Ben Simmons Is Hardly a Pioneer; 5 NBA Superstar Holdouts That Might Surprise You

This season, Ben Simmons revived an outdated tradition by holding out from the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s been decades since an NBA player opted to withhold his services to leverage for a new contract or a trade. In recent years, holdouts among NBA players dwindled thanks to the collective bargaining agreement guaranteeing salaries and instituting maximum salaries. After all, if you’re already making the max, there’s no point in holding out for more cash.

In a twist, Simmons’ holdout has nothing to do with money. Already signed to a max contract, the three-time All-Star wants out of Philadelphia. He feels the franchise disrespected him by allowing him to wear most of the blame for the 76ers’ failure in last year’s playoffs. But the truth is that holdouts are as old as the NBA itself. The reasons varied, but the result was the same. The player eventually got at least a portion of what he wanted in every case. Here are five memorable NBA holdouts.

1999: Steve Francis sings ‘No, Canada’

Unlike draftees from a generation earlier, Maryland star Steve Francis wanted to dodge Canada after being drafted by the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1999.
Unlike draftees from a generation earlier, Maryland star Steve Francis wanted to dodge Canada after being drafted by the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1999. | Jamie Squire/Allsport

While it wasn’t technically a holdout, Steve Francis gave the middle finger to an entire nation after the Vancouver Grizzlies chose him with the second overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft. Francis’ problem wasn’t so much the Grizzlies as Canada itself.

It never reached the point of a holdout. Realizing Francis was never going to go to Vancouver, Grizzlies general manager Stu Jackson engineered the largest trade in NBA history at the time, an 11-player, three-team extravaganza that ended up with the Houston Rockets holding Francis’ rights was.

To this day, Francis has no regrets about snubbing Vancouver. In a recent essay in The Players Tribune, Francis said he’d do it all over again.

“Now, I know people in Vancouver are still pissed off at me for forcing a trade out of there,” Francis wrote. “I damn near cried when I got taken by the Grizzlies at No. 2. I was not about to go up to freezing-ass Canada, so far away from my family, when they were about to move the franchise anyway. I’m sorry, but … actually, I’m really not even sorry.”

Francis earned three All-Star berths in Houston, but his career flamed out quickly.

1981: Marques Johnson wants big bucks from Milwaukee

Marques Johnson delivered as expected after the Milwaukee Bucks took him with the third overall pick in 1977. Johnson averaged 21.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game in his first four seasons while leading the Bucks back into the NBA’s elite.

But before the 1981–82 season, Johnson wanted the contract to go with his star status. He held out for the first two months of the season, wanting to renegotiate the remaining two years of the six-year contract he signed after the draft.

According to United Press International, Johnson threatened to pursue acting and modeling rather than return to Milwaukee. The Bucks relented, Johnson got more money and played another two seasons with the Bucks before a 1984 trade to the Clippers sent him into NBA purgatory. He did end up doing the acting thing, though.

1980: Gus Williams plays hardball with the SuperSonics

Gus Williams transformed the Seattle SuperSonics upon arrival in 1978. His holdout in 1980-81 transformed them back to the bad old days.
Gus Williams transformed the Seattle SuperSonics upon arrival in 1978. His holdout in 1980-81 transformed them back to the bad old days. } Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The franchise was transformed from the moment Gus Williams signed with the Seattle SuperSonics as a free agent in 1977. The Sonics made the NBA Finals in each of Williams’ first two seasons, winning their lone title in 1979. They set a franchise record with 56 wins in 1979–80 before falling to Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980 Western Conference Finals.

After that season, Williams’s contract expired, and Seattle’s ownership didn’t impress him with its initial offer. So Williams opted to sit out.

The Sonics traded 1979 Finals MVP Dennis Johnson to the Phoenix Suns for Paul Westphal and expected to keep on. But Westphal struggled with injuries, and Seattle struggled to mount a competitive offense.

The team collapsed to 34 wins and missed the playoffs. In May 1981, Williams signed a five-year, $3 million contract, and the team immediately returned to the upper echelon in the West. At least for a while. But the Sonics didn’t get back to the Finals until 1996.

1970: Rick Barry says no, Virginia, I am not your Santa Claus

Rick Barry was the first NBA superstar to jump to the fledgling ABA. But when his team moved to Virginia, he threatened to hold out unless he got a trade.
Rick Barry was the first NBA superstar to jump to the fledgling ABA. But when his team moved to Virginia, he threatened to hold out unless he got a trade. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Rick Barry was the first superstar to jump from the NBA to the ABA, signing with the Oakland Oaks in 1967. The San Francisco Warriors successfully sued to force Barry to sit out a year before playing in Oakland.

Part of Barry’s motivation to go to the Oaks was to play for his collegiate coach (and father-in-law), Bruce Hale. By the time Barry was eligible to play in the ABA, the Oaks had fired Hale. A year later, the franchise left the Bay Area for Washington. After one season in the nation’s capital, the team moved again to Norfolk, Virginia.

Barry drew the line at that. In an infamous interview with Sports Illustrated, Barry made it clear he wanted no part of the Squires or Virginia.

“My son Scooter is supposed to go to nursery school this year,” Barry said. “I hate to think of the complications that’ll cause in Virginia. I don’t want him to go down there to school and learn to speak with a Southern accent. He’ll come home from school saying, ‘Hi, y’all, Dayaddy.’ I sure don’t want that.”

The New York Nets bought Barry’s contract from the Squires less than a month later.

1950: Bob Cousy wants nothing to do with Illinois or Iowa for that matter

Bob Cousy became an early NBA legend with the Boston Celtics. But his NBA career began with his refusal to report to the team that drafted him in 1950.
Bob Cousy became an early NBA legend with the Boston Celtics. But his NBA career began with his refusal to report to the team that drafted him in 1950. | Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Bob Cousy presented a problem to NBA scouts in 1950. An All-American at Holy Cross, his play was seen by many era coaches as too flashy. Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach ignored the local boy in the NBA draft, taking center Chuck Share from Bowling Green.

“Am I supposed to please the local yokels or win ballgames?” Auerbach said, according to The 1960s in Sports by Miles Coverdale.

Instead, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks drafted Cousy. Now known as the Atlanta Hawks, the franchise played home games in three high school gyms in Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa. Cousy, a native New Yorker, refused to go to the Blackhawks.

In a scenario reminiscent of the NBA-controlled New Orleans Hornets trading Chris Paul to the Lakers before Commissioner David Stern vetoed the deal and eventually shipped Paul to the Clippers, NBA president Maurice Podoloff intervened.

Cousy’s rights magically transferred to the Chicago Stags, who were in the process of folding. That put Cousy into the dispersal draft. Tri-Cities got a player from Chicago in the exchange and was happy. Boston wound up with Cousy’s rights. The Hall of Famer helped lead the Celtics to their first six NBA titles between 1957 and his retirement in 1963.

Auerbach was probably never so happy to have been wrong about a player.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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