Every sport has its heroes and fan favorites. But if the sport is going to be popular, it needs to contain its share of villains, too. The WWE and other pro wrestling organizations knew this early on, which is why they have been actively cultivating “bad guys” for decades. Because when fans can better embrace this “good vs. evil” paradigm, they become more emotionally-invested in the outcome (even if it’s scripted) and will remain loyal to the sport itself through thick and thin.
This concept of villains certainly exists in higher-profile professional sports as well. Like the prolific slugger on your rival baseball squad, the late-sliding tackler on the soccer pitch, the guy in the NFL who likes to lay hits after the whistle blows, or the NHL enforcers who rack up more penalties than points. Though they’re loathe to admit it, pro sports leagues like to maintain an element of unscrupulousness in order to remain relevant in the public eye.
And the NBA is no exception. Its fast-paced, physical style of play leaves plenty of room for unseen contact or unnoticed cheap shots. A few players even try to leverage this loophole in order to gain an edge, so they’ll try to get away with as much illegal activity as they can without getting caught.
Though the league has tried to crack down on this in recent years, there’s still a significant presence of “underhandedness” in the modern NBA. And over the years, there have been a few players who have earned a reputation as being dirty. But for every MJ or Bird or LeBron, it helps to have the dastardly opponent who will stop at nothing to being his team to victory – even if it comes at the expenses of other players’ health.
Here are the 25 NBA players who have built their careers on playing dirty.
25. Kermit Washington
Sometimes, one incident is good enough to secure your place in infamy. For Washington, it was in 1977 when the then-Laker clobbered Houston’s Rudy Tomjonavich as the Rocket was coming off the bench to break up a fight. Rudy T’s head hit the floor, his jaw and nose were broken, and spinal fluid began leaking onto the court. The blow almost killed him, knocked him unconscious, and ended his playing career. Washington will forever be linked with Tomjonavich for that reason.
24. Danny Ainge
Ainge was certainly a whiner, but he was also a dirty player, too. He loved to throw his elbows, talk trash, and get into altercations with opponents. Not even Michael Jordan was immune from Ainge’s antics. The longtime Celtic will forever be known in Houston when he threw a ball at the face of the Rockets’ Mario Elie back in the 1994 Finals. The 6’5″ Ainge even got into a scuffle with Atlanta’s Tree Rollins, who is 7’1″, in the 1983 postseason.
23. Reggie Miller
If you were to look under “jump shot leg kickout” in the NBA dictionary, Miller’s picture would be next to the entry. The Indiana legend not only used that move to lash out at defenders, but he would pair it with a flop to draw countless fouls and earn many a trip to the free throw line. The kick out became such a problem in the league that officials eventually had to ban it. Since Knicks’ fans detested him while he was playing, Miller should always continue to watch his back in New York.
22. Matt Barnes
With Barnes, the statistics don’t lie. He has amassed a whopping 52 technical fouls over the last seven seasons with the Clippers, Lakers, Magic, Suns, and Warriors. He also led the NBA in flagrant fouls in both 2011-12 and 2012-13, and was second in that category last season. The 11-year journeyman is generally good for about eight points and 4.5 boards per game, but you can also count on him getting a couple of flagrant fouls each season as well.
21. Christian Laettner
Poor Laettner. He had such a storied career in college which wasn’t nearly matched by his performance in 12 years in the NBA. But he did make his (dirty) mark in the league in other ways. Remember, this is a guy who admitted to stepping on a player’s chest in college, and he picked up where he left off once he began his pro career. It’s just too bad that he retired from basketball the season before his final team, the Miami Heat, won its first NBA title. Boo hoo.
20. Joakim Noah
Bulls’ fans may characterize Noah’s play as relentless, not dirty. But there’s a fine line between the two; and given that Noah has a reputation for getting into players’ ears, that pendulum sometimes swings into the realm of unacceptability. Plus, he’s been ejected for screaming at referees. Why does Noah push the envelope so much? Maybe it’s because people keep mispronouncing his first name. Maybe because he’s part French. Who knows?
19. Xavier McDaniel
The “X-Man” had a 13-year NBA career with Seattle, Phoenix, New York, Boston, and New Jersey. That was long enough to piss off many different players, including a few legends. For example, McDaniel loved to trash talk with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, but he also got into a brawl with Charles Barkley and had to be confined to the locker room after a game during which he began tussling with Dennis Rodman. At least McDaniel didn’t go after the NBA nobodies.
