Fair or not, the most indelible image from the first weekend of the playoffs was the minor melee that emerged toward the end of Saturday night's Celtics-Heat game. It wasn't even a real "fight" so much as it was a bunch of players shuffling their feet, shoving each other, and shouting. All part of a ritualtisic show of support for teammates that were, again, not really even fighting.
Of course, when Kevin Garnett elbowed Quentin Richardson in the face, he became "the story." But as most of you by now, it was never about Garnett. The whole thing started because of Quentin Richardson's long history of problems with Paul Pierce, which made it far worse when Richardson openly questioned Pierce's injury.
Here's what Richardson had to say after the game, courtesy of Yahoo's Marc Spears:
"I told our trainer ... [Pierce] is doing what he always do, lay down like it’s a season-ending injury, then he gets up and he’s miraculously fine. He gets a breath, takes his time or whatever and he did the same thing."
But it's deeper than that, according to Spears and others in the NBA. And it may have started more than a decade ago, at Kansas University.
Richardson’s issues with Pierce are no secret, even if their origins have never been truly explained. [...] Pierce once hosted Richardson as a recruit at the University of Kansas. Neither player has fully explained what the problem is, but this much is clear: Richardson has always seemed to be more irritated about the situation – and, as a result, has done most of the talking.
"All I will say is people act one way in NBA environments where things can be restrained and you’re going to be penalized, fined and da-da-da-da-da-da," Richardson said. "Stuff is going to come to a screeching halt as soon as it happens anyway.
"And you know, you put some people in different environments, they want to do the same thing. And those two pretty much know that. They’ve been in different environments and didn’t act the same way. You know, that’s why I call them actresses."
Whatever happened at Kansas, those two have hated each other ever since. Is it over a girl? A broken promise? Did Pierce treat Q like crap on the recruiting visit? All hard to say, but the animosity seems pretty real. Kevin Garnett would take umbrage at a newborn baby if he felt disrespected, but he was particularly pissed at Richardson because of the history between Richardson and Pierce.
Here, there's video of a game from 2008, with Q and Pierce jawing back-and-forth, getting pretty physical with one another, and finally, getting ejected. As he's being escorted off the court, you can see Richardson getting restrained by security and screaming for Pierce to meet him in the tunnel of Madison Square Garden. So... Yeah. It's like that.
And I, for one, think this stuff is awesome.
Not necessarily when it turns into an incident like the Celtics-Heat this past weekend, but even then, we're all adults, right? And adults sometimes hate each other. When these people happen to hold jobs that call for them to interact physically and in competitive situations, we shouldn't be that horrified or when things turn ugly. It's nature.
This raises a larger point, too. It's not necessarily unique to the NBA to have animosity between opponents and/or teammates, but in no other sport are the emotions so raw and obvious to fans. For instance, two football players can hate each other's guts, but even if they're teammates, chances are slim that they'll interact very often on the field, and off the field, there are 51 teammates to act as a buffer. But the purposes of stoking the fire of good ole fashioned hate, basketball's perfect.
If two players on the same basketball team hate each other, there's not much to keep them from constantly butting heads. There's only 10 other guys on the team. So even if they don't confront each other, the tension's pretty hard to ignore. Or you get a situation like Richardson and Pierce, with players on different teams, and the hatred just simmers beneath the surface, until someone like Richardson takes the opportunity to call Paul Pierce a pussy as he's writhing in pain on the sidelines.
Crow about "setting a bad example" if you want, but as a fan, there's something fascinating about two successful millionaires that just hate each other's guts and make no apologies for it. Quentin Richardson may have gone on to make the NBA, live out his wildest dreams, and earn a lifetime's fortune, but apparently he's still pissed off about whatever went down during his official visit to Kansas. Or maybe it's something different?
We'll probably never know why those two hate each other, but that's for the best. It's more fun to guess at the truth than know for sure. And marveling at the Richardson-Pierce dynamic over the past few days, I got to thinking about some of the epic feuds in recent memory.
