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Last of a Dying Breed

The NBA enforcer was once a staple of the league, regulating, protecting, inciting, and disrupting. But rule changes and evolving playing style pushed the bad boys out of the paint. Here we look back at the history and fading future of the basketball hard man.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

What happened to the enforcer? Those who decry the NBA’s supposed softness are right about this: The game is less reliant on overt physicality and brute intimidation than in days past. Your view on this depends on your relationship with the game. If you’re a fan of exquisitely skilled athletes expressing themselves through their craft, it’s good. If you prefer spacing, ball movement, and interchangeable player roles, it’s very good. If you’re the league’s commissioner, presiding over a historic influx of revenue — or the owner of a team whose boat has been lifted steeply skyward — it’s pretty great.

But too much pretty basketball, like too much anything, can overload the senses and leave the brain’s dopamine receptors chittering for other kinds of stimuli. Watching your favorite team get eviscerated by various finely tuned small-to-medium-size players, their faces twisting in feigned agony at a defender’s slightest, technically whistle-able touch, has a way of inciting furious anger. Perhaps you were raised at the blackhearted altar of the Bad Boy Pistons, or daydreamed about Anthony Mason DDT-ing Michael Jordan off the top turnbuckle as a blizzard of confetti tickled the upturned faces lining the Canyon of Heroes. Maybe you spent your childhood conning video store clerks into letting you rent Faces of Death, or you just vicariously derive your visceral thrills through violence. Whatever the case, the game has changed. The past is never as good as we remember.

The very first basketball game, played in 1891, was essentially an 18-person riot. “I didn’t have enough [rules],” Dr. James Naismith, the game’s inventor, said during a radio interview in 1939. “The boys began tackling, kicking, and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free-for-all in the middle of the gym floor. Before I could pull them apart, one boy was knocked out, several of them had black eyes, and one had a dislocated shoulder.”

No surprise, then, that the early NBA was a rough league.

The late Johnny “Red” Kerr played in the NBA from 1954 to 1966, mostly for the Syracuse Nationals, before embarking on a 30-year career as the color man for the Chicago Bulls. Asked in 1993 to compare his era with the early ’90s brand of grindhouse basketball exemplified by the Detroit Pistons and Pat Riley’s Knicks, Kerr noted that fights — and the hacking, elbowing, and undercutting that precipitated them — were once endemic. “Every time we played the Celtics, there was some kind of fight,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “Almost every game, there was some kind of fisticuffs.”

In 1955, Kerr’s Nationals faced off against the Fort Wayne Pistons in the NBA Finals. He described one game thusly: “The first call against the Pistons, somebody threw a chair across the floor. There were two fights before halftime.”

The NBA of the ’50s and ’60s was home to a fringe sport, well behind baseball, football, college basketball, and even boxing in the cultural consciousness. The league operated without a television contract for the first eight years of its existence. Fists and elbows fly much freer when no one’s watching, and familiarity breeds contempt. There were only eight teams for most of the NBA’s first two decades. In 1954–55, the Nationals played the Celtics 12 times in the regular season, plus four playoff games. This kind of repeat business gave rise to some pretty intense professional contempt. “We tended to get on each other’s nerves quite a bit,” Kerr told the Tribune. “They never suspended anybody in our day. Nobody got suspended, nobody got fined. They just figured it was part of the game.”

Under those conditions, it was important for teams to have players willing to protect star players when the rules and referees couldn’t. The players assigned this responsibility became known as enforcers. One of the first enforcers was Boston’s Bob Brannum, who played for the Celtics from 1951 to 1955. A bruising 6-foot-5 center from Kansas by way of Michigan State, Brannum never had any illusions about his role. “Red [Auerbach] never said ‘Go get that guy,’” Brannum recalled to Sports Illustrated in 1977. “He’d say, ‘Look, don’t be intimidated out there.’ So if I saw a guy pushing [Bob] Cousy around I’d say, ‘Hey, Cooz, bring him down here,’ and I’d give him some of the same thing.”

In the 1953 playoffs, the Celtics and the Nationals played a game that made the Malice at the Palace look like Toy Story 3. One hundred and six personal fouls were called, an astounding number in any era, to say nothing of the anything-goes ’50s. Twelve players fouled out and two were ejected. Syracuse guard Paul Seymour was known as a grabby, in-your-jersey kind of player who, Auerbach told Sports Illustrated, “played it rough” with Celtics star Bob Cousy. This game was no exception. In the first quarter, according to a 1979 Sports Illustrated account, Red put the always-willing Brannum in the game to target Syracuse’s star, Dolph Schayes. Early in the second quarter, Brannum and Schayes squared off and began throwing punches. The Boston police rushed in to break up the fight, at which point Syracuse’s Billy Gabor started throwing hands with the cops. Fighting with the police was an outlier, but the roughness was pretty much the way things went.

