Posted Aug 5 2010 8:15PM
LeBron James, it's been said, turned himself into an instant NBA villain with his nationally orchestrated Decision to leave Cleveland and sign as a free agent with the Miami Heat.
But with all due respect to the two-time Most Valuable Player whom we presume will be wearing a black headband now, James will have to go some to move up the list of the NBA's all-time most despised. It's a lengthy one, crammed with rogues, weasels, thugs and raw competitors, most of whom labored long and hard to earn the wrath of fans in the league's road cities.
That brings up one of the quirks of sports villainry: Unlike, say, John Dillinger, the players who preceded James as so-called NBA bad guys always were warmly embraced, cheered even, by the home team's fans. They might be nasty boys but they were those fans' nasty boys.
So even the most despicable among them spent half their time in the safe houses of their home arenas. Which is how it figures to go for James and Miami; people who root for the league's other 29 teams will "hate" the Heat, but down in south Florida, Tony Montana will morph into Dan Marino in the public's eyes.
One problem with that: True NBA villains seem to thrive best when they're loathed, not loved. It's definitely a lot more fun that way. It's more defining, too. Who wants to think of Bill Laimbeer hearing applause at The Palace of Auburn Hills for his bullying antics when we can reminisce about the disdained Detroit center having boos rain down on him in packed, frothy buildings throughout the league? Probably not even Laimbeer, who seemed to take a wise guy's pleasure in antagonizing the opposition and out-of-town fans.
It needs to be noted here that we're going with the quote-marks version of "villain," as a wink to the lighter side of that term. As in, no police-blotter stuff -- OK, at least no serious police-blotter stuff. As in players who earned their reputations primarily on the court, by acting nasty or just by performing their duties annoyingly well.
Or, in James' case now, doing something in public that was directly related to the game. Like breaking Cavaliers fans' hearts on prime-time TV and, as many see his move to Miami, taking a short cut to dominance by ganging up on the rest of the league with another superstar (Dwyane Wade) and one more extreme talent (Chris Bosh).
A couple other qualifiers: It wasn't enough to be booed in one city to make this list. Every team has its own specific villains -- draft busts who blossomed elsewhere, free agents who jilted the home fans, a bruiser who got into a beef with the good guys' best player. For example, Vince Carter might have offended a whole country but he's largely benign everywhere but in Toronto. No, to really rank among the NBA's most rank, a fellow would need to be an equal opportunity offender, consistent across a bunch of cities in worrying about his room-service food.
Finally, real NBA villains have to be pretty good players. You have to be relevant to be really reviled. So some of these guys were bad-bad and bad-great.
So let's get on with it, a list of players past or present who put the foul in fouls:
The NBA's all-time leading scorer comes from a special category of villain: The guys to whom things seem to come too easily. At his 7-foot-2 height and with that unstoppable sky hook, Abdul-Jabbar seemed impossible to thwart and turned almost every player who defended him into a massive underdog. Maybe it's a big man thing -- Kareem took this baton from giants George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain and sort of handed it off to Shaquille O'Neal.
People tend to forget that it was Wayne (Tree) Rollins biting Ainge, not the other way around, because Ainge seemed like he might do something that sneaky. He was what many fans considered a pest, one of those pain-in-the-rump "hustle guys" who was always a little too excitable. And he played on a Boston Celtics team, during his most annoying period, so it felt like a little brother benefiting from his big brothers' presence. At least the 1983 playoff altercation with the Atlanta Hawks center gave us, courtesy of the Boston Herald, the headline "Tree Bites Man."
His off-the-wall ramblings. His brawny, borderline-thuggish defense on other teams' leading scorers. His distractions away from the game, such as flirting with early retirement to produce music. His team-hopping. Sure, Artest's notoriety came from the terrible Pacers-Pistons brawl in Detroit, but he was bugging road fans before and after. Now that he has a championship ring with the Lakers, that should bug some even more.
Barry raged on the court, a perfectionist who appeared to resent that lesser mortals -- players, coaches, even fans -- might want to participate in an NBA game without possessing his capacity for excellence. He was a classic sports "red [bleep]" and people picked up on it during his Hall of Fame career.
OK, Barkley had his share of police-blotter activity (like the fan he punched in Milwaukee) and boorish behavior (little girl accidently spat upon). But it was mostly his swagger and outsized play on the floor -- remember those end-to-end romps, a Mack truck run amok, that ended in leg-swinging slam dunks? -- that got road fans revved up. Now he's downright avuncular -- like that crazy uncle who still can embarrass you around the holidays.
