Before Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics faced their bitter rival Los Angeles Lakers in the 1987 NBA Finals, they had to get past another nemesis, the Detroit Pistons. The balance of power in the Eastern Conference appeared to be shifting. The Celtics, who at that point had been to the last three NBA Finals, were putting a lot of wear and tear on their aging veterans by having them play more minutes than they should.
The Pistons were a bit younger and a more physical bunch. Things got ugly during their heated 1987 Eastern Conference Finals meeting. Of course, Bill Laimbeer, the man most opposing players detested, was in the middle of it. Bird and Laimbeer were ejected in Game 3 of the series, and it didn’t stop there.
Larry Bird and Bill Laimbeer ejected for fighting in Game 3 of the ECF
Even Michael Jordan called Laimbeer the “dirtiest player in the league,” according to The Chicago Tribune. The Pistons center carried that reputation with him throughout his time as a member of the ‘Bad Boys’ in Detroit. Things always heated up during the playoffs with the Pistons coming to town. Such was the case when the Celtics and Pistons met in 1987 with the series winner earning a berth in the NBA Finals.
Laimbeer was joined by Dennis Rodman and Rick Mahorn to form a physical frontcourt that often tested the boundaries of dirty play. In Game 3 of the series, things took an ugly turn, courtesy of Laimbeer.
Although they trailed 2-0 in the series, the Pistons led 97-81 in the third game when Laimbeer flagrantly took down Bird, who up-faked and was going up for shot underneath the basket. Punches were thrown as players piled on top of each other. As things began to settle down, Bird fired the ball at Laimbeer. Laimbeer was ejected for the dirty play. Bird was tossed for throwing the ball. Detroit went on to win 122-104.
Larry Bird and Bill Laimbeer carried their battle into the locker room
Bird was heated. That’s what Laimbeer did to opposing players. Not known as a fighter, Bird said after the game he wanted to go after the Pistons’ big man.
”I wish they would have parted the sea, cleared the court for about 15 minutes, and just let us go at each other,” Bird said, according to The Chicago Tribune. “We would have seen who the real man is. He was backing away from me and didn’t want any part of me.
“This is the first time I’ve been involved in an incident where I can say I wasn’t at fault. Just look at the film. That stuff doesn’t intimidate me. It gets to the point where you’ve got to protect yourself. What I did out there wasn’t good for the game, but I’ve got to protect my career.”Larry Bird
Laimbeer offered a poor attempt at an excuse for the foul, prompting another heated response from Bird as reporters relayed messages to each locker room.
“Bird went up for the shot, and it looked like Rodman was going to undercut him,” Laimbeer said after the game, according to Sports Illustrated. “I grabbed hold of Larry to break my fall.”
“Yeah, right, he was trying to break his fall,” Bird responded. “And when I threw the ball, I was just trying to get it to the ref.”
Finally, Bird snapped again.
“He thinks he’s tough,” he said. “Let him come at me then. He waits for his teammates to help him, for the officials to protect him. Let everybody get out of the way, and let him come on in.”
Even after his playing days were over, Bird said he still didn’t like Laimbeer
While Laimbeer and the Pistons won Game 3, the series remained heated. Detroit also thumped the Celtics 145-119 in Game 4 to even the series. During Game 5 in Boston, Bird turned the series around with his famous steal of an Isiah Thomas inbounds pass in the waning seconds that turned into a Dennis Johnson layup and a 108-107 Celtics win. Although the Celtics dropped Game 6 on the road, they clinched the series at home in Game 7.
The Pistons reached the NBA Finals the next three seasons, dethroning the Celtics. The ‘Bad Boys’ took over the Eastern Conference as Bird never returned to the Finals.
Even after his playing days were over, Bird admitted he still couldn’t stand Laimbeer. In a video posted by The Universe Galaxy in 2018, Bill Simmons asked Bird if he liked Laimbeer outside of basketball. Bird quickly answered he didn’t.
“It’s because he was a dirty player,” Bird said. “He had to do what he had to do and I understand that, but you take like (former Piston) Ricky Mahorn, he’d hit you and you knew you were going to get hit. He didn’t try to maim you. Bill tried to hurt you.”