We have dubbed them Atlanta’s Dirty Dozen – the villains of Atlanta Sports. We use the term villain loosely. Some are simply sports figures who proved a thorn in our side, stood in our way, or prevented greatness. OK, some are true villains. We’ll let you decide who is who.
In an 11-week series, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will highlight one of the Dirty Dozen. We will present the series in ascending order, from No. 12 to No. 1. Each story will be accompanied by a video with our staff discusses why each made our list.
We invite you to provide your thoughts each week. Email us at email@example.com. We will publish some of the comments each week. Finally, at the series’ conclusion Oct. 15, with the No. 1 villain, we will post a poll allowing you to vote on your top villains.
Every NBA fan of a certain age remembers Bill Laimbeer assaulting Larry Bird during the 1987 playoffs. Even many younger fans know about it because video of the Pistons goon assaulting the Celtics superstar is everywhere. Laimbeer wrangles Bird by the neck as he goes up to shoot near the basket; Bird throws punches at Laimbeer before the two players even hit the floor.
Laimbeer’s similarly dirty play against Hawks superstar Dominique Wilkins in the previous round is less remembered, at least outside of Atlanta. You can easily find many videos of Laimbeer taking cheap shots at Bird, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan. Laimbeer’s dust-ups with Wilkins aren’t as well-documented.
Rest assured that Hawks fans who saw that game remember Laimbeer snatching Wilkins to the ground. That was the signature move for Laimbeer, the NBA’s wrestling heel and the worst of Detroit’s Bad Boys.
Before Boston’s series against the Pistons, Celtics coach K.C. Jones showed his players a tape of Laimbeer slamming Wilkins and warned them to watch out. Sure enough, Laimbeer lived up to his reputation by attacking Bird.
“It was much the same as the Wilkins play in Atlanta, which I thought was a good way to end someone’s career,” Jones said at the time.
Trying to take out Wilkins makes Laimbeer the No. 1 Hawks villain. It was among the first of many times that the Pistons brute would tangle with the Hawks star. Laimbeer had scuffles with several of Wilkins’ Hawks teammates over the years, too. When there was extracurricular nonsense in those games, Laimbeer usually was the instigator or the recipient of some well-deserved payback.
Some might argue that Bird is the No. 1 Hawks villain. The Celtics legend famously denied Wilkins a trip to the NBA Finals in 1988. Bird’s scoring binge to end Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in Atlanta sent the series back to Boston. He scored 20 points in the fourth quarter of Game 7 to lift the Celtics to victory. The Hawks lost despite Wilkins scoring 47 points.
But those great performances don’t make Bird a villain. He beat the Hawks with his talent and determination. That earned respect. Laimbeer just beat up on the Hawks. He earned hatred.
The constant cheap shots by Laimbeer were bad enough. He made things worse by attempting to play the victim when officials punished him for his thuggery. Sports Illustrated captured this phenomenon with a memorable story in 1990. The cover photo featured Laimbeer with his hands on top of his head, pained expression on his face, accompanied by the headline: “What Foul?”
In that story, Laimbeer confirmed that his obnoxiousness was a strategy. The pushes, smacks, elbows, baiting, and bullying were meant to rattle his opponents. Even Wilkins had to admit it was effective, in retrospect.
“You were so mad at him that you were off your game,” Wilkins said in the ESPN “30 for 30″ documentary about the Bad Boys Pistons.
In Detroit, the fact that Laimbeer’s antics were effective against Wilkins is a good thing. In these parts, it’s just another reason why Laimbeer is Hawks Enemy No. 1.