Kate Fagan of ESPN wrote a fantastic on Bill Laimbeer, and she spoke with NBA general managers about him:
When I mentioned Laimbeer, though, the reaction was visceral.
He’s a buffoon.
He can’t relate to NBA players.
He treats them like it’s college.
Guys just won’t play for him.
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."
So how does the NBA work?
Perception is often reality. And in NBA circles, Laimbeer has a perception problem, compounded by his "I-don’t-give-a-s—" attitude about it. He doesn’t care how he’s viewed, even if how he’s viewed is keeping him from achieving the very thing he says is (or at least was) his ultimate goal: a head-coaching job in the league.
"I’ve had to get over that," Laimbeer says. "It hasn’t happened, for whatever reasons. If it does happen, it would be an oh-my-God moment. But I don’t really care what NBA people think. I’ve always been who I am, and I’m not going to change my style to fit their mold. I’m just not a career assistant. I’m not that guy. I had to decide if going into the ladies’ league would hurt my chances to be in the men’s league, and I came to the conclusion that I didn’t care. I thought, ‘Coaching basketball is coaching basketball.’"
Laimbeer grew up in Los Angeles as the rich kid, spoiled at every turn. Playing at Notre Dame certainly didn’t end his entitled attitude.
Now, if Laimbeer is ever going to become an NBA head coach, he’ll have to work twice as hard as the competition, because he’s not being given any benefit of the doubt.
Even I can see the irony – and I like Laimbeer.
Laimbeer probably hasn’t gotten a fair shot at becoming an NBA head coach. If someone like Gregg Popovich had run that Minnesota workout the same way, the narrative would have been how meticulous he is. Because NBA people are predisposed not to like Laimbeer due his playing career, he gets tagged as a buffoon.
In reality, Laimbeer can makes a decent argument for deserving an NBA head-coaching job. He was a smart player, and he’s had success coaching in a lesser league. But it’s not an airtight case – he’s not exactly outsmarting the world’s best coaches in the WNBA, and his abrasiveness probably wouldn’t please NBA stars – and there are constantly other candidates with intriguing, though flawed, credentials. What has Laimbeer done to separate himself from them?
Maybe Laimbeer could bridge the gap, working to show NBA decision makers he’s changed, but apparently he has no interest in doing that, and at this point, he has nobody to blame for his stalled NBA-coaching career but himself.
Laimbeer didn’t get his way, so he took his ball and went home (to the WNBA). Perhaps, Laimbeer should have gotten his way, but his stubborn response when he didn’t has only shown NBA general managers they were right about Laimbeer all along.