by John Nardizzi

Brawls in professional sports tap easily into old myths and stories about good and evil, offering 45 second morality plays with larger than life characters.  But violent behavior carves out a pound of flesh from both aggressor and victim alike, and often not in any predicable pattern. Consider the following exhibits:

Robert Parish: Assault and Battery on Bill Laimbeer

Robert Parish vs Bill Laimbeer (1987 ECF Game 5)by kevin-garnett123

Every city has a variation on this one: well-mannered player lashes out at reviled bully.  In Boston, amidst memories of winning World Series, Super Bowls and Stanley Cups, there is the more subtle pleasure of revenge being a dish best served cold by the head chef—or make that The Chief.  In 1987, the Boston Celtics rode the talents of their aging Hall of Fame front line, Larry Bird, Robert “the Chief” Parish, and Kevin McHale back into the maw of the Eastern Conference playoffs.  A young and hungry opponent awaited: the Detroit Pistons, led by bruising front court players Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer, whose reputation for cheap shots was spreading.  Detroit sensed the Celtics were ripe for the kill, and the opening games were physical in the extreme.

Robert Parish was a Hall of Fame center not known for any extracurricular physical or verbal jousting (in fact he preferred to sip sock2red wine and smoke a little weed, which earned him a small criminal fine when several ounces mysteriously appeared in his mailbox).  In Game 5 of the Celtics-Pistons series, Laimbeer was introducing his elbows to various Celtic faces. When it came time for Parish to eat a Laimbeer elbow, he entered the red mist and snapped.  The Chief unleashed a double tomahawk chop down — from behind — on the face of Laimbeer, thrashing the Piston’s hardman to the floor where he cowered in fetal position with forearms across his face.  After a moment of stunned silence, the Boston Garden broke out in a joyous uproar…  Legally speaking, the attack would have been an easy charge of assault and battery.  But to endless delight for any die-heard Celtics fan, the legendary Boston Garden home advantage came into play: as Laimbeer arose picking flesh out of his teeth, Parish, incredibly, was not even assessed a foul on the play.  The Celtics won the series ( Parish disqualified post facto by the league for game 6), and the Pistons championship dream was deferred for a year.

The future played out in a curious way for both men.  Parish played for nearly another decade and was voted into the Hall of Fame.  But an ugly domestic violence charge in 1987 involving his ex-wife on his record seems to have delayed any real consideration for him as a head coach:

“’We were in Los Angeles to play the Lakers [in the NBA Finals]. She came by to my hotel and I had a guest. She flips out ’cause I’ve got a guest.’  The argument escalated and Parish lost his temper. He said he pushed her into a doorway across the hall.”

Even as his famous teammates litter the front office and sidelines of other teams, Parish has never gotten a chance at coaching in the NBA.

Detroit Bad Boy Laimbeer has also struggled to make his bones in the coaching ranks. Although the Piston won back to back titles,a degree of notoriety forever attached to them for their crass, brutal style of play, best seen in them administering the Jordan Rules: relentlessly smashing the young Chicago Bulls star to the floor until he broke down late in the series. When Jordan’s Bulls finally defeated the Pistons, Laimbeer and other Piston leaders walked off the court without shaking hands.

According to a recent piece in Pro Basketball Weekly, while Laimbeer was a successful coach in the WNBA, he is not respected around the league:

Perception is often reality. And in NBA circles, Laimbeer has a perception problem, compounded by his “I-don’t-give-a-s—” attitude about it. He doesn’t care how he’s viewed, even if how he’s viewed is keeping him from achieving the very thing he says is (or at least was) his ultimate goal: a head-coaching job in the league.

Whether a remnant of his cheap-shot playing style or his abrasive personality, the fact remains that Laimbeer has never been offered a chance to coach in the NBA.


Eric Cantona: Assault & Battery on Hooligan

In 1995, English soccer club Manchester United was in the dawn of a great revival that would see the club dominate the English Premier League for two decades.  During an away match at Crystal Palace, United’s gifted French striker Eric Cantona, whose prodigious talent was coupled with a fiery Gallic temper, was ejected for retaliating against a player who had been hacking at his legs all afternoon.  Cantona walked towards the tunnel for an early shower.  A Crystal Palace hooligan named Matthew Simmons left his seat and moved to the field.  Simmons was of a type that had marred the great English game for decades, engaging in horrific, shameless acts of fan violence at matches throughout Europe.  Simmons has since stated that he jeered Cantona with a mild curse: ‘Off you go Cantona – it’s an early bath for you!’  Other neutral witnesses have suggested a saltier cracker was offered: ‘F__ you, mother-f_____ French bastard.’  Others claim there is no way Cantona could have heard anything, given the screams of the increasingly hostile crowd.

sockIn a moment of rage, Cantona leapt the side wall and delivered a tremendous kung-fu sidekick to Simmons leather jacket-clad belly. He then began battering Simmons with rapid punches to the head. The crowd grew poisonous before Cantona was rushed off the field.  He was later arrested and faced criminal charges.

