If there is one thing I have learned from Living in America for the past ten years it is that physical violence is often the most efficient way to solve a conflict. By pummeling your opponent into submission you can gain a leg up by using his motionless body like a step-ladder. In the early days of the sport, basketball players understood this concept. Fighting was as much a part of basketball as set shots and jump balls. The game was a combination of rugby and a steel-cage match, controlled by slamming players with (and without) the ball into the wire fences surrounding the court.
At some point, the cages came down, rules arose, and players stopped deciding the game so much with their fists and elbows. Fights break out now, but only sporadically, based on bruised egos, sexual harassments and global politics – and rarely do they decide anything significant. Still, there are some examples of single, sudden acts of violence that have changed the trajectory of NBA games, seasons, championships, careers, attitudes and popularity. They are the NBA equivalents of Gavrilo Princip finding himself five-feet away from the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and firing his pistol. These are the most important punches in NBA history.
- Shaquille O’Neal misses Brad Miller. If Shaq lands his first punch I think Miller’s head might have exploded. Then we would have been robbed of one of the goofiest players around. I don’t think Kobe gets enough blame for this.
- Ralph Sampson tries to maul Jerry Sichting. Apparently, the fight sparked the Rockets to a blowout win in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against one of the best teams ever. There might have been some longer lasting consequences though. Sampson was supposed to be half of the dominant front court of the future. After this series he never played close to a full season again thanks to bad knees and a brittle back. The way he was flung to the ground after punching the 6-foot-1 guard Boston guard couldn’t have helped.
5) RED AUERBACH PUNCHES BEN KERNER
With the 1957 NBA Finals switching to St. Louis the St. Louis Hawks and the Boston Celtics were tied at a game a piece. In the first game, Hawks guard Slater Martin followed Bob Cousy “everywhere but to the men’s room” stifling the Celtic offense enough for the Hawks to win by 2 in overtime thanks to Bob Pettit’s 37 points. Furious at having dropped one at home, the Celtics won Game 2 in a blowout, led by sixth man Frank Ramsey. The Celtics couldn’t build off this momentum however, thanks to a seven-day break before Game 3. During the wait, Ramsey flew to Fort Knox in Kentucky for Army Reserve Duty (Boston writers worried that Ramsey’s airfare would eat into the Celtic’s playoff profits).
Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis was perhaps the most frightening place for visiting players to play in NBA history, especially for black players. While every other team of the time was based in a Northern city that if not accepting at least sorta pretended to be. St. Louis didn’t put on a facade. Black players wanting to eat at restaurants with their teammates had to order take-out instead of eating at tables. The fans yelled vicious racial slurs at players and were known to hurl more than just words. When the Celtics were in Kiel in the regular season, they had been bombarded by eggs thrown by fans.
Before Game 3, both Cousy and Bill Sharman informed Red Auerbach that the basket wasn’t at the right height. They had deduced this because suddenly they were able to touch the rim with ease (times change: Cousy and Sharman made up the greatest backcourt of the 1950s and it’s hard to argue any other set over them until Thomas/Dumars). St. Louis owner Ben Kerner thought that Red was up to one of his tricks, so he came on the court and started to argue.
Kerner took Arnold’s questioning the basket as a personal affront. He was screaming obscenities at Arnold, questioning his integrity. Arnold had his back turned to Kerner. As Kerner came closer, Arnold just turned around and leveled him. He really cold-cocked Kerner, put him right down at midcourt with a sold-out crowd waiting for the game to begin.
Bob Cousy via Tall Tales by Terry Pluto
Kerner picked himself and went back to his seat. Red wasn’t ejected, though he was fined $300 after the game for “unbecoming conduct.” The Hawks again would win the game by two, thanks to free throws from Pettit. But by socking the owner of a team in front of his fans, Red sent a message to his team that they wouldn’t be afraid of or back down from anything. Down 15 points in the first quarter of Game 4, the Celtics launched a comeback to win. And in a historically frenetic Game 7, featuring 38 lead changes and 28 ties, the Celtics won in double overtime, 125 to 123. In the game, Sharman and Cousy combined to shoot 5 for 40 but were saved by rookie Bill Russell’s 19 points and 32 rebounds and fellow rookie Tom Heinsohn’s 37 points and 23 rebounds. The win gave the punchy Auerbach his first title. He would go on to win 9 of the next 10.
