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Until recently, the story of this season's Detroit Pistons was unfolding like a paperback romance, with a broken heart in every chapter. Four Detroit losses were decided by last-second shots, and five other defeats were all but determined with less than five seconds remaining. The biggest heartbreaker, however, came on Feb. 11. With a record NBA regular-season single-game crowd of 35,364 at the Pontiac Silverdome, the Pistons lost to the San Antonio Spurs 123-116. "They partied at our celebration," said a dejected coach Chuck Daly.
But just as fictional hearts can be mended, court clouds can be whisked away. The Pistons rebounded last week to sweep Houston, Dallas and San Antonio to make their record 30-22 and put them half a game behind the first-place Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA's Central Division. Never before in the 27-year history of the Detroit franchise had the team been so highly placed this far into the season. And given the shape of the rest of the division, the Pistons are now a pretty good bet to win it. The Bucks have won the last four Central titles, but injuries and age have made them an ordinary team; Atlanta is a bit green; Chicago, Cleveland and Indiana were never going anywhere anyway.
Buck coach Don Nelson believes 45 W's will suffice to become divisional champions. "I'll defer to his experience in terms of numbers," says Daly. "Right now I think I'd be happy to finish up with that many wins."
It has been 10 years since a Piston team has won as many as 45 games. That team, coached by Ray Scott in 1973-74, finished 52-30, fourth-best in the league but only third-best in the Midwest (Detroit switched to the Central in 1978). Since '74, only three Piston teams have made the playoffs. The present outfit, however, isn't interested in merely getting into postseason play. "We're beyond that," says center Bill Laimbeer. "We want the division title, and then we want to make some noise in the playoffs."
Laimbeer, who's in his fourth NBA season, is certainly being heard from. After averaging 13.6 points and 12.1 rebounds a game last season, he had improved those numbers to 17.4 and 12.7 through Sunday. And he made his second consecutive All-Star Game appearance for the Eastern Conference, albeit this time because Philadelphia's Moses Malone had an injured left ankle and couldn't play.
There couldn't have been a more fitting replacement for Malone, who has come to typify the work ethic in the NBA, than Laimbeer, a plodding 6'11", 245-pounder. "People talk about Moses having fewer basketball skills than a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar," Daly says. "I think Bill probably has less than Moses, but Bill knows that and does what he has to do to overcome it."
Laimbeer has had a lot to overcome this season. For instance, he suffered a fractured nose when the Bucks' Bob Lanier clocked him with a left after some under-the-basket jostling on Nov. 1. A month later Laimbeer nearly came to blows with Seattle SuperSonics forwards Tom Chambers and Danny Vranes, who had been jockeying with him for position. "I'm probably in the Top 10 among players who can't jump," Laimbeer says. "In order to play in this league I have to do things like lay in the lane and fight for position, but I'm not a dirty player.
"I know I'm not as physical as [the Washington Bullets'] Jeff Ruland or even as physically violent as [the Bullets'] Rick Mahorn. People crash into Mahorn and they fall away in pain. I'm just sort of round and soft, so when a player runs into me he just sort of melds onto me."
It's ironic that Laimbeer the player is a throwback, because his formative years were more silver-spoon than blue-collar. His father, Bill, is a top executive with Owens-Illinois Inc., the big Toledo-based glassware firm, but nowadays a visit to his father's office is as close to the corporate world as Bill wants to get. "I'll abuse my body playing basketball, but that nine-to-five stuff is just too much work," he says. "I'm proud of my dad, but you should see him. He runs around, writing everything down, taking notes and stuff like that. I'm more abstract and tend to forget things a lot." Like during his freshman year at Notre Dame, when Laimbeer was having trouble remembering that going to class was part of college and was booted out of school for a year.
That set the tone for a generally undistinguished career with the Irish. "It was one of the worst experiences of my life," Laimbeer says of the Digger Phelps anti-star system. "It really limited my sense of individuality."