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Rosen: The Toughest Players in the NBA

There’s a gang of bona fide tough guys playing in the NBA, and they come in various sizes and with various characteristics.

On both ends of the court, the big men willingly use their elbows, hips, shoulders, forearms and/or hands to gain positional advantage. They’re always fearless, often belligerent and forever challenging their opponents’ will to win.

This is merely business as usual in the paint: Indeed, from Wally Osterkorn to Zelmo Beatty, from Vern Mikkelsen to Eduardo Najera, the NBA has always featured bully-boy players, but I was fortunate enough to witness an unusual example of pure, unadulterated and joyfully consensual on-court brutality. This took place several years ago during a preseason practice of the Washington Bullets. Known together as the Bruise Brothers, Jeff Ruland (6’10”, 275) and Rick Mahorn (6’10”, 260) were on opposing teams during an intrasquad scrimmage.

With no referees on hand and no protocol to follow, the two behemoths were free to beat on each other. Their routine collisions shook the rafters and compelled their teammates to run wide circles around the pair. After one Brother landed a solid elbow on the other’s sternum, shouldered him to the floor or committed some other act of mayhem, the victim of the moment would smile and say, “That was a good shot, man!”

This exhibition was either a perfectly balanced combination of masochism and sadism — or else a demonstration of two guys who were tougher than tough.

The NBA’s smalls are likewise loathe to avoid physical contact. They’re not afraid to set picks on bigs (John Stockton was a good example of this), to find a body to smack into when they drive to the hoop or to retaliate when unnecessarily banged by anybody.

While some tough guys are liable to descend into outright dirty play (with Dave Cowens having being cited by his peers as being the most egregious example), most adhere to accepted protocol. Deliberate contact with knees, faces and necks are verboten; as is taking out a player’s legs when he is airborne.

Here, then, in alphabetical order are some of the league’s tougher-than-dirt players:

TONY ALLEN: Driving headlong to the basket and playing in-your-face defense are his specialties — daring any opponent to out-hustle or out-muscle him.  

OMER ASIK compensates for his (relative) lack of athleticism by making the most of his mass and strength.

MATT BARNES dares opponents to knock off the perpetual chip on his shoulder. His game plan is beyond aggressive to the point of being downright ornery.

NICK COLLISON is totally fearless. He takes and gives hits with equal aplomb.

MATTHEW DELLAVEDOVA is a fiery little dude who might, or might not, be a cheap-shot artist — depending on whether you’re rooting for or against the Cavs.

REGGIE EVANS: Measuring only 6’8” and 245 pounds, he’s a pocket-sized big man, yet his non-stop aggressiveness enables him to play defense as though he was in a street fight.  

MANU GINOBILI is not afraid to risk bodily harm when his all-out drives slam him into opponents’ monstrous rim protectors.

TYLER HANSBROUGH can hit an occasional jumper and grab an occasional rebound, but is the closest to a no-questions-asked hatchet man than any other banger in the league.

CHUCK HAYES is a 6’6” center whose forte is unyielding, rough-and-tough defense.

JARRETT JACK plays point guard with a ferocious intensity that dares bigger players to try to Bogart him.

SHAUN LIVINGSTON is more of a finesse guy, but he belongs on this list because of his courageous comeback from his devastating injury.

JASON MAXIELL relishes contact. Even when he’s fouled, he often dispenses a harder hit than the one he takes.

JOSH McROBERTS has minimum skills and maximum physicality.

PAUL MILLSAP: If he can touch a loose ball, not even the Jaws of Life can pry it away.

KENDRICK PERKINS plays with a perpetual snarl and loves to alligator-wrestle in the low post.

The two toughest players ever?

ZELMO BEATTY, who physically abused his opposite numbers to such a degree that they routinely had nightmares the night before they had to enter into combat with him.

CALVIN MURPHY was only 5’9″ and 165 pounds, yet nobody was foolish enough to mess with him. Especially after an in-game confrontation resulted in Murphy’s unleashing a super-quick flurry of punches that knocked out 6’8″, 225-pound Sidney Wicks.

Big ones, small ones, it doesn’t matter. NBA action is for he-men only.

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