These are the nastiest NBA players from the Michael Jordan era
Maurice Lucas (1974-1988)
For a lot of us kids growing up in the 1970s, the most vibrant and exciting sports-related media we saw all week was Sports Illustrated. Either that or "This Week in Baseball." No ESPN, newspapers in black and white, the link to the world of sports beyond your local newspaper and the sportscasts on 4, 5 or 7 was SI. And when you ran to the mailbox to get your SI on a Thursday, it was truly like getting a present.
Whoever was on the cover was the biggest star in your eyes for that week. Enter Maurice Lucas. In October of 1977, he was on the cover with his elbow in the throat of Dennis Johnson. The very skilled, very strong, intimidatingly built Lucas was the muscle for the Portland Trail Blazers. He was Bill Walton’s running mate. When that SI came, the Blazers were defending champions, having beaten the Sixers six months earlier. In that series came Lucas’ defining moment as an enforcer — suckering Darryl Dawkins after Dawkins suckered Bobby Gross. The call alone from Brent Musburger belongs in the HOF. “Now Darryl Dawkins and Maurice Lucas! Somebody do something! Dawkins and Lucas! Dawkins and Lucas!”
Lucas played until 1988 and tutored Rick Mahorn and Charles Barkley in the finer points of enforcing.
Larry Bird (1980-1992)
He’s talked about so much and so reverently that Larry Bird seems almost mythical. Bunyan-esque. Was he reaaallllyyy that good? Was he realllllyyyy that feared? Was he reallllly that tough? Yeah. To all three. He fought everybody. There was the hilarious (using his ass to wall off Michael Cooper after a made basket and butting him into the stands), the regrettable (exchanging chokeholds with Dr. J) and the elation-inducing (rolling over on top of Bill Laimbeer after a takedown and raining down punches). He just was wired to not back down. He got in a barroom fight during the Eastern Conference Finals in 1985. Here are a bunch of scraps and this is an amusingly detailed recitation of Bird’s toughness with one story I didn’t remember.
This quote from Bird shows that even he wondered why he was such a maniac sometimes. “I was always driven on the basketball court. I always wanted to win every game I played in, sometimes too much. When you’re out on the playground just playing, and you’re scraping, fighting, and do whatever you can to win the game. When it’s all over with, your friends and I’d think, ‘Why did I get like that?’ That’s the way I’ve always been. A number of guys I went against in college, the NBA, it was the same way. But to say I got it from my parents is bullshit. I just, I think it’s how you were raised.”
Bill Laimbeer (1981-1994)
He was dirty. A crybaby. He tried, in the opinion of Larry Bird, to hurt people. But it can never be said that Bill Laimbeer shrank from a fight or was merely an untalented goon.
The investment banker-looking kneecap buster for the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys may be the NBA’s arch-villain. He fought everyone. Here are quality fisticuffs with Charles Barkley. Here’s his fight with Larry Bird (bonus: Bird whipping ball at Laimbeer followed by mini-scrap with Dennis Rodman). Here’s Robert Parish elating all of America with a seemingly unprompted assault on Laimbeer, who merely took it like the psycho he was.
He smashed more faces than perhaps any player in NBA history.
Rick Mahorn (1981-1999)
As dirty and cheap as Rick Mahorn was, there was something oddly amusing about it because he smiled all the time. Look at him laughing while Isiah Thomas tries in vain to punch him in the face here at the 1:10 mark. Watch him fight every Laker over the course of the 1989 Finals and grin through most of it.
Here he is flipping Jordan like a pinwheel to start a melee in which he also tossed Bulls coach Doug Collins. Mahorn played for the Sixers, Bullets, Nets and Pistons and knocked down, elbowed or fought pretty much every great player of the era. During his time with the 76ers, he was part of a duo dubbed “McFilthy and McNasty” by Celtics radio broadcaster Johnny Most.
The other half (and nobody knew which guy was which) was …
Jeff Ruland (1982-1993)
… Mahorn’s partner in mayhem. While Mahorn was the grinning, mischievous one, Ruland — with his abbreviated arms dangling from a barrel-shaped body — had bushy hair parted down the middle and pushbroom mustache. He was, like Laimbeer, a really good player. He was just completely landlocked. These are the most hysterical highlights you may ever see. Michael Jordan’s first NBA dunk attempt ended with him writhing on the ground after being met my Ruland en route. Ruland actually felt badly. He didn’t believe himself to be a dirty player and didn’t like Johnny Most’s nicknames for him and Mahorn. He tried to get word to Most during a Bullets-Celtics playoff series. Ruland told Most’s on-air partner Rick Weitzman.
This from the Washington Post: "My mother listens to the games from Boston on WRKO and she says she's never heard such a biased announcer," Ruland said. "Tell Johnny Most that my mother says he's a bleep." Weitzman relayed the story to Most, who was rendered almost speechless. When he opened his broadcast for the fifth game three days later, Most began, "This is Johnny Most at the Boston Garden. Mrs. Ruland, if you're listening, turn off your radio."