18. Isiah Thomas
Thomas always sported that babyface mug, but he was known either as a scrapper (by Detroit fans) or a slapper (by opponents). Remember, Isiah was the point guard for the “Bad Boy” Pistons, and he sometimes instigated confrontations which were “finished” by his fellow goons teammates. But most of the time, he was content to slap the hands and wrists of other players with the hopes of getting them to lose their cool. Kinda like a pesky little mosquito.
17. John Stockton
Another “maddeningly annoying” point guard, Stockton got under the skin of so many of his opponents by scratching, clawing, hip-checking, and elbowing them. He was so good at it that even Gary Payton, who has never been confused with a mild-mannered individual, called Stockton one of the dirtiest players in the game. But more often than not, Stockton got away with it because of his hustle and his “Who, me?” facial expressions which irked all non-Jazz fans.
16. Kobe Bryant
Oh, yes – Kobe is a talented player for the Lakers, but he is also more than a little dirty. He would probably call his swinging arms on drives to the basket, slaps to other players on his follow-through, or floating hands and elbows on defense just “incidental contact;” but everyone in the league knows better. Bryant is still the master of the “cheap shot when the ref ain’t looking” maneuver. What was even more excruciating for opponents is that Kobe frequently got foul calls when he initiated the illegal contact.
15. Reggie Evans
The fact that Evans is this far down on this list is actually an improvement for him. That’s because that in 2010, he was voted as the league’s dirtiest player by NBA players themselves. Critics say that Evans has to play dirty because he isn’t capable of doing anything else other than rebounding. His most famous incident was grabbing Chris Kaman’s scrotum – his scrotum! – back in 2006. There are some lines you just don’t cross, Reggie.
14. Rick Mahorn
Though he wasn’t the worst offender on the Pistons’ “Bad Boys” teams of the 1980s, he certainly earned his fair share of contact. Mahorn subscribed to the “no ticky-tack” fouls rule, since he was known for making all of his six fouls count. He even “shoved” Lisa Leslie during a 2008 WNBA brawl when he was a coach on the Detroit Shock, earning a two-game suspension. Perhaps the most iconic photo of Mahorn is with his mouth open shouting just inches away from an NBA referee’s face.
13. Mark Jackson
You don’t normally think of a 6’1″, 180-pound man as having a Napoleon complex. But in the NBA, it’s easier to understand why Jackson felt the need to overemphasize his physicality. Unfortunately, that resulted in Jackson bending the rules from time to time. He even forced one of them to change; the “Mark Jackson” rule prohibits players from backing down opponents below the free throw line for more than five seconds. Jackson was recently fired as coach of Golden State.
12. Rajon Rondo
You know that skinny dude in school who was a mouthy little jerk, but nobody could touch him a lesson because he had big brothers or large friends? That’s Rondo. With tougher and bulkier Celtics around him, the Kentucky product has fostered a penchant for bad behavior – like flopping and whining about foul calls, slinging Kirk Heinrich into a scorers’ table, or even popping into the Miami Heat huddle. Sure, Bah-ston fans probably love him, but no one else does.
11. Kevin Garnett
Speaking of dirty Celtics… there is probably no one else in the NBA that talks smack as fervently as Garnett. With him, nothing is out of bounds – your manhood, your mother, your wife, your girlfriend, your wife and your girlfriend… are all fair game in the Book of Garnett. But he’s more than just a big mouth. Garnett has become adept at taking shots at opponents who just took a jump shot. He won’t hesitate to get into a fight with anyone. And as his age climbs and his natural talent diminishes, Garnett’s antics become more outlandish.
10. Karl Malone
It hasn’t been confirmed, but Malone’s elbows were reportedly listed by authorities as deadly weapons. Whenever the Jazz star came down with a rebound, you could count on his body twisting and his elbows flying, destroying everything in their path. In 1991, when Isiah Thomas tried to penetrate on a drive, Malone attempted to block the shot but gave Thomas 40 stitches in his eye instead. In other words, there’s not a lot of people outside the Beehive State crying about Malone’s lack of an NBA title.
