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JSB Exclusive: Our interview with Bill Laimbeer

O how the times have changed!  Bill Laimbeer took some time out of his busy schedule to talk NCAA Tournament, why he started his pro career in Europe (not the NBA), why Cal Ripken would’ve had nothing on him had he not been suspended so much, and what he thinks about WNBA bashers

SCOTT JACOBS

Bill Laimbeer was one of the elite centers in the NBA in the 1980′s, and one of the nastiest players as well.  He was aggressive, hard nosed, and relentless, and he played every game like his job depended on it.  Laimbeer may have been a  mean, ruthless player on the court, but he’s a class act off of it. He talked to us for fifteen minutes, but we had more questions, so we continued our candid conversation a few hours later.

All in all we talked about 25 minutes, and I came off very impressed by how honest and easygoing he was to talk to. He may seem like a mean cuss on the court, but off of it, Laimbeer is one of the nicest and most respectful athletes I’ve ever spoken with.  So here in it’s entirety is my entire conversation with the Laimbeer.  It’s a Juiced Sports exclusive.  Enjoy!

Juiced Sports: You went to Notre Dame, but flunked out as a freshman.  How did flunking out your first year change your perception on things, and drive you to work harder at a technical school for one year so that you could rejoin the Irish and show them what you could do?

Bill Laimbeer: As a freshman I admit that I didn’t like going to class. You had to go to class to get the grades you needed to play, and I didn’t.  I learned thorough the experience about having more discipline in my own life.  You had to do what was asked, if you wanted to play the game.  I had to do what was asked of me if I wanted to participate.

JSB: College Basketball is huge today, and the NCAA Tournament is like a national four day holiday the third week of March, but you played when the game was not always on center stage.  In fact, there was no ESPN during most/if not all of your college years.  What’s it been like for you to see college basketball’s explosion from well kept secret to one of America’s national past-times?

BL: No question that TV has created the explosion.  It spread the talent out.  There are great players now spread apart on more and more teams.  The number of teams that can compete for a title has increased dramatically.  It draws more fans in, and it’s great for the players, because not everybody is going to play pro basketball (the majority won’t), so it gives them recognition that may help them one day in a business career.

JSB: You were drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they took so long to offer you a contract that you decided to go to Italy instead.  Was that a really difficult decision to make?

BL: No, Italy gave me a guaranteed contract of $40,000.  {So I guess times have changed, huh?} Yeah, Times have certainly changed.

JSB: You got dealt to the Detroit Pistons in 1982 who were not very good.  Every athlete seems to have a comically bad story from their days playing on a hapless team; Any memories that stick out for you?

BL: Isaiah Thomas didn’t like practice one day, and Coach Scotty Robertson told him that he we very serious about practice and asked Isaiah if he was serious.  Isaiah said no, so Roberson told him to leave.

JSB: In 1989 and 1990 the Pistons repeated as champions.  Which championship was sweeter: the first or the second?

BL: Winning the first one was a relief.  Finally we could say we won something!  We believed we’d win the first one.  The second one was fun, and you could enjoy it more.  We didn’t believe we were going to repeat, we knew!

JSB: Now a lot of people probably forget that you were one of the NBA’s Iron Men at one point during your 12 year career.  You played 685 games in a row.  How did you do it?  Were NBA players tougher back then compared to the more pampered stars of today?

BL: I would have played over 1000 in a row had it not been for suspensions.

JSB:  So Cal Ripken would’ve had nothing on you!

BL: (Laughs) NBA Players were definitely tougher then.  The competition for jobs was stiffer.  You couldn’t take any nights off, because this was the pre-expansion era and because of tht there was less teams.  There were much deeper teams back then, and I made sure I played hard every night to keep my job.

I think I hold players respect by what I accomplished in my playing days, but that only goes so far.  I am honest, I say what everybody else is thinking, but they’re afraid to say.  Team comes first, before me, them, or any star.

JSB: Did you ever feel threatened that you might loss your job?

BL: No, I played hard every night, so I always kept my spot in the starting line up.

JSB: Do players today take their starting jobs for granted?

