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Gordon: Bill Laimbeer leaves lasting legacy with WNBA, Aces

He sat near the baseline Thursday night instead of the sideline. In a speckled white golf shirt, jeans and sneakers instead of traditional coaching attire. Nary an instruction to a player. A word to an official. Not a single reaction to an egregious call.

Just a celebratory smile after a 93-87 Aces victory over the Minnesota Lynx — and a private retirement party afterward befit for one special spectator.

“My daughter (Keri) said ‘Have you ever been watching a (WNBA) game live and you never been coaching?’ I couldn’t remember,” he said with a grin.

“I enjoyed today. … because I watched the players play a different style than I coached.”

That’s quite alright with Bill Laimbeer.

The 65-year-old is finally done with professional basketball, concluding a 19-year coaching career with 306 victories and three WNBA titles. He retires an unimpeachable advocate for the league and its players. The architect of the championship caliber team coached now by Becky Hammon.

The Aces honored their first coach by welcoming him and his family Thursday with a pregame tribute and nods on the video board throughout the course of the four quarters.

And afterward with tributary words.

“He’s done a lot for women’s basketball. He’s been around the game a long time,” said Aces point guard Chelsea Gray. “He’s an advocate for women since he’s been in this league and that’s what I appreciate so much about him.

”That’s part of the reason I came here. I saw how he treated his players.”

Supporting the players

Laimbeer played 15 seasons in the NBA and never forgot what it meant to be a player. There are no coaches without players, he said.

Their experience was always his coaching focus.

He sought to provide structure that would amplify their talents — and lead to championships in 2003, 2006 and 2008 with the defunct Detroit Shock. But he’d step aside when he’d see fit, deferring to and supporting his leaders on and away from the basketball court.

Never was that more evident than during the 2020 season, when the WNBA was confined to IMG Academy’s campus amid COVID-19 and the unjust murder of George Floyd. WNBA players were among America’s most prominent anti-racism and social justice activists.

Laimbeer supported their advocacy and embraced their efforts.

“Sometimes its hard for us as African-American women, it’s hard to have a seat at the table,” Aces forward A’ja Wilson said. “But when you have someone of Bill’s stature sitting there and taking a stance with us, it means a lot. It speaks volumes.”

Making a mark

So, too, does his coaching resume: eight semifinals berths, five finals berths, three championships and nine 20-win seasons.

MGM Resorts International tabbed him as the Aces’ inaugural coach and general manager after acquiring the franchise in 2017. He helped the league’s worst team reach the WNBA Finals three years later — building a sustainable contender in the process.

He acknowledged Thursday that a coaching style predicated on strong low-post play is dated and emphasized the need for a new voice.

“My style got us to a point. It didn’t win. We came close. Didn’t win,” Laimbeer said. “I probably could not have changed my philosophy of how I do business.

”It was very important that I step away because it had to evolve.”

Alas, the evolution under Hammon has begun, and the Aces already have a 5-1 record to show for it.

They spread the floor now, play with pace and shoot more 3-pointers than ever before. Laimbeer golfs and fishes now, bouncing between homes in Florida and Michigan, supporting the league he loves from afar.

Or from the baseline.

“Setting direction is the thing I’m most proud of in this franchise,” Laimbeer said. “I know the players understand it. The franchise understands it. And I believe it’s going to be the most unbelievable franchise in the WNBA for years to come.”

It certainly wouldn’t be without him.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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