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Can Basketball Players Fight? (NBA rules)

Unlike hockey, basketball players cannot fight during a game. In the early days, especially the ‘80s, fighting was rather frequent in basketball.

The more important the games are, such as the playoffs, players tend to become more physical.

Fights in basketball usually occur when defensive players intentionally foul their opponents, instead of going for the ball.

The offense then takes exception to their actions and retaliate to stand their ground.

One thing would then lead to another, and a basketball fight can eventually break out.

Consequences for Fighting in Basketball

If a fight breaks out in basketball, it won’t matter if you threw the first punch or just retaliated. As long as punches were thrown towards your opponent, expect a hefty fine and a few games of suspension.

basketball fight

Take note that each game suspended will be unpaid as well.

In the NBA, all players who are on the bench at the time of the fight should never enter the basketball court.

This rule was implemented to help mitigate any potential melee that could further ensue.

Meanwhile, the players on the court involved in the fight will be ejected on the playing court and head directly towards the locker room.

They are not allowed within the vicinity of the basketball court.

To further explain in full detail, the following is a direct excerpt from the NBA’s code of conduct(1).

Rule no.12, Chapter A. Section VI.

  • Technical fouls shall be assessed on players, coaches, trainers, or any team official for fighting. No free throws will be attempted, and the participants will be ejected immediately. The ejected individuals will be banned from the playing court for the rest of the game.
  • This rule is applicable whether the play is in progress or during a dead ball situation.
    • A dead ball is when the game is temporarily stopped due to a referee call or coming off a timeout.
  • If a fighting foul occurs while the play is in progress, and a team is in possession of the ball, that same team will retain the possession. The game will resume by the team in possession inbounding on the sideline nearest the ball handler’s spot when the play is interrupted. However, if the ball was less than 15 feet away from the baseline at the time of the incident, the team must inbound on the extended free throw line.
  • If the fighting foul occurs with neither team in possession, play will be resumed by a jump ball at center court. Any player from each team could jump at the center circle.

Which NBA players were involved in most fights?

Fights aren’t technically recorded in the NBA, so it’s hard to determine which players had the most fights in league history.

However, there are a few NBA players who have been casually involved in numerous brawls.

Whenever we talk about fights in the NBA, a few names come to mind.

Ron Artest (aka Metta World Peace, now known as Metta Sandiford Artest), Charles Oakley, Charles Barkley, Bill Laimbeer, and Isiah Thomas, just to name a few.

There have been countless technical fouls and ejections just between these men.

Believe it or not, Dennis Rodman, who was known as the NBA’s Bad Boy, has never fought in the NBA in his 14-year career.

However, he did provoke other players to try and fight him, due to his psychological warfare approach.

The most infamous fight in NBA

The most infamous fight in NBA history is the Malice at the Palace(2).

On November 19, 2004, a game was played between fierce rivals Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons.

With 45.9 seconds left and the Pacers up 15 points against the home team, the Pacers’ Artest fouled the Pistons’ Ben Wallace hard, even if the game was already decided.

Wallace didn’t appreciate Artest’s actions and pushed the Pacer back.

Players from both teams started to go at it until Artest laid down on the scorer’s table to alleviate the tension.

Unfortunately, a Detroit fan tossed a cup of beer on Artest, triggering the brawl towards the stands.

The rest of the Pacers joined in on the fray, and the rest was history.

It was the ugliest fight in the NBA ever, and then-commissioner David Stern handed out the longest suspension of any NBA player in league history.

Artest was slapped with an 86-game suspension, while his teammates and opponents were not spared.