BL: Definitely, I think players take their starting position for granted. Not everybody does, but a lot of them.

JSB: You were not exactly the most beloved player by any means, due mostly to your physically rugged style of play.  But players respected you.  Do you think that if you played in the NBA today, where the game has become more about quickness and finesse that your style would be just as effective?

BL: I think so.  I rebounded, set good screens, hit open shots, and I was a good teammate.  Those are traits that never go away.

JSB: You were called the Prince of Darkness, amongst other things, and collected some of the most unique nicknames in NBA history.  Did you get a kick out of all the nicknames people gave you, and what’s the best one someone ever called you that few people know about?

BL: It was funny to read a lot of the stuff that people would say and write.  I didn’t mind it because I knew we were doing something right.  You have to laugh at all of them.  It’s no big deal.  The best one was Prince of Darkness.  That would be my favorite

JSB: You played the majority of your NBA career with just one team.  It seems rarer by the day with free agency, the salary cap, and luxury taxes for a great player to play the duration of his career with the same team; Is this a trend that we as the sports fan just need to get used to?  Is loyalty dead?

BL: Yes, fans need to get used to it.  The trend will continue.  There is loyalty, however there is money.  Salary caps and players wanting bigger contracts cause moves to be made, as well as trades.  That’s business.

JSB: What was it like playing with Dennis Rodman?

BL: Rodman was great.  He was a great teammate; he worked hard, knew his responsibility, and did his job very well.

JSB: Were there any antics with Detroit?

BL: There were no antics during his Pistons years; we would not have allowed it.  When he started to go that route, he was traded.

JSB: Were you upset when he was dealt or was it something that needed to be done?

BL: It was something that needed to happen.

JSB: In 2003 you took the WNBA’s Detroit Shock from worst to first in just a single year.  What was that experience like for you?  Is there anything more rewarding for a coach than to lead a turnaround that remarkable and that quick?

BL: It was a great experience.  We rode an emotional wave that year.  It was a great reward to have that quick of a turnaround and to cap it off with a championship.  That’s a rare feat.

JSB: You’ve won three WNBA titles since taking over the reigns in Detroit in 2002, including last year’s title over the San Antonio Silver Stars.  Clearly you’re doing something right.  So my question to you is what makes you such a great coach?

BL: I think I hold players respect by what I accomplished in my playing days, but that only goes so far.  I am honest, I say what everybody else is thinking, but they’re afraid to say.  Team comes first, before me, them, or any star.

JSB: A lot of people disrespect the WNBA, some even say that it’s a joke.  Does that bother you?  Do you just laugh at people who make those remarks?  As a coach who’s had a chance to see these girls year in and year out what would you say to that?

BL: Those that disparage it have not watched it.  Ten years ago the WNBA was average basketball, but today it is great basketball.  It bothers you, but you have to laugh about it, because they’re just naïve.  Once they watch it, we’ll get many more fans.

JSB: How much longer do you plan on coaching?

BL: I don’t know.  There is no timetable, and I enjoy what I’m doing.

JSB: You’re promoting Coke Zero’s Taste the Madness, which is a very cool interactive site for college basketball fans.  If you could tell all of our readers a little bit about the contest and the site that would be much appreciated.

BL: Sure. Coke Zero is a huge sponsor of the NCAA Tournament.  They want fans to send in videos of their crazy rituals, traditions, fight songs, etc. and the more bizarre and wild the better.  You upload it at www.tastethemadness.com and every video is posted.  Judges will judge every last one of them, and the winning videos will be shown during the title game on CBS.  Papa Johns will even throw all the winners a pizza party.

JSB: How’d you get involved?

BL: They asked me to.  Previous experience in the Final Four with the Irish was a big reason.

JSB: So I take it when it comes to the Coke versus Pepsi debate you like…

BL: Coke.  I am a big Coke supporter.

JSB: Mr. Laimbeer, thanks so much for your time.  You may have been a Bad Boy and a rugged hard nosed player on the court, but you are a hell of a nice and cordial guy off of it.

BL: Thanks very much, I enjoyed talking to you.

Photo: AP by Eric Gay

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