Basketball Combat: What’s Cool and What Isn’t

Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball

Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball

Andy G: I don’t remember the 80s Pistons very well. I know they won back-to-back titles, I know the names of their core players, and I know they earned the “Bad Boys” nickname for physical play that often crossed the line into dirty and dangerous tactics. Especially against Michael Jordan. Bill Laimbeer in particular was known for being a controversial “enforcer” type. There was an NES game named, “Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball,” set in the future with Laimbeer commissioning a basketball league without rules and — importantly — WITH weapons. Larry Bird told Bill Simmons that he carries a grudge to this day against Laimbeer for the cheap shots he took against his great Celtics teams.

So I had a basic understanding of what the Pistons — and Laimbeer specifically — represented in the 80s NBA. But until reading David Halberstam’s “Playing for Keeps,” I didn’t realize the full extent of just how unlikeable “Billy Lamb” really was, as an NBA player.

From Halberstam:

What [Jack] McCloskey and [Chuck] Daly soon noticed about [Bill Laimbeer] was that he seemed to have little love for the game of basketball itself; indeed, Daly was never sure he even liked the game. He was a terrible practice player, and before games, when he was being taped, he often complained to…the trainer about the degree of mental fatigue he was suffering from, as if he could not play one more game. He was the first person to leave the gym every day after almost every workout, almost never sticking around as most players did to work a little extra on their shooting.

Laimbeer was not an easy person to deal with. He was a verbal bully off the court and something of a physical bully on it. He was deliberately rude to reporters in the Pistons’ locker room, and when, before a game, the time alloted to journalists there was coming to an end, he did his own countdown…He was a dirty player, and he knew it; it was the only way, given his physical limitations, he could stay in the league. Sometimes he boasted of what he had done after a game–the cheap shots he had gotten away with and how it had caused a more gifted player, say, [Robert] Parish or [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar, to lose his cool. “It’s a mental game, not a physical one,” he would say. He was despised in most other arenas by opposing fans, and many opposing players actively disliked him, believing he was quite willing to inflict career-ending injuries on them if it suited his purpose and that he would do it casually, out of what seemed like innate malice.

Nor did he make it easy on his own coaches and teammates. He often seemed unusually spoiled. He was willfully rude to the coaches, even to Daly, who was giving him his big chance, and in the constant byplay between coach and players he not only failed to be supportive of Daly but often seemed openly dissident…As for his teammates, he was often blunt and rude with them in the locker room, flaunting his conservative politics. If someone mentioned his lack of grace with them, he would say, “I don’t plan on having any of these guys as my friends when I’m finished here.”

Laimbeer and [Isiah] Thomas roomed together during their first camp, and Thomas thought that Laimbeer could not have been more different from him: tall, white, upper middle class. His father was the head of a company, and therefore Laimbeer was said to be the rare NBA player who for a time did not make as much money as his father. He was a Republican and an atheist, whereas Thomas was ghetto-reared, black, a Democrat, and seriously religious.

My question to you then is:

Bill Laimbeer: Most uncool player ever?

Patrick J: No. Here’s the bit: I remember those Pistons teams fairly well. (Eds. Note: Full Disclosure–Patrick J is two years older than Andy G, and so his basketball memories of the late ’80s are childlike but at least they exist.). And I’ll take the (un)popular(?) position, and UNEQUIVOCALLY *disagree* with you: Bill Laimbeer was a cool cat in his own way. The rationale being, of course, that if Bill L. had just some of those ugly traits described above, he’d be EXTREMELY uncool. But Laimbeer had the perfect storm–and I’m comfortable believing  he had all of the bad, and that that equals good. It’s like multiplying two negatives and getting a positive.

I mean, check this:

Hell, Laimbeer probably even has some other skeletons in the close that we don’t even know about. (Eds. Note: We might not want to know the whole story.) In its totality, the composite Laimbeer makes Bill totally unique. And somehow–at least in my opinion–that makes him COOL. (!)

So I guess we’re disagreeing on Laimbeer. The question I have is, can we draw any PRESENT-DAY COMPARISONS?

Andy G: Hmm, good question. Christian Laettner happily carried the reputation of being a jerk. He came from a wealthy upbringing. It wouldn’t surprise me if he voted for Romney. But he wasn’t really a dirty — or even physical player. (Well, unless you count the time he intentionally stepped on an opponent during the greatest game of his career, and possibly the greatest NCAA game ever played. On second thought, maybe this comparison works pretty well.) But Laettner is also retired. 

Present day Laimbeer? I really don’t think that one exists. David Stern, Adam Silver, and the league’s ongoing crackdown on hard fouls simply do not allow it.

The best I can do is a conglomerate of different guys. I’m thinking Kevin Love’s skillset — the out-of-shape version, anyway. You’d have Spencer Hawes’ outspoken conservative political views. You’d have Andrew Bynum’s career-jeopardizing fouls around the basket mixed with Dahntay Jones’ step-under-the-landing-shooter trick. I suppose you’d have DeMarcus Cousins’ rapport with the coaching staff, and Raymond Felton’s dedication to conditioning.

Did I miss anything? Cripes, that is a special combination of uncool. I’m not sure if I buy your calculation that “Uncool Squared = Supercool” but I’ll give you the last word to convince me.

Patrick J: Kevin Love.

Until next time.

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4 responses to “Basketball Combat: What’s Cool and What Isn’t

  1. Brett A

    I think I would hate Bill Laimbeer if he played today – I haven’t been a fan of the “bend the rules/grab and clutch” defensive teams of late – but there’s something nostalgic about the dirty play of a bygone era. And a supercut soundtracked by Eminem’s “don’t give a f@#$” attitude? Well, that wraps it up with a nice little bow. Having grown up in Michigan and somewhat idolizing the Bad Boys (without understanding how baaaddd they really were) certainly plays a role too.

    • Brett A

      Sidenote: I shook his hand at a Lynx game and said “glad to have you aboard” right after he joined Rambis’ coaching staff. That all kinda leaves a sour taste in my mouth…

      • I almost forgot that he was recently a Timberwolves coach. Guy made so many enemies in his playing days, it’s interesting that he can get jobs like that.

    • @Brett A: Thanks. I agree with your points. And on the Laimbeer/Marshall Mathers Mashup vid, I’m helplessly addicted; I’ve watched it going on 15 times since discovering it this morning.