2012-2013 comparison: In the 2013 NBA Finals, Miami Heat head coach Pat Riley punches out Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban at mid-court after Cuban stormed the court and accused Riley of using mob money to buy referees. [Later the Heat's 2006 and 2013 championships are revoked when it's proved this was in fact the case.]
4) KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR PUNCHES KENT BENSON
Entering the 1977-1978 season, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had been the most dominant basketball player on the planet for almost a decade. In his two years with the Los Angeles Lakers he had won two MVPs. The past season he averaged 25.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.2 blocks shooting 57.9% from the floor. In the playoffs this went up to 34.5 points, 17.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks shooting 60.7% from the floor. Despite his individual heroics the Lakers were swept in the Western Conference Finals by the Portland Trailblazers led by Bill Walton’s deft passing. The perception was that Abdul-Jabbar had lost the battle at center to Walton. Actually the series had been lost outside the paint with the Laker guards struggling to get the ball up court against the pressing Trailblazer defense.
The Lakers’ first game of the new season was against the Milwaukee Bucks. Kareem had won a championship and three MVPs earlier in the decade in Milwaukee. Ultimately though, titles, awards, beer and cheese were not enough for Kareem. He gave the Bucks two trade options: New York and Los Angeles (Lamar Odomlike limited playing options). The Bucks were able to pull of the quintessential $10.00 for .75 cents trade by shipping off Kareem for Elmore Smith, Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters and David Meyers (four average and serviceable players who combined to score fewer points than Kareem over their careers: 32,744 vs. 38,387). The Bucks went into rebuilding mode and found themselves with the first overall pick in the 1977 NBA Draft. They drafted Indiana big-man Kent Benson, who had won the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player playing with the undefeated 1975-1976 Hoosier squad. Benson had stayed another year in college, but struggled through injury problems. Still, he was seen as a big man that you could build your team around in the mold of Dave Cowens.
Before his first game in the league Benson spoke about how he would try to defend Abdul-Jabbar: “I’m going to try and push and shove. But how much I can get by with, I don’t know.” It turned out, very little. In the second minute of the game Benson shot an elbow at Kareem’s gut. Kareem began to jog up the court as if nothing had happened, then turned and sucker punched Benson in the mouth (Benson was fortunate it wasn’t a kick). The punch broke Benson’s jaw and Abdul-Jabbar was ejected from the game.
Following the game, Benson took the altercation remarkably well considering his rough introduction to the league saying he was “sorry the whole thing had to happen.” Kareem was less conciliatory saying that he didn’t regret the punch and he’d do it again. The refs didn’t like Kareem (to be fair nobody liked Kareem), so he was pushed around in the post and cheapshotted constantly with no whistles. The punch was a statement that he wouldn’t be taking it this season. The statement cost him $5,000 (of a reported $500,000 salary), the largest fine in league history at that time.
The greater cost, though, was that Kareem had broken his hand on Kent Benson’s face. The reigning MVP was kept out for two months missing 20 games. Afterward Kareem never really got into a rhythm and the team struggled through the season. Walton took home the 1977-1978 MVP Award, and the Lakers got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Seattle Supersonics.
2012-2013 comparison: Derrick Rose sucker punches Kyrie Irving after Irving aggressively trips him on a drive to the basket. Rose breaks his hand and misses the first two months of the season. Without him the Chicago Bulls score 55 points a game. The MVP Award is given to Russell Westbrook and the Bulls are beaten badly in the first round by the Charlotte Bobcats.