The Top-5 Tough Guys in NBA History


The locker room of the Eastern Conference All-Star team could be an awkward place to hang out in this year. Perennial trash-talking machine Kevin Garnett said something to Carmelo Anthony, during the Celtics’ Monday night win over the Knicks at MSG, which caused Melo to completely lose his cool. After the game Anthony waited by the Celtics’ team bus in an attempt to confront Garnett. Not surprisingly, Anthony was suspended 1 game by the NBA for his efforts.

Whatever Garnett said to get Anthony so riled up—it’s rumored to be something about Melo’s wife—it’s highly unlikely that the two would’ve come to blows. Anthony’s visit to the Celtics’ bus was probably more for show than anything else. He had promised Garnett that he’d see him outside, and technically, he stayed true to his word. Melo, if you cast your mind back, is the same guy that once slapped 5’ 8” Nate Robinson in the face before furiously back peddling during that infamous Knicks-Nuggets brawl. And don’t forget, Garnett is the king of acting tough right up until the point when things get physical—see his confrontation with Gerald Wallace earlier in the year for more details.

Whereas Garnett and Anthony have done more talking than throwing down—and thankfully so—throughout the NBA’s history, particularly in the decades where fighting was reluctantly tolerated, there have been legitimate tough guys who prowled the hard-court like NHL enforcers. Here are 5 of the toughest players ever to play in the NBA. Garnett would’ve thought twice before trash-talking these guys.

5. Ben Wallace

4-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace is a pretty intimidating guy to look at. With biceps the size of tree trunks, and an awesome afro that probably added about 3 inches to his already imposing 6’ 9” frame, Wallace looked more like a NFL lineman than a NBA centre. In fact, despite his build, Wallace was extremely undersized for his position—giving away 3-4 inches in height to many of his opponents at the 5-spot. But Wallace overcompensated for his lack of height at the position with amazing rebounding acumen, shot blocking, and toughness.

Opposing centres weren’t pushing Wallace around in the paint—it just wasn’t happening. Wallace used every bit of his 240 pounds to outmuscle opposing power forwards and centres, and intimidate smaller players who would think twice about driving at him in the lane. And Wallace wasn’t going to back down from a fight either. Unfortunately that became clear during the NBA’s darkest moment—what’s now become know as the ‘Malice at the Palace’. The brawl which saw Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson fighting with fans in the stands, started when Artest flagrantly fouled Wallace as he drove to the basket. Wallace responded by shoving Artest hard enough that he fell backwards towards the scorer’s table. The incident was unfortunate and unsavoury, but Wallace wasn’t backing down from anyone, even a fellow tough-guy/borderline lunatic like Artest.

4. Maurice Lucas

One of the great, and somewhat forgotten, teams in NBA history were the Portland Trail Blazers of the late 1970s, whose brief run of domination was cut short by injuries and in-fighting. They were led by NBA-legend Bill Walton, current Grizzlies’ coach Lionel Hollins, and ferocious power-forward Maurice Lucas. Lucas, who passed away a couple years ago, was more than just a tough guy, he could really play ball—the fact that he made 5 all-star teams was evidence of that. But Lucas was one of toughest, scariest players in the NBA during his day. So tough that he was actually nicknamed The Enforcer.

Lucas got into numerous fights during his NBA tenure, but his fight with Darryl Dawkins of the 76ers in Game 2 of the ’77 Finals stands out the most. Philly was dominating the series and about to go up 2-0, when a brawl broke out after Dawkins threw a punch at Bob Gross. Lucas, standing up for his teammate, threw a punch at Dawkins and the two squared off and started to fight before Lucas was pulled back by a combination of Sixers players and Blazers coach Jack Ramsay. Despite the Blazers’ loss, Lucas had sent a message to Philadelphia, a team that had bullied them up until that point. The Blazers would go on to win 4 games straight to become NBA champions.

3. Kermit Washington

It would be remiss to discuss Kermit Washington without first addressing what was probably the scariest moment in NBA history (possibly even worse than anything involving Ron Artest): the punch that almost killed Rudy Tomjanovich. The incident started as a scuffle between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Buck’s player Kevin Kunnert. When Washington attempted to defend Jabbar he was elbowed by Kunnert and it rapidly went downhill from there. Tomjanovich ran towards Washington in an attempt to break up the fight, but Washington assumed he was coming to join in the fracas. Washington spun and hit Tomjanovich square in the jaw, fracturing his face, leaving him with a severe cerebral concussion, and in need of life saving surgery.

