Since it’s conception in 1949 the National Basketball Association has produced some of the most memorable characters in the sporting world. The game of basketball lends itself to allowing individuals to express themselves on the court, to be spontaneous and find new inventive ways to get the crowd on their feet. More than any other it is the stars of the game that keeps basketball arena filled, and the ratings high. When all this attention, fame, and millions of dollars is heaped on to these players, it is little wonder that it goes to their heads. For that reason, the NBA has been breeding ground for jerks.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the biggest jerks in the game are the most beloved players. Fans live for the trash-talking and the rivalries between players. And the invention of social media has only given greater access to the bad beef between players.
But league is not defined by the questionable behavior among its star players. The NBA has produced some of the most generous and charitable people in America, and inspired generations of young American’s to go on achieve better things. The NBA is a complex world however. Some of the biggest jerks on the court are just ultra-competitive, and are the nicest guys around away from the game. Some of the most placid guys during a game have led awful private lives.
This list takes a look at the true legends of the game, and looks at their legacy away from the game. These guys are the best there was, but after the final buzzer, were they truly a jerk or a sweetheart?
20 Jerk: Kevin McHale
In the 1980s the Boston Celtics boasted the most impressive frontline the game has seen, and Kevin McHale influence can still be seen in many power forwards in the game today. Larry Bird was famous for his brutal trash-talking, but McHale took it to another level in a now legendary incident. Bird himself described it as “one of the dirtiest things anybody can do to an opposing player.”
The Celtics had a big lead over the Warriors in the fourth. McHale had a “friend” from his college days playing for Golden State (as we only know about this story from Bird, we are still yet to know exactly who the player was). McHale apparently told his friend, “When you get the ball in the low post, you just turn and shoot it over me, and I’ll just act like I’m defending you.” When the player found himself in the post he turned to shoot only see McHale leap and swat the ball into the stands.
“It was the worst thing I’d ever seen on the basketball court,” remembered Bird.
19 Sweetheart: Charles Barkley
As a player, and more so as an analyst, Charles Barkley is a polarizing figure. He has never been afraid to speak his mind if it means making a few enemies and getting himself in trouble. In a bar in the mid-90s he once threw a man through a glass window. When the judge asked him if he had any regrets, Barkley replied, “Yeah I regret we weren’t on a higher floor.”
Chuck is not afraid to call out NBA players if he thinks they are being hypocritical. And Sir Charles has shown over the year that he is a man of strong principles, who has been incredibly generous with his time and money.
During the 2011 lock-out Barkley gave his analyst salary to charity. “I feel bad for the people who work for these teams, because they’re going to start laying off some of these people soon.”
Barkley has given millions to charity. The $1 million he gave in 2015 to his alma mater was the largest individual gift Alabama A&M had ever received. That same year he also gave another $1 million to the Wounded Warrior project, and $1 million to the historically black college Clark Atlanta University. Barkley has been critical of some aspects of the Black Lives Matters movement, but no-one can accuse him of not giving back to the black community.
In 2014 three children were selling fruit for a church fundraiser in Philadelphia when they were killed by carjackers. The former 76er reached out to the family and offered to pay for all funeral expenses. Chuck is a man with a heart far bigger than his mouth.
18 Jerk: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Despite being the highest scorer in NBA history Kareem Abdul-Jabbar just doesn’t receive the same love as other NBA legends. Throughout his career Kareem gained a reputation for being arrogant, dismissive, and downright mean to fans and the press. Writer Jeff Pearlman, who wrote the book “Showtime” about the 1980s Lakers, called him the “Barry Bonds of basketball.”
Kareem is far from your average basketball. He is a shy intellectual, and feels more comfortable on the panel at CNN rather than NBA TNT alongside Chuck and Shaq. In his book Pearlman called him the most “socially retarded superstar” of the modern NBA era, and argues that his arrogance is to make up for his social insecurities. What made things worse for Kareem was he had the polar opposite alongside him in Magic Johnson, whose charisma and made-for-TV smile only highlighted how much Kareem wasn’t like Magic.
Kareem is, however, aware of the image that he projects to the outside world. In a New York Times interview he says he wished he had played in the era of social media, where he may have communicated better with fans. When asked if he regrets about his treatment of the media, he says, “Oh yes. I just didn’t realize back then how much it was hurting me. But it cost me dearly.”
17 Sweetheart: Dirk Nowitzski
Dirk is the best foreign-born player of all-time, and arguably the best shooter the game has seen. He is the greatest professional athlete to ply his trade in the Lone Star State, after giving the Mavericks their only NBA Championship in 2011. After spending 20 years in Dallas, Dirk has always tried to give back to the community of his adopted home.