Brannum’s successor to the mantle of Celtics enforcer was the late “Jungle” Jim Loscutoff, who played for the Celtics from 1955 to 1964. Bill Russell would later call Jungle Jim “one of the toughest guys to ever play in the league.”

“I’ll tell you what type of player I was,” Loscutoff told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “If somebody stood in my way, I’d knock them down. Even if they didn’t stand in my way, but if they were bothering another player, they’d have to deal with me. Red (Auerbach) didn’t tell me to play that way. I knew that was my role.”

Asked about the physical play and cheap shots exchanged by the Celtics and the Lakers in the Finals, Loscutoff, like every retired tough guy ever, told the Times that he thought the league had gotten soft. “Geez, it used to be a lot worse,” he said. “We used to have a lot of fights. Real fights. But no one ever made a big deal about it because it happened all the time.”

Today, the enforcer is essentially extinct. Rule changes, greater freedom of movement on the perimeter, and the fines and suspensions resulting from flagrant fouls all inhibit rough play. Gone are the how-do-you-do elbows delivered to a transgressor’s head, replaced by moving screens and surreptitious grabbing.

As a fan weaned on 81–79 Knicks-Heat rock fights, even I think today’s game is a better product. But we can still learn a lot about basketball, and how it has changed, by looking through the history of the NBA enforcer. That history tells a story about how basketball has gone from a game of strength to one of skill. Smaller stars used to need protection, fights were common, and there was no such thing as an uncontested layup. This is a look at past enforcers and the players who most closely qualify for that mantle today.

The NBA’s Greatest Enforcers

Dennis Awtrey

The 1970s were the enforcer’s heyday, and Awtrey was among the league’s best. The journeyman averaged fewer than five points and five rebounds over a 14-year career for the Sixers, Bulls, Suns, Celtics, Sonics, and Blazers. “I guess I got my reputation,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1977, “when I punched Kareem in the face four years ago on national TV.” Asked about Bob Lanier, the beefy Pistons legend who intimidated with his demeanor and presence more than physical action, Awtrey said, “I don’t know. I don’t think he’s that tough. Two years ago I threw [Sonics center Tommy Burleson] into the stands in Seattle. Pat Riley and Fred Brown — just a couple of little guys — were tussling around on the floor. I was just watching. Then Burleson attacked Riley. I threw Tommy into the seats, on top of a lady. She almost had a heart attack.” OK then!

Maurice Lucas

The late Lucas, a classic 6-foot-9 power forward whose nickname was “The Enforcer,” played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Blazers, Suns, Nets, Knicks, Lakers, and Sonics. He went about his business according to a strict moral code: play “clean” physical basketball, never back down, and hit guys only “between the neck and the bellybutton.” He’s best known, and still widely beloved, for his two seasons and change in Portland as Bill Walton’s meat shield. Lucas threw down on any opponent who dared rough up the patchouli-scented UCLA product, playing an integral role on the Blazers’ 1977 title team. “Of course, I have to protect Bill [Walton] sometimes because guys are always taking shots at him,” Lucas told Sports Illustrated. “We won’t fight, we’ll just set a guy up and make a little sandwich out of him — POW! — wake him up.”

Kermit Washington

Washington is the enforcer as cautionary tale. On December 9, 1977, in the opening minute of a game between the Lakers and the Rockets, Washington got in a fight with Rockets 7-footer Kevin Kunnert. Kunnert’s teammate, Rudy Tomjanovich, ran toward the scrum with the idea that he would wrap up Washington and stop the fight. Washington, seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, threw a wild haymaker that connected flush with Tomjanovich’s face. He suffered a broken jaw and broken nose, and fractured his skull. He nearly died. It was a freak event but one that, due to the ubiquity of fighting, seemed destined to occur.

Tomjanovich recovered, and played three more seasons before retiring in 1981. Washington was fined $10,000 — which became the league-mandated fine for players who fought — and was suspended for 60 days. The Lakers later traded him to the Celtics.

The process that led to the extinction of the enforcer began much earlier, but the punch crystallized the idea that fighting was a problem for the NBA. Part of that was due to the frightful injuries Tomjanovich suffered.

Bill Laimbeer

Laimbeer is the dirtiest player ever. The list of his transgressions is long and his victims were among the greatest players ever: Larry Bird and the whole Celtics front line, Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Kareem, Alonzo Mourning. In 1989, Bucks power forward Larry Krystkowiak blew out his knee while going in for a layup. Laimbeer was lurking behind. “Never touched him,” he would say. Krystkowiak disagreed. “[Laimbeer] gave me a hand check on the hip and pushed me,” he said to Sports Illustrated in 1990.