Both players’ careers were destroyed by the incident, but Washington was treated like a pariah in the years that followed—and somewhat unfairly. The video footage didn’t capture all that went on before he hit Tomjanovich, and the incident played into the irrational and racist fears of white America: that the game was becoming too black, and white players were under attack. Before that deadly punch Washington was one of the toughest players in the NBA without ever crossing the line of what was deemed acceptable for the day. In fact, earlier in Washington’s career Sports Illustrated had done a piece on NBA enforcers that featured a photo of a shirtless Washington in a fighting stance. It was titled “Nobody, But Nobody, Is Gonna Hurt My Teammates”. The same media core that vilified Washington after the Tomjanovich punch, celebrated his tough-guy exploits before that unfortunate incident.

2. Charles Oakley

Oak may not have been the most imaginative nickname for Charles Oakley, but it certainly suited him down to a tee. The former all-star power forward was about as hard and tough as they come. Oakley plied his trade in Chicago and Toronto among other places, but really made his name as a Knick, where he was an NBA defender who gave no quarter. Oakley played hard-nosed legitimate defense, but wasn’t afraid to dish out elbows and flagrant fouls to anyone stupid enough to battle with him down in the paint.

In an October, 2011 interview with ESPN’s Dan LeBatard, Oakley dismissed his reputation as an unruly pugilist, stating, “I’m not a fighter, I never started a fight. But I protect myself when it happens”. But stories about Oakley fighting on and off the court are legendary. Oakley reportedly slapped Charles Barkley in the face during a 1999 labour negotiation, likely silencing the notoriously noisy Hall-of-Famer. And while a member of the Raptors, Oakley was fined $15,000 and suspended for 3 games for punching Jeff McInnis of the Clippers during a morning shootaround.

In recent years Oakley has taken the role of Michael Jordan’s de-facto bodyguard, seen accompanying MJ at all-star weekends and during his notorious all-night card games. The fact that Jordan, a pretty tough guy in his own right, chose Oakley as his right-hand man, speaks volumes about Oak’s toughness.

1.Willis Reed

Just like Ben Wallace, Knicks’ legend Willis Reed, at 6’ 9”, had absolutely no business mixing it up with the game’s behemoths. Reed played the 5-spot at a time when the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were terrorizing teams in the paint, and he held his own in every sense. Reed is best known, and best loved by the MSG faithful, for his legendary performance in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, when he came out against the Lakers despite having torn his thigh muscle earlier in the series. He scored the first points of the game and his presence helped spark the Knicks to a dramatic victory, and their first NBA title.

If Reed’s willingness to play through injury spoke volumes about his mental toughness, it was clear to everyone who played with or against him, that he was also one of the scariest players in the league when it came to his physical toughness—and given his size that was imperative. Reed is still the only player in the NBA (at least as far as I know) to have fought an entire NBA team during a game. What’s more, Reed came out on the winning end.

In the Knicks’ home opener during the 1966-67 season, Reed got sick of being hit with elbows from Lakers centre Rudy LaRusso. According to Brian Cronin of, after LaRusso threw a punch at Reed, the Knicks’ tough guy tried to retaliate, but was grabbed by Darrall Imhoff of the Lakers. An enraged Reed dropped Imhoff with one punch, before chasing LaRusso and slugging him a couple times in the face. He then broke Lakers’ rookie John Block’s nose when Block foolishly attempted to restrain him. A full-blown brawl subsequently broke out and Reed continued to drop any Lakers that came within arms length.

The aftermath: a $50 fine for Reed, no suspension, and his status as an undisputed badass enshrined in NBA folklore.


Ian at 16 Jan 2013

Great article Zach! Interesting choices agree with all of them especially Oakley, Reed and Wallace. There are unfortunately no true tough guys like these 5 in the NBA anymore.

Zach at 16 Jan 2013

Cheers Ian. Yeah, there's no way KG would've said anything about Oakley's wife and honey nut cheerios in the sentence.

Zach at 16 Jan 2013

'in the same sentence' rather

Guest at 14 Apr 2013

Bill Laimbeer?

Guest at 12 Sep 2013

Swen Nadir!

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