Every Christmas for the past decade Dirk shows up at the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas wearing a blue-and-white Santa hat with a sack full of presents to give to every one of the children forced to spend their Christmas in the medical facility. He will spend most the day playing with the toys, even shooting some one-on-one miniature hoop.
The kids call him Uncle Dirk. He arrives with no press releases or photo ops or social media promotion. He makes it all about the kids. He lets the Dallas local papers do a feature but only if they make it about the kids and the doctors and nurses, rather than himself.
Dirk’s legacy in the city of Dallas extends way further than his incredible achievements on the court.
16 Jerk: Michael Jordan
For someone who was better at the game of basketball than anyone who has ever lived, Michael Jordan could sure hold a grudge. In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, he even slammed his high school coach and teammates.
Michael Jordan is lucky his teammate Steve Kerr was a little more forgiving. A training disagreement led to Michael punching Kerr in the face. Kerr let it go and hit the game-winner in the 1997 Finals to give Michael his fifth ring.
Jordan’s self-confidence knew no bounds. He once walked into the Washington Bullets dressing room BEFORE a game smoking a victory cigar.
Despite being a billionaire Jordan is also notoriously cheap. In front of Charles Barkley, he once refused to give a single dollar of his billions to a homeless person, scolding Barkley saying, “If they can ask you for spare change they can say ‘Welcome to McDonald’s, can I help you please?’”
Jordan is as ruthless with his bank account as he was on the court, letting nothing stop him from making more money. Even when kids were literally attacking each other trying to get a pair of limited edition Jordan sneakers, Jordan refused to do anything about it (such as make the sneakers more affordable, or have a general release rather than limited).
But it is these parts of personality that made Jordan the player he was. Jordan was so effortlessly superior to everyone else he almost needed to create adversary in his life to give him a reason to push himself and prove himself right. It’s what made Jordan the GOAT, and what separates him from the rest.
15 Sweetheart: Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant became Oklahoma City’s most hated man last summer with his wildly unpopular decision to sign with the Warriors who had just defeated OKC in seven games in the 2016 Western Finals (putting aside the fact the Warriors were pretty much the only team capable of signing him where he had a real shot at a ring). There are many tales from Durant's former home that show that Durant was one of the NBA’s good guys.
Before a game against the Warriors at last year’s Western Finals, Oklahoma City’s News 9 reported that a paramedics were struggling to get through rush hour traffic, when a ‘Silver Ferrari’ pulled in behind the vehicle with flashes on helping the ambulance get through the traffic. It was later revealed to be Durant behind the wheel of that vehicle.
It was little stories like this that made Durant such a beloved figure in OKC, which only made his departure the more bitter.
14 Jerk: Ray Allen
There’s something about Ray Allen’s genial smile that makes you think he must be one of the biggest NBA sweethearts. But if you think that Allen is one of the NBA good guys, it is because behind the scenes Allen has put in an incredible amount of effort to make you think that. Ray Allen cares about Ray Allen so much it is oppressive. And it’s true that Allen has done a lot of good things, including winning the Sportsmanship Award and dedicated a lot of his time to charity. But in an interview with Paul Pierce after Allen ditched the Celtics for the Heat, Pierce observed that while his Celtic teammates would always show up for his charity events, Allen was always absent when it was thrown by someone else.
“We were all good friends on the court, but Ray always did his own thing,” Pierce said. “That’s just the way Ray was. Even when we played together, we’d be having a team dinner and Ray wouldn’t show up.”
Allen was so intent on being the best he was in everything that it almost came to a point of OCD. It was this part of this nature that distanced himself from others, and made him out to be kind of a jerk. But it was through this facet of his personality that made him a two-time Champion and arguably the possessor of the purest 3-point shot the game has ever seen.
13 Sweetheart: Steve Kerr
Steve Kerr is one of the most respected figures in the NBA today. He played in the most successful regular season team in the 1995-96 Bulls, until he then coached the Warriors team last year who went one better. He has been praised for his intelligence and his selflessness. But Kerr is doesn’t fade away from speaking out about issues far more important than those involving a round orange ball.
Kerr has spoken out in recent times over Colin Kaepernick anthem controversy, the usage of medical marijuana, the Orlando night club shooting and President Trump’s Muslim ban. That final topic is tragically close to Kerr, whose father, an academic at the University of Beirut, was murdered by terrorists.
In these polarizing times Kerr has maintained respect across the board, mainly because he is informed and well-versed on the subjects he talks about. If he doesn’t have the knowledge, he won’t speak about it. He also won’t seek out opportunities to speak, you’re never going to see him follow in the steps of players like Kareem Abdul Jabar on a panel at CNN or delivering a speech at the Democratic Convention.
