Laying It On The Line: The Answers


HANG TIME, Texas — On a recent hot summer day when Allen Iverson announced his retirement, what immediately came to mind was not one single spectacular shot that he made, but all of those fabulous, bone-jarring times he crashed to the floor.

And then got back up.

It wasn’t just his ability to lead the NBA scoring four times that made Iverson special. It was that warrior’s mentality, the trait that made him willing, against all odds, to out-scrap, out-hustle, out-compete everybody else on the court.

Through the history of the NBA, it’s usually been the big men — think Shaquille O’Neal, Moses Malone, Alonzo Mourning, Karl Malone, Charles Oakley — who got the reputation for being strong and tough, but the truth is some of the fiercest players we’ve seen over the past 30 years have been guards.

In addition to Iverson, here’s another handful of the backcourt backbreakers we’ll call The Answers. They’re indomitable. They breathe fire. They don’t ever quit. They would chew off a leg to escape from a steel trap. They’re the ones you want playing in a single game with your life on the line:

Isiah Thomas It was never wise to be fooled by the cherubic face and angelic smile. The truth is that while Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn got most of the notoriety for their bruising style and often dirty tricks, Thomas was the real heart and cold-blooded soul of the Detroit “Bad Boys.” Part of what made him the best “little man” ever to play the game was an inner fire that never burned out. He competed ferociously and refused to ever show a sign of weakness. Hobbling on a badly sprained ankle in Game 6 against the Lakers in the 1988 Finals, he scored 25 points in the fourth quarter — a Finals record — and nearly pulled out a win that would have given the Pistons their first championship a year earlier. Then there was the night of Dec. 14, 1991 when on a drive down the lane in the first quarter in Salt Lake City, Thomas took an elbow to the face from Karl Malone that opened a huge gash over his left eye. After receiving 40 stitches, Thomas returned to play in the fourth quarter.

Michael Jordan Sure, he had the leaping ability, the defensive desire, the post game, clutch jumper and late-game instincts. But Jordan the All-Star would never have become Jordan the legend and icon without his roaring, brash nature, downright mean streak and readiness to do anything it took to pull out a win. He could barely control his competitive urges, whether it was challenging Bulls teammates in practice, occasionally punching one of them out, or rising up in a game situation to respond to any kind of challenge — real or imagined — that might have been tossed out. There was virtually nothing that could stop Jordan from leaving every ounce of himself in any game that he ever played. The so-called “Flu Game” in the 1997 Finals is frequently cited. He spent the night before Game 5 at Utah suffering from severe stomach distress and was a questionable starter. Dehydrated, struggling to breathe, he hit 13 of 27 shots for 38 points to lead the Bulls to a 90-88 win. Just as telling was a story from the training camp of the 1992 USA Dream Team in Monte Carlo. After beating Jordan in a golf match one afternoon, coach Chuck Daly was awakened very early the next morning by a banging on his hotel room door. When he opened the door, Daly found a grim-faced, primed-for-revenge Jordan standing there, dressed for the golf course. “Let’s go,” he said.

Kobe Bryant — You can call him a shameless gunner who never ever met a shot he didn’t like or wouldn’t take. Shaq did. You can call him a difficult and unpleasant teammate who would make a guy leave an extra contract year and $20 million on the table to walk away from the Lakers. Dwight Howard certainly did. But after 17 NBA seasons, you can’t call Bryant anything less than the most single-minded, driven competitor in the game today. He won’t just trash-talk opponents, but will ride his own teammates to get them to try to match his level of intensity. (They can’t.) He plays hurt, aching, sick, bruised, broken and he is usually still the best player and hardest worker on the floor. He played half of the 2007-08 season with a fractured finger on his shooting hand and still won the MVP Award and led the Lakers to The Finals. At 34 last season, he averaged the second-most minutes per game in the league last season — trailing only rookie Damian Lillard — until tearing an Achilles tendon on April 12. So then he just took to Twitter from his sickbed to critique his teammates. It’s supposed to take nine months to a year to come back from Achilles surgery, but Bryant plans to tear up the calendar.

