A friend sent me a YouTube clip of Michael Jordan the other day — from a game I saw live as a youngster, mind you, but still — that reminded me of how mean he was. He was a bully, even to his own teammates. I grew up idolizing Jordan, begging my parents (unsuccessfully) for his shoes and hanging his posters on my wall. But because most of the bullying was only detailed in lengthy books while he was actually still playing and I was mostly reading Calvin and Hobbes anthologies at that point, I didn’t really know much about it at the time. I don’t know if my opinion of him would have changed if I knew.
But I do know he and the Bulls won six championships. And it would have been eight if it weren’t for his baseball experiment.
That got me to thinking about recent NBA championship teams. We know that, with only the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons as an exception, it takes at least one transcendent player. But does it also take some meanness? Maybe even a little meanness off the court as well? A look back at most of the recent champs suggests that’s the case. Not only did most of them have a mean player or two, in many cases the meanest was the best or one of the best guys on the team.
Stretching back all the way to the 1980s, even the showtime Lakers had a mean guy or two. It’s may seem hard to believe now, but that guy was probably Magic Johnson. Blasphemy, you say? Let’s not forget that Johnson at the very least helped force out a coach with whom he won a title. Tell me that’s not cold, calculating and mean. Larry Bird, the centerpiece of the Boston Celtics’ championship teams, was known for his withering trash talk. I don’t think we even need to waste much time discussing the Bad Boys Pistons teams. (One of my earliest childhood sports memories is watching many of the Pistons walk off the court before the game was over as the Bulls eliminated them in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. That’s mean. Be men and face your conquerors.)
Moving on to the ’90s, we’ve already talked about the Bulls. The Houston Rockets, who took advantage of MJ’s absence to win two titles, could be an exception. Their rosters from the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons don’t feature too many mean players. It was a few years yet before Robert Horry started doing mean things, and while Hakeem Olajuwon was so good in the post it seemed downright mean, that doesn’t really count. We could throw in O.J. Simpson because The Chase interrupted Game 5 of the first title year, but that probably doesn’t count either. Perhaps it’s notable that the least mean team so far could only win when MJ, the meanest of all, took his sabbatical.
The Spurs didn’t have many meanies when they took the lockout-shortened 1999 season title, but later made up for it with noted cheap shot artist Bruce Bowen and Horry on later title teams. All of the Lakers title teams since 2000 had Kobe Bryant, who has shown MJ-like qualities when it comes to bullying his own teammates. (Has the video of him dissing Andrew Bynum been wiped off the Internet? I couldn’t find anything but a tiny clip and spoof videos.) Horry was also there for a couple of title runs. Phil Jackson is also definitely a meanie when he wants to be — although that wasn’t as apparent when he was with the Bulls. Larry Brown can probably count for the mean guy on the ’04 Pistons team, or Rasheed Wallace. And for the 2007-08 Celtics, how about Kevin Garnett?
As for the Thunder, I won’t lie. I kind of like that the players aren’t mean. It makes them likable. Their likability also has other fringe benefits, like helping Mrs. Patrick James to become obsessed with them and make it easier for me to schedule half our lives around Thunder games, home and away. But at the same time, it seems like it might be helpful for them to have at least a little bit of a rough edge on the court.
Russell Westbrook’s presence helps some. He’s definitely got attitude. Pound-for-pound, he’d probably be the guy I’d least want to be involved in a fight with — at least until Kendrick Perkins got here, or before that if there was a chair within reach of Nenad Krstic. But even with Westbrook, his edge doesn’t have a lot of meanness to it. He’ll dunk on you like you were a third-grade girl and then beat his chest with a banshee scream and inspire his teammates to the greatest 8-0 run (to date) in Oklahoma City’s NBA history. But he’s not necessarily the type to send a message with a borderline-flagrant foul or in-your-face, don’t-mess-with-us trash talk. And I wouldn’t change a thing about Kevin Durant, the nicest, smoothest superstar in the NBA. Besides, plenty of what he does on the court is cold blooded enough without him having to be mean. His sick cross-then-stepback jumper over LeBron James late in the Heat game comes to mind.
Enter Perk. Supposedly Perk’s a nice guy off the court. But he seems to hate the competition. And I welcome that. He told reporters that he hated “everything” about Pau Gasol in an early media appearance with OKC, but you wondered if the team’s PR folks would get hold of him and tell him that’s not how the Thunder does it. It was certainly way out of the team’s character. But I almost hope that the team’s PR folks did talk to him about it … because it would make his next public comments about Gasol, when he told ESPN The Magazine that Gasol is soft and called Phil Jackson arrogant for good measure, even more awesome. “Yeah, they told me to tone it down. But I hate Pau and Phil and the rest of the Lakers, and I just don’t give an eff.” That’s what I wanted to see from at least one Thunder player, and in the public realm too. I want an edge. I want a little meanness.
We’ve already seen what the new-look Thunder front line can do against a good NBA team even without extra-hard fouls, extra trash talking or ill will. The start of Brian Windhorst’s Daily Dime column on the Oklahoma City-Miami game said it all for me. The size and length of OKC is just … tantalizing. It seems playoff ready. Still, I think if the Thunder is going to make a deep run in these playoffs and in future seasons, there needs to be some nastiness on OKC’s side of the ball. And Perk is just the guy to bring it.
Could that deep run, or even a championship, come this season? I, for one, am not ready to say no. With Perkins, Oklahoma City may just be mean enough to get there.