A fascinating new feature story by ESPN focuses the spotlight on former Detroit Piston big man Bill Laimbeer and tries to understand the Jekyl and Hyde reputation he has among certain circles.
"Tortured genius." "Unapologetically exasperating." "Champion." All words used to describe Laimbeer's tenure in the WNBA.
"He's lazy." "He's a buffoon." "Guys just won't play for him." All words used to describe Laimbeer's brief two-year stint as an assistant coach in the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
He's been a longtime target of Pistons fans, especially as those entering the coach's chair downgraded from Larry Brown to the likes of John Kuester and Michael Curry.
The whole piece paints the picture of a complicated man because he seems so ... well, uncomplicated. He comes off as stubborn, aloof, but also incredibly direct and honest. A man who understands the nuances of an NBA offense but doesn't understand, or care to understand, the delicacies of dealing with big egos, gender roles or artifice.
And you can see why that might resonate with WNBA players. He's not an asshole because he's dealing with women, he's an asshole simply because he's an asshole to everyone.
His less than stellar reputation in the NBA, however, sort of surprises me. Not that I ever thought he was considered some great unsung hero in the assistant coaches world, but the vitriol in the piece made me do a double take. Here is the most illuminating and longest anecdote in the piece:
Laimbeer's tenure with the Timberwolves is seen as a resounding failure, probably the final nail in his NBA coffin. Never mind this is the same league in which losing and getting fired seem like badges of honor for other coaches, something that happens every few years, like the Olympics, or the Sixers making the playoffs.
Unfortunately for Laimbeer, the popular opinion of him as an NBA coach can be crystallized in one key moment when he acted very Laimbeer-like, his behavior confirming for those who witnessed it that the label they have for him -- a whiny crybaby no one wants to play for -- is not just a stereotype, but God's honest truth.
Before the 2010 NBA draft, many of the league's top decision-makers flew to Minnesota to watch a few prospects work out for the Timberwolves, who had a high pick. As one NBA general manager explains it, the purpose of these sessions is usually twofold: "The team is trying to impress the players as much as the players are trying to impress the team. And everyone with half a brain in the NBA understands this."
Laimbeer was on the court that day, running the workout. He set up one drill, telling the players to outlet the ball to him with a crisp chest pass, then run the lane and finish on the other end. Pretty basic stuff. Once the drill started, though, the players occasionally forgot the whole "outlet the ball" part, and Laimbeer, as he is known to do, called them out in a sarcastic manner. The next time around, the players remembered to outlet the ball but forgot about the chest pass. Laimbeer became visibly agitated by their inability to run the drill correctly. "By the end of the workout, we all thought there might be a fight on the court," one GM remembers. "Why make yourself the center of attention like that? For some executives, that day is all they know about him. And everyone left that gym with the same impression, that Laimbeer doesn't understand how the NBA works."
Something to keep in mind as everyone assumes he's on the short list to fill the last assistant coach vacancy on the team. But, honestly, if you read the whole piece, I think you still come away impressed with his abilities if not so much his tactics. And if he does claim that last spot on the coaching roster, I'd be excited. Especially if he's as good at the Xs and Os as implied in the story.