John Stockton Another one of those with a choirboy face who might have kept a pair of brass knuckles under his robe. Trying to get him to change his expression was as fruitless as banging your head against a brick wall. His Jazz teammate, The Mailman, had all those big, bulging muscles. But Stockton was equally as strong in competing with the stubbornness and dependability of a mule. Durability is a mark of greatness and in 19 seasons Stockton missed only 22 of a possible 1526 games due to injury. He never drew attention to himself by dribbling behind his back or through his legs, mostly throwing bounce passes that led to layups that were mind-numbingly effective and oh-so-deadly. He was also widely known throughout the NBA for using his 6-foot-1 body — OK, and occasionally his elbows — to set picks on opposing big men. Stockton never went looking for trouble or fights and rarely was involved in trouble, but night in night out he had the strong jaws and voracious appetite of a pit bull.

Clyde Drexler Oh, how nicknames can be deceiving. Clyde the Glide practically slides across the tongue like ice cream on a hot summer day. But it’s a lot like calling the fat kid in the crowd “Slim” or the tall guy “Shorty.” Maybe it was the fact that from the time he was a star in on the University of Houston’s Phi Slama Jama team all the way through his 15-year NBA career in Portland and Houston, the TV screens were filled with images of him floating effortlessly to the basket. In reality, he was as sharp and cutting as razor wire. He went down onto the floor for loose balls and into the crowds of tall trees to come away with the toughest rebounds. He would slice through the narrowest opening to get to the hoop for a critical bucket. He would use arms, legs, elbows — any means possible — at the defensive end, all the while with a smile on his face that belied how much he wanted to destroy you. The defending champion Rockets were down 3-1 in the 1995 conference semifinals, facing elimination and when his teammates entered the locker room, Drexler was stretched out on a table connected to IV bottles. He had the flu and nobody thought he would play. But Drexler dragged himself out onto the court and, though he could not manage a single field goal in the game, played 32 hard and inspirational minutes to spark a Rockets win that started a comeback to their second straight title.


  1. SYDALE says:

    Isiah Thomas, Jordan, and Wade are the players that I’ve always thought were closest to Iverson when it comes to having the heart to lay it all on the line and just keep coming at you no matter how many brutal hits they take…

  2. qqq says:

    JAVALE MCGEE hits the floor more than anyone:D JAVALEMVP!!!

  3. will says:

    the article are about guards…. no centers, no PFs, no SFs…. however, if the bigs were included, i’ll have the ff: Andrew Bynum, Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic and Greg Oden. they are the toughest, thickest-skinned players ever…. haha… i need one more player to complete a starting 5. any suggestions?

  4. Diego says:

    John Stockton was the best PG EVER.

  5. Matt says:

    How did Reggie Miller not make this list? 1 of the greatest competitors to ever play the game. A wiry frame who certainly talked the talk, but also walked the walk, especially in the clutch. The names mentioned in the article are all worthy, but I believe Reggie is also worthy of the list. DWade whilst being a great player, has missed far too many games in his career to be on the list, early on in his career yes, but now, no way!

  6. Spurs Fan for Life says:


  7. BS#1 says:


  8. Unkle Daddy says:

    This article is about little guys with a lot of heart, not PFs and Cs with heart. Also, it’s about guys who play through the pain, not guys who get hurt and then take time off (just because you got hurt doesn’t make you tough), or guys with just good stats.

  9. Please don’t try and compare d-wade and kobe kobe has an all around better offense than d-wade as a matter of fact kobe held d-wade to 0-15 in a game on time please do your research on kobe bro I like d-wade but even if he got 2 more rings hes nowhere near kobe

  10. Lakers-Warriors-Suns says:

    No Steve Nash?!?!?! He is a 2 time MVP. Also he played a game with a broken nose.

  11. droque77 says:

    So you’re not gonna include Dwayne Wade on this list? What the hell is wrong with the NBA, every since Lebron arