By Mitch Albom
Badges? They don't need no stinking badges. They will grab you, slam you, elbow you, and steal your basketball. Kindness? They have no use for kindness. They will ignore you, insult you, whack your notebook and poke your microphone. Taste? They,have no taste. They will curse, burp, crack filthy jokes, and interrupt a teammate's TV interview by jumping in front of the camera and saying "Excuse me, did you know this guy is a BLEEEEEP! Heh-heh."
Rickey and Bill.
Happy at last.
This is a story of the most unlikely of friendships, Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer, The Beef Brothers, Partners In Crime, Murder One and Murder Two. Imagine if Capone and Dillinger decided to hang out together. Imagine if The Hulk and Lex Luthor took joint vacations. Imagine if Mahorn, one of the roughest and most disliked power forwards in the NBA, and Laimbeer, perhaps the most unpopular brute to ever jump center, got together and went . . . clothes shopping.
"That's right," says Mahorn. "I taught him to stop dressing like a man who drives a tractor."
"Yeah," adds Laimbeer, "now I have pleats in my pants."
Imagine no more. The union has been consummated. They talk alike. They laugh alike. They go clothes shopping together. The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and lock your doors -- for suddenly, we have Laimbeer & Mahorn Inc. If you visit your nearest poster shop today, you will find a new, giant-sized portrait of the two of them, dressed like Hells Angels, Bill squeezing a deflated basketball, Rick chewing on a net and rim like a ravished grizzly bear. "Bad Boys" it reads. It is the kind of picture you send home to mother. If your mother is in prison.
"Yo, Rick. Lam. Sign one for me, OK?" asks Mike Abdenour, the Pistons' trainer, as a stack arrives in the locker room.
"Yeah, sure," says Laimbeer. He grabs a pen. Beneath his leather-clad image he writes: "To Mike; this is instead of a playoff share. Enjoy. Bill Laimbeer."
He hands the pen over.
"Let's see . . . " Mahorn says, his mouth curling into that alligator grin. He scribbles a message. Laimbeer reads it. He breaks up, laughing.
"Oooh, that's nasty. You can't write that."
"Yes, I can."
"Oooh." BILL ON RICK: "He's taught me a lot. Like rap music. And perch sandwiches. I never would have eaten one of those if not for him. RICK ON BILL: He's all right. For a Caucasian. Surely this is somebody's idea of a cruel joke. Mahorn and Laimbeer? Together? Buddies? Isn't that a little much? Isn't that like Mt. Everest on top of Mt. Fuji? And talk about a media nightmare! No sports writer in his right mind volunteers to do a story on either of these guys. Together? Why not just take the gas pipe?
REPORTER: Bill, can I have a minute?
BILL: What for? (Smile) You just write crap. (Smile) Not now. (Frown) Don't bother me. (Snarl)
REPORTER: Excuse me, Rick, can I --
RICK: No, you can't, you big, fat pile of bleep (smile). Now leave me alone you ugly, raisin-head bleepity bleep (grin and walk away.)
Are they serious? Yeah. Sure. Sometimes. Maybe. You could take all the kindness these two have shown the media, slip it in a baby's shoe, and still have room in the toes. Of course, they aren't any nicer to opposing players. On offense Laimbeer is outside, Mahorn is inside. On defense, they combine to make one ugly toll booth to the hoop. It is their animated bulk -- particularly the elbows, shoulders, knees and fists -- that have made them the most feared and disliked tandem in the NBA.
And the most punished. Both players have contributed over five figures to NBA fines this season alone.
But it is this union of intimidation that has actually pulled them together. "To be honest, the NBA can only blame itself for our friendship," says Laimbeer. "They started the whole thing with the Pistons video. The marketing people said, 'Hey we've got a great concept. The Bad Boys.' And they kind of lumped me and Rickey in as the baddest ones. We became closer on account of that."