Initial reaction was that the Frenchman had badly marred the sport with his loss of composure. But as Simmons background came out—he had assaulted an immigrant gas station attendant, and attended right wing rallies of the British National Party and the National Front—there was a growing sense that Cantona had given soccer a cathartic moment. Richard Williams wrote in The Independent:

‘You didn’t have to look very long and hard at Mr Matthew Simmons of Thornton Heath to conclude that Eric Cantona’s only mistake was to stop hitting him. The more we discovered about Mr Simmons, the more Cantona’s assault looked like the instinctive expression of a flawless moral judgement.’

Cantona was eventually banned from the game for nine months.  In a press conference, the great forward had some fun with the press, who by this time were following his every move and imbuing his kung fu kick with legendary redemptive powers: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.  Thank you very much.” He then stalked out an even bigger, more mystifying hero than before.

When Cantona was allowed to play again for United, it was the Return of the King, with Manchester United peaking in 1995-1996 by winning the vaunted Double (2 titles), making it four league titles in five years.

Cantona has no regrets.  A few years ago, he acknowledging that it was wrong to charge a fan as he had done—but he admitted that he kept a certain degree of fondness in his football heart for the Kung fu kick:

‘When I did the kung fu kick on the hooligan, because these kind of people don’t have to be at the game … it’s like a dream for some, you know sometimes to kick these kind of people.  So I did it for [the fans]. So they are happy. It’s a kind of freedom for them.’

Unfortunately Matthew Simmons continued to climb on the wrong side of the wall: in 2010, Simmons was charged with assaulting the manager of his son’s soccer club.

jjjJohn Nardizzi is an investigator, lawyer, and writer. His writings have appeared in numerous professional and literary journals, including San Diego Writers Monthly, Oxygen, Liberty Hill Poetry Review, Lawyers Weekly USA, and PI Magazine. His fictional detective, Ray Infantino, first appeared in print in the spring 2007 edition of Austin Layman’s Crimestalker Casebook. In May 2003, John founded Nardizzi & Associates, Inc., an investigations firm that has garnered a national reputation for excellence in investigating business fraud and trial work. His investigations on behalf of people wrongfully convicted of crimes led to several million dollar settlements for clients like Dennis Maher, Scott Hornoff and Kenneth Waters, whose story was featured in the 2010 film Conviction. He lives in the Boston area and supports AS Roma and Barcelona.

Click here to read All Things Crime Bog’s review of John’s crime novel, Telegraph Hill.

Click below to view John Nardizzi’s post on serial killer and real life Mafia hit man Richard Kuklinski:

Cracks in “The Iceman”: Richard Kuklinski, Serial Killer and Real-Life Mafia Hit Man




5 Responses to Violence and Redemption in Pro Sports (Part One): The Chief Punches Out Bill Laimbeer

  1. Penny says:

    I misses all afternoon of Macneill trail. Can someone tell me what happened?

  2. Tom Davidson says:

    John – Regarding the Chief and Bill Laimbeer, there really is something to be said for unsportsmanlike conduct. Even a Gatorade tantrum in the dugout by a misunderstood multimillionaire outfielder can pick up an otherwise dull baseball game. If he takes batting practice on the dugout’s pay phone — as a TV viewer, can you ask for anything more? But the Chief made history. The Chief clobbered the Antichrist of the NBA in 1987, and set a moral tone. The Chief was Superman — truth, justice, and the American Way. Bill Laimbeer was Lex Luther. Within two years the Berlin Wall was ripped down, and Hall & Oates’ string of horrendous hits were fading fast. Coincidence? Or the Butterfly effect? The Chief destroyed Laimbeer and rescued us from Hall & Oates. We owe him. — Tom

  3. John says:

    Have never seen anyone link Bill Laimbeer and Hall & Oates in same paragraph. Tremendous work sir. “00” forever…

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