So, in honor of Q-Rich and Pierce, let's look back at a few other epic NBA feuds from over the years... One thing to keep in mind before we proceed: We're discussing "feuds," not fights. That means we're talking about ongoing bad blood, and not just one isolated eruption, a la Kermit Washington or the Malice at the Palace. And I'm definitely forgetting a few awesome battles, so feel free to share your own in the comments.
Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone
HELL YEAH. When you think about two NBA opponents with healthy hatred of one another, Rodman and Malone have to shoot to the top of the list. Remember the battles? These two would go back and forth all game long, with sucker-punches, kicks, trips, pokes, and countless other measures for minor body injury.
With the Bulls and Jazz ruling the NBA during the late '90s—and many of the games coming down to Rodman's ability to contain and/or irritate Malone—you might say it was case of familiarity breeding frustration... And then contempt, and then disgust, and any other negative emotion you could imagine. By the end of the run between the Jazz and Bulls, it all applied to the way Karl Malone felt about Dennis Rodman, and Rodman was happy to oblige by being a complete nuisance, just because that was his role with the Bulls.
Even though the feud lacked any spectacular backstory—like Rodman sleeping with Malone's wife, or something—it made up for it with the sheer quality of the rivals, themselves. Rodman one of the best defensive forwards of all time, and Malone, arguably the greatest offensive power forward of all time. It was maybe the most evenly-matched feud in NBA history.
These guys legitimately loathed one another, and it was awesome, because when they played one another, they spent 40% of the game getting tangled up and hitting each other.
Oh yeah, and at one point, they WRESTLED EACH OTHER. What a pair.
Deshawn Stevenson and LeBron James
From one of the most evenly-matched feuds in history, to probably the most lopsided. And kind of lame, as far as authentic hatred is concerned. Still, there were some pretty good fireworks so it deserves the attention. How'd it start? A few years ago, back when the Wizards were semi-relevant and LeBron James' NBA supremacy was semi-debatable, Deshawn Stevenson said that LeBron James was overrated, and it set off a furor that lasted throughout the season.
Stevenson's comment came after James told his teammate Drew Gooden that he didn't think Stevenson, or the Wizards, were worth the hype they'd recieved. Here's what Deshawn told the Washington Post about the initial slight:
"He thought it wasn't going to get back to me," Stevenson said. "He said something about my game. He said I'm getting a lot of hype this year, that he doesn't think I'm the good player I am and basically that I suck, our team sucks and we're not going anywhere. I took offense to that. If LeBron James never said that comment, we wouldn't have the rivalry we have right now."
So... Deshawn, his pride a bit wounded, struck back:
""I think he's a good player, but I just don't think he's Kobe Bryant, a guy who you try to get your sleep on, you worry about, you can't stop no matter what you do. [LeBron] is a good player. But compared to the people I think who are true MVP all-stars. ... I said he's overrated, I didn't say he sucks. If you look at the games and what's going on, I know when I go to sleep I know we have to play LeBron James. When I go to sleep and know we have to play the Lakers, I know it's going to be a long night. It's the difference between the Kobes and LeBrons. Not saying he will never get there, but that's what I'm saying."
And LeBron fired back by saying essentially "I'm not going to respond. To him." What he said exactly, though became relevant later. Dismissing Deshawn, James said "For me to respond to him would be like Jay-Z responding to a diss record by Soulja Boy." Fast-forward to the Wizards-Cavs playoff series...
Yup, Deshawn Stevenson invited Soulja Boy to a Wizards game. Of course, it didn't end there. Not to be outdone or leave a friend hanging, no less than Jay-Z himself weighed in with a diss track dedicated to Deshawn Stevenson. The most relevant lyrics from Jay-Z's Blow The Whistle:
"Ask my n—a LeBron /
We so big, we ain't gotta respond /
We let the money do the talkin' /
As you see, we be talkin' rather often /
Who the f—k's overrated /
If anything, they underpaid him"
And blah blah blah... As diss tracks go, it was incredibly tame, if not altogether lame. But that's not the point. JAY-Z RECORDED A DESHAWN STEVENSON DISS TRACK. I mean, good lord. One minute everyone's laughing off the "feud," and the next, Soulja Boy's sitting courtside and Jay-Z's dropping freestyles about the Wizards "hatin'," and Lebron "spendin' a night out of spite with the chick they been datin." ... Oh word?!