And now, not only do they terrorize the lane for opposing players, but they actually hang out. Friends. They eat together. They go to clubs together on the road. "Rick is single; I'm married," says Laimbeer, 31. "So I always ask him first, "Is this the kind of place I'm gonna like or you're gonna like?' "
Mahorn, 30, grins and turns up his portable boom box. "You should hear Lam do some rap. He's learning. . . . When nobody's listening, he'll walk around singing 'I don't like no Oscar Meyer Weiner!' He's into it. Especially that song, 'Funky Cold Medina.' "
Bill Laimbeer? The Funky Cold Medina? BILL ON RICK: "When I first met him, I thought he was fat and not interested in contributing to this team." RICK ON BILL: "When I first met him, I thought he was the biggest lummox on earth." Can we be blunt? What are these guys doing on the same page? Here, in Laimbeer, we have the son of a wealthy white businessman, a kid who grew up along the gorgeous cliffs of the Pacific Ocean. He had a brand new car when he was 16, once flunked out of Notre Dame because of laziness, and lasted just two weeks on the only summer job he ever held. ("Factory work. Too hard. I quit.")
And then there is Mahorn, who grew up the opposite coast (Hartford, Conn.) and on the opposite side of privilege. Inner city. His dad split. Mom raised him. Family had little money -- and Rickey didn't quit any job he could get. Went to Hampton Institute, got into the NBA, and has been surviving ever since with whatever it takes -- elbows, shoulders, a bump of the rump. ("I'm lucky to have a chance to earn this kind of money. I never forget it.")
Laimbeer jokes that he wants Mahorn to move to West Bloomfield and learn how to sail. Mahorn claims he is teaching Laimbeer how to dance.
Friends. Well, not at first. When Mahorn was traded to Detroit in 1985 from the Washington Bullets, he was an outcast. He was heavy -- more than 20 pounds heavier than his current playing weight of 255. He was also far less enthusiastic. And that bothered Laimbeer.
"You have to earn your way onto this team," Laimbeer says, stretching his long, pale legs. "Rick missed Washington so much (and his close friend there, Jeff Ruland), he didn't have the right attitude to play here at first. I ignore guys like that."
Which was just fine with Mahorn. After all, he had come to know Laimbeer as an opposing player -- which is like coming to know Joan Crawford as a babysitter. Respect? Friendship? Try disgust, repulsion.
"Bill Laimbeer," Mahorn says now. "Everyone knew him as a jerk. He was blunt with me from Day One. I didn't want to hear it back then. Sometimes I still don't. I tell him, 'You're the stupidest, big, old, dumb yuppie I've ever seen.'
And Laimbeer says, "What do you know?"
And Mahorn says, "You can't run or jump."
And Laimbeer says, "So, what? You're ugly."
And they both crack up.
You can hear these debates daily inside the Detroit locker room. Mahorn's attitude has blossomed, his weight has dropped, and he has been embraced by his teammates as Guardian Devil, King Muscle, pride of the Bad Boy image. He and Laimbeer are now side by side, locker to locker, 6 foot 10 next to 6 foot 11, the way buddies like it. Visitors dub it the Abuse Corner.
And with good reason. No one is safe. Laimbeer will sting the media.
("What's the matter? Tigers not playing tonight? No Red Wings? Huh?") Mahorn will rag on whatever player is closest ("Fennis Dembo, you ugly, bald-headed, lizard-faced bleep, pick out some good music for that stereo!") They will play gags. Practical jokes. No subject is too off-color. No personal effects are off-limits.
"Rickey used to go around filling your drawer with water," recalls forward John Salley. "You'd come back from the shower, and you'd open your drawer, and all your junk would be floating around, your brush and letters and stuff. And you'd look up and see Rickey over there, looking down, trying to hide that smile."
One time, according to teammates, Mahorn and Laimbeer actually taped up James Edwards' locker so that he couldn't get into it. Take that, Buddha.
But, for all the abuse they dish out, Mahorn and Laimbeer are not only the most fined duo in the league, they are the most publicly flogged. People see them together on the road and begin screaming. Opposing announcers slime them every chance they can. In Boston and Atlanta, they can hardly go anywhere without a shower of hate.
"People see Rick as the violent player and me as the cheap-shot artist," says Laimbeer, shrugging. "But they always lump us together."