By the last few years of his career, Bowen -- a nice guy and good citizen otherwise -- had a reputation as an alleged dirty defender that made it into fans' perception of him. It's open to debate just how much of what he did on the floor was beyond acceptable (like stepping underneath a leaping player's ankle). But interested fans in other NBA cities bought into that and let Bowen hear about it. Besides, a guy doesn't have to be dirty to be a "villain." Bowen can serve on this list as a rep for all sorts of poking, prodding defensive specialists who pester fans' favorite players and bend rules to the point of breaking.
Obviously, there's the Denver accusations from 2003, an off-court, offseason episode that tainted Bryant forever in some fans' minds. But he heard his share of boos and hisses before and after that scandal, stemming from his determination and ability to beat other fans' heroes. Some folks resent that Bryant has been too eager to replicate Michael Jordan, from his clutch play to his space-creating post posture to his speech patterns. Also, feuding with O'Neal -- a comical, likeable lug to many fans -- earns Bryant more demerits. Then you mix in the whole Lakers-greateness hateability quotient and it's easy to understand the jeers that come his way. Which makes it more fascinating that Bryant, by doing nothing excepting sitting still as the repeat Finals MVP (and five-time champ), looks a little warm 'n' fuzzy compared to the outrage over LeBron and the Miami 3.
Some people resented Laettner for his great college career, reaching the Final Four all four years. More people resented that he did it at Duke, whose dislikeability factor he brought with him to the NBA. Some didn't like him for his patrician demeanor or "People" magazine looks. There was a sneer to Laettner's public persona that fans picked up on, too. And then there's the fact that he tagged along on the original Dream Team in 1992, chosen as the token college star but looking in hindsight like an impostor who crashed the team-photo shoot.
Laimbeer wasn't the first guy in NBA history whose greatest attributes appeared to be his sneer and his elbows, but he was the one who perfected it. Getting under fans' skin was something he relished almost as much as getting inside opponents' heads. People might have felt that Laimbeer's "Bad Boys" frontcourt sidekick, Rick Mahorn, was as mean and rough, but Laimbeer just looked like he was enjoying himself so much more.
Called "Jungle Jim" by legendary Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most, Loscy (his other nickname) represents the old school as an early NBA enforcer for Boston from 1955 to 1964. A muscular 6-foot-5, Loscutoff was skilled enough to average a double-double (10.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg) in his second season but he mostly was around to defend and mix it up. And fans in buildings outside Boston knew it.
Another enforcer type, even more physical than Loscy, whom actually seemed to intimdate some opposing players. That made him an inviting target for complaining fans, who sensed that their guys were getting pushed around (or avoiding the contact altogether). There were other tough guys like this, from Xavier McDaniel to the great Karl Malone, widely regarded as dirty by his peers and always happy to raise elbows high. (Malone's running mate, John Stockton, knew a few tricks, too, but had more of a choirboy image.)
There's something to be said for being cocky and backing it up. But fans outside Indianapolis focused on the front end of that statement, Miller's perceived cockiness, as he went about tormenting their teams in his grim, perpetual-motion, Thin Man way. Much of Miller's reputation owed to his work against the Knicks and the banter with filmmaker Spike Lee, but other towns picked up on it. And there's something about snipers -- guys who do their damage from afar, without having to take a pounding in the post -- that feels a little extra weasel-like.
(What? Do you really need an explanation here for Rodman's presence on this list? See, didn't think so.)
Take P.J. Carlesimos' throat, Sprewell's subsequent record suspension by the NBA, the defiant script of a sneaker commercial, his on-court scowl, the New York spotlight and, near the end, his ballyhooed, out-of-touch "feed my family" remark and Sprewell was a regular on the league's WWE bad-boy circuit.
Other Knicks heard their share of boos around the NBA. It was that "New York" thing fans in smaller markets disliked, in many cases, and Oakley, Anthony Mason, Greg Anthony and Patrick Ewing often seemed to bask in it. But Starks heard more because he brought a certain -- again, with all due respect, same as the others on this list -- "punk" attitude to his play. It was exemplified best in his famous dunk over the revered Michael Jordan.
'Sheed should have played his whole career in Detroit as the logical successor to the first group of "Bad Boys." Mostly, it was Wallace's volcanic eruptions and serial imploring of officials that painted a road target on his back. Let's always remember that Wallace gave as well as he got, though, because there were free throws -- free points -- attached to those T's for the fans' good guys.
Get it? Huh, huh? This is the spot where readers suggest their favorite players to boo, taunt, razz, jeer or think evil things about when they attend games or watch from home. Send in your suggestions and we'll share the most deserving of black-hat status.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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