It sort of fizzled from there, mainly because it was so one-sided. The Cavs dominated the Wizards, LeBron dominated the NBA, and Deshawn... Well, he fizzled right along with the rivalry.
(Wizard fans can now return to reminiscing about better days, in 2008... Just like Soulja Boy.)
Everyone That Played For The Trail Blazers From 1997-2004?
This doesn't really qualify, since it's more a case of endemic dysfunction than any enduring resentments between two players... But why not share some gratuitous anecdotes? First, from an interview with John Canzano from the Oregonian, talking about out those old Portland teams, offers a few anecdotes:
Jason Quick, The Oregonian beat reporter who covers the team ... deserves some kind of honorary beat-reporter medal for enduring what was the worst locker room in all of professional sports. There’s wide speculation among some Blazers employees that Sebastian Telfair was not accidentally carrying that gun on the plane in Boston that day he was busted for a concealed weapon, but that he was carrying the gun all the time because Telfair might have feared the entourage of a couple of teammates who didn’t like him.
Maybe he had reason. Just before he was traded to the Knicks, someone on the gang enforcement team at Portland Police Department told me to pick up the MTV Cribs episode that featured Zach Randolph because the police had a copy, and noticed some disturbing details about the unsavory people who hung around Randolph. [...]
Whenever the Blazers sign a player to a 10-day contract the equipment manager provides the player with a free set of team-issue luggage. Sort of a welcome gift. Nothing incredibly fancy, but it’s way better than the stuff I have. So Omar Cook is signed a couple of years ago, and the luggage is placed in front of his locker. Cook was flying in from out of town, so he’s not there yet. Ruben Patterson, the team’s registered sex offender, sees the luggage, knows Cook isn’t around yet, and Patterson basically just decides he’s going to abscond the luggage. He just rips the name tags off and takes it. Nobody says a word, either. It’s not anything violent, but it demonstrates the lack of decency and respect that permeated.
And then one of the funniest write-ups in the history of sportswriting, which is sadly not online anymore. Luckily, True Hoop still has an excerpt from Canzano's account of a fight between Ha Seung Jin and Nenad Sinanovic, in which one seven foot man attacks another seven foot man with a gigantic wooden pole. Bill Simmons noted this excerpt in an article a few years ago, and it remains the funniest sequence I've ever seen in a sports article:
Now, violence isn't funny. And Ha is lucky he didn't injure Sinanovic with that pole. But this doesn't feel as sinister as some of the old Blazers antics...
This isn't the same as Zach Randolph cold-cocking Ruben Patterson two seasons ago, breaking his eye socket, then being chased around the facility, and later having to spend the night, in hiding, at Dale Davis' house because Randolph feared for his life.
The Ha-Sinanovic bout was about good competition, and frustration, and boiling points.
And I'll just say this: if Jeff Pearlman doesn't one day write a definitive expose on the Jail Blazers of the late-90s and early-00s, then I have no faith in journalism anymore.
Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen
Here, the feud stems from Kobe's sensitivity, and Ray Allen's refusal to back down. First, after a 2004 exhibition game, Allen had this to say:
"He feels like he needs to show the league ... that he is better without Shaq, that he can win without Shaq," Allen said. "That he can still average 30 points and he can still carry the load on this team. The point production is not so much what people will look at, because McGrady did it in Orlando and Allen did it in Philly. But can you win championships? Can he make everybody better?
"He has the talent. But is his attitude going to sometimes allow him to take the backseat and let Lamar Odom shine and let Caron Butler have his nights and bring those big guys along? If Kobe doesn't see he needs 2-1/2 good players to be a legitimate playoff contender or win a championship in about a year or two he will be calling out to (Lakers owner) Jerry Buss that we need some help in here, or trade me. We'll all be saying we told you so when he says that."