Danny Ainge (1982-1995)
“I’m not trying to start any fights,” Danny Ainge said to CBS’ Pat O’Brien in a 1986 feature aimed at humanizing the very reviled Celtics guard. “There’s not a guy in the league I could beat in a fight.”
You have to watch the video to appreciate how different things were then. The thing about Ainge was that while he “didn’t try to start fights,” they happened because he wouldn’t stop playing physically and would never, ever, ever shrink when challenged. That was bad news when he got left rubber-legged by a shot from the Sixers Sedale Threatt — one of the purest NBA punches I ever saw thrown. And it was bad news when he got elbowed viciously by Tree Rollins, took Rollins down with a form tackle and then wound up getting his finger bitten.
Ainge was still at it when he was 35. Here’s the two-seam fastball he threw off Mario Elie’s head as revenge for Elie taunting him moments before. Given that Ainge was nobody’s idea of an enforcer, yet still kept fighting for all those years? He might have been the toughest player of them all.
Tree Rollins (1978-1995)
You will remember him as the Atlanta Hawk who drilled Danny Ainge in the head with an elbow sparking a terrific playoff melee at the Garden in which Rollins eventually bit Ainge’s hand.
But no video exists of the hysterical exchange he had in the playoffs with Lionel Hollins. Rollins hit Hollins. Hollins punched Rollins in the back of the head. Hollins then ran with Rollins giving chase behind the basket and over to the bench area. Here’s the story.
Charles Barkley (1985-2000)
Whether it was Bird, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan or Isiah Thomas, the 80s and 90s were a time when the superstars took care of their own business directly much of the time as opposed to running to the nearest official with their hands out to scream, “Mommy, he hit me!!!”
Barkley, as much as anyone, seemed to enjoy the fighting. This Barkley-Laimbeer bout even featured real punches! Here’s Barkley sending Hakeem Olajuwon to the deck with a shove at the end of a 1994 playoff game with incited the always inciteable Vernon Maxwell. And he and Charles Oakley had a long-running feud with scores of dustups.
Also worth noting? When Dr. J got off three very competent punches to the grill of Larry Bird, the man holding Bird up for the punishment? Barkley.
Isiah Thomas (1982-1994)
One of the greatest guards in basketball history. Also a nasty little competitor whose dimply smile was a handy mask for the mayhem he dabbled in. How nuts did he sometimes go? Here he got walloped by Bill Cartwright, went bananas, then, instead of getting to Cartwright, he showed Pistons assistant Brendan Malone what he wanted to do to Cartwright by choking him.
And here he is after an intentional foul by Danny Ainge, blindsiding Ainge moments later to take his revenge. And you saw the video earlier where he needed a step-ladder to get to the face of Rick Mahorn as he threw a flurry of punches that didn’t reach.
Ironically, an elbow from Laimbeer in practice sent Thomas into a tizzy and he broke his hand punching his fellow Bad Boy. Laimbeer felt so badly, he retired.
Charles Oakley (1986-2004)
So here’s six minutes of Charles Oakley highlights from his time with the Bulls, Knicks and Raptors. There are about six basketball plays in here.
Other than that, it’s throwing guys around, boxing, whacking and menacing. And there’s the dehumanizing slap of young Scottie Pippen. In my opinion, the toughest of the tough guys during the era.
Dennis Rodman (1987-2000)
It goes without saying that Rodman was chaos personified.
It was part of the show, part of the brand and a very effective part of the teams that employed him. With the Pistons, Bulls and Spurs he showed some moments of verrrry poor sportsmanship. In this compilation video alone you see him kick Scottie Pippen in the face, throw Pippen in the stands, tackle Shaq and try to fight poor Gheorge Muresan.
Not pictured, the crotch of the cameraman Rodman also kicked. A loon.
Karl Malone (1986-2004)
Tough combo. The Mailman had about the best body in NBA history and was really mean.
Nobody threw more elbows and, when they landed, they were often followed by a “Did I do that?” reaction from the Hall of Famer. Here he is taking a chunk out of Isiah Thomas. And here’s an accidental KO of The Admiral, David Robinson. And here he is in a full-contact race to midcourt with Dennis Rodman. Neither man won.
Xavier McDaniel (1986-1998)
X-man. With the shaved head, crazy eyes, bulbous muscles, tremendous hops and explosive scoring ability, if you watched a Sonics, Knicks or Celtics game with X on the court, your eyes gravitated to him.
Here is McDaniels’ most infamous bout. In this highlight reel, you see the unfortunate image of X choking Wes Matthews. And here is McDaniels jawing with Jordan after a jam up with Scottie Pippen. Jordan was forever having to defend Pippen, who was forever getting picked on.
The threat of fisticuffs was omnipresent with McDaniels out there but — as has often been the case in the NBA — the lion’s share of the jams look like this one did.
Vernon Maxwell (1989-2001)
Vernon Maxwell was not all there. He once waltzed into the stands and punched a fan in the face. Another time, he and Gary Payton got into a post-practice fight while with the Sonics and Payton tried to hit Maxwell with a weight and ended up splitting Horace Grant’s head open.