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After college Laimbeer felt he wasn't ready for the NBA, so he spent a year in Italy and averaged 21.1 points and 12.5 rebounds for Brescia. Next he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers. One of his first challenges was guarding Abdul-Jab-bar in a game in the L.A. Forum early in the 1980-81 season. "All I wanted to do was not embarrass myself," Laimbeer says. In fact, he distinguished himself, getting 16 points and eight rebounds, to Kareem's 15 and 11.
Laimbeer expected to be a starter the next season, but Ted Stepien, the Cavs' owner at the time, signed the Indiana Pacers' free-agent center, James Edwards, to a four-year, $3.2 million contract. Stepien told coach Don Delaney and the man who replaced Delaney in December of '81—Daly—that he, Stepien, wanted to get his money's worth, so Edwards had better start.
Daly says he envisioned playing the two together, with Laimbeer, a fine outside shooter, at forward. But just nine minutes before the 1982 trading deadline, Laimbeer was dealt to Detroit with Kenny Carr for Phil Hubbard and Paul Mokeski. (Daly, fired by the Cavs in March of '82, was hired by the Pistons last summer.) Laimbeer has benefited from the trade. Still, recognition has been slow in coming, because of his more glamorous teammates, Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka, both All-Stars.
Although he's the Pistons' leading scorer with an average of 22.3 points a game, Tripucka has lately been criticized by some of his teammates. "Our white superstar sometimes doesn't show up for games," said one, his way of saying he thought Tripucka was sulking over a slump. But last Sunday, Tripucka, who like Thomas is a third-year pro, showed up in time to sink the winning jumper with four seconds left in a 142-140 overtime defeat of the Spurs.
"Every player would love to be the star of the show," says Laimbeer. "If anyone says otherwise, he's just wacko. But Kelly and Isiah attract others to them. They're flashy, I'm not. That's O.K. with me and everyone else, too."
One Piston who has had to sublimate his individuality for the good of the team is guard John Long, 27, the oldest Piston—along with forward Terry Tyler, also 27—in point of service. "John's had to undergo some changes," Laimbeer says. "Here was a guy who was averaging 20-some points a game. It was his team. Then Kelly and Isiah get here and the team starts building around them. I'm sure it hurt John for a time, but he's adjusted well."
It has also helped that Long has been healthy this year. Although he missed only 12 games last season, a nagging groin pull and an arm infection bothered him to the point where "mentally I just wasn't into the game." Indeed, his average of 10.5 points a game was almost seven lower than his career average. This season Long is averaging 17.2 points, and it's easy to see that he's back mentally as well.
Early in the season Long and Vinnie Johnson vied for the starting spot Long now has, and then, on Jan. 6, Lionel Hollins, another guard, was acquired from San Diego. Tyler announced that if he couldn't play more he wanted to be traded. Other Pistons were grousing about their allotted court time, too.
But as the season progressed, the subs sounded off less and less. Now they can even make jokes. At a recent shoot-around, seldom-used guard David Third-kill expressed dismay when Daly canceled a drill, with a cry of, "Coach, that's the only time I ever get to shoot here."
"You can't argue with the bottom line, the winning," says Johnson, who contributes 11.7 points a game and is second to Thomas on the club in assists. "And you can't worry about minutes, either. If you're brooding about not getting enough time in the last game, you won't be ready for this one. The idea is to use this time to show the coach why he should have been using you before."