|Tuesday, September 9
Updated: September 17, 2:49 AM ET
This Show(time) has no (Bad) Boys
By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com
It has the potential to elevate the collective pulse of hoops fans, because there is nothing more compelling in sports than a years-old rivalry that seems only to deepen and grow more bitter over time. Bad blood makes for good confrontations.
But, hey, enough about the two head coaches! Let's discuss the WNBA Finals.
Then again, let's not.
This is either the best thing you can say about the evolution of the women's pro game in America or the worst, but it's a gut truth either way: Bill Laimbeer vs. Michael Cooper sounds a helluva lot more interesting than the Detroit Shock vs. the Los Angeles Sparks.
Laimbeer vs. Cooper is Pistons vs. Lakers circa the late 1980s: Chuck Daly's Bad Boys against Pat Riley's Showtime. Laimbeer was a smart, savvy player encased in the body and mouth of one of the all-time NBA boors; he could only have alienated more franchises if the league went into expansion. Cooper was the smooth-talking and appropriately aloof embodiment of his Lakers, these traits masking his true identity as one of the fiercest defenders ever to step onto the court.
The Lakers won an NBA title from the Pistons in 1988; Detroit returned the favor a year later. Both Laimbeer and Cooper were integral components of of these storied teams. Each is still capable of amazing tenacity, an engaging courtside manner and a burning desire to win.
Now, what does any of this have to do with the WNBA? Nothing, of course.
Then again, pretty much everything.
Laimbeer and Cooper each make a statement about the evolution of the only remaining women's pro league in the U.S., and what that statement is depends entirely upon what you think about the game. On the one hand, it is a testament to the WNBA that it could attract elite former NBA talent to its ranks. To put it another way, you could've gotten million-to-1 odds a decade ago that you'd see Bill Laimbeer ever coaching any women's team anywhere.
On the other hand, a potential Laimbeer-Cooper scuffle could draw far more interest than a straight-up solid finals between the teams those men coach. Maybe that's to be expected in a league as young and rivalry-free as the WNBA, and maybe it'll always be true. You've got to figure the league's top executives desperately hope not.
It's an odd little sideshow, really. If it feels weird to contemplate Laimbeer working the sidelines in a coat and tie, there's probably a stranger truth at work here: Of the two, Cooper is more prone to blowing his stack.
Though Laimbeer drenches his shirt during games and can be seen agonizing over just about every call, Laimbeer has been a gentle giant in Detroit. He fought to keep the franchise in town in the off-season, when the WNBA was pushing for a new market after a desultory 9-23 campaign that led to Laimbeer being hired off the Pistons' broadcast team to finish out the term.
Not only did the Shock stay, but under Laimbeer the team became the story of the season. The turn-around may even have drawn the WNBA some attention outside its fairly closed circle of devotees, no mean feat for a league that already has been around several years and saw attendance shrink this season. And Laimbeer accomplished this not merely by turning over the roster but by guiding with an even hand.
Laimbeer can still shoot the needle at his players to make a point, but more often than not it's a velvet needle. He says he refuses to scream because, as a player, he always despised coaches who acted like lunatics. He rarely even raises his voice.
Cooper, by contrast, has fashioned a reputation for himself as a man coaching on the edge. He has driven Lisa Leslie and the Sparks to two consecutive WNBA titles with a relentless fervor that on several occasions has spilled over into unseemly messes.
Cooper takes defeat so personally that he sometimes has trouble congratulating an opponent, and he has been known to walk away from the other team's head coach without a handshake over some perceived slight or heat-of-the-moment frustration. You can almost see Laimbeer, a master heckler in his day, licking his chops at the thought of getting under Cooper's skin in the WNBA finals.
Earlier this summer, when Detroit upset Los Angeles in overtime to snap the Sparks' 18-game win streak that carried back to the previous summer, Laimbeer stood on the sideline near the end of the game, hoping to bait Cooper into reacting.
"I was trying to get Cooper's eye," Laimbeer said at the time with a laugh. "I didn't get his eye because he was a little perturbed. But then I shook his hand, and I told him we'd see him in September."
September in the WNBA, and it is, indeed, Laimbeer vs. Cooper for the whole ball of wax. It may not be the match-up the league wants fans to tune in for, but sometimes you take the piece of bread wherever it falls.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com