There’s an old saying that one man’s hero is another man’s villain. Sports certainly prove that. Fans cheer a guy on their team that the other side boos heartily and where you stand can adjust your thinking a lot. Outside New England, folks rant on Tom Brady for cheating with the footballs but in Boston, he’s hailed as a hero. Of course, should a guy suddenly switch teams, the opinion can change majorly. LeBron James proved that when he bolted Cleveland for Miami and the fans burned his jerseys in protest. A slightly muted reaction occurred when James left the Heat to return to the Cavs. It’s occurred in various other places but something about the NBA seems to bring the “bad boy” idea to the forefront and many players reveling in it.
For a long time, NBA players have played the role of “enforcers” and such, dealing out nasty hits and wicked shots and enjoying it majorly. Several use it to push their fame and while not popular, can be known for their great skills to make their teams champions and thus offset their attitudes. Of course, others can’t just overcome their reputations which follow them around, including in their post-playing days. Some are fearsome on the court but really nice guys off it while others are as bad as they are playing. From among the most successful teams in history to others that have very bad reps, the NBA is filled with guys who fans love to hate. Here are 15 of the top players cast among the greatest villains in league history and how nasty you have to get to rank above merely team rivalries. Here are the 15 most hated villains in NBA history.
15 Bob Brannum
He only played four seasons but Brannum was notable for kicking off the “enforcer” type that would become popular in the NBA in the 1980s and ‘90s. Legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach would encourage Brannum to take it to other players and pioneering the “hoops hatchet” role later filled by Jim Loscutoff. He would set guys up with fouls and take shots that for the time were very brutal and much harsher than the play acceptable for the period. His time was short but notable for a guy harder than most of the time and blazing a trail for so many more on this very list.
14 Vernon Maxwell
His nickname of “Mad Max” was given for his clutch three-point shooting but could also be used for Maxwell’s attitude. He was a top-notch player and a key component of the Houston Rockets winning back to back championships in the mid-‘90s. But from the start, there was talk of him using cocaine before games in college, giving him a harsh rep. That kept to the NBA with trash talking and slamming opponents around and drew nine suspensions over his career. The biggest was a 10-game suspension for chasing a heckling fan into the stands.
He also sat out the first game of the NBA Finals over being upset about Clyde Drexler being signed on. Gone from Houston, he bounced around various teams with his attitude, making no friends and soon retired with various bankruptcies and run-ins with the law. A sad case of a man whose attitude helped him become his own worst enemy.
13 Kevin McHale
One of the most famous (or infamous) faces of the 1980s Celtics team, McHale’s fantastic play helped them win three championships and make him a star. However, his brutal play also earned him plenty of hate. A key moment was his flat-out clotheslining Laker Kurt Rambis during the 1984 Finals which Laker coach Pat Reilly called “the most vicious and malicious play I’ve ever seen.” McHale got into plenty of clashes with the Lakers and Pistons among others and was also known as one of the bigger trash talkers around, slamming opponents constantly. He’s cooled down a bit today as a coach but in his prime, McHale was a reason the Celtics had as many haters as they did fans.
12 Reggie Miller
He wasn’t as hated all around the league as others but Miller’s antagonism of New York Knicks fans was so huge that ESPN's 30 for 30 did an entire movie around it. Whenever the Pacers came to New York, Miller relished in mocking the fans, celebrating a simple dunk like it was a championship winner and taunting them non-stop. The most famous moment was when the Pacers came from behind to beat the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals and Miller made a choking sign to Spike Lee at courtside, igniting a feud that would last for years.
In Indianapolis, Miller is a true hero as the best player in Pacers history but still among the more reviled in New York and he loves being that way.
11 Karl Malone
Some cite Malone as one of the best players to never win an NBA championship. However, most of his peers will have little sympathy for that and might even consider it karma for his actions. There wasn’t a player of the time who didn’t know just how Malone’s elbows looked and felt as he would take constant shots, including a blow on Isiah Thomas that needed 40 stitches to close. There were far too many bruises and black eyes delivered by “The Mailman” to count and while he was a good player, that harsh means of enforcing on the court makes his lack of rings not exactly something other players are upset about.
10 John Brisker
Splitting his time between the NBA and ABA, Brisker has become something of a legend among the league for his erratic behavior. Playing for Pittsburgh, he scored a reputation so huge that when the team came to Salt Lake City, they had five pro boxers standing at courtside in case he acted up. He holds the record for the fastest ejection, going only two minutes against the Denver Rockets before being thrown out for a nasty elbow hit. He then charged the court three times until police literally dragged him away.
One of his own teammates openly said that you never knew if “he was just going to pull out a gun and shoot you.” He vanished while visiting Uganda in 1978 with the popular legend being him getting on the bad side of Idi Amin, showing even some villains have limits.
9 Rick Barry
It’s not unusual to write your own autobiography when you’re only 27 but when it has your own mother quoted as calling you greedy, that’s something else. After a great rookie season with the Warriors, Barry gained the ire of the NBA by jumping to the ABA. He bad-mouthed the South just so he could get a trade to New York and while no one can argue with his great athletic abilities, he matched it with trash-talking, slamming people around and clashing constantly with coaches and owners alike. Barry himself has acknowledged how much of a scumbag he could be in his playing days and can’t blame the fans at all for making him one of the most reviled of the time.
