It is the lot of Detroit Pistons center William Laimbeer Jr. to collect both rebounds and scorn in quantity. He is the NBA leader in the former category, with an average of 12.9 per game at week's end, which should be enough to break Moses Malone's six-year stranglehold on the rebounding title. And speaking of strangleholds, that's what several NBA teams, the Boston Celtics in particular, would like to apply to the thick neck of one Bill Laimbeer.
"You want me to say something about Laimbeer, eh?" says Bill Walton. Walton says something, then flashes a huge grin. "But you can't print it."
Robert Parish, who has been involved in a fight with Laimbeer in each of the last two seasons: "I was always taught if you can't say something nice about someone, then don't say anything at all. So I'm saying nothing at all."
Larry Bird: "We don't like him that good."
The Milwaukee Bucks don't like him that good, either. On Nov. 1, 1983, Bob Lanier, then a Buck, coldcocked him in a game at the Silverdome, breaking his nose. Since then, Laimbeer has also had tussles with Alton Lister and Sidney Moncrief. Could it be that Laimbeer inspires hatred only among teams that wear green? "I don't even want to talk about him," says an assistant coach of a Central Division team that doesn't wear green. "Laimbeer's a crybaby and a faker." So much for the green theory.
"I was having breakfast with an NBA coach and his wife recently when Bill's name came up in passing," says Detroit assistant coach Dick Harter. "As soon as the wife heard it she slammed down her fork and asked, 'What's the deal with that guy? I mean, does he beat his wife or what?' I couldn't believe how fired up she was."
It remains, then, for Laimbeer's loyal teammates to refute these blasphemous charges. "Tell you the truth," says Isiah Thomas, Laimbeer's closest buddy on the Pistons, "if I didn't know Bill, I wouldn't like him, either."
What is the deal with this guy?
Laimbeer, 28 and a three-time All-Star, is a nice enough fellow off the court, a bit sarcastic, perhaps, but in an intelligent sort of way. His wife, Chris, 29, who could still slide into the court of most homecoming queens, bears no visible scars. They've got an adorable son, Eric William, who was born last April, six days before the Pistons' Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series against, fittingly, Boston. Laimbeer has never been into substance abuse. Visits his parents regularly. Sponsors a charity golf tournament in the summer. He is politically conservative—but then there aren't many deep thinkers of the liberal persuasion in the NBA. Loves fishing, like any number of good ol' boy athletes. Doesn't overrate his abilities or do much woofing off the court. "As far as centers go," says Laimbeer, "I'm not Moses or Kareem. But I'm striving to be the best of the rest."
There are, in fact, any number of contradictions swirling around the large (6'11", 265-pound) person of Laimbeer, like his close friendship with Thomas, who is as popular around the league as Laimbeer is unpopular. They both spent most of their formative years in Chicago, but thousands of symbolic miles apart, Thomas in the mostly black ghetto of K-Town, Laimbeer in the all-white, well-manicured suburb of Clarendon Hills. Thomas's mother, Mary, warded off neighborhood pushers with a shotgun. Laimbeer's parents drove him and his future wife, the former Chris Skiver, to formal-dance classes in which they learned funky steps like the fox-trot. Thomas chased basketball with a relentless passion to escape the misery and deadness around him. Laimbeer yawned and hoisted up a few jumpers in the driveway.