Kerr has been a sensible and measured voice in a tumultuous and at times hysterical era, when it comes to social issues. Kerr sees it as an important part of being a leader, citing Phil Jackson who would hold open forum during Bulls player meetings. “What we’re seeing right now, there’s a lot of chaos, a lot of turmoil,” Kerr said. “I think it’s important we don’t just sit back and idly let all these things happen.”
12 Jerk: Shaquille O'Neal
There was an unbridled naïve streak about the Orlando Magic when they were expanded in nearly 30 years ago. This joyful abandon was embodied in their young superstar Shaquille O’Neal. He was brash, at times immature, but America loved him because he seemed to be having a good time. Unfortunately Shaq never really grew up, and is still in many ways the same spoiled superstar of the 1990s.
Shaq is popular, and he loves being popular. He has always been one of the more entertaining personalities in the game. But if you crossed him you see glimpses of an over-sensitive man unable to let things go.
Shaq has always cared about himself and the size of his bank account much more than his teammates, and has burned many bridges in many cities throughout his playing career. Just look what he did to Penny and the Magic (although Shaq has since expressed regret for his actions in Orlando, saying that his decision to leave Orlando was the biggest regret of his career).
In 2003 he said “Tell Yao Ming, ‘ching-chong-yang-wah-as-soh.’” He said it was just a joke, and didn’t think it was racist, but it obviously showed that he was threatened by Ming and his growing popularity. In 2014 he uploaded a picture on Instagram mocking a fan who suffered from the rare genetic condition Ectodermal Dysplasias. Shaq has been accused of outright bullying a few times on social media, his childish feud with JaVale McGee this season the most recent example.
Shaq tries to come across as someone who doesn’t take life too seriously, but when it comes to himself and his legacy he takes things far too seriously. Shaq isn’t a bad person, and the NBA is better for him being a part of it. But he can be a massive jerk.
11 Sweetheart - Tim Duncan
Basketball is a sport that breeds showmanship. Individuals are given the opportunity to express themselves, and often, the bigger the personality, the more effective the player.
Then you get players like Tim Duncan. The five-time champ is more likely to give you advice on the court than trash-talk. Just ask former Wizard’s big man Etan Thomas. Once when playing the Spurs, Thomas was matched up against Duncan.
At one point Duncan blocked Thomas’s shot. As the two jogged back down the court Duncan says to Thomas, “That was a good move but you have to get more into my body.” Thomas was dumbfounded. But in a later play Thomas took Duncan’s advice and sunk a shot. Duncan smiled and said, “Much better.” The Big Fundamental is fundamentally a nice guy.
10 Jerk: Kobe Bryant
True winners care about one thing only. Winning. Kobe Bryant has five rings, so isn’t going to lose any sleep over some internet article calling him a jerk. But let’s be straight, he is a massive jerk. Kobe was notorious for his treatment of his teammates. He would frequently lay into his teammates with expletives and abuse. In a filmed practice session from 2014 Kobe was seen ranting at his colleagues saying, “Now I see why we’ve lost 20 F****** games. We’re soft like Charmin. We’re soft like s***,” before telling GM Mitch Kupchak “I’m supposed to practice and get better, Mitch. I’m supposed to practice and get better. These motherf****** ain’t doing S*** for me.”
To Kobe, teammates were simply supporting players to the Kobe show, and they weren’t going to prevent him from achieving what he wanted. Put it this way, if Kobe and Shaq had put aside their egos they’d have enough rings for two hands.
The way Kobe treated his teammates was totally calculated. Last year Kobe Bryant passed his advice onto Draymond Green, saying, “I think he’s the one that’s going to have to create that conflict, that tension in the locker room, because if they don’t have that, then in the playoffs, then they are going to be in trouble.” When you look at the way the Warriors threw away a 3-1 lead in the finals you have to say Kobe had a point.
9 Sweetheart: Oscar Robertson
Growing up in Indiannapolis, Oscar Robertson’s family couldn’t even afford to buy their son a basketball. Despite being an NBA champion with the Bucks, and the only player to average a triple-double over a whole season, Robertson made less than a million dollars throughout his entire playing career.
Robertson was the president of the National Basketball Players Association from 1965 to 1974, the first black president of any national sports or entertainment labor organization. Robertson continued to fight for fairness for players long after he retired, and the “Oscar Robertson Rule” that was born during a lawsuit against the NBA paved the way for unrestricted free agency.
