AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — When Michael Jordan landed hip-first on the floor of The Palace Sunday, the result of what looked like a hard foul, it was natural to look for Bill Laimbeer. Surprise of surprises, Laimbeer was sitting on the Pistons' bench. But not for long. When John Salley and Dennis Rodman returned to the sideline for a Chicago timeout, Laimbeer stood and offered his heartiest congratulations in the form of gritted teeth, and a motion that seemed to say, "Good foul, harder next time." You got the feeling he would have given back a week's pay to have participated.
When someone asked afterward if this is what the Pistons mean by "Jordan Rules," Laimbeer said in his usual snide tone, "Jordan Rules? That's a figment of the media's imagination."
Earlier in Game 1, a foul had been called against Laimbeer. The whistle had been blown, stopping action. Laimbeer, as soon as the nearest official looked away, slapped Horace Grant's hand. Hard. That must have been a figment of some camera's imagination. "If I made enough money to pay the fine, he'd have gotten smacked," Grant said.
We will be hearing more of these kinds of comments until the Detroit Pistons either win the National Basketball Association title or are eliminated from the playoffs, because Bill Laimbeer has not cleaned up his act. He will elbow you, then whine that he didn't touch anybody. He will smack your hand after the whistle has blown, he will stick the ball under your chin. "He can be antagonistic," the Knicks' Trent Tucker said last week. "He makes you want to knock his head off."
If the NBA issued an MDP (Most Despised Player) Award, Laimbeer would be working on winning his third straight trophy. The tough thing to figure out is why Laimbeer plays this way.
Usually, players who elbow and maul and shove their way from one season to the next are staying in the league the best way they know how. Laimbeer is 6 feet 11, 245 pounds but he is no such player. Laimbeer is probably the best outside shooting center in the league; he's a better three-point shooter than many guards. He averaged double figures in rebounding for six consecutive seasons. He can pass it better than most from the high post. He knows the game, he understands its nuances.
But he also throws cheap shots. This isn't just one man's opinion. If Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, two of the most honorable men to play the game, call Laimbeer a cheap-shot artist, I'll take their word for it.
Laimbeer, who rarely gets into a conversation about his tactics or his reputation, has said: "I don't think about reputations. I do what I'm supposed to do. I don't have to justify the way I play. I play hard, same as everybody else. People make up their minds about you, and there's no changing it. I just don't give a damn what other people say or think anymore, except for the guys on my own team."
Obviously, the Pistons aren't overly concerned with curbing a guy who can give them 20 points and-or 20 rebounds, and be rough enough for any opponent to notice.
It's not that Laimbeer is the dirtiest guy in the league; there are probably eight to 10 players around the NBA whom a large percentage of players would call dirty or enforcers. Laimbeer, however, is not an enforcer. Maurice Lucas would smack you, raise his hand to acknowledge the foul, then stare you in the eye. That's an enforcer. Laimbeer hacks you, then whines to the official that he didn't do anything. For years, Laimbeer would start something, then step back and let Rick Mahorn finish it. That, players say, is what they can't stand about Laimbeer.
That is why Bird, after being taken down by Laimbeer in the playoffs three years ago, let his fists fly in retaliation, then said, "I don't have any use for that guy." And that is why Robert Parish slammed both fists into Laimbeer's face in an ensuing game.
Even the people who grew up with Laimbeer and liked him, to the extent they could, watch the Pistons play and smile when Laimbeer goes into his act. "He got picked on a lot," one of his old junior-high teammates (Hinsdale, Ill.) said of Laimbeer. "I was one of the few guys who was nice to him. He was the butt of many jokes because he had an attitude and was a cocky guy who had money. He was the guy you snapped the towel at all the time. He was always a good student, smart guy, and he never would break under all the teasing."
Once in a while, you wonder if all this hate is heaped upon Laimbeer because he's a rich, white man in a sport dominated by black men from poor to modest backgrounds. This, remember, is a man who brags about not having to work as a teen-ager. This is a man who grew up the son of a multimillionaire in Palos Verdes, Calif., where the houses average seven -- not six -- figures. This is a man who as a kid got dressed up in a lizard-monster suit and hissed for a Saturday morning kids TV show. Why do we not find it hard to believe that Laimbeer dressed up as a giant lizard and hissed? Yes, Laimbeer is an easier target.
The subject of Laimbeer was introduced to Jordan last week and Jordan said, "Oh no, don't get me started on Laimbeer."