"It’s Just That Time"
He found a way to share that innate ability with others. It made him the winningest coach in the WNBA postseason history. It made the once downtrodden Shock three-time champions, the envy of the league.
It made him quit.
Eager to find a new challenge as an NBA coach, Laimbeer committed himself to that pursuit Monday when he resigned as head coach and general manager of the Shock after seven years. He said the questions about coaching in the NBA dogged him frequently in interviews, coming up as many as four or five times a week.
“My answer’s always been very diplomatic: I’m having fun doing what I’m doing. If it comes one day, OK, great,” Laimbeer said at press conference Monday. “But the best way to say it now is, yeah, I do want to go to the NBA and [be an] assistant coach, head coach. That’s my passion, that’s my goal, and so when someone asks me the question I want to say yes.”
Laimbeer denied any health problems or that he has a specific NBA job lined up. He also protested the insinuation that he was looking for greater job security than the WNBA could provide.
“This has nothing to do with the economic times right now, at all,” he said. “This is having to do with me as a person looking at what my passion now is, and where it’s heading to. I believe that there is no way this league is going to go away. It’s too entrenched, the players are too good.”
Laimbeer’s coaching experience was limited to his daughter’s AAU team when he took over the winless Shock in June 2002. By the next summer he was a WNBA champion. He now owns the most postseason wins in league history (27), and has led the Shock to three straight Finals appearances, winning twice.
“It’s just that time for me to go and do something different,” he said. “And I am going to pursue somewhere down the road, an opportunity, if it comes to me, in the NBA. That’s now my goal, my passion. And hopefully sometime I’ll be able to get an opportunity.”
The progression Laimbeer has in mind is not an uncommon one. He’s not even the first WNBA head coach go this route in 2009, following Minnesota’s Don Zierden, who left the Lynx earlier this month to join Flip Saunders’s staff with the Washington Wizards. Zierden worked under Saunders twice before, including Detroit. Another onetime Saunders assistant, Dave Cowens, left the Chicago Sky after one season to join the Pistons coaching staff in 2006.
After leading the Phoenix Mercury past Detroit in the 2007 Finals, Paul Westhead departed to join the Seattle Sonics staff. And Laimbeer’s most noted WNBA nemesis, Michael Cooper, spent one season as a Denver Nuggets assistant coach in between stints as the Los Angeles Sparks head coach.
But those men all had prior NBA coaching or front-office experience aside from their WNBA coaching credentials, which makes Laimbeer the boldest of the bunch to attempt this move - and nobody knows that better than him. “It will take a daring NBA owner or general manager,” Laimbeer was quoted by San Antonio Express-News columnist Buck Harvey during the finals, “to hire someone from the women's game.”
To better understand the NBA landscape, Laimbeer sought the counsel of Joe Dumars, Pistons president of basketball operations, adding that the discussion between the former teammates never addressed a coaching position within the Pistons organization.
“It was more about opportunities elsewhere in the league, just feeling out what he thought, what I may have to do to get an opportunity someplace,” Laimbeer said. “But he [Dumars] has staff in place and I’m looking for opportunities elsewhere.”
Besides informal talks with Dumars, Laimbeer said he has not interviewed with NBA teams yet - and would not have done so as long as he was coaching the Shock. He cited his past discussions with another Pistons teammate, Isiah Thomas, about coming to New York when Thomas was in charge of the Knicks.
“I did that with Isiah many years ago and it was a tremendous distraction to our basketball team and I was not going to do that again,” he said.
Though he’s learned from his mistakes, Laimbeer confessed he made a final miscalculation by waiting until three games into the season to realize he couldn’t put off his NBA aspirations any longer. But now that he's made the commitment, he’s prepared to go the distance.
“It’s a very intense environment and I’m prepared to do that,” Laimbeer said of the year-round NBA grind. “I’m not tired of coaching, I’m not burnt out. It’s the opposite - I’m prepared to move on with what I’ve learned, of how I [coach] and work with our players, and to see if I can be successful at a different level.”
Along with the NBA inquiries, Laimbeer said there’s another question he hears on a pretty routine basis: Did you envision staying with the Shock for as long as you did?
“No, I didn’t,” he said. “But I wouldn’t take any of it back. It’s been a great experience.”