Let’s face it: basketball is rarely filled with rainbows and butterflies. Basketball is a contact sport, and its players are bound to get in the face of each other and — understandably — get into a fight.
Most professionals would say that fights happen because of the players’ competitive spirit. Many NBA players are out to prove themselves, which manifests in their unbelievable drive and resolve to win.
NBA games are always filled with tension — within the same team and between the opponents. And when that tensions peak, all hell can break loose inside the court (or even in the stands).
Fights can range from minor scuffles to all-out brawls, with the latter being the more exciting topic. With that said, let’s talk about the biggest fights in NBA History.
How Often Do Fights Happen in the NBA?
Fights are natural in the NBA and can come in many forms.
Some players like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan are so competitive and high-standard that they’ve become a magnet for friction during their careers. One, from time to time, teammates can argue about some issues like wrong plays or superficial personal differences. Friction and even fights are part of growing as a team because these players have one goal: to win.
Fights can also break out between players and fans. In the heat of the game, some fans can go overboard with their comments and heckles and would end up pushing some players to their tipping points. While these players are professionals and are asked to be the bigger men when it comes to the fans, that’s not the case every time.
In the NBA, fights can also break out between the officials, coaches, or players. We all know how frustrating bad or unfavorable calls can be, and they’re a legit reason to go at someone in the court.
Not to the surprise of many, the most common type of fight in the NBA are those that break out between opposing teams or players. The NBA does not patronize fights, so don’t have the exact number of fights the league sees in a season. The league has 30 teams who play an average of three times a week, so if we were asked to guess, we’d say that at least one or two fights break out every game day.
What Happens if NBA Players Fight?
As we learned in the previous section, fights can break out between teammates or opponents. Consequently, when NBA players fight, the performance of the team and the outcome of the games can be affected, among many other things.
The organizations themselves usually handle internal fights or riffs between teammates. NBA officials rarely get involved in these matters — unless they need to. On paper, players would usually get different disciplinary actions like suspensions depending on the severity of the altercation. Off the record, though, big fights leave the teams with chemistry issues that can result in losses or trades.
On the other hand, league officials are the ones who handle external fights or fights between opponents. Regarding this, the league has a detailed SOP to penalize players involved in the fight. The NBA also implements a very stringent penalty system of fines and suspensions which we’ll talk about next.
NBA Rules Regarding Fights
Even though fights are relatively common in the NBA, the league does not tolerate them. The NBA Rulebook has a whole section dedicated to fights and the consequent fouls.
NBA Rule No. 12 Section VI details the process and penalties related to fouls. When fights break out, players involved will be assessed by the game officials once everyone has settled down. Game officials will be given full authority to deem whether the players involved should be given a technical foul without free throws or even an outright ejection. Officials also have the power to resume or call off the game after the fight.
The team with possession when the fight occurs will retain it once the game resumes. However, if neither team has possession during the fight, the game will continue via a jump ball.
After the fight, the NBA Commissioner will assess the players involved to determine the necessary fines. The Commissioner and the NBA board also have the power to suspend the players involved in a fight.
Top 5 Biggest Fights in NBA History
The funny thing about fights in the NBA is that nobody wants them to happen, but we won’t change the channel once one breaks out. Scuffles disrupt the flow of the game and bring out the worst in some people, but we can’t seem to stop ourselves from watching them. And particular fights in the NBA definitely made the headlines during their time. Here are five of them:
5 – Shaq vs. Barkley
Today, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley compose half of the legendary quarter of NBA on TNT. Shaq and Charles’ relationship built on quips and hostility is a big reason why the show is so successful — seven Emmys and all.
Loyal fans of the show and NBA viewers in the late 90s probably know about Shaq and Barkley’s fight in 1999. It all started when Barkley, whose Rockets were playing Shaq’s Lakers, threw a ball at The Diesel’s head after a heated battle in the paint. The two ended up on the floor, engaged in a full-on wrestling match. It took more than seven people to unlock the horns of the two giants.
Years later, this fight would be the subject of many jokes and bits that would make future NBA fans laugh.
4 – The NBA Punch of Death
It’s all fun and games until someone gets seriously hurt, and Kermit Washington’s punch toward Rudy Tomjanovich is an example of this. This incident is perhaps one of the biggest 70s NBA fights in History.
The aftermath of the punch serves as a lesson to everyone that while basketball is a physical sport, it still has boundaries.
In a heated game between the Lakers and the Rockets in 1977, Tomjanovich ran to the aid of teammate Kevin Kunnert who was in a scuffle with Kareem then. Tomjanovich was met with Washington’s right fist shattering the Houston forward’s face and leaving him with a lethal spine injury. Tomjanovic would be sidelined for five months, while Washington was given the most prolonged player suspension at 60 days.
3 – 2006 Knicks vs. Nuggets
From the 90s and the 70s, we now go to a more recent brawl that involved players that we still watch today. This fight happened in December 2006 when Knick guard Mardy Collins committed an unwarranted flagrant foul on Nuggets guard JR Smith during the closing seconds of a blowout game. An agitated JR Smith shoved Collins, and everyone started running towards them to get a piece of the action — including a young Carmelo Anthony.
All in all, the fight resulted in 10 players getting ejected. Seven players were suspended for a combined total of 47 days without pay. The harsh punishments were warranted, considering the league saw its worst brawl just two years before this fight.
2 – 1984 76ers vs Celtics
The 80s was a wild time for the NBA. The legends we know today were at their peak during this era and were all at each other’s throats for basketball supremacy — quite literally. It’s not every day that you see two all-time greats lock horns in an all-out brawl, but that situation is precisely what happened between Julius Erving and Larry Bird.
During the game, Larry Bird had 42 points to Erving’s 6. Larry, being Larry, made sure that Erving heard all about it throughout the game and Dr. J just got fed up. The physical altercation started when the two were battling for a position in the elbow, and Erving seemingly threw Bird down to the floor. Erving ran back to the other side of the court to prevent the situation from escalating, but Bird chased him. It wasn’t long until punches got thrown.
Neither of the players got suspended, but both of them got fined $7500 for the fight.
1 – Malice at the Palace
Need we say more?
The Malice at the Palace is a brawl between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers back in 2004. As the name suggests, the fight happened inside Detroit’s homecourt, The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The match was heavily hyped because it was the first time the two teams met since facing each other in the Conference Finals of the previous season. The Pacers were 45.9 seconds away from winning the highly defensive affair. However, a Ron Artest foul on Ben Wallace during the dying seconds of the game was enough the start the worst fight in NBA history.
Every bad thing you could think off happened during the brawl. Artest went up to the stands to confront a fan, the audience was throwing all kinds of things toward the players, Artest punched another fan, and the three Auburn Police officers at the scene were simply no match for the chaos.
The NBA rightfully imposed the most extensive penalties in its history. Nine players were suspended for a total of 146 games, five were charged with assault, and five fans were also banned from attending Pistons home games on top of assault charges pressed on them.
Wrapping Things Up: 5 Biggest Fights in NBA History
Fights are natural in basketball, but that does not mean they have a place in the NBA. Though fights regularly break out in NBA games, the league has strict rules and SOPs to handle these unfortunate scenarios. Players who get into fights are likely to get fines and suspensions as penalties.
Throughout its History, the NBA has had its fair share of big fights. The league has seen fights between giants, fights between superstars, life-threatening punches, and full-on brawls involving fans. At the end of the day, the pressure to win and players’ competitive spirit produces a high-tension atmosphere that is one bad play away from an all-out war.
These fights serve as a reminder that basketball is more than a game, but certain lines cannot be crossed for the safety and enjoyment of everybody.
We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.