Brawls in the NBA are different from those in the MLB. They happen less frequently and due to the large disparity in each league’s team roster sizes, an on-court basketball fight will almost always involve considerably fewer bodies. Despite that, things can get nasty quickly on the hardwood. The infamous fiasco involving the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers in 2004 is proof of that. Here are five of the most memorable brawls in basketball history, listed in chronological order.
1. Kevin McHale clotheslines Kurt Rambis
When you think of the Boston Celtics/Los Angeles Lakers rivalry, specifically during the ’80s, you probably imagine the head-to-head duels of Hall-of-Fame talents Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. In Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals though, it was the C’s Kevin McHale and the Lakers’ Kurt Rambis who took center stage. In a 2-1 series in favor of LA, the Lakers led by six in the third quarter. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hauled in the rebound off Dennis Johnson’s missed jump shot and quickly fired an outlet pass to teammate James Worthy.
Sliding down the left side of the court, Worthy made a perfect chest pass to a streaking Rambis and he glided in for a lay-up attempt. Before he could release the ball though, McHale met his opponent with a vicious clothesline tackle as the player was in mid-air, setting off the mayhem. This one is not so much of a “brawl” per se, but the ferocious hit from McHale and extreme reaction from Rambis makes it one of the more memorable moments in this group’s legendary rivalry.
2. Charles Barkley vs. Charles Oakley
In this 1996 preseason tilt between the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks, a pair of familiar foes get it on. Neither Charles Barkley nor Charles Oakley were strangers to physical confrontations, and a seemingly meaningless contest in Houston quickly became the scene for a feisty battle between the two big men.
During a Houston possession, Barkley secured a loose ball under the New York basket. After missing his first layup attempt, he seemed to come down with his own rebound, but became tangled with Oakley. As the two fight for the orange while suspended in mid-air, it looks like Oakley makes an aggressive drag down, causing them both to fall to the floor hard. Both men throw a few punches as multiple players get involved. Eventually, the ruckus is broken up and both players are ejected.
3. The Malice at the Palace
The Malice at the Palace. More than 11 years later, the phrase still sends shivers down some NBA fans’ spines. In what is easily the most dangerous instance of a basketball brawl going extremely wrong, we have what transpired during the final minute of scheduled playing time in the Nov. 19, 2004 contest between the Pacers and Pistons. Under the lights of the Palace of Auburn Hills, the visiting Pacers were less than 60 seconds away from polishing off an impressive double-digit victory.
On a Pistons’ possession, center Ben Wallace got the ball in the paint and made a move to the basket, missing the shot but getting fouled in the process. Wallace took exception to the play and went right after Ron Artest, throwing a hard shove at the Indiana forward. This led to a large skirmish between multiple players on both sides, with Wallace and Indiana guard Stephen Jackson foolishly leading the charge. As the action moved toward the scorer’s table, things finally seemed to calm down, and then disaster struck.
A beverage of some kind was tossed by an unseen fan, striking Artest who was lying down on the scorer’s table. The much-maligned veteran player immediately got up and darted for the crowd. He hopped the table and a few rows of seats, eyeing a particular male fan in a black shirt and once he reached the attendee, he grabbed him by the face and threw him to the ground. Multiple players entered the crowd and had encounters with fans, which was unprecedented for the sport.
Things really got out of hand at that point and when all was said and done, the game was called off early. A total of nine players were suspended without pay for more than 140 games and arena security and the history of the NBA was changed forever. As if the brawl was not bad enough, it was broadcast live nationally on ESPN.
4. Knicks vs. Nuggets showdown at MSG
Like the Pacers/Pistons melee, this one between the Knicks and Denver Nuggets on Dec. 16, 2006 took place in the waning minute or two of regulation with the game all but decided. With New York trailing by 19 and Denver guard J.R. Smith on a breakaway attempt, Knicks small forward Mardy Collins committed a take down, flagrant two foul, prompting a lengthy fracas.
Smith and Collins went at it briefly before being broken up by an official. However, more extracurricular activity got going between primarily Nate Robinson, Carmelo Anthony, and Smith. With Robinson and Smith in each other’s faces, they tackled each other and fell into the first row of fans and photographers behind the baseline.
The action moved toward center court when Anthony threw a hard punch at a Knicks player and Jared Jeffries charges the former Syracuse player. After a few minutes the fight settled down, but not before one of the more horrific brawls took place. Ironically, both Smith, and of course Anthony, went on to play for the Knicks in the coming years.
5. Trevor Booker and Blake Griffin go at it
Here is yet another preseason game that surprisingly turned sour quickly as a result of a hard foul. In this Oct. 2014 contest between the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz, LA power forward Blake Griffin received a pass in transition and prepared for an easy layup or dunk. As he leapt into the air, he was met by Jazz forward Trevor Booker and his arms, resulting in a blatant flagrant foul.
To his credit, Booker tried to catch No. 32 before he landed hard to the floor. Griffin had none of it though and quickly got in Booker’s grill, grabbing him by the back of the head. This incident could have been a lot worse, as the player’s teammates and referees did a fine job of breaking up the duo. Still, the enduring image of Griffin reaching and holding Booker’s neck with his left hand was a scary sight.
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