A distinction must be made between players who are rough and those who are downright dirty. Although those in the former category play physical, rock-'em-sock-'em basketball, they do so within the boundaries of certain accepted techniques having to do with appropriate placements for aggressive elbows, hip bumps and forearm thumps, plus the execution of deliberate fouls that are not career-threatening, and so on.
Players who are considered to be dirty, however, routinely overstep these boundaries and are more concerned with winning than with the possibility of their tactics inflicting serious injuries on their opponents.
That said, the NBA's inaugural season of 1946-47 (when the league was known as the Basketball Association of America) featured the largest number of truly dirty players. The reason for this was that most of the BAA's 11 charter franchises were administered by men (or their representatives) who owned arenas, and who also were either total or partial owners of the professional ice hockey teams that played in those arenas.
Accordingly, it was believed that nothing pepped up a game and brought back customers more than a rousing fistfight. Despite the fact that zone defenses were legal (if for only the initial 10 weeks of that first season), the players gleefully assaulted each other on a regular basis. The referees lacked any real authority to curtail this violence &3151; technical fouls incurred a mere $25 fine and were used to pay the commissioner's salary. There were no automatic penalties for blatant punches, elbows to the face, trips, kicks or bites.
As a result, early BAA action was as much mayhem as it was skilled competition. Even so, one player was deemed to be the most bloodthirsty and physically abusive of them all — Ed Sadowski. But "Big Ed" was more than just a hatchet man. He was a 6-foot-5, 240-pound powerhouse scorer in the low post, who averaged a career-high of 19.4 ppg with the 1947-48 Boston Celtics.
Wally Osterkorn (1951-55) had his career shortened by a torn muscle in his thigh, but he showed no mercy to opponents while he was healthy. He once greeted a highly-touted rookie named Jack Molinas with a pair of vicious elbows to the stomach before saying, "Welcome to the NBA, Jack." And Osterkorn used to dare Bob Cousy to drive the ball into the middle. But Osterkorn's untrammeled ferocity was tamed when he got involved in a fight with Zeke Zawoluk resulting in Zawoluk's mother racing out of the stands and beating Osterkorn's head with an umbrella. Unwilling to hit a woman, Osterkorn allowed her to chase him around the court until Zawoluk finally corralled her.
Red Auerbach always liked having a hit-man or two on his roster, the most notable being Bob "The Tank" Brannum (1948-55), Dwight "Red" Morrison (1954-58) and "Jungle" Jim Loscutoff (1955-64).
How mean was Charlie Share? At 6-11, 245, he played for several teams from 1951-1960, and was noted for setting the most evil moving screens in the NBA. During part of his tenure with the Fort Wayne Pistons, Share's coach was Paul Birch, an infamous hot-head who wasn't very far removed from his own active career to the point where he often scrimmaged with his team. During one such scrimmage, Share enhanced one of his attack screens with an elbow to Birch's head that sent his coach sprawling. No surprise that Share was quickly traded to Milwaukee.
Zelmo Beatty (1962-1975) was a certified All-Star who used his elbows to help carve out space for him to operate in the pivot. Opposing centers weren't afraid to admit having nightmares in anticipation of facing the Big Z's wrath.
Nor was John Stockton quite the choir boy he seemed to be. Indeed, Stockton's elbow-flashing back-screens were a constant menace.
A pair of Knicks also make the list — Anthony Mason and Xavier "X-Man" McDaniel. This pairing came about when Pat Riley dropped his slick-Showtime game plan in order to mimic the contemporary successes of the Bad Boy Pistons.
Speaking of which … Chuck Daly claimed that he had nothing to do with the below-the-belt antics of his players, which was, of course, nonsense. In any event, these guys were arguably the dirtiest team of all time.
Bill Laimbeer was the most obvious offender, with his brutal head-hunting and after-the-whistle fouls — and Dennis Rodman wasn't far behind. But the worst offender on that team was Isiah Thomas. Zeke's favorite little trick was exercised on defense, when he was wont to step on an opponent's plant-foot just the unsuspecting player was trying to take off with ball in hand and jump to the basket. If the refs never caught on to this nasty business, Thomas's peers were well aware that their careers were jeopardized whenever they tried to beat Zeke to the hoop. And this was the primary reason why MJ refused to play on the original Dream Team if Thomas was included on the roster.
Of today's players, Bruce Bowen's grabbing, scratching and under-cutting defense qualifies him as the dirtiest. Kenyon Martin's bully-boy tactics hover on the edge of danger, but only when he plays at home. Ruben Patterson sometimes crosses the line, as does Danny Fortson.
But the dirtiest player in NBA history was Dave Cowens. Yes, he was skilled. Yes, he was tough. Yet his all-out aggressiveness was frequently mindless and downright sadistic. (In a bar-fight while he was in college, Cowens once bit off a large piece of an antagonist's nose.) Cowens, more than any of his predecessors, was considered by his contemporaries to be the one player whose over-the-top brutality was most likely to send an opponent to the hospital.
Now that's some funny shiit!
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