In 1993, during a Pistons practice, Laimbeer delivered an overly hard screen to Isiah Thomas. Zeke lost it and walloped Laimbeer, breaking his hand in the process. In the wake of the incident, players around the league shared their thoughts on punching Bill Laimbeer with the Chicago Tribune:

  • Scott Skiles: “In my opinion, Isiah couldn’t have picked a better guy to punch.”
  • Robert Parish: “If you’re going to break your hand, then you might as well break it on him.”
  • Harvey Grant: “He has cheap-shotted everyone in the league, and everyone takes offense.”
  • Clyde Drexler: “He’s always been a cheap-shot artist and won’t change.”
  • Karl Malone: “If I ever had to play like Laimbeer, I’d quit first.”

That said, he was also the enforcer — the Pistons’ self-styled sergeant-at-arms. He once said: “My job was to make sure you didn’t mess with our guards.”

And Laimbeer’s thuggery obscured a skill set well suited to the modern game. At 6-foot-11, Laimbeer was an excellent help defender and a willing passer. He could pick-and-pop and had passable 3-point range. He shot 84 percent from the line for his career, with a 25 percent defensive rebound rate. He was his era’s Andrew Bogut.

Rick Mahorn

During CBS’s broadcast of Game 4 of the 1990 NBA Finals, between the Pistons and the Blazers, Pat O’Brien presided over a panel of enforcers featuring Rick Mahorn, Charles Barkley, and the godfather Maurice Lucas.

Early in the clip, Lucas turns to Mahorn and says, “I remember when I started raising this young man right here. He’s done well.”

To which Little Ricky replied, “I learned a lot from you. Those nice elbows and those pulling on the pants.” Indeed he did.

Mahorn gained his reputation as an original member of the Bad Boy Pistons before being selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 1989 expansion draft and shortly after that traded to the Sixers, where he carried on a simmering cross-country feud with Bill Laimbeer.

Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason

Oak, a 6-foot-8 human scowl with a nose for rebounds and a consistently wet midrange jumper, started his career as Michael Jordan’s on-court and off-court bodyguard. Mess with Mike and you answered to Oakley.

Chamillionaire should consider himself Cha-fortunate.

In 1988, the Bulls traded Oakley to New York for Bill Cartwright and picks. “Michael was real sad,” Oak told the Chicago Tribune at the time. “He said, ‘No more picks, no more outlets.’ He was real upset.” As it turned out, MJ would be fine. So would Oakley, who became an iconic member of the 1990s “no layup” Knicks under the eye of Pat Riley and later Jeff Van Gundy. Stories of Oakley’s toughness are legendary. He once slapped Charles Barkley during a players association meeting. Bulls beat writer Vince Goodwill witnessed Oakley take a child out of a player’s arms, hand the child to the player’s girlfriend, and slap the player in the face.

Oak’s partnership with Anthony Mason, a 6-foot-7 battleship with the brain of a point forward, made driving the lane against the Knicks a hazardous endeavor for much of the 1990s.

Xavier McDaniel

A not-insignificant portion of X’s mystique came from the fact that he had a very cool name. McDaniel, a cantankerous small forward with fringe All-Star ability, learned under the iconic enforcer Lucas, after the veteran was traded to the Sonics in 1986.

“He took me under his wing,” McDaniel recalled to the Chicago Tribune. “He showed me the ropes and what the NBA is all about. He showed me how to handle certain situations.”

Such as?

“He told me if a guy takes a cheap shot, you just keep playing, don’t worry about him. Don’t say nothing. Just play ball because there are ways to get back at a guy during a game.”

For instance, one could, as McDaniel did in the 1987, strangle Wesley Matthews’s dad.

The Last Enforcers

Udonis Haslem

Tough as nails and willing to do whatever, the Miami-born-and-bred Haslem has spent all of his 14 seasons as a member of the Heat. He is, essentially, the guardian of the franchise’s basketball culture.

“Being an enforcer comes with a lot of different things,” Haslem said to the South Florida Sun Sentinel last season. “You’ve got to set the tone not only against the opponent, but you’ve got to set the tone for your team. You’ve got to let your team know, ‘This is the way we’re going to play basketball. This is the way we’re going to get it done.’’’ Haslem is 36 and has played just over 100 minutes this season.

James Johnson

Johnson, nicknamed “Bloodsport” due to his affinity for mixed martial arts, is a good example of the challenges facing the modern enforcer. He has always been a semi-wild “irrational confidence” guy, all toughness and bad decisions. This season, he’s reinvented himself as a reasonably coherent 36 percent 3-point shooter. But don’t think that means he won’t stand up for his guys.

Matt Barnes

Barnes, who recently turned himself in to the New York Police Department after being charged with assault following an incident at a nightclub, has eked out a 16-season career for nine teams as a sort of 3-and-D agitator who was willing to cross over to the dark side. Recently, his effectiveness has been limited by age (he’ll be 37 in March) and the fact that the refs absolutely cannot wait to whistle him for a tech. I would argue his mystique as an enforcer was fatally wounded when Kobe Bryant didn’t flinch.

When these guys are gone, we may never see their like again.