Oscar Roberston has watched players like Lebron James and Kevin Garnett move with ease to championship winning teams, but watches these millionaires without any resentment.
Ironically, despite being “godfather of free agency,” Robertson has been fiercely loyal to the teams that made him a national star. He rarely misses a University of Cincinnati, and is still heavily connected to Milwaukee.
8 Jerk: Dennis Rodman
There will never be another player quite like Dennis Rodman. He is a man full of contradictions, very shy in person, yet seemingly addicted to attention. He has seemed to intentionally gone out of his way to create the most bizarre legacy possible. His dealings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un were heavily publicized, and when he was kicked out of a New York hotel for being drunk, waving a copy of Jong-un’s manifesto proclaiming what a great guy the North Korean dictator was, his credibility hit rock-bottom.
Rodman is known for being a destructive figure in the dressing room, who has burned bridges all over the country. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen reportedly didn’t say a single word to him off-the-court while at the Bulls. In 2014 he crashed his ex-wife Carmen Electra’s birthday bash, showing up unannounced. He was met with a cold glare from Electra.
Rodman was a five-time NBA Champion and one of the all-time great rebounders, but it is for his antics off-the-court that he is largely remembered.
7 Sweetheart: Bill Russell
Bill Russell is the most decorated NBA player in history. No-one is going to approach his tally of 11 championship rings. But while the other legends of the game are defined by their passion and desire to win, to Bill Russell there were far more important things than what happened in a game of basketball.
Bill Russell played the game at the height of social unrest over civil rights. If you look at the reaction to Colin Kaepernick last year, you can imagine how Russell was perceived in the 1960s.
Russell never gave up the fight for social justice, even if it affected personal relationships. He was difficult to get along with, and had a tumultuous relationship with the city of Boston. In 1972 he refused to have a ceremony when his jersey was retired (only a dozen or so friends and family witnessed the occasion), because Russell felt he wasn’t given the recognition due to racial prejudice. His jersey was retired a second time in 1999 where he allowed the public to be view the occasion.
While Bill Russell might not be everyone’s friend, he has been a mentor and inspiration to countless athletes, and the impact he has had on society, and the role he played in integrating black athletes into the world of professional sports is unparalleled.
6 Jerk: Jason Kidd
Jason Kidd’s career is littered with off-the-court incidents that taint his impressive legacy. The bizarre love trianle with Jimmy Johnson over singer Toni Braxton signaled the death of the promising young Mavs team of the 1990s. Then after being traded to the Suns, the Phoenix Police Department received a call from Kidd’s then wife Joumana Kidd for domestic abuse charge, apparently striking her in the car, while their kids were in the backseat. The Suns were not too upset to unload him to the Nets.
It would be another six years before Kidd would file for divorce, which was then countered by Joumana citing multiple extramarital affairs, and further domestic abuse claims.
When Kidd went back to Dallas and helped them win their only championship it seemed that Kidd had finally matured. He’s not Mark Cuban’s favorite person however, after backing out of a ‘hand-shake’ deal to re-sign with the Mavs, instead hopping to the Knicks for essentially the same money. “I’m sure I’ll get over it,” Cuban said, “But I wouldn’t put J-Kidd’s number in the rafters.” In New York Kidd was busted for a DUI after a smashing his car into a light pole.
Kidd is one of the most accomplished point guards the league has ever seen, and in interviews always comes across with a calm, modest demeanor. But somewhere away from the cameras lurks an egocentric jerk filled with insecurities.
5 Sweetheart: Dikembe Mutumbo
Dikembe Mutumbo is a giant of a man in more ways than one. The four-time Defensive Player of the Year is a legend in Africa. He was once even praised by Nelson Mandela for his work, who told Mutumbo, “What you are doing for people on the continent, it’s a great thing. Don’t ever stop.”
Mutumbo has an international reputation for sponsoring humanitarian projects in Africa. In 2006 he opened a hospital in his native Congo named after his late mother, of which he put $15 million of his own money into. Mutumbo named it after his mother Biamba Marie, who died of a stroke in 1997 after not being able to get to a hospital due to civil unrest.
Not many people know that Mutumbo actually came to the US on an academic scholarship to Georgetown where he majored in pre-ed. His plan was to return to Congo as a doctor, but Georgetown basketball coach Jim Thompson had different plans for the 7-foot-2 giant. Helping others has still been at the center of everything Mutumbo does. “I am a doctor, serving the people,” Mutumbo said in 2006.
4 Jerk: Kevin Garnett
There are few men more popular in the state of Minnesota than Kevin Garnett, and the Big Ticket is a legend in Boston for helping the Celtics win their only championship this century in 2008. Garnett is less popular with his opposing players, and has gained a reputation for constantly taking things too far when it comes to trash-talking.
