The Time I Played with the World’s Baddest Athletes: Part Two

BILL LAIMBEER

Laimbeeer freep.com
You think he practiced his facial expressions as much as his foul shot?
Photo Credit: freep.com

Talk about baddest athletes; here’s one of the originals. Bill Laimbeer won back-to-back titles in 1989-1990 as center for the Detroit Pistons – “The Bad Boys.”

According to nba.com, Laimbeer was “one of the most notorious players ever to throw an elbow, thrust a hip, or feign being fouled.”

But for us, he was a pussycat. Here’s an excerpt from a Big Boy Halloween spot, in which Laimbeer tries to overturn one of his many nicknames: “The Prince of Darkness.”

BOB PROBERT

Probert ucnlive.com
The “First Aid” guy in the stands is standing by.
Photo Credit: ucnlive.com

On the ice, he was the baddest of the bad. He ranks fifth on the NHL’s list for most career penalty minutes (3300). He holds Detroit Red Wings franchise records for career penalty minutes (2090) and penalty minutes in a season (398). And yet, team owner Mike Ilitch called Bob Probert “one of the kindest, most colorful, and beloved players Detroit has ever known.”

When word got around our building that Probert was there to shoot a commercial for client Metro 25 Car Care Centers, the offices emptied and the lobby filled with hundreds of people hoping to get a glimpse.

I wrote and produced the comedy spot, which of course keyed on “Proby’s” rep and turned it around. Like the other athletes in this story, he couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and cooperative.

His sudden death from a heart attack in 2010 while boating with his family was a terrible blow to his legions of fans. In 2017, Probert’s family spread his ashes in the Red Wings penalty box at the Joe Louis Arena’s final game.

MEL FARR

Farr SCANNED
If I had stayed ten minutes longer, he would’ve sold me a car.

I was one of several local freelancers selected to write “partner profiles” for a coffee-table book commemorating Detroit’s 300th anniversary. One of my assignments was Mel Farr.

To Detroiters, his name is famous for three reasons. As running back for the Lions (1967-73), he won NFL Rookie of the Year and was twice selected for the Pro Bowl.

In 1971, he and teammate Lem Barney were “drafted” to record the background vocals for Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On.”

And after retirement, he came into local living rooms as the car dealer with the “Farr Better Deal.” By 1998, Farr’s automotive group was cited as the largest African American-owned company in the country.

We sat in his 8 Mile Road office and talked about the “Mel Farr Superstar” commercials that made him a household name again. “I thought, superheroes fly, so why don’t I put on a cape? A black guy in a cape flying around Detroit—that should get attention.” Boy, did it.

In my article, Mel concluded with this philosophy: “When you’re climbing a mountain, you think it’s the only mountain there is to climb. But when you get to the top, you see another mountain. I guess I’ll just keep on wearing my climbing shoes. What else is there?”

LEM BARNEY

MOT Lem w Mort
Working with a top athlete was sometimes no work at all. Lem put up with all our silliness.

For 11 seasons, Cornerback Lem Barney anchored The Detroit Lions’ defense. In 1992, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and in 1999, he was ranked 97th on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.

Maybe his greatest claim to fame, however, was singing background (with teammate Mel Farr) on Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 song, “What’s Goin’ On.”

We recruited Lem to star in one of three funny TV spots for Michigan Opera Theatre. Yes, selling opera with comedy. The background story of this unusual production was told in an earlier KatzTale called “The Time I Put Mom on TV – and She Nearly Put Me Out of Work.”

Lem was costumed as a gentleman of early America, complete with powdered wig. He came out of wardrobe with a big smile that never left him. I always tried to mix fun in with the business of shooting, and he enjoyed playing in our sandbox.

He hammed it up exactly right on his one line. Here’s the award-winning spot:

DICK TRICKLE

Trickle hotrod.com
I had no idea I was talking to an icon.
Photo Credit: hotrod.com

I know nothing about auto racing, and even less about the drivers. So when I found myself inside the Daytona International Speedway to produce Metro 25 Car Care Center’s 1994 convention video, including interviews with top stock car drivers, I did what any good producer would do—I faked it.

With minutes to prep before each interview, I memorized the driver’s bio in the press book. And know what? It worked!

However, little did I know that one interview would be with a living—and driving—legend. Dick Trickle, nicknamed “The White Knight,” was billed as the winningest short track driver in history, with an estimated 1,200 career victories. In the movie Days of Thunder, Tom Cruise’s character name, Cole Trickle, was an homage to him.

I asked him about teamwork; here is the brief response we used in the video.

TOMMY LASORDA

Lasorda SCANNED
We’re reviewing the script for TV commercials Tommy also made after his off-the-cuff motivational speech.

We hired former L.A. Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda to tape a short motivational welcome speech for the Metro 25 Car Care Centers/MetroCell sales team’s annual meeting. We couldn’t have picked a better motivator.

A colorful character on and off the field, Tommy managed the Dodgers to two world championships; his #2 uniform was retired by the team in 1997.

Here’s a short excerpt from his speech, which was totally ad-libbed and unedited. He was kind enough to sign balls for me and the entire video crew.

NCAA WRESTLERS

PDVD_013
Let the competition fight it out, we said in this hard-hitting Big Boy commercial.

This one was just plain fun. I wrote the Big Boy spot in maybe five minutes. We found two local athletes who ranked high in NCAA Wrestling. We dressed them up as instantly recognizable characters representing the competition. They “choreographed” the spot themselves.

As the referee, we used comedian Thom Sharp, who made the most of his role with no lines.

You may note that everyone in the stands is young. It wasn’t intended that way. We brought in a busload of people from an old-age home, and sprinkled them in with the other extras. But shooting a commercial takes a long time, and under the hot lights—in August, yet—these poor people wilted. We gave them box lunches and put them back on the bus.

“Competition” won numerous national awards for us.

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