Of all the major sports leagues, it would be one hell of a task to find such a wide range of intriguing characters so full of their own version of life quite like we’ve seen in the NBA. The word character, of course, could be interpreted many different ways.
My qualifications would go as follows: Genuinely funny, unintentionally funny, obscenely memorable, or all of the above. A list like this one could go on for days, so I chose the players that have distinctly stuck out for me over the years. Feel free to add Fred Roberts, Joe Kleine, or any others you feel might be worthy of discussion.
Additionally, since the NBA is pathetically locked out, I felt that an NBA-related topic not associated with severe depression was beyond necessary.
Dikembe Mutombo — The filet of NBA characters. It simply doesn’t get any better than Dikembe Mutombo. He’s known throughout the world for one of the all time great party questions, sounds like Cookie Monster, at times clutches the ball as if he were holding planet earth, and smiles as though Chris Rock were constantly doing a show inside his head. Mutombo also brought us the signature finger wave that shamefully led to technical fouls from notoriously humorless NBA referees. It’s a crime this endlessly endearing fellow hasn’t had his share of cameos in movies, a la Andre the Giant. And it’s an even bigger travesty he’s not hosting NBC Nightly News.
Rasheed Wallace — “Ball don’t lie” and “C.T.C.” to go along with “both teams played hard”? Rasheed certainly left his mark on the NBA, at times in a humorously reactive manner. A montage of all 304 of his technical fouls would make for a wonderful Christmas gift to NBA fans. His cantankerous presence was missed the moment he retired.
Dennis Rodman — Known for his exceptional temperament, Rodman excelled at headbutting, ball-kicking, cross-dressing, and impromptu sideline sneaker removal. The Worm cried so much on Up Close with Roy Firestone he made your average kindergartner come across as emotionally stable. He could also, at times, fly. Of all the colorful Rodman moments, my favorite has to be his hysterical staredown of Frank Brickowski during the 1996 NBA Finals. Close second? Turning a foul on Alonzo Mourning into a slow dance, to which Mourning instantly lost his mind and — if memory serves me correctly — swiftly received a technical foul. There was a beautiful method to Rodman’s amusing madness.
Charles Barkley — Probably the finest blend of honesty and humor we’ll ever see in the NBA. Here’s Chuck’s reaction upon seeing a photo of Sam Cassell: “Phone home … Sam Cassell is a good guy, but he’s not going to wind up on the cover of GQ anytime soon.” Of significant note, “The Round Mound of Rebound” was well known for not taking any crap and making no apologies for it. In 1990, he famously fought Bill Laimbeer during the original Fight Night at The Palace* and once threw a man through a plate-glass window after being struck with a glass of ice. He also kissed Dick Bavetta after racing the elderly ref during All-Star weekend of 2007. That’s got to be worth something.
Gheorghe Muresan — Just look at this guy. While the NBA has had its share of bizarre big men, it was Gheorghe’s personality that truly set him apart. Gheorghe Mursean cologne and his dance party in Bristol with Kenny Mayne and Karl Ravech are absolute all-timers, as is this timeless photo of Muresan making on appearance on forgotten game show, “Studs.”
Manute Bol — How couldn’t I follow Muresan with Bol? My love for the 7’6 giant from Sudan probably has something to do with all the pranks he endured at the hands of Charles Barkley and Rick Mahorn during his days as a Sixer. The gag where Mahorn hides under a cover tin gets me every time. Bol’s tendency to pull up from three-point range, thanks mostly to encouragement from Don Nelson, remains comedic gold. And this memorable shot of the gentle giant and Muggsy Bogues has seen more than its fair share of photoshop glory.
Ron Artest — Once applied for a job at Circuit City to take advantage of the employee discount while making millions as a Chicago Bull. The thoughtful fella also wrote and sang an emotional tribute song to Michael Jackson shortly after the legendary singer’s passing — lyrics of which included “you in heaven, I hope to see you next year” — and over the summer opted to change his name to Metta World Peace. I love Ron Artest.
Shaquille O’Neal — A heaping bowl of charisma living with the burden of carrying Olden Polynice’s dream to one day be a police officer. Responsible for countless self-appointed nicknames as well as aptly labeling Tim Duncan “The Big Fundamental.” No matter how you feel about Shaq, keep in mind he did once ask Kobe tell him how his ass tastes. We’ll always be able to find common ground with that biting query.
Bill Walton — During a broadcast back in his days at NBC, he delivered the following words while David Robinson was shooting a free throw: “Just look at the Admiral. Look at the shape he’s in. The man’s an Adonis!” You can’t put a price on moments like that. He’s also the original king of the headband. I highly recommend his fake Twitter feed.
Allen Iverson — The little guy brought us “practice,” which won’t soon be forgotten. Searching only the word “practice” on YouTube brings him up third in results. That’s one hell of a press conference. (Showing up first in the aforementioned search results is a piano playing cat. Obviously.)
Avery Johnson — Certainly an unintentionally memorable figure, but hearing Avery Johnson speak is one of the true unexpected gifts the NBA has bestowed upon us over the last 20 years. He’s impossible not to like, though if he were screaming in a huddle, managing to hold a straight face would be the ultimate upset. The dream is for he and ESPN’s Chris Broussard to have a conversation on live television.
Scot Pollard — Scot Pollard is not known for actually playing basketball. At all. He became a household name mostly because he drove to the arena directly from raves and secret goth parties. He’s only on here because he looks like he might be related to James Bond character, Jaws. Haunting dude.
*In regard to the original Fight Night at the Palace, watch Isiah Thomas throw two punches at Rick Mahorn (22 second mark) and Mahorn not even react.
[Muresan via Getty]