He called alopecia sufferer Charlie Villanueva a “cancer patient.” He once found Carmelo Anthony waiting for him outside the Celtics bus after a game, after KG had told Melo during the game that his wife “tasted like Honey Nut Cheerios.”
Garnett was always a fierce competitor, and was never much fun to play against. Garnett led the Celtics in making Lebron’s life a misery during his first spell at the Cavs, with constant on-court bullying and trash-talking. But the man who hates Garnett the most is probably Tim Duncan. During a game that took place on Mother’s Day in 1999 Garnett allegedly said to Duncan while he was preparing to take a free throw, “Happy Mother’s Day, M***********.” The comment was in reference to the fact that Tim Duncan’s mother died a day before Mother’s Day when Duncan was a teenager.
3 Sweetheart: LeBron James
America has a love-hate relationship with LeBron James. He was the most exciting player the league had seen for a generation before he spoiled it all with ‘The Decision,’ yet there we were rooting for him to beat the love-able (pre-Kevin Durant) Warriors at last year’s Finals. LeBron’s lack of respect among many fans is probably little more than the fact that he is the best player in the world, and LeBron is never shy to remind people of the fact.
Despite this, away from the court James has done some pretty incredible things. He started the “I Promsie” program in his hometown of Akron, where he plans to cover the tuition for over 1,100 kids at a cost to his foundation of over $40 million. The program of that size is unprecedented from an NBA player.
LeBron has found himself continually in the shadow of Michael Jordan, but off-the-court, James has surpassed him in many ways. While Michael Jordan is known for not speaking out on social issues, James is not afraid of using his profile to stand up for what he believes in. By wearing the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ in warm-ups, and organizing the poignant opening segment of the 2016 ESPY’s alongside Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, LeBron has made himself an heir to players such as Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell who spoke out during the civil rights movement in the 60’s. It is unthinkable that Jordan would ever do something like that in fear it might affect his brand and alienate future consumers. MJ might have the edge in playing ability, but The King is the greater human being.
2 Jerk: Karl Malone
On the court Karl Malone was the perfect power forward. Along with legendary point guard John Stockton, the Utah Jazz of the 1990s is one of the greatest teams never to win a ring. Away from the court The Mailman’s legacy is much, much less impressive.
As younger man Malone had some big fails. You can put it down to immaturity, but it took Malone a long time to take responsibility for the questionable actions of his youth. Malone fathered twins when he was 17, and didn’t claim them until 1998, possibly when he realized that one of the children, Cheryl Ford, was destined for the WNBA. More disturbingly when Malone was 20 he fathered a son with a 13-year-old. In both cases, despite being a millionaire, Malone tried to refuse to pay child support. Luckily for Malone his son, Demetress Bell inherited his father’s athletic ability and went onto play left tackle for the Buffalo Bills.
Recently Malone blasted the black community and Black Lives Matter movement. “Stop looking for a handout. Do something about it yourself that you can control.” Malone would have been well-served given his younger self similar advice about taking responsibility for his actions.
Malone also creepily hit on Kobe Bryant’s wife while he played the for Lakers. Twice!
1 David Robinson
People said he was too nice. That he lacked that killer edge to achieve ultimate greatness. But David Robinson is one of the most underrated players in the game. He was a dominant big man throughout the '90s, an MVP winner with two rings. Yet there are many, less decorated players, such as Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, that usually come up when you talk about the best of the '90s.
And it’s true, David Robinson is nice. As well as being a damn good basketball player, Robinson is just a damn good human. There is an article on NBA.com written over 15 years ago when he was still a player, titled, “David, The Goliath of Giving.” If Robinson’s achievements on the court are not going to be given their full appreciation, then his work away from the game certainly must.
Through his foundation Robinson, a devout Christian, has developed programs that have helped countless people in the State of Texas in ways much greater than just giving money. He has provided diapers and baby food for impoverished infants. A great believer in education, Robinson has provided college scholarships to hundreds of children, and in 2001 established the Carver Academy a school for San Antonio students from culturally diverse communities, putting in over $9 million dollars of his own money.
In 1998 Robinson was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall Of Fame for his humanitarian efforts. Remember, Robinson did all this while still playing for the Spurs.
Robinson has also given money in aid to national disasters, and always asks for his donations to be kept as quiet as possible. The Admiral has made giving back and helping the world a part of his life’s work. “It's not just giving money. It's giving everything you have. The most important thing is giving them who you are."
People say that Robinson was “too nice,” but the world is a better place for it.