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How to Earn an NBA Hero Pass

For a player to join the ranks of Enes Kanter, Chris Childs, and Robin Lopez, he must perform a symbolic act that stands as something greater than itself

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Consider this a proposal to introduce the phrase “Hero Pass” into the modern NBA lexicon. At its core, a Hero Pass is probably a karma-based thing, though not explicitly so, and certainly not objectively so. What I mean is, it’s a situation when—actually, it’s likely best explained with an example, so here:

The Philadelphia 76ers selected Allen Iverson with the first pick in the 1996 draft. Four years later, despite the fact that he’d already begun to become a force, team executives had grown frustrated with him (he and Larry Brown, the Sixers coach at the time, had fallout after fallout after fallout). So they put together a deal to ship him to the Detroit Pistons during the offseason following that year’s playoffs, by way of a too-complicated-to-be-worth-recounting multiteam trade. Now, two things here:

  1. The idea of trading a young Iverson sounds absolutely ludicrous when I say it to you today, but that’s only because we know what he eventually became in the seasons to follow, which is to say the defining player for a generation of Sixers fans and also, I would argue, the coolest NBA player of all time. At the time, Iverson had proved himself to be a great player, sure—he was the NBA scoring leader and an All-NBA first-team selection in 1998-99, and an All-Star and All-NBA second-team selection in 1999-2000—but he didn’t become transcendent until that 2000-01 season (he was the NBA’s leader in scoring and assists, league MVP, an All-Star selection, the All-Star Game MVP, and an All-NBA first-team selection, and he led the Sixers to their first Finals appearance in nearly 20 years, during which he had one of the most iconic plays in NBA history).
  2. The trade (obviously) ended up not happening. And the reason it didn’t happen: Matt Geiger.

Geiger, who was on the Sixers as a backup center, was certainly not powerful enough of an NBA figure to veto most trades. But the reason he was so important to the Iverson one was because Geiger, who was going to be shipped to Detroit along with Iverson, had a clause in his contract that shifted the power to him in any instance where he found himself to be a piece of a trade.

For the trade to work, the Sixers had to convince Geiger to waive his trade kicker (doing so was the only way the trade would be allowed under the salary cap). He refused. Said Geiger: “I looked at Detroit and didn’t think Allen and I would’ve been better off there. So the decision was easy.” The trade fell apart, Iverson (and Geiger) stayed in Philadelphia, Iverson and Larry Brown sorted through their differences. Then that gorgeous, magical 2000-01 season that will live on for eternity happened. And so Geiger, who retired from the NBA in 2002 without having ever really done anything big enough on the court to earn himself giant acclaim, got himself something perhaps even more valuable: a Hero Pass.

In Philadelphia—or, at least among those in the know in Philadelphia—Geiger became a hero, and remains a hero today.

That’s a Hero Pass: A player does a thing, be it on a basketball court or otherwise, that stands as something greater than itself—a symbolic act, really—that earns him a special and specific level of acclaim.

There are three things I’d like to point out about the Hero Pass, because these three things are vital:

First of all, a Hero Pass is a thing that has an expiration date attached to it, meaning different actions earn different lengths of Hero Passes. There are levels to them, if you will. You can do a small thing and earn yourself a Hero Pass for a small amount of time, a medium thing and earn yourself a Hero Pass for a medium amount of time, a big thing and earn yourself a Hero Pass for a big amount of time, or a giant thing and earn yourself a Hero Pass for a giant amount of time. In Geiger’s case, his Hero Pass is good for the duration of his life.

Second of all, a Hero Pass is a thing that is easier for a non-superstar player to earn than it is for a superstar player to earn, because a non-superstar player can earn a Hero Pass for doing something against basically anyone (whereas a superstar player has to do something against another superstar). For example, Enes Kanter gets a three-day Hero Pass every time he takes a jab at LeBron James on social media because he’s punching upward. LeBron, meanwhile, could never earn a Hero Pass for needling Kanter on social media (it would still be funny, though, just FYI). The stakes just aren’t high enough for him. He’d have to take aim at someone equally famous or more famous than himself, either within basketball or outside of it, like the time he called Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter while defending Steph Curry, which is maybe the most high-level Hero Pass a basketball player has earned this season.

Quick aside: Enes also earns Hero Passes for each confrontation he has with a superstar player during a game, like when he was talking shit to Kevin Durant from the bench during that Warriors-Thunder game last season, or the time he and LeBron went chest-to-chest during that Nov. 13 Knicks-Cavs game in the video at the top of this section. (The best thing about that video is Enes refusing to look LeBron in the eyes. I would guess it’s because he was super not interested in actually fighting LeBron, but that’s just a guess. I don’t know. Either way, it’s hilarious.)

Third of all, a Hero Pass is a thing that, in just about every case, is not uniformly accepted or objectively agreed upon. It’s conditional. Because lots of times a Hero Pass is rooted in retribution, be it intentional or not.

Probably the most famous act that’s an example of this is Chris Childs serving Kobe Bryant a hands sandwich in 2000. It earned Childs a lifetime Hero Pass among every anti-Kobe person in America, but ONLY among anti-Kobe people. People who like Kobe hated Childs so much for it.

If you want a more recent example, then I’d point you toward last week’s Warriors-Bulls game in Oakland. The Warriors were Razor’s Edge–ing the Bulls in the third quarter when Zaza Pachulia stole the ball from Robin Lopez. It happened out at the top of the key when the Bulls were on offense, and so Zaza, who is to fast breaks what Leatherface is to ballet, took off rumbling down the court for a dunk.

Lopez, perhaps upset that his team was getting trounced, or perhaps embarrassed that he’d just been pickpocketed by the most ham-fisted pickpocket of all time, chased behind Zaza with fire in his eyes and revenge in his heart. Zaza neared the rim and gathered the ball (much like the way I imagine a groggy bear would gather a bundle of food after a months-long hibernation) and prepared to dunk it. Lopez, upon seeing Zaza do so, jumped up and clobbered him. Zaza crashed onto the court and then tumbled into the stanchion, his body flipping up onto itself like a folding chair, his feet suddenly up (or down?) by his caveman ears.

Here’s the play:

The referees ended up calling a flagrant foul on Lopez, which I’m not so sure I agree with because it looks (to me) like he tried to get the ball, but that’s a different discussion. The discussion here is: Immediately upon pounding Zaza into the ground, Robin Lopez was granted a Hero Pass, redeemable for one week in Chicago (because of the time that Zaza got into it with Nikola Mirotic); six months in Miami (because of the time Zaza slapped Luke Babbitt in the face but really because of the time he tried to trip Udonis Haslem) (Udonis Haslem is fucking perfect—we should all celebrate him more often); one year in Oklahoma City (because of the time Zaza flagrant-fouled Russell Westbrook and then stood over him while Russell laid on the ground in pain); and forever in San Antonio (because of the time Zaza went after Kawhi Leonard’s ankle in the playoffs this past postseason, and also because of the lesser-discussed time he tried to yank Kawhi’s arm off when Zaza was on the Mavericks, and also because of the time he tried to knock Patty Mills’s head off during a rebound, and also because of the time he jumped into Danny Green’s legs and then put his shoes in his face, and also because of the time he tried to elbow David West in the mouth).

So that’s how a Hero Pass works.

And those are the rules.

And now you know them and it.