Though Bryant denies this part of the story, he apparently became enraged upon seeing the remarks from Allen, and left him a voicemail saying, "I'm going to bust your ass," before the next Lakers-Sonics exhibition game. This Seattle Times article gives a nice overview of the original feud, though both players claim that things have since subsided. For shame. That was as close to Good vs. Evil as any of these rivalries will ever get.
(Also: Ray Allen used to play for the Seattle Supersonics and the Seattle Times used to write about basketball regularly. What's real NBA beef? Ask Seattle basketball fans.)
The Dallas Love Triangle
No, the love triangle didn't involve the three Mavericks prodigies pictured to the left. Sadly. But it did involve the two on the right. According to NBA folklore and whispers in the media, Jason Kidd and Jim Jackson once fought over the same woman, none other than R&B's Toni Braxton. Apparently, Braxton came to a hotel to go on a date with Kidd and wound up leaving with Jackson, sparking a feud that ultimately fractured the young Mavericks, and prompted the departure of both players.
Kidd and Jackson have denied the rumor for years, while Braxton evaded the question, saying she "doesn't kiss and tell."
But these are these facts: at some point during the 1996 season, the Mavericks' young trio of stars had a serious falling out, as Kidd and Jackson stopped getting along. That summer, Kidd demanded a trade. Here's one article from the Dallas Morning News back when all this went down:
So, the story is being told, the fractured friendship between Jim Jackson and Jason Kidd is somewhat related to a squabble between the two over the singer Toni Braxton. If there is anything that makes sense about any of this, that is it. [...]
Jackson said he's left repeated messages with Kidd that he wants to talk and make up. Kidd said Jackson hasn't really attempted to reach him at all. You decide.
Kidd said he wouldn't play with Jackson and demanded that the new owners trade one of them or he would sit out next season. He since was reminded that he is scheduled to earn $5 million next season playing hoops. He took back his threat, but he clearly isn't any happier.
So, if you ever wonder why Jason Kidd left Dallas the first time, this is (maybe) why:
Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson
Ever wonder what spawned the most ridiculous moment in the history of sports brawls?
Look no further than Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, probably the best example of an NBA feud come full circle. These two began their careers with the Charlotte Hornets, and almost immediately they didn't get along. ESPN relays this anecdote:
Johnson taunted Mourning in 1992, showing him his NBA Rookie of the Year leather coat, and saying, "Hey, young fellow, if you play real hard you might get one of these jackets." All the Hornets who heard the quip laughed -- except Mourning.
And whether it was a lack of respect, or a struggle for power between two players that wanted to be Charlotte's franchise player, the union ended after three years, with Mourning getting shipped to Miami, a move that ultimately helped cripple the Hornets franchise in Charlotte. Fast forward...
In 1998, with Johnson now playing for the Knicks and Mourning leading the Heat, it all boiled over and became the forefront of one of the most memorable playoff series in NBA history. Didn't I tell you this stuff is awesome? From the New York Daily News, the day that infamous:
With 1.4 seconds remaining in the Knicks' 90-85 victory over the Heat, Johnson and Mourning got physical in front of the Knicks' bench. Mourning claims Johnson threw an elbow at his face. That sparked a flurry of punches (none connected). Even as both were being restrained, Mourning and Johnson kept trying to get to each other.
"The whole game was a lot of cheap shots being thrown," Mourning said. "After a while, you gotta take a stand, and L.J. crossed the line at the end. He threw the last cheap shot. He threw an elbow or something like that and I got hit in the face twice during the game."
Mourning and Johnson have been holding themselves back from one another since the two were teammates in Charlotte from 1992 to 1995, when Mourning was traded to Miami. Apparently, the two had trouble sharing shots and the spotlight in Charlotte.
Both got into it in a regular season game earlier this season at the Garden and both were physical from the get-go last night.
But for the animosity between those two throughout the '90s, it came to a screeching halt when Alonzo Mourning was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease that ultimately forced him to retire, Johnson and Mourning reconciled, as Johnson explained, "I want him out there so I can whoop him. I don't want him to be sick. When we play Miami I'd rather have him out there."
