Former NBA player Bill Laimbeer has quite the reputation in basketball circles. Call him a dirty player or a pest, but make sure you add winner to the name-calling.
Laimbeer and the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons made a career out of hammering and physically beating down the Magic's, Michael's and Larry Bird's of the world on their way to two straight NBA titles in 1989 and 1990. Arguably the baddest of the Pistons' "Bad Boys," Laimbeer has been unapologetic over the years about the way he played, spending 14 seasons as the NBA's biggest nuisance.
Now, Laimbeer brings that style and attitude to the Big Apple, where he was named coach and general manager of the WNBA's New York Liberty in October, with the hopes of bring a title to the basketball championship-starved city.
Laimbeer doesn't try to give his new team a history lesson in how he played, instead choosing to let his championship rings do the talking for him. Laimbeer, 56, posted a 137-93 record in eight seasons with the Detroit Shock and won three WNBA championships. He left in 2009 to pursue NBA coaching opportunities.
"What you try to instill your team is an exacting mental toughness, an execution. You want to be where you just don't go away," Laimbeer said. "We are still going to play hard-nosed, very competitive, intense basketball."
He worked as an assistant coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves under Kurt Rambis, but was fired in 2011. After not being able to secure an NBA head coaching job (he interviewed with Detroit, Philadelphia and Minnesota), Laimbeer spent the next year and a half as he says "fishing and play golf." But he said that routine got stale and he missed the competition of sports, which led him back to the WNBA. Plus, his wife wanted him out of the house, he jokingly says.
A few things about the WNBA appeal to Laimbeer, who has said he won't use this job as a springboard for another NBA coaching job.
"I like [the WNBA] because there is no babysitting involved. There's no recruiting and you just draft players. They are grown adults, you treat them accordingly," Laimbeer said. "I like that they listen very well, much better than the guys, by far. The guys think they know everything. Women have egos too, but the guys think they are it because of the money."
For his return, Laimbeer went back to a source of familiarity, bringing four of his former players and a trainer from the Shock to New York to help get the franchise over the hump. Two of those players are 14-year veteran and three-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Smith, who is third in WNBA history in points scored, and forward Cheryl Ford, a former Rookie of the Year, who has averaged 10.8 points and 9.7 rebounds in her career.
Smith said it was an easy decision to come back and try to compete for another championship with Laimbeer.
"Obviously, I am here because of Bill. I really enjoyed my time in Detroit with him. As a basketball coach, he's just like he was as a player," said Smith, who is completing studies to become a registered dietician and hopes to get a coaching job after she is done playing. "He's bright, just in the way he sees the game. He demands that out of all of us. Whatever it may be, we are all doing it for the greater good."
New York opens its season Saturday night at Connecticut, who swept the Liberty in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season. The team is again playing their home games this season at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. as Madison Square Garden completes the last phase its nearly $1 billion renovation. They host Tulsa in their home opener on May 31.
The team has their sights on first winning the Eastern Conference, which hasn't happened since 2002. With a mix of veterans and three rookies including first-round picks Kelsey Bone and Toni Young, Laimbeer thinks the path to a title is more realistic in the East than the loaded Western Conference.
To bring a championship to New York, Laimbeer said he will employ an up-tempo style of play, without sacrificing the hallmarks that has made him a winner as a player and a coach. The focal point will be four-time All-Star guard Cappie Pondexter, who was a first-team All-WNBA selection after averaging 20.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists last season.
"The last couple of years have been Cappie to the left and Cappie to the right. And the other players found themselves standing around a lot. I have put in a style that we involve every player," Laimbeer said. "But make no mistake, Cappie's still the primary weapon and we need a significant amount of scoring from her position."
Laimbeer said Pondexter is the best passer on the team and compares her passing style and court vision to Hall of Famer and former Pistons teammate Isiah Thomas. Pondexter has no problem with taking the lead of the team and is embracing Laimbeer's onerous style of coaching.
"I have had some tough coaches. I love coaches that challenge you and make you better everyday. And that's something that Bill has brought to this organization," she said. "He has challenged every player to get better. You can always become a smarter basketball player and he has challenged me in that way."
It is obvious that the players have fun and admire Laimbeer with the way they smile even after he just scolded them for a mistake they made on the court.
"Nothing has changed with him and his mentality and his knowledge for the game," Ford said.
"He's loyal. If you take care of your business, you treat him well, you work hard for him, he will do the same for you," adds Smith. "And he has always been that way with his players and obviously that's why a lot of us are here. That speaks a lot about him."
Although times have not changed for his former Shock players, one thing is noticeably missing from the Laimbeer heyday with the Shock: the infamous "FU Jar." Players used to contribute money to the jar as a way to tune Laimbeer out when they didn't feel like listening to him. Ford smiles when she says she doesn't know if the jar has made its way to New York. She also claims she never contributed.