WNBA Season Preview

Mark Kreidler

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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.

LOS ANGELES -- Bill Laimbeer and Michael Cooper still irritate each other. And they don't try to hide it.

"I like Laimbeer in his uniform rather than his suits because he still looks a little scruffy in his suits,'' Cooper said Wednesday.

Cooper helped the Lakers beat Laimbeer and the Pistons for the NBA title in 1988. The next year, Detroit and Laimbeer beat Cooper and the Lakers for the first of its two straight titles.

Laimbeer, of course, remembers the NBA Finals a bit differently. "The hardest part for us as the Pistons was to get past the Celtics,'' he said, comparing the Shock to the Pistons of the late '80s.

Laimbeer was a four-time All-Star who scored nearly 14,000 points and grabbed more than 10,000 rebounds in his 14-year career. Outside Detroit, he was reviled as one of the dirtiest players in the NBA.

"One of the most hated, I would say,'' Cooper recalled. "He tries to get under your skin like a tick."

Until Laimbeer became coach of the Shock last season, Cooper hadn't seen his old nemesis since he was doing commentary at a Lakers game five years ago and Laimbeer walked by. "I almost punched him then and I'm pretty sure he was about to punch me, that's why I turned around,'' Cooper said.

In June, Laimbeer said publicly the Shock would beat the Sparks and Detroit won 87-78 in overtime.

"I thought they exchanged some words,'' Sparks guard Tamecka Dixon said. "It wasn't a nice handshaking after the game.''

Recently, Laimbeer predicted Sacramento would beat the Sparks in the West finals. Los Angeles won in three games.

"The battle between the two, it's incredible," Dixon said. "I think it's going to trickle down into the players.''

Cooper doesn't want the personal rivalry to overshadow what happens on the court.

"People should always remember this is about women's professional basketball and trying to keep this league and take it to where the NBA is at now,'' he said.

Laimbeer, the WNBA coach of the year, had one more prediction.

"We believe we're going to win,'' he said of the team that went from the worst record in the league last season to this year's best. "I've been talking about playing for the championship since the beginning of training camp.''
-- The Associated Press

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.

Bill Laimbeer
Bill Laimbeer was the central figure of Detroit's Bad Boys teams that won back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and '90.
Heck, the man has been overheard saying "please" when telling his players what he wants them to work on during a practice. His players make it clear that they love working with him. What's next, cats and dogs co-habitating peacefully?

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

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