Bill Laimbeer: Not Supposed to Be This Good, 1984

[In October 1983, Detroit Free Press sports columnist Mike Downey penned a column partially headlined: Pistons’ Big White Dude. That would be 6-foot11, 260-pound Bill Laimbeer, then in his third NBA season. Downey overheard the following conversation last season while attending the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, joining in the then-national mocking of SoCal Valley Girl-speak:

“There was a female fan at the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles who was totally amazed to the max when Bill Laimbeer took the floor. “Oh wowww,” she said, rising in her red dress and purple leotards to get a better look. “Like, what is this guy doing here?”

Her boyfriend told her to sit down and shut the heck up. The NBA All-Star Game was in progress.

“He plays for Detroit,” the guy said.

“The big white dude plays for Detroit?” she asked.

“The big white dude plays good for Detroit,” he said.

Almost immediately, Laimbeer scored a basket. It was his only one of the game, and he turned out to be low man in minutes played with six. But he was out there, all right, a genuine NBA All-Star. One of the top centers in professional basketball.”

Reporter Bob O’Donnell picks up on these themes in this short article in the February 1984 issue of Basketball Digest. O’Donnell, with the Washington Times for 30 years, lays out just how unheralded Laimbeer was when he entered the NBA. He also shows how almost everything went right for Laimbeer when he turned pro and, importantly, how he made the most of his breaks and brawn. Not bad for a big white dude.]

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Two Detroit Pistons made the NBA All-Star team last year—and one of them wasn’t Kelly Tripucka, the team’s high-scoring small forward. Guard extraordinaire Isiah Thomas was duly honored. Of course. The other was 6-foot-11 center Bill Laimbeer. 

While Thomas scored 19 points and handed out seven assists in leading the East to a 132-123 victory over the West, Laimbeer’s two points and one rebound represented a significant victory—a triumph for the third-round draft choices of the world. His six-minute stint did more for the axiom that hard work and determination pay off than any three Frank Merriwell stories.

Laimbeer went on to complete one of the year’s most-refreshing success stories by finishing the season as the league’s third-best rebounder (his 12.1 average ranked behind Moses Malone’s 15.3 and Buck Williams’ 12.5), while averaging 13.6 points per game.

“It [his success] has surprised me a bit,” Laimbeer said. “I know I could be a top 10 rebounder if given the time, but finishing third in the league? That was a surprise.

“Now, I not only hope to improve, I expect to. I’m very confident about my abilities.”

Laimbeer’s rags-to-rebounds story begins at Notre Dame. A high school All-American in Palos Verdes, Calif., he chose coach Digger Phelps’ program over a multitude of offers. “I didn’t have a very good college career,” he said. “The program was geared to a team concept. The individual doesn’t get the chance to accumulate the big stats.”

His senior year, 1978-79, he averaged just 20.5 minutes, 6.4 points, and 5.5 rebounds while splitting time with Bruce Flowers. The Cleveland Cavaliers made him a third-round choice. “I sat down that summer and did a lot of thinking,” he said. “I had just gotten married; nobody expected me to make it. So, I made a decision to play in Europe [Brescia in Italy]. I never even tried out [with the NBA Cavs].

“Over there, Americans are expected to do all the scoring and rebounding. It was like high school; I was dominant again. The year was a tremendous confidence builder.”

After averaging 21.1 points and 12.5 rebounds in Italy, Laimbeer returned to the Cavs in 1980. “That organization [under former owner Ted Stepien] and coach [Bill Musselman] received a lot of criticism, but they gave me an opportunity to play, and I’m grateful for that. Musselman liked big, physical white players. He made me the starting center after 10 games.”

Larry Bird: “Laimbeer’s not exactly a finesse player.”

Laimbeer responded with a solid year: 9.8 points per game. 8.6 rebounds, and second team All-Rookie honors from one periodical. “I was looking forward to my second-year,” he said. “But they went out and got [7-foot center] James Edwards. I was told by the owner that he was paying the guy this much money, and he was going to play.”

Twelve minutes before the trading deadline midway through the 1981-82 season, Laimbeer was sent to the Pistons. “I started for them the next night,” he said. And he’s been in the lineup since.

Last year represented the big breakthrough for him, though. He played in all 82 games, set a Piston record for offensive rebounds (282) and had 60 double-figure rebounding games. “My big thing is rebounding,” he said. “I am a better-than-average rebounder with good size [he now weighs 260].

“Part of my success is that I anticipate shots well. On offense, for instance, I know my teammates. I know that when a guy is in a certain area, I can count on him shooting and can adjust my position accordingly. I also watch the ball.

“It’s a lot like Jeff Ruland in Washington. I’m not a great jumper, but I know how to get position. And once I establish a spot, it’s hard for people to move me.”

This year, with new coach Chuck Daly setting him up in the low post, he is not only looking to improve last year’s rebounding stats but his scoring as well. He started the season with a bang, tallying 26 points and 13 rebounds in the opener against Boston followed by 17 points and 18 rebounds the next night against Atlanta.

“Now I have the security of knowing I’m an established player,” he said. “Everything’s super for me right now. It’s all falling into place.”

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