laimbeer was looking to get back into the NBA, and perhaps that will happen now, too.
In retrospect, something that occurred in the preseason now seems like perhaps an indicator that Laimbeer was on his way out. There was a media conference call with the coaches of four of the WNBA's top teams from last season, Laimbeer being one of them.
But he wasn't on the call when it began. Which seemed weird; Laimbeer is generally not one to skip opportunities to chat with reporters. He has been extremely accessible to media and fans during his time in the WNBA.
Mahorn got on the call instead. Laimbeer did join it several minutes later, joking that he had been sleeping. And, well, maybe that was true. Or maybe he really just wanted Mahorn to start easing into the role of head coach.
Laimbeer has done a tremendous amount for the WNBA. Is it tough to see him go just when the season has started? Yes. Are some fans of the league going to be irritated that Laimbeer left at this point in the season? Absolutely. Does it bring up the inevitable talk of the WNBA's financial issues? Of course. That chatter never stops.
Laimbeer might have left now because he wanted to guarantee Mahorn and Reeve would ascend, and/or because it was the best thing financially and personally for him to do it this way. With some people I might be inclined to call that selfish. But with Laimbeer, I find I just don't feel that way. Mostly because with all he gave to the WNBA, I think he has earned the right to do whatever he wants now.
Laimbeer was either adored or hated by fans during his playing days, with very little middle ground. I would say he was mostly pretty well-liked by the majority (but not all) of WNBA fans.
Since the WNBA began in 1997, we've seen NBA guys cycle in and out. Surely a lot of folks thought that Laimbeer might be just flitting through the league when he took over in 2002.
But that isn't how it was at all. Despite not having a background in women's basketball, he very quickly learned about personnel and utilized his natural ability to judge talent.
Laimbeer pulled off what is universally regarded as the biggest "robbery" in a trade in the WNBA's history, when in 2005 he got future Hall of Famer Katie Smith from Minnesota for two players who made no real impact for the Lynx and are no longer in the league.
As good as Smith was, Laimbeer challenged her to get more fit -- she was still dealing with the effects of a knee injury -- and take advantage of her considerable strength. Smith credits Laimbeer for not just adding extra years to her career, but making those years so successful.
Last season at age 34, Smith still had the endurance to play for the U.S. Olympic team and be a huge force in the postseason, earning the WNBA Finals' MVP award.
Three other players who thrived under Laimbeer were Deanna Nolan, Cheryl Ford and Plenette Pierson. All are very talented but with different personalities. Laimbeer understood each one and respected all of them. And they played their tails off for him.
Laimbeer's coaching style wasn't necessarily for everyone. He and former Shock player Swin Cash had a falling out that was never patched up, as she felt Laimbeer and Mahorn were too personal in their criticism of her and that they didn't really support her while she was dealing with a back injury.
Without Cash, though, the Shock still won their third title last season, during which the Shock had to overcome a lot of turmoil. Detroit and Los Angeles got into an on-court fight in July that resulted in suspensions, including for Mahorn, who in trying to play "peacemaker" ended up appearing to knock over Lisa Leslie. The worst thing of all was that Ford suffered a knee injury in the so-called peacekeeping process and was lost for the season.
Laimbeer knew he needed veteran help inside with Ford out, and so he traded for Taj McWilliams-Franklin. It was the perfect fit, and she was able to earn her first title as a WNBA player.
Certainly, there were critics of Laimbeer, those who thought he was too bombastic, that he encouraged the Shock to play with unnecessary aggression, that he complained too much about officiating.
But for the most part, anyone who watched the WNBA had to admit that he brought the same intensity and passion to this league that he had to the NBA as a player. You could never, ever say he mailed it in.
Last year, the Shock won a difficult Game 2 of the WNBA Finals at San Antonio 69-61. Detroit had gotten off to a great start in that game, leading 19-2, but the Silver Stars fought back and actually took the lead in the third quarter.
Laimbeer almost looked ready to truly blow sky-high but he calmed down. He kept his composure, and between his coaching moves and Smith's willpower, the Shock rallied to all but seal the championship. (Detroit finished it off in Game 3 back in Michigan.)
After that second game, I was walking back to talk to some of the Shock players in their locker room. I passed by Laimbeer, who looked content, knowing his team was close to purging the bad feeling of 2007 when the Shock felt they let the title slip away to Phoenix.
And a thought popped into my head and was out of my mouth before I even realized it. I certainly wasn't trying to butter up Laimbeer. It was just what I honestly thought at that moment. And what I still think.
"Bill," I told him, "you are a hell of a good coach."
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