Charles Oakley and Tyrone Hill
Easily the most hilarious of any NBA feuds and a good lesson to all of us. After Sixers' forward Tyrone Hill failed to pay a gambling debt of $54,000, then-Raptor Charles Oakley waded into the 76ers shootaround in Toronto and pegged a basketball at Hill, nailing him right in the head. Pretty insane, right? Charles Oakley showing up out of nowhere, no doubt spewing expletives, and probably throwing multiple basketballs at Hill (no way he hit him on the first shot).
It's one of those things that happens and makes you wonder, "What else goes on in the NBA that we don't know about?" Oakley was fined $10,000 and suspended for that move. Later, when asked about the debt, and whether it ever got paid, Oakley wouldn't say, except that the fee had been doubled. As Oakley told the CBC, "Everything in life is double. If he didn't pay me $108,000, he didn't pay me. A gentleman pays his debt within a week or two."
Oh, and what's the lesson? DO NOT. MESS. WITH OAK.
Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas
Probably the most historically notable feud, insofar as it involved two of the greatest players in NBA history, including Jordan, the greatest of all time. It's a well-worn story at this point, but for posterity's sake, no collection of NBA feuds would be complete without Jordan and Isiah.
They were perfect for each other. Isiah Thomas had a special way about him that's allowed him to agitate foes (and friends, like Magic Johnson) for the better part of 30 years. Michael Jordan might just be the most resentful bastard in the history of the world. Of course these two guys hated each other. And it all started with 1985 All-Star Game during Jordan's rookie year.
Taking umbrage at Jordan's cockiness, and a style that hadn't been seen before in the NBA. Here's what Dick Stockton and Tommy Heinsohn said during the All-Star broadcast:
Stockton: "Look at those shoes Michael Jordan wears. They've gotten a lot of attention around the league.''
Heinsohn: "They look like they have horns on them.''
Oh, Tommy. To him, the Air Jordans probably looked like the devil's work. And that's why we love him. As for Jordan and the alleged freeze out, all the players denied it, but to onlookers in the press it seemed pretty obvious that something was up. Here's what Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum remembers of the game and what it sparked:
In my opinion, there was a freeze-out.
Jordan, flush with rookie success, Nike endorsements and unprecedented crossover appeal, came to his first All-Star Game ready to shine. He wore Swoosh paraphernalia, ignoring an unwritten rule that you wore All-Star stuff to the All-Star Game. Some of the All-Stars, particularly Eastern teammate Isiah Thomas and Western foe Magic Johnson, supposedly took umbrage at this. Or maybe they were just sick of Jordan's popularity. Or maybe they didn't care one way or the other, which is their story.
At any rate, Jordan got only nine shots and seven points and, after the game, a source close to Thomas and Johnson whispered that the two superstars, bosom buds at the time, had conspired to keep the ball from the tongue-wagging Bulls star. When confronted, they denied it. But Jordan always believed it. Thus began a bitter rivalry...
It's hard to quantify what any of this meant on the floor, because those old Pistons probably would have beaten the crap out of Jordan regardless. But still, it had to mean something, right? Especially to Jordan, who at that point had yet to prove himself beyond a shadow of a doubt.
And none of it dissipated, either. Pictured above: Jordan, recieving his gold medal from the Dream Team. Not pictured? Isiah Thomas. Jordan threatened to skip the '92 Olympics if Thomas played.
(putting on Sportswriter's hat) So where Isiah had all the power in 1985, by '92, the tables had turned. Michael Jordan was the star organizing a freeze out. And Isiah left out in the cold.
(taking off Sportswriter's hat) But we know all this by now. As far as history's concerned, and for the purpose of studying feuds in general, the most resonant aspect in all this is how lopsided it became over the years. Isiah wound up as just another casualty in Jordan's wake. In addition to missing the Olympics, Thomas also blew out his knee around the same time, forcing him to retire in 1994. Meanwhile, Jordan won six titles and cemented his legacy as the greatest player in history, rendering any Isiah wars completely moot.