Malice at the Palace aftermath

Aside from Artest, here is the rest of the fines and suspensions for each player involved in the infamous brawl:

  • Ron Artest, Indiana Pacers – 86 games suspended, $4.95 million worth of salary unpaid
  • Stephen Jackson, Indiana Pacers – 30 games suspended, $1.7 million worth of salary unpaid
  • Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana Pacers – 15 games suspended, $4.1 million worth of salary unpaid
  • Ben Wallace, Detroit Pistons – 6 games suspended, $400,000 worth of salary unpaid
  • Anthony Johnson, Indiana Pacers – 5 games suspended, $122,222 worth of salary unpaid
  • Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers – 1 game suspension, $61,111 worth of salary unpaid
  • Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons – 1 game suspension, $60,611 worth of salary unpaid
  • Derrick Coleman, Detroit Pistons – 1 game suspension, $50,000 worth of salary unpaid
  • Elden Campbell, Detroit Pistons – 1 game suspension, $48,888 worth of salary unpaid
  • David Harrison, Detroit Pistons – no suspension, but was reprimanded and ordered to render 60 hours of community service

As you can see, fights are punished hard in the NBA, and it’s a very shameful and costly affair for the players involved.

Other Notable Fights in the NBA

Aside from the Malice at the Palace, there are also other notable fights that have happened in the NBA.

Some of the brawls were rule-changing moments in league history, while others were simply unforgettable.

Here are the 10 most unforgettable fights in NBA history:

  1. Detroit Pistons (and fans) vs. Indiana Pacers – 11/19/2004
  2. Kermit Washington (Los Angeles Lakers) vs. Kevin Kunnert and Rudy Tomjanovich (Houston Rockets) – 12/9/1977
  3. Kurt Rambis (Los Angeles Lakers) vs. Kevin McHale (Boston Celtics) – 6/6/1984 (Game 4 of the NBA Finals)
  4. Larry Johnson (New York Knicks) vs. Alonzo Mourning (Miami Heat) – 4/30/1998 (Game 4 of the First Round in the 1998 NBA Playoffs)
  5. Charlie Ward (New York Knicks) vs. PJ Brown (Miami Heat) – 5/14/1997 (Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals)
  6. Charles Barkley (Houston Rockets) vs. Charles Oakley (New York Knicks) – 10/28/1996 (Pre-season game)
  7. Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers) vs. Bill Laimbeer (Detroit Pistons) – 4/19/1990
  8. Charles Barkley (Houston Rockets) vs. Shaquille O’Neal (Los Angeles Lakers) – 11/10/1999
  9. Larry Bird (Boston Celtics) vs. Julius Erving (Philadelphia 76ers) – 11/9/1984
  10. Maurice Lucas (Portland Trail Blazers) vs. Darryl Dawkins (Philadelphia 76ers) – 5/26/1977 (Game 2 of the 1977 NBA Finals)

NBA Tightens the Rules

The frequency of fights back then made the league impose stricter measures in terms of the physicality within the players during basketball games.

This is why NBA referees give early warnings when the game gets physical.

Regular fouls back in the day are now considered flagrant fouls.

A thrown punch by a player could cost a fortune and a few days suspension nowadays.

Basically, the game has gone soft. But not because the players are soft, but the rules have prevented any physical altercations from escalating.

NBA players as Professional Fighters?

There are a few NBA players who have documented professional fights in either boxing or mixed martial arts.

For example, the Dallas Mavericks’ James Johnson is undefeated in both kickboxing and MMA.

The Mavs’ power forward is nicknamed “Bloodsport” because of his martial arts background(3).

Three-time NBA slam dunk champion Nate Robinson has fought professionally in a boxing ring.

However, in his fight debut, Robinson got knocked out by Jake Paul in the second round(4).

Two-time champion Lamar Odom is set to fight in the boxing ring later this year(5).

He will be going up in a celebrity boxing match against pop star Aaron Carter.

While Robinson had a size disadvantage against Paul, Odom will enjoy an 11-inch height advantage over Carter.


References:

  1. NBA Official Rules and Penalties: https://official.nba.com/rule-no-12-fouls-and-penalties/#fightingfouls
  2. Detroit Pistons vs. Indiana Pacers – November 19, 2004: https://www.espn.com/nba/recap?gameId=241119008
  3. MMA and NBA athlete James Johnson: https://www.hothothoops.com/2016/7/19/12232196/miami-heat-erik-spoelstra-unleash-james-johnson-athletic-potential
  4. Jake Paul vs. Nate Robinson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbRzn8As9aA
  5. Lamar Odom set to fight Aaron Carter in a boxing match: https://www.tmz.com/2021/02/03/lamar-odom-aaron-carter-celebrity-boxing-atlantic-city/

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