NBA: Where Have All the Goons Gone?

Johnny BallgameCorrespondent IJune 18, 2008

It used to irritate me when I’d listen to old guys gripe about athletes being tougher during their era. I think I’m now turning into one because as great as the NBA is right now, it was much better during the previous two decades.

The current era is right up there with the 1980s and ‘90s in terms of super-star players. Sure, the ‘80s had Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Moses Malone and Isaiah Thomas. The ‘90s gave us Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.

The NBA now has stars such as Tim Duncan, Shaq, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett among many others. You can’t tell me the stars of today don’t stack up to previous decades.  

However, the role players of yesteryear, in my opinion, were more in-tune with their duties to their teams and were more significant. There is one role used by basically every team during previous decades that has almost entirely been eliminated in today’s NBA. Check that, it has been eliminated.

That’s the role of “The Goon”. There aren’t any left. The league and Commissioner David Stern has eliminated all goons by ejecting, suspending, and fining players who try and take on the old school enforcer roll.  

I think back to the New York Knicks of the mid-1990s coached by Pat Reilly. Knowing he had to compete with the Jordan and Pippen led Bulls, Reilly used the formula consisting of one superstar (Patrick Ewing) and seven goons to make up his team’s rotation. The Knicks never defeated Jordan in a playoff series, but came closer than most teams during that time.

Reilly’s goon-trio of Charles Oakley, Xavier McDaniel (“the X-Man), and Anthony Mason physically beat the hell out of those legendary Bulls teams. Michael and Scottie were just too good to ever lose. Reilly’s strategy worked better than any other. You couldn’t out-superstar Jordan. Even with Ewing. You needed a different approach.  

Think back to the ‘Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons teams from 1987-1990. They had maybe the best collection of goons in league history. Guided by all time goon Bill Laimbeer, solid running-mates Rick Mahorn, John Salley and Dennis Rodman, the Pistons bruised up opponents and allowed Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars in the back-court to do their thing. Pistons coach Chuck Daily was one of the few guys that was able to win multiple titles (’89,’90) with a goon-heavy approach.   

Nowadays, teams can’t incorporate that old school Reilly/Daily type of mentality and use brute force to punish softer, more-skilled opponents.

There aren’t any more goons in the NBA. I’m sorry, but Brendan Heywood and Ronny Turiaf aren't goons.

The league has eliminated them completely. Those old Lakers vs. Celtics battles during the ‘80s had multiple fist-fights each game and nobody ever got tossed and sometimes technical fouls weren’t even given. I also remember watching the Pistons play the 76ers during the early ‘90s and almost expecting a fight between Laimbeer and Barkley to occur.  

It was part of the game. Maybe they got tossed, but you certainly didn’t expect either to receive a fine or 20-game suspension like Carmelo Anthony received for failing to beat-up a five foot seven inch Nate Robinson a couple years back during an altercation I would never define as a “fight”.   

I miss the goons of the NBA. I miss the Sonics employing Frank Brickowski (a top all time goon, I might add)  to purposely antagonize Dennis Rodman during the 1996 NBA Finals hoping both would get ejected. Trading Brickowski for Rodman was something Seattle coach George Karl was willing to do.  

I remember one game during that series where Brickowski received a technical foul 30 seconds after checking into the game for trying to rough-up Rodman.

A goon’s role to a team was pivotal. The dictionary’s definition of “goon” is “a hired hoodlum or thug”. That’s my new favorite definition.

In basketball, more so than any other sport, the team with the league’s best player usually wins the championship. Magic and Bird dominated the ‘80s (eight rings combined), Jordan and Olajuwon owned the ‘90s (eight rings combined) and Shaq and Duncan have dominated today (eight rings combined).

For all the teams that don’t have the era’s top guy, they must resort to other tactics in order to possibly win a crucial playoff series and take down Goliath.

Without the role of a goon these days, players like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant will be able to roam free knowing they’re physically protected by the NBA’s referee’s and commissioner.

Jordan never had that luxury. He knew Oakley, Mason and the X-Man were coming for him. He realized and accepted the definition of a “playoff foul”. In today’s era, a “playoff foul” results into a “flagrant two” foul. Yeah, and how lame are those? Flagrant two’s? Come on NBA.

 The league now has two types of flagrant fouls. Somewhere ex-goons like Maurice Lucas and Kurt Rambis are puking.