May 20, 2022
Bill Laimbeer retires as one of the most influential people in WNBA history
Laimbeer's impact on the franchise shows both on and off the court
LAS VEGAS — On a night in which the Aces defeated the Minnesota Lynx, 93-87, the story wasn’t about the game. Everyone in attendance was focused on honoring basketball legend Bill Laimbeer, who was officially retiring from coaching.
The Aces held a ceremony pregame where President Nikki Fargas presented Laimbeer with a framed jersey. Laimbeer spoke to the crowd, telling the fans what a special franchise Las Vegas is and how it is their time. The entire arena cheered when he was announced, and many fans had Laimbeer Pistons jerseys on.
Laimbeer helped build this Aces franchise over the past few years as head coach and general manager. First-year head coach Becky Hammon took over for Laimbeer in the offseason and credits Laimbeer with creating this Aces roster that has started the season 5-1.
“He deserves every bit of credit. I know I’m personally super grateful for the team that he built here and his vision and his eye for talent,” said Hammon. “I never really liked [playing] against those teams as a player…especially when he was in Detroit, I really feel like his teams kind of took on his personality. They were always really tough battles, really tough battles.”
While Laimbeer is well-known as an NBA player with the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons teams of the late 80’s, where he won two championships, he has had a lasting impact on the WNBA. He coached three WNBA franchises over a span of 17 seasons, winning three championships and two coach of the year awards along the way. He also finishes his career as the second winningest coach in WNBA history.
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Laimbeer meant a lot to the game, but he knew now was the right time for him to hang it up.
“I ran out of gas. You know, to be a coach, it’s a lot of energy. It’s a huge amount of energy; you have to perform, and I’d ran out of gas and it was clear that somebody else had to do it,” said Laimbeer. “So the mental part is gone, which is great. So now I have to just focus on myself and my family, which is wonderful.”
Bill brought his style of play from his days in the NBA to the teams he coached in the WNBA. Laimbeer was a tough, aggressive and sometimes brash player with the Pistons and the teams he coached embodied this idea. He didn’t care what other people thought of him and was well known for getting in heated discussions with referees.
Cheryl Reeve, current Minnesota Lynx head coach, was Laimbeer’s assistant in Detroit for many years. Reeve knows Laimbeer can be stern but it’s what allowed him to be a great coach.
“I think probably my favorite thing about Bill is he doesn’t really care what people think and that’s one of those things — you can be viewed, you know, as an asshole with that, but I think it was one of his greatest strengths,” said Reeve of Laimbeer. “Bill was unfazed, and actually encouraged edginess and that sort of thing. I think about our teams that we had in Detroit, and certainly the teams that he coached here, he’s the reason why the teams had an edge; it was contagious and he fostered that environment.”
Bill not only was a great coach but he did so much for the WNBA and women’s basketball as a whole. He was a leader in switching the women’s game over to the 24 second shot clock. He was a players’ coach who empowered the women he led. He also helped bring out the talent in some of the best coaches in the WNBA. Reeve, along with Katie Smith and Vickie Johnson were all at one point or another assistant coaches under Laimbeer. They all went on to be head coaches in the WNBA. A’ja Wilson said his support of players helped empower them to make change in the league and the world.
“It’s something special; Bill is a players’ coach through and through. Sometimes it’s hard for us as African American women to have a seat at the table. But when you have you know someone of Bill’s stature sitting there and taking a stance with us, it means a lot, it speaks volumes,” said Wilson on her former head coach.
“He’s done a lot for women’s basketball too. He’s been around the game a long time. He’s an advocate for women, since he’s been in this league, and that’s why we appreciate so much about him. That’s probably the reason why I came here. I saw how he treated his players for All-Star in Vegas. And I was like, okay, this is a franchise that I want to be a part of,” added Chelsea Gray.
When the game was over, many of the Aces players went over to Coach Laimbeer and gave him a big hug. You could see the impact he’d made on the players and how much care they have for their former coach. A’ja Wilson wore a Bill Laimbeer jersey to the game to show her affection for the coach that drafted her just four years earlier.
Laimbeer came to Las Vegas at a time when the franchise was moving from San Antonio. The organization had a new owner and there was a lot of change for whomever was going to take over. Bill took control from day one and helped lead the Aces to three straight WNBA semifinal appearances. It’s only right that on the night of his honoring, one of his number one overall picks, Jackie Young, had a season high 25 points to help the Aces secure the victory.
Bill knows the work he did to get Las Vegas to where it is wasn’t easy, but it has made the Aces into one of the best franchises in the WNBA.
“Starting it and building it was very hard but it was easy because MGM had all the resources. However, setting direction is the [thing] I’m [most] proud of in this franchise. I set [the] direction of, ‘this is how we’re going to do business; this is how we’re going to do play basketball,’” said Laimbeer. “I know the players understand it and the franchise understands it and I believe that it’s going to be a most unbelievable franchise…for future years to come.”
Bill Laimbeer’s impact on women’s basketball cannot be understated. While he is well known as one of the greats in the NBA, he needs to be recognized as one of the most important people in the history of the WNBA. He has helped move the game forward and paved the way for a lot of people who followed him. Laimbeer will be greatly missed in the WNBA both on and off the court.
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.