Dirty NBA players come in all shapes and sizes. Dirty play comes in different forms too. There’s blatant dirty and sneaky dirty. There’s tough dirty and mouthy dirty. There’s hard dirty and dirty dirty. There’s physical dirty and trash-talking dirty.
Some players would take exception to being called dirty. Some would wear the label proudly. Some would be insulted if you said they weren't dirty.
We place no value on dirty here. We merely acknowledge where it is. But whatever kind of dirty there is, we tried to include them, but there is one stipulation: the player has to have been active in the 1980s or later.
Because I’m only 45 years old, I can’t tell you what happened much before the late '70s (and barely that). So, this list does have a decided bias toward the past 35 years, but that’s because it’s what I’m limited to having seen.
Additionally, the idea of the dirty player seems to have been invented during the '80s. Even when trying to tap into the wisdom of my predecessors, their history of dirty players doesn't really start before 1980, either.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t dirty players before that—they probably just called it basketball.
Kobe Bryant has softened a bit in his old age, but that doesn’t mean the stuff he did in his youth never happened, nor does it mean he’s still not just a little bit dirty.
Bryant is the classic “sneaky-dirty” player. His foul rate doen't indicate how dirty he is, because most of what he does, he just gets away with.
Whether it’s hitting someone in the face with the follow-through on his jump shot or elbowing someone in the throat trying to make room for a shot, Bryant is the master. In fact, he's likely to draw a whistle in his favor when he commits a dirty play.
Kobe loyalists will argue that it’s just incidental contact, but the same things that make him great work against that argument. Bryant’s legacy is that of an athlete in total control of his body. He’s perfected every aspect of his game and honed every muscle movement through hard work and repetition.
Do you really think he didn’t know what he was doing with his elbow? Or forearm? Or fingers?
I don’t. I respect him too much for that. I respect him enough to acknowledge that he is dirty.
I decided to include this combination as a single entity rather than as two separate slides because of the overlap between two of the greatest—and dirtiest—teammates in NBA history.
As the most infamous elbow-thrower in NBA history, if Karl Malone were given a dollar for every time he connected with another man's head, he would have made more than his NBA salary.
John Stockton was the master and commander of the sneaky, scratching, clawing, hip-checking, dirty point guards. Everyone since has just been a cheap imitation.
Playing in Utah was a nightmare for NBA teams. If every foul the Jazz committed had been called, they would be out of players before the first half ended. Instead, they were generally ignored.
Back in the day, playing in Salt Lake City was like the scene in Hoosiers where Hickory High played Terhune, the team of thugs. If you went to play Utah, you knew there would be some cuts and bruises the next day, and most of them wouldn’t be rewarded with trips to the charity stripe.
Want to know what Reggie Evans' favorite ballet is? The Nutcracker.
There are certain things that go beyond the realm of dirty. They start entering a realm where, if the other guy turns around and breaks your jaw, he shouldn’t even get called for the foul.
Evans reaching into the nether regions of Chris Kaman and squeezing certainly qualifies as that.
Now, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Do you think this is the only time something like this has happened? Was it a sudden impulse that Evans had? Or was it more likely that this is something he had done before?
Somehow I have to think it’s the latter. If another man’s pearls aren’t off-limits, what is?
I would actually be afraid of compiling this list and not including Charles Oakley for the simple reason that he might be so offended that he would come over to my house and personally instruct me on just how much pain he inflicted in a game.
If there was ever a player not to be messed with, it was Oakley. There was no foul that was too hard for him.
He is a man whom Jalen Rose once called a "dark alley" guy. That's a perfect way to describe him. Charles Oakley was dark-alley dirty. Even if you were Charles Barkley, you didn’t mess with Oakley and get away with it.
Oakley sneers at the softness of today's players. If there were an NBA version of the Octagon, he would be the last man standing.
With most players, when you talk about the game being technical, they think of X's and O's. With Rasheed Wallace, you think of the inordinate number of technical fouls he committed over the course of his career.
He got T'd up a whopping 317 times, an NBA record. He had one season, 2001, where he got called for 41. That’s also an NBA record. Over a three-year span, he was called for 106 of them.
That’s almost 12 Bulls-Heat games!
He took trash-talk to a whole new level. And then when he got slammed for it, he took whining to a level that even a five-year-old would be ashamed of.
All the while, he was dishing out some cheap shots—the reason behind a good number of the aforementioned technicals.
If you ask Wallace, though, he would probably tell you that he never committed a foul.
Sorry, Sheed. Ball don't lie.
ESPN has a list of 25 injuries caused by Dikembe Mutombo swinging his elbows, and it's only updated through 2004.
Need I say more?
Dennis Rodman, more than any player in the history of the game, is in the Hall of Fame almost exclusively for two reasons: defense and rebounding. And you don’t do those things as well as he did without knowing how to get a little dirty.
Rodman was the expert banger. He mastered every trick of the trade, every tool of the craft, to determine how to get positioning to get the rebound. He outfought countless men who were bigger, stronger and heavier than himself.
He did so by using elbows, fingernails, teeth, hair, flatulence and whatever else he could to gain position.
There was no kind of dirty off-limits to Rodman.
Kevin Garnett is the “vino” of dirty. The older he gets, the more he compensates by adding to his dirty repertoire. He has reached a dirty level only two players in history have eclipsed.
No one—I repeat, no one—has taken trash talk to the level Garnett has. You think you’re tough? You think you’re thick-skinned? Five minutes alone with Garnett and he would have you crying like a schoolgirl. He’s the NBA version of Hannibal Lecter when it comes to getting in your head.
It would be one thing if it ended there, but it doesn’t. He has a rich bag of tricks too. From the relatively clean blocking shots after the whistle, just so you don’t see it go through the net, to the downright disgusting, like slapping players in the man parts as they go up for jump shots, Garnett is dirty on levels most don’t even consider possible.
There is no need to defend him either. Garnett would be proud of his placement here, if not offended that two rank higher. He does still have time on his contract to move up.
How bad was Bill Laimbeer?
Let's put it this way. There was a video game made for Super Nintendo entitled Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball. The game was a kind of a cross between Death Race 2000 and basketball.
It didn't just contain violence, it encouraged it.
Laimbeer was the baddest of the Motor City Bad Boys, and he offered no apologies for it. He just did what he had to in order to win. You can't argue with the results. He has two rings.
If there was an elbow to be thrown, Laimbeer was only too glad to throw it. He didn't just play dirty; he was wore the mantle of dirty and did it proudly.
In the single most physical era of basketball, he was the game's most physical player.
Bruce Bowen had a famous habit of slipping his foot underneath a player as he went up for a jump shot. That’s about the worst thing a player can possibly do.
Landing on top of feet has destroyed seasons and careers; it’s really nothing to be toyed with. You do that a few times and opposing players have it in their heads. When you’re worried about coming down on someone’s foot, you’re worried about coming down wrong. When you’re worried about coming down wrong, it affects your shot.
Bowen was a great defender apart from his dirty tactics, but there's a big difference between “tough” dirty and “malicious” dirty, and the San Antonio Spurs' stopper was the latter.
Threatening someone’s career is just morally wrong, and there is no justification.