And here is the most interesting kernel of this relationship. Beneath all the muscle flexing and dirty jokes and tough-guy posture, Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer, believe it or not, are worried about one another. BILL ON RICK: "I won't start fights. But if someone is after Rick, I'll be after him." RICK ON BILL: "If I see players out there taking shots at Lam, I say to him,
'Don't worry about it.' You just play. I'll take care of them." Giants need love, too. Or so it seems. Laimbeer and Mahorn swear each other protection, against critics -- and against opposing NBAers.
"Remember a few years ago, in Boston, when Robert Parish started doing that stuff to Laimbeer?" Mahorn says. "I told Bill I'd get him. And I did. I won't let anyone hit him or hurt him. If it means me getting thrown out, so be it. I say, 'Lam, you're more valuable out here than I am, anyway.' "
Adds Laimbeer: "We protect each other."
Strange? Yes. But in a weird way, sort of admirable. Not the fighting, nor any cheap shots. But here are two guys seen around the league as selfish, boorish, the ultimate bullies, yet they are willing to be each others' bodyguards. They will defend each other publicly. And the truth is, much of their frightening image is exactly that: Image. A smoke screen. Something that helps win games. Really, now, as Michael Jackson asks, who's bad? "Off the court, Rick is so different from his image, people would be shocked," Laimbeer says. "I swear, he is the most polite, professional athlete I've ever met who is not a Jesus freak."
Indeed, Mahorn is painfully kind to children, old people, women. (One of his teammates describes him as "shy" around the opposite sex.) As for Laimbeer, few people remember he is married with a family. Even fewer know that six years ago, he and wife, Chris, lost their first child. A baby boy. He was born prematurely and died two days later. Laimbeer never asks for sympathy, never brings it up, never lets that side show.
"Yo! Lam!" yells Mark Aguirre, holding up a crisp new Bad Boys poster. The proceeds from which go to charity. "Sign one for me, will ya?"
"Awright!" Laimbeer says, grabbing the marker and flashing a sinister grin. He pauses. Surely he has a doozy in mind. But when he finally brings pen to paper, this is what he writes: "To Mark -- Thanks for sacrificing your game so we can win a championship. Your friend. Bill Laimbeer.
God, don't you just hate him when he's nice? BILL ON RICK: "I'm going to teach him how to golf. Get him out to the suburbs more." RICK ON BILL: "He's trying hard to become a brother. I tell him he's still got a ways to go."
And on they go. Mercy? They show no mercy. You'll get an elbow, a wrist, a shoulder blade -- and then they'll want a foul called on you. Sweetness? You'll get no sweetness. Not if there are other players around, or other reporters, and they have their image to uphold. Good taste? Are you kidding? Nothing is off-limits; fat jokes, money jokes, even race jokes, which is fine, it's good, because it shows that color really doesn't matter between these two, it is insignificant enough to laugh about, and that is the ground floor of acceptance.
"Theirs really is a unique relationship," says coach Chuck Daly, smiling.
"I've never quite seen anything like it. They're lumped together wherever they go, by opposing fans and media. What's the expression? Misery loves company? Maybe that's part of it."
Maybe it is. But they are enhanced by the association, the same way the Minnesota Vikings' Fearsome Foursome was once enhanced. People see one and its an individual thing. People see two, and it's a concept. Bad Boys. Thugs-R-Us. Mahorn and Laimbeer.
So what if they could build a new house with all their NBA fines? So what if they have every referee watching them and every enemy fan waiting to paste them? This is a friendship that has not only sprouted from the most unlikely of unions, but actually has a kind of -- dare we say it? -- nice side to it. White learns from black. Rich learns from not-so-rich. Perch sandwiches learn from pitching wedges.
Who'da thunk it? These two? One day soon, if the Pistons win the NBA title, they may actually get around to signing their own Bad Boys posters to one another.
"To Lam -- Rick (Par Four) Mahorn"
"To Rick -- Bill (Funky Cold) Laimbeer."
Unbelievable. CUTLINE Bill Laimbeer walks by a sign, made by fans, as he leaves the Pistons locker room Thursday.
The baddest Bad Boys -- Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn -- are featured on this poster.
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