LeBron James has been called a lot of names since he announced his decision to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami — “traitor”, “coward” and “narcissist” being among the most popular — but the epithet that has really stood out to me is “villain.” LeBron’s decision to forsake his home state and create the “Miami Thrice” has turned him into the NBA’s ultimate heel that most NBA fans seem compelled to root against. As I pointed out the day after the decision, it’s not easy to turn Kobe Bryant into an underdog but that’s exactly what LeBron has managed to do.
While he may be the current Lex Luthor of the NBA, I still don’t think LeBron ranks among the most hateable figures in NBA history. It will take some time to see if he deserves to supplant one of the five guys in this list who achieved a special level of prolonged disrepute because of their actions. It’s likely that you don’t personally hate everyone in this list, but I bet you did at one point or you’ve known someone who has.
Here they are: The five worst villains in NBA history, ranked from bad to worst.
5. Bill Laimbeer
“Butcher me on the court / Too many elbows to report / Now you’re poking me in the eye / Bill Laimbeer motherfucker, it’s time for you to die!” — Beastie Boys, “Tough Guy”
Detroit Pistons center Bill Laimbeer was so diabolical and dirty that noted NBA fans The Beastie Boys wrote a special thrash metal song just so they could talk shit about him. Nobody embodied the spirit of the notorious “Bad Boy Pistons” quite like Laimbeer, who specialized in baiting opponents into losing their temper and literally beating the crap out of him so they would get thrown out of the game. In his own words, his motto was “I don’t fight. I agitate, then walk away.” It’s hard not to hate somebody like that — unless he’s helping your team win back-to-back NBA championships like he did with the Pistons in 1989 and 1990. The blue-collar fans of Detroit found Laimbeer quite easy to love.
4. Ron Artest
To some people, he was little more than the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. To others, he was a symbol of everything that a certain type of sports fan hated about the NBA. When Ron Artest rushed into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills on November 19, 2004, he ignited a vicious, terrifying brawl that not only destroyed a Pacers team that had won 61 games the previous season and was considered a serious championship contender, he left a black mark on the NBA’s public image and reinforced its negative stereotype as a “league of thugs”. The Artest story has taken a turn towards redemption as he was a key member of the 2010 champion Lakers, but everyone knows that Ron-Ron needs to keep his roiling emotions under control if he’s going to maintain his current state of goodwill. He can thank his psychiatrist for that. In fact, he did.
3. Ted Stepien
Clippers owner Donald Sterling is currently the brown standard for shitty NBA ownership, but former Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien was truly in a league of his own in terms of concentrated incompetence with long-ranging effects. After buying the team in June 1980, Stepien quickly earned a reputation as a meddler and a shockingly poor judge of basketball talent. Before the Cavaliers even played 20 games under its new ownership, the league stepped in to block the Cavs from making any further trades after they made five transactions that sent out three future first round picks within a four-year period while the team languished with a 4-13 record. One of those picks turned into the Lakers’ top pick they used to draft James Worthy in 1982.
As if decimating the team’s talent and future draft picks wasn’t bad enough, Stepien also made a polka song the team’s official fight song (Stepien was Polish) and he fired popular play-by-play announcer Joe Tait late in the 1980-81 season after he was critical of Stepien’s ownership. During the 1981-82 season, Stepien fired three different head coaches as the Cavs stumbled to a 15-67 record. After his team went 23-59 in 1982-83, Cleveland sports fans breathed a sigh of relief when he sold the Cavaliers to Cleveland businessmen George and Gordon Gund.
The Cavaliers compiled a putrid 66-180 record during Stepien’s three seasons as owner, and his long-term damage to the franchise prevented them from achieving a winning record until they went 42-40 in 1987-88. Stepien’s lasting legacy in the NBA has been preserved with “The Stepien Rule,” which prevents a team from trading first-round picks in consecutive years.
2. Kermit Washington
The moment is known simply as “The Punch”. It had a profound effect on the lives of the person who threw the punch — Kermit Washington — and the person on the receiving end — Rudy Tomjanovich — who suffered fractures of the face and skull, a broken nose, a separated upper jaw, a cerebral concussion and severe lacerations around his mouth. During a Lakers-Rockets game on December 9, 1977, a fight broke out and when Washington saw Tomjanovich rushing towards him, he threw a straight right punch that destroyed Tomjanovich’s face and left him laying face down in a pool of blood on the court.
The punch has been described by witnesses as “the hardest punch in the history of mankind” with the sound of ”a melon landing on concrete.” A doctor who examined Tomjanovich said that his injuries were equivalent to “a man who had been thrown through an automobile windshield at 50 miles per hour.” Tomjanovich missed the rest of that season and Washington was fined $10,000 (a lot of money back then) and suspended for 60 days. During his suspension, the Lakers traded him to the Boston Celtics — obviously wanting to separate themselves from this horrific incident.
Off the court, Washington has always been regarded as a nice guy but he will be tainted by “The Punch” for the rest of this life — he’s tried to get a job in the NBA but claims that his momentary lapse in judgement continues to make him unemployable. Tomjanovich went on to coach the Rockets to two NBA titles, but he will always be remembered primarily for what happened when, according to him, he simply tried to break up a fight. While even Tomjanovich himself has forgiven Washington, this moment lives on in infamy.
1. Tim Donaghy
This is an easy choice for the number-one spot because he’s the villain that is impossible to reasonably defend. He was the worst nightmare of any professional sports league — an official with a gambling problem who bet on games he was working and leaked insider tips to mobsters. Donaghy spent 15 months in prison and in a halfway house for his offences, but while he’s served his time, the damage he did to the NBA will never be fully repaired. From now on, when a conspiracy theorist claims a game was fixed, nobody can claim for certain that it wasn’t. Donaghy continues to claim that there are other officials like him — and whether he’s telling the truth or not, the fact that we can’t know for sure means that the shadow he has cast will probably never disappear.