The NBA used to be a much wilder league that it is today.
The modern NBA pays close attention to its public image and it does its best to maintain a family-friendly reputation. This is hardly surprising given that the history of the league is full of PR disasters such as the cocaine era and, of course, fights. Lots of fights. This gave the NBA a reputation of a league full of thugs and the NBA worked hard to clean that image up.
Nowadays, even getting up from your bench during a scuffle results in an automatic fine. Being a part of a shoving match will incur financial penalties and probably a suspension. Back in the day, however, the punishments for fighting in the NBA were lax. If they were given out at all, that is.
This made fights, and I mean REAL fights, a relatively common occurrence and there were quite a few memorable ones throughout the years.
We’ll be taking a trip down memory lane today and recalling some of the biggest fights and brawls in NBA history. Some of them are huge for the number of players that took part, some are huge because of the names, and some simply have it all.
5. Alonzo Mourning VS Larry Johnson (1998)
At one point, Mourning and Johnson were teammates on the Charlotte Hornets. Now you might assume things would therefore be cool (or at least civil) between the two, but in this case you’d be completely wrong.
There was a lot of bad blood between the two of them because during their time in the Hornets, Johnson felt Mourning threatened his status on the team.
Both players eventually moved on from Charlotte and they met as opponents in a playoff game in 1988. With the winner already decided and just 2 seconds to go in the game, ‘Zo and Larry got into a shoving match.
This shoving match started as a fight for a meaningless rebound and it quickly escalated from there. Punches quickly started flying and it was clear that there was evil intent behind them. The rest of the players quickly got into it and Charles Oakley charged at Mourning to try and stop him.
The two were eventually separated but not before the entire situation turned into pure chaos on the court. Mourning still wanted to go after Johnson but he was held back and everything, fortunately, ended then and there. Still, this fight gave us the iconic image of Knicks’ coach Jeff Van Gundy hanging off of Zo’s leg trying to stop him.
Knicks VS Bulls Brawl (1994)
This is another one of those scenarios where a fight between two guys quickly turns into a bench-clearing brawl. What made this 1994 fight unique, though, was that it happened right in front of commissioner David Stern who was in attendance for the game.
These two teams hated each other with a passion and a single spark was usually enough to start a fight. That spark came when JoJo English and Derek Harper got into each other’s faces and there was a shove.
As soon as the shove happened, everyone took off. The fight quickly moves to the sidelines where one of the players got body slammed into the floor and everyone started piling up on top.
The few players that weren’t in the pile took part in separate fights around it. There’s no way to tell how many punches were thrown in total but things didn’t die down even when the main fight was broken up. There was still a lot of bickering and even arena security got involved.
Their reaction to the situation was widely criticized since they pushed John Starks, a player for the Knicks, which could have resulted in an injury. The fallout? Stern must have been in a very good mood before the fight since English only got a one-game suspension and Harper got two.
3. Larry Bird VS Julius Erving Brawl (1984)
“I went to a basketball game and a hockey game broke out”. This is how this particular 1984 game was described because of the infamous fight that took place.
Legendary Larry Bird and Dr. J are probably not the two guys you would expect to see in any fight, let alone a fight with each other, yet there they were.
Now, this particular game was heated because the Celtics and the 76ers were rivals and tensions were already high. On top of that, Dick Bavetta had to officiate the game on his own so things were almost bound to boil over. And they did when Bird got tangled up with a 76ers player who fouled him hard and got ejected for it.
This was the straw that broke the camel’s back and Erving went at Bird. Both benches cleared with some players trying to break up the fight and others trying to participate.
A rookie Charley Barkley tried to pull Bird away but he ended up holding him in a perfect position for Erving to deliver a few extra shots in. The best/worst part about the whole thing are the announcers half-sarcastically complimenting the shots that the players were throwing. In the end, 17 different players were fined a total of $30,500 but there were no suspensions.
2. Charles and Charles (Barkley VS Oakley) (1996)
This fight is huge because of the participants and it probably would have made for an amazing boxing match.
Barkley and Oakley were among some of the strongest and most dangerous players in the league during their playing days.
Oakley was a known enforcer and few players dared to challenge him. He was even Michael Jordan’s bodyguard while the two played on the Bulls.
Charles Barkley was not known as an enforcer but that doesn’t mean that is was a good idea to go at him. Bill Laimbeer, the feared center of the Bad Boy Pistons learned this the hard way when he got into a fight with Barkley and walked out of it with a black eye.
What’s crazy about the fight we’re talking about between Barkley and Oakley is that it happened during a preseason game in 1996. Oakley took Barkley down from behind as they were going up for a rebound and it was on from there.
Lots of hard punches were thrown but both players are fortunate that very few punches connected. Initially, others were hesitant about getting in between them but they were eventually separated and tossed from the game.
1. Malice at the palace (2004)
The infamous malice at the palace remains one of, if not THE most infamous fights in US sports history. You probably already know the scene, the Indiana Pacers are playing the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
The game was already decided since Indiana was up by 15 with just 40 seconds left.
Losing side Pistons’ Ben Wallace went up for a layup but Ron Artest (who now goes by the name Metta World Peace) made a hard foul from behind as Wallace went up. Wallace was pissed and shoved Artest so hard that he flew to the other side of the court.
Nearly everyone got in between the two before the fight could escalate because Wallace looked like he meant business.
Artest laid down on the scorers table and everything would have been fine if the fans hadn’t started throwing things. One fan hit Artest with a beer and a bottle and it was on from there.
Artest charged into the stands to fight the fan who hit him but he seems to have fought the wrong fan.
That turned a players-only fight into a free for all. Players were in the stands, fans were on the court, and the whole thing descended into chaos.
One Detroit fan even went up to Artest on the floor and promptly got knocked out. The Pacers eventually left the floor and the Pistons fans were still throwing things at them as they were leaving.
Of course, the game was finished early. This is probably one of the the biggest scandals in NBA history and the League had to crack down on any future fighting to avoid a repeat.
The public was disgusted and outraged, and the punishments were Draconian. Nine players were suspended for a total of 146 games (Artest alone got 86 games, the longest suspension in NBA history) and they lost around $11 million in salary.
The players union tried appealing the suspensions but they failed. Five players even faced legal charges for their actions but they got off with a small fine, probation, and community service. No incident like this has even taken place since and, hopefully, never will.
That wraps up our list of the biggest brawls in NBA history. If you have any feedback or think something’s missing, let us know by leaving a comment below!