9. Kurt Thomas
The other Thomas on this list is the closest thing to an NHL-style “enforcer” on a basketball court. After all, he didn’t stay in the league past his 40th birthday because of his exceptional talent. If you tried to get in the paint, Thomas would get physical with you. Period. That was his job. It was not uncommon for teams to use Thomas to “send a message.” He was simply a blunt instrument. He did average 8.1 points and 6.6 rebounds a game in a career with Miami, Dallas, New York, Phoenix, Seattle, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Chicago, Portland, and New York (again).
8. Kenyon Martin
Remember when Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban told Martin’s mother that her son was a thug? He took some heat for those comments because they were inappropriate – but not because they were inaccurate. What’s interesting is that Martin wasn’t always a dirty player. Throughout the first decade of this century, he averaged 13.9 points per game. But his injured knees and body caught up with him after that, and Martin has since adapted his style of game to become more physical as his minutes have fallen.
7. Rasheed Wallace
This one’s a no-brainer because of one single number: 317. That’s the number of technical fouls that Wallace received during his NBA career, which still stands as a league record. Sheed even got 41 in the 2000-01 season, which is also a record. Of course, Wallace would probably insist that he always played fair and was unjustly targeted; but you can’t play squeaky-clean basketball and average one T every 3 1/2 games over your career. Fun fact: Wallace was traded to Atlanta in February of 2004, played in one game, and was then traded to Detroit. So Rasheed can say he never picked up a technical foul in a Hawks uniform.
6. Charles Oakley
Though he was never tagged with the nickname “Oak Tree,” he could have been – since driving into the lane when he was present often gave you the feeling of slamming into an oak tree. Oakley never saw a foul that he didn’t like, and he dished them out like Santa Claus at Christmas. Case in point: he got into a punch-fest with Xavier McDaniel which earned him a $7,500 fine. Since his retirement in 2004, Oakley has repeatedly complained about the “softness” of today’s NBA, and has even hinted at coming back to toughen it up a little.
5. Dikembe Mutombo
The Congo-born big man was known for more than his shot-blocking ability and his trademark finger-wag. Mutombo had a penchant for injuring other players as well. In fact, ESPN even compiled a list of its Top 25 injuries inflicted by the 7’2″ center. Victims included such names as Jordan, Ewing, LeBron, Billups, Oakley, and the next guy on this list. In fact, he was so prolific at hurting others, his Rocket teammate Yao Ming quipped that Mutombo should be held out of Houston’s practices.
4. Dennis Rodman
“The Worm” was the player everyone loved to hate – and he did everything he could to play up that image. At his best, he was relentless in establishing position in the paint and getting rebounds, using unseen elbows and other tactics to gain an advantage. At his worst, he was head-butting referees and kicking cameramen. But Rodman never shied away from any contact or confrontation, and that was what helped him earn five NBA championship rings. Which all go very well with the rest of his jewelry.
3. Ron Artest Metta World Peace
Simply put, MWP is the most penalized player in the history of the NBA. He never passes up an opportunity to take a cheap shot or make a dirty play. He cold-cocked James Harden with an elbow in 2012 that he claimed was “accidental.” He has been suspended more than a dozen different times by the NBA. But none of those incidents compare to the “Malice at the Palace,” during which the then-Ron Artest jumped into the stands to scrap with fans in Detroit. World Peace also wins the world title for most oxymoronic name in the history of ever.
2. Bruce Bowen
Sure, he was applauded for his determined play in the Spurs’ three title runs. But that doesn’t erase a 12-year career full of ultra-dirty maneuvers that would have gotten him slaughtered on any streetball court in the country. In addition to grabbing, pushing, and tugging, Bowen was the master of the “stick-your-foot-under-a-jump-shooter” move. This practice led to plenty of twisted and broken ankles, which shortened many a career in the NBA. That’s why Bowen was so despised by everybody in the league outside of San Antonio.
1. Bill Laimbeer
Anyone who watched Laimbeer play knows that he was the perfect embodiment of the phrase “nice guys finish last.” In an era when pro basketball was a slugfest in the paint, the Pistons’ 6’11” big man was the worst of the worst. The aforementioned Metta World Peace elbow to James Harden would have been child’s play for Laimbeer, who hacked, shoved, elbowed, and fought with abandon. And to top it off, he had a knack for flopping and whining which made fans despise him even more. The poster child for Detroit’s “Bad Boys” lineup, Laimbeer took home a pair of championships and made the All-Star game four times. It’s hard to argue with results like that.
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