NBA PM: The NBA’s Best Villains

Joel Brigham looks back at some of the best villains in NBA history and why they were hated.

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Updated 1 year ago on

8 min read

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Derrick Rose will make his return to Chicago on Friday night, and he seems pretty aware of the fact that the fans there aren’t going to be all that happy to see him.

“I know I’m going to get some boos here and there,” Rose told Ian Begley of “It’s all part of the game, all a part of the sport.”

While it’s hard to predict exactly how Rose will be received when he finds his way back to the United Center, there’s no question that he left the team on terms that weren’t necessarily 100 percent amiable. At Chicago’s media day a year ago, he talked about preserving his body for free agency in 2017 and then clearly spent a good chunk of his last season with the Bulls on cruise control. Between that and all of his injury drama over the course of the last four years, Rose hasn’t necessarily endeared him to fans in Chicago. Some booing is not only possible, it’s likely.

Despite all of that, Rose isn’t a villain in the minds of most Bulls fans, especially with him being so connected to the city off the court. He won an MVP trophy as a Bull and helped return the organization to a respectability unheard of since Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson left the team in 1998. He’ll get booed, but he’s nowhere near the top of the city’s list of most detested visiting players.

There have been plenty of truly great NBA villains over the years. These are guys who annoyed opposing players at the very least, and often injured them physically at worst. They are guys who pestered the hell out of fans and reveled in boos the way most players respond to cheers. In today’s AAU culture, there really aren’t a whole lot of true modern-day NBA villains, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some true, antagonistic gems in the recent past. Here’s a look at the dastardliest of them:

Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers – Just about everybody who knows Reggie Miller loves the guy, and it’s easy to see why. He’s funny and insightful as an analyst, and nobody questions that he was one of the biggest personalities of his era. In New York, though, Miller remains arguably the most hated opposing NBA player of all-time, and with good cause. It would be enough to hate the guy for always playing so well against them (remember eight points in nine seconds?), but the fact that Miller jawed at fans at Madison Square Garden mercilessly only made it worse. In the 1990s, there was no bigger sports heel in New York than Miller, whose choking gesture toward Spike Lee during the 1994 playoffs remains one of the decade’s more entertaining moments.

Rick Barry, Golden State Warriors – Barry was one of his era’s greatest scorers, but he was also, as Dave Hollander of Slate once put it, “the most arrogant, impossible son of a bitch ever to play the game of basketball.” He drove his teammates crazy by hogging the ball and belittling them throughout the course of his career. Robert Parish once said, “[Barry] was always looking down at you.” Former Warriors exec Ken Macker added, “You’ll never find a bunch of players sitting around talking about the good old days with Rick. His teammates and opponents genuinely and thoroughly detested him.” At age 27, Barry wrote his autobiography, and in it he included a quote from his own mother in which she calls him “greedy,” as well as anecdote about him punching a nun. The fact that he left the NBA for more money in the ABA didn’t endear him to fans, either, and of course to this day he’ll apologize for none of this. The guy was great at basketball, but he apparently was so detestable his own teammates couldn’t stand him.

Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics – Maybe the best way to describe Ainge early in his career in Boston was as an “agitator.” He pushed buttons all the time, and it often got him into quite a bit of trouble with the opposing players who felt his play was particularly dirty. He once annoyed seven-foot center Tree Rollins so much in the 1983 playoffs that Rollins threw an elbow at Ainge, which followed with Ainge tackling the gigantic man and instigating a brawl that would result in a frustrated Rollins chomping Ainge’s finger down to the tendon. It was gross, but a perfect illustration of how much this guy got under people’s skin. Ainge got socked a time or two over the course of his career, but he was a good sport about being so abhorred. At the 1987 NBA Finals, he bought an “I Hate Danny Ainge” shirt from opposing fans and wore it for warmups. He was a king among agitators in the 1980s, and he’s still got the scar from that finger nibble to show for it.

Ron Artest, Indiana Pacers – As a person, Metta World Peace really is the best. He’s a goofy, enigmatic dude who speaks his mind and is actually great with the media. People like the guy now that he’s older and has cooled off a bit competitively. But in his prime, Artest did some things that made him one of the most dangerous and hated players in league history, including the “Malice at the Palace” debacle that cost him a full season of peak basketball for a Pacers team that had title aspirations that year. Not only did he leap into the stands to sock a fan he thought threw a beer at him, but the fact that he was laying on the scorers’ table to taunt Ben Wallace and Pistons fans in the first place was the detestable act that led to the tossed booze. Other stories, like the one about how he applied to work at a Circuit City his rookie season in Chicago to get a discount on electronics, are more a testament to what an odd duck Artest can be, but he was a legitimate stinker in the mid-aughts. It was no coincidence, after all, that he was wearing Dennis Rodman’s #91 when he got into the fight that cost him 77 games.

Bill Laimbeer, Detroit Pistons – Laimbeer was the baddest of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, not only because he attempted to decapitate Karl Malone with his forearm and happily got into drag-out fights with everyone from Alonzo Mourning to Charles Barkley, but also because he’d lay some of the league’s hardest fouls and then act surprised when the ref blew the whistle. It was like the Tim Duncan face, except after having criminally assaulted another human being. Laimbeer was such a pest that he even got Larry Bird to lose his cool in an incident that involved Bird launching a basketball at Laimbeer while the Pistons and Celtics were separated in the midst of a particularly chippy game. Laimbeer was actually a pretty great player, averaging a double-double for seven straight seasons and making four All-Star teams, but he’s best remembered for being a massive pain in the rear end. Or, in Malone’s case, a massive pain in the face.

Dennis Rodman, Chicago Bulls – The best way to personify what Rodman was in the 1980s and 1990s is to view the tape of him flopping all over Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone in the 1998 NBA Finals, making it impossible for him to run down the court because of Rodman’s non-stop flailing elbows and legs:

Keep in mind that Malone was also one of the dirtiest players of his era, but even he couldn’t out-Rodman a guy who made a career of pestering bigger, stronger players throughout his time in Detroit, San Antonio and Chicago. As part of those “Bad Boy” Pistons early in his career, he certainly made his mark as a tough guy playing alongside Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn, doing everything he could to lay the hammer on opposing players. He famously shoved future teammate Scottie Pippen about fifteen feet into a row of chairs during the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals in what was then labeled a “flagrant foul” and what today would likely get him suspended for 20 games. He also once tackled Alonzo Mourning to the ground, kicked a cameraman in the groin and smiled annoyingly through every incident. The guy was a legend as far as villains go. We may never again see his equal.


Rose might be viewed as something of a minor villain upon his return to Chicago on Friday night, but whatever boos he may get are nothing compared to the vitriol these other guys inspired in fans and opponents during their heydays. The league is a different place now, and modern rules about violence in basketball make it almost impossible for villains like these to emerge today. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, though, there were some bad, bad dudes wreaking havoc on the National Basketball Association.

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Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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