Laimbeer has WNBA's Shock firing on all the right cylinders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - The advancing of years are, in theory, supposed to mellow a person, smooth out his rough edges and give him a different and maybe kinder perspective on life.

If that's the case, Bill Laimbeer apparently didn't get the memo.

Laimbeer, the former Detroit Pistons "Bad Boy" turned coach of the Detroit Shock of the WNBA, is no more mellow, no less rough and certainly no kinder than he ever was.

And if you listen to some of his coaching competitors around the league, he is no less arrogant than he used to be. The difference is the Shock can back up his cockiness, having clinched the best record in the Eastern Conference heading into next week's playoffs, with the possibility of having the best record in the league.

In typical Laimbeer fashion, he knew that his team, the league's laughingstock in the first half of last season, would be this good, this soon.

"We have great players and we're a really talented ballclub," Laimbeer said. "I told everybody before the season started that we were going to win the Eastern Conference. I told them at the end of last year and at the start of this year. So far, we're on track to do so."

As the playoffs prepare to open next week, Detroit hardly enters the postseason as an overwhelming favorite.

The Shock lost all four regular-season games to the Charlotte Sting and could be in trouble in a second-round series if it drops the first game on the road to the playoff-tested Sting.

The Los Angeles Sparks and Houston Comets, who have won all six WNBA championships, are the top two seeds in the West and either would be heavily favored to win another title against any Eastern club.

Still, the Shock, which finishes the regular season Monday night against the Washington Mystics at the Palace of Auburn Hills, is a remarkable story this year, especially considering that it was flat-out awful in the first half of last season, losing the first 13 games.

After the first 10 losses, Pistons management, which owns and operates the Shock, fired Greg Williams and installed Laimbeer, who had done television commentary and had kept good ties with the organization, but had never coached beyond the Amateur Athletic Union level.

The Shock split its final 16 games last year to go 9-23 for the season. As a reward, it earned the first pick in the WNBA dispersal draft of the now-defunct Miami and Portland franchises and the third overall pick in the collegiate draft.

With those picks, Laimbeer selected former Miami center Ruth Riley in the dispersal draft and power forward Cheryl Ford from Louisiana Tech with the collegiate pick.

The tandem has given Detroit what it sorely needed, an inside presence, not to mention a strange sort of familiarity. Riley, like Laimbeer, led Notre Dame to the Final Four in 2001, where the Irish won the school's first NCAA women's basketball championship.

"Playing against Detroit last year, you realized that they were a good team," Riley said. "The games they lost were close games, so you knew they had talent. It was just a matter of adding a few more players and getting it all together."

Meanwhile, Ford, the daughter of former Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone, who recently joined the Los Angeles Lakers, has brought a toughness on the low block. Ford does not like to talk about her father, but her visage and game are vintage "Mailman."

"They were very integral parts of what has happened," Laimbeer said. "We were the smallest team last year, and now we're one of the biggest. Getting Ruth Riley took care of our center position, and then, depending on where the pingpong balls fell and where we were going to pick, we had our eye on Cheryl Ford. We knew we'd have the two or the three pick and we ended up with the three. She's been all that we wanted rebounding-wise and we made some other peripheral trades to shore up our guard corps."

The Shock lead the league in scoring and field-goal percentage and rebounding, thanks in part to Ford and Riley, but also due to the improving play of second-year forward Swin Cash, who has an outside chance to win the league's Most Valuable Player trophy.

Cash, the second overall pick in last year's draft, struggled somewhat in her rookie season, but since being moved out to the wing this season, has taken off.

"The biggest change is in our personnel," Cash said. "The whole attitude is different. Everyone enjoys each other on the court and off the court. We have one goal and that's to win."

And that's where Laimbeer comes in. The four-time NBA All-Star, who is the Pistons' all-time leading rebounder, has drawn the ire of opposing coaches for his constant heckling of officials. Laimbeer and Washington coach Marianne Stanley had a testy exchange at the end of their recent meeting.

But his spirit and attitude have rubbed off on the Shock, and just might get the team one of what he has two of already, a championship ring.

"It's been great [playing for Laimbeer]," Riley said. "A lot of people have these misconceived ideas about Coach, probably coming from the way he played in the NBA. But he's great. It's great for me to have a coach who played where I played as a post player, and a championship player at that. I have a lot to learn from that."

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