That he could dwarf a player as great as Isiah Thomas is a testament to Jordan's dominance as a player and an icon. That Jordan still hates Isiah (he mentioned the '85 All-Star Game in his Hall-of-Fame speech) is a testament to... Well, the most resentful bastard in the history of the world.
Shaq And Kobe
Ah, yes. The biggest feud of them all. Kobe and Shaq played for the same team, which made it all the more fascinating. Chuck Klosterman once weighed in on the feud and had this to say:
They despise each other in a way that's not only rare in sports but rare in life. They hate each other so much that neither would ever admit it, lest the other man get some sort of abstract satisfaction from the admittance of the loathing.
O'Neal dismisses the conflict as comedy, and Bryant pretends he doesn't care, but those are the predictable defense mechanisms they use when faced with uncomfortable emotions. The reality is they want to kill each other. I can't prove this, but it feels obvious. And it makes me like each a little more and a little less.
This all peaked when Kobe throwing Shaq under the bus during an interview with authorities in Colorado. Facing rape charges, Kobe said basically that he should have done what Shaq does, because Shaq would pay women off to keep quiet. Shaq had alread spent more than $1 million on situations like this, according to Kobe.
And really. Does it get any more cold-blooded than that? Shaq even suggested that Kobe's revelations there played a role in ruining his marriage. Of course, it's impossible to tell how serious he was, since this theory of Shaq's came during a battle rap where Shaq asked Kobe "How my ass taste?"
The Kobe and Shaq feud had everything. Fame, money, power struggles at the highest level of the NBA, media bickering, snitching to police, battle raps... Everything. There's not much to say that hasn't already been said, but it's no less amazing that for about three years, two of the NBA's top five players hated each other's guts. And they were on the same team. That's some serious dysfunction.
Like lots of mortal enemies in life, they've made an uneasy alliance in recent years, probably because it helps squash the media hysteria that plagued each man for the better part of a decade. But still. Look at those two? You think this over? Wait till they retire and start releasing autobiographies.
You thought The Last Season was rough on Kobe? Wait 'till Shaq starts shooting from the hip.
So what does this mean? It's pretty debateable. For instance, you could argue that the Alonzo Mourning-Larry Johnson feud sunk that franchise in Charlotte, and carried those legendary Knicks-Heat battles from the late-90s. But then, there were other factors in play with both occasions. Same for Shaq and Kobe, even. It'd be tempting to say their feud was the Lakers' undoing, but just as damaging was Shaq's complacency when it came to conditioning, or the Lakers' reliance on quick-fix veterans like Karl Malone to bolster their title hopes.
In reality, most of these conflicts are just footnotes to a narrative that's bigger than any acrimony between players. What makes them remarkable isn't really their impact on the games, but the sheer spectacle of it all. With these feuds, we see the ugliest, pettiest side of ourselves, played out among literal and figurative giants on national TV.
This discord happens in all sports--and any other profession, for that matter--but basketball lays it all bare, for the whole world to see. Jordan not getting the ball at the All-Star Game, Rodman and Malone tripping and kicking each other for 48 minutes, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning throwing punches... Even Quentin Richardson, walking over to taunt Pierce while he lays on the court.
Normal people deal with this stuff every day. Getting hung up over percieved slights, condescension from a co-worker, or a love triangle with Toni Braxton. (Okay, maybe I'm reaching here...). The major difference is that our discord gets played out amongst family, or across cubicles, or in a bar, and we don't get to watch ourselves do it. But the NBA gives us that chance, because for pro basketball players, "work" is on National Television, and family is a locker room full of media.
So why does this stuff resonate? Because it's the one thing in sports we can all relate to. Nobody can imagine what it feels like to hit a game-winner like Jordan, but we can all imagine ourselves hating Isiah Thomas' guts. NBA feuds may take place at the highest level possible, but they originate from something incredibly basic and innate to just about everyone. And nowhere else is it as naked as the NBA.