Sexism Trumps Inexperience

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - November 19, 2008
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It may be a stretch to suggest that Pete Townsend was thinking of the NBA while penning his tale of a revolution that ends up changing absolutely nothing, but league owners sure did channel the guitarist’s look at continued folly.

Each new season brings with it new coaches who have either worn out their welcome with a previous employer or were darn good players, who, though lacking any on-the-job training, seemed so smart on the court or when calling the game from the sideline. With these often-used guidelines it would follow that the best coaching candidate would be an accomplished player who has gone on to coaching success - a Lenny Wilkens type.

Such men are hard to find. Four-time all stars who become coach of the year and win three titles in six full seasons aren’t just sitting around waiting for a phone call. That is, so long as the coach wasn’t too prickly as a player and whose players do not take time off for maternity leave. For Bill Laimbeer the message is clear. It is better to have no experience than to have coached a women’s team no matter the amount of success. And that we still don’t like you.

Since taking over the Detroit Shock at the end of the 2002 season, Laimbeer has done nothing but win. His team took home the championship in his first full year on the job and has added two more titles for a franchise that has become the model of success for the still-struggling WNBA.

As both coach and general manager, he’s drafted well and hasn’t been afraid to make big trades to shore up his team’s weaknesses - such as sending talented rookie Tasha Humphrey, Shay Murphy and a second-round pick to Washington for Taj McWilliams-Franklin. The trade filled the void created when Cheryl Ford was lost for the season with a knee injury she reaggrevated during the so-called brawl with the L.A. Sparks. The then-stuggling Shock went 6-1 after the trade to retake the lead of the Eastern Conference.

He’s also developed a team that plays in his own unique image.

The Shock play Laimbeer ball. They are tough, defensive minded and smart. The biggest secret to the success of the Bad Boys Pistons’ teams was not their physicality, but in their understanding of the game. Those teams won with intellect and hard work. Making players fearful to drive the lane was an added bonus. And just as he had with the Pistons, Laimbeer has benefited from being surrounded like-minded players.

Deanna Nolan is as tough as her home town. The Flint Michigan native often has to be reined in by her coaches when her emotions get the best of her. If you haven’t seen her, think of a female Isiah Thomas but with much more visual appeal. Kara Braxton, a 25-year old, 6-foot, 6-inch center/forward, may not have joined the team with a Laimbeer-ish temperament, but she voiced her belief in the system prior to the 2006 WNBA finals saying “I mean, they were the Bad Boys of the NBA, and they brung it over, and now we’re the Bad Girls of the WNBA.”

In defense of the league, Laimbeer did make more enemies than friends in his playing career, and like Kareem, who has never been seriously considered for anything more than just a rudimentary role, this has closed the door on many would-be possibilities. And while it may seem ridiculous to hold grudges for so many years, the NBA has a long memory. No further evidence is needed than Sparks coach and former Laker defensive stopper Michael Cooper, who traded some barely hidden barbs with his former nemesis in June.

Of the Sparks, Laimbeer said they play “... that hyper-show-time garbage and we’re more blue-collared, hard nose, physical ...” A style of play that Cooper called “... dirty ball. Thug ball.”

Needless to say that Laimbeer won’t be walking the sidelines anytime soon in L.A., Boston or Indiana but when compared the litany of unknowns, hardly knowns, retreads and former stars with no experience looking to get back in the action, the silence of Laimbeer’s phone is deafening.

Coaching virgin Mark Jackson was the supposed Knicks coach in waiting until he fumbled his interview with president Donnie Walsh who publically endorsed Jackson saying his lack of experience was not a major factor. The former Knicks guard also interviewed with Chicago and Phoenix. Had Jackson gotten the job he would have joined Bulls new floor leader Vinny Del Negro as rookie coaches.

Even before these moves, the NBA has not shied away from players with little or no coaching experience feeling these guys will be able to relate to todays prima donna athletes since they were recently ones themselves.

Isiah Thomas went from killing the CBA to coaching the Pacers and was followed by another untested coach, Larry Bird. Magic Johnson was just a mess in his short time coaching the Lakers. Reggie Theus was able to turn his experience as the head coach of an undisciplined New Mexico State team into a job in Sacramento. Before Doc Rivers was a world champion coach with Boston he was given the reins to a young Orlando team even though he had never coached, and Avery Johnson had all of five months’ experience before being handed the reins in Dallas. And, of course, closer to home and much more confusing, Michael Curry was named head coach of the Pistons after just one year on the bench.

Laimbeer has always said he’s a Detroit guy, and it is where he wanted to stay. But now with an off-season home in Florida and his children grown and on their own, his ties to the only city where he can truly feel loved, is slipping. He let his contract expire this year and gave some serious thought to calling it quits even though after seeing him on the sidelines it is hard to think of Laimbeer settling down to a sedentary lifestyle. He recently came to a verbal agreement to stay with the Shock.

Yes, there are tremendous differences between the WNBA and its older counterpart. The men play a much longer season and unlike in his current job, in the NBA it’s the lunatics who run the asylum. But Laimbeer has experience and success. He’s gotten several rosters of players to believe in his system and while the men are much tougher nuts, it’s hard to imagine a team - outside of the old Portland JailBlazers - having as many personalities as those that inhabited the Silverdome when he won his two NBA titles.

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