8 Kevin Garnett
Tim Duncan is considered one of the nicest guys in the NBA but has been reported to hate Garnett with a passion. He’s trashed the wives of opponents and called Charlie Villanueva a “cancer patient” for a disease that leaves him hairless. He’s head-butted Dwight Howard, punched Channing Frye in the crotch and even trashed his Joakim Noah, who considered Garnett a hero of his. Just about every type of foul and infraction has been called on Garnett in his career with numerous ejections.
Of course, he also became a huge villain in Minnesota as, after 12 years with the Timberwolves, he jumped ship to Boston and made no bones over how it was to gain a title. He did, but it just added to his persona as one of the worst guys to go against and even play with and that talent and villainy can go hand in hand.
7 Kermit Washington
When you land a single punch that inspires John Feinstein to write an entire book, you’ve earned a spot on this list. A promising college player, Washington was drafted to the Lakers in 1973 and soon became a key part of the team, known for his rough play and ability to get into the faces of opponents. However, his injuries (which he kept quiet for worry on his job) led to his temper rising which set the stage for the now infamous game against the Houston Rockets in December of 1977.
Debate rages on how it started but a fight began between the two teams and Rocket Rudy Tomjanovich raced to stop it. Not understanding, Washington hauled back and caught Tomjanovich with a single blow that fractured his entire face and sent him down in a pool of blood. It was a horrific injury that Tomjanovich never recovered from. Washington was hated instantly for it as it gained huge media attention. The Lakers traded him and his own career suffered. It's a shame to be known for such a major moment but it was enough to taint Kermit as one of the worst of the league.
6 Latrell Sprewell
His actions were so huge that even the sitcom “The Jamie Foxx Show” had a character threatening to “go Sprewell” on someone. Bold and big, Sprewell was known for getting in the faces of opponents and instigating a few fights and his trash talk made no friends either. An argument with a teammate had Sprewell returning with a 2X4 to threaten him and even threatening to shoot others. The highlight, of course was in 1997 when an argument with coach P.J. Carlesimo ended with Sprewell choking the man. This got him kicked off the team and got him a 68 game suspension.
He seemed to straighten up a bit afterward but became infamous when he turned down a $21 million contract from Minnesota with “I have a family to feed.” No other team would take him so he ended up selling most of his boats and homes and paying the price for such a brutal attitude.
5 Danny Ainge
A famous story is that before the 1987 NBA Finals, Ainge saw a group of fans wearing “I Hate Danny Ainge” t-shirts. Going up to them, Ainge congratulated them on the designs then bought one to wear himself for warm-ups. His numbers were modest but he was considered a good supporting player who had a skill of irritating the hell out of opponents. His time in Boston was memorable for instigating several bench-clearing brawls and his ability to throw opponents off their game was vital for the Celtics winning titles while making him hated by all.
He still had it in his later career, tossing a ball right into Mario Elie’s face for a nasty brawl and still slams some of today’s players, showing some guys just have such villainy in their blood.
4 Bruce Bowen
The 2003-2008 San Antonio Spurs shouldn’t have been a hated team. A great mix of players who won three championships, they were on top of their game and should have been widely respected. Sadly, they had Bowen on their side. Already having gained a reputation for harsh play in Boston and Miami, the man was soon labeled the dirtiest defender in the NBA. The most famous incident is when he leaped up to deliver a kick in the face of Wally Szczerbiak and numerous players complained of Bowen’s harsh actions under the basket that went beyond the usual need for defense. Retiring in 2009, Bowen may have three rings but also a reputation as one of worst guys to go against that tarnished an otherwise great team.
3 Dennis Rodman
Rodman’s skills can’t be argued. You don’t win five NBA championships and seven rebounding titles if you don’t have some skills. Sadly, what folks remember better about Rodman is one of the most detestable guys in the entire league. In Detroit, he made his mark with brutal play on the court, head-butting guys and even punching a cameraman. That’s not to mention his bizarre behavior with colored hair and piercings, dressing like a woman at times and partaking in pro wrestling to boot. Great on the court, Rodman was still loathed as a guy who sometimes seemed to treat basketball as just a lark and someone whose own teammates could dislike him quite a bit.
2 Ron Artest
There’s always been something off about the man known today as Metta World Peace. This is the guy who, after signing a multi-million dollar contract, tried to get a job at Circuit City just to gain an employee discount. While his play is good, Artest also was known for a feisty temper and gaining more than his share of fouls. His legacy of villainy was sealed in 2004 when he kicked off the biggest brawl in NBA history, marching into the stands to pummel a fan and earning a record 77 game suspension. Even today, with a name change and a championship, Metta’s past haunts him and marks him among the worst offenders in the history of the NBA.
1 Bill Laimbeer
It may seem a bit unfair that Laimbeer isn’t remembered better for his work on the court. He was a fantastic player, a four-time All-Star and averaged double-doubles for seven straight seasons. But Laimbeer is forever known as the most loathed member of one of the most loathed teams ever, the 1980s Detroit Pistons. The winners of back-to-back NBA titles, they reveled in their label of “Bad Boys” and none were badder than Laimbeer. He would trash opponents constantly, slam them about on the court with elbows, slams, open punches and more. Whenever the refs caught him, Laimbeer loudly protested his innocence and act like he was victimized. Also, he took falls that were ridiculously theatrical and yelled about unfair treatment.
You can’t count how many players were victimized by Laimbeer's brutal style and it was half-joked that outside of his parents, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who said they liked him. For all his skill on the court, it’s that style that makes Laimbeer the player just about every NBA fan agreed was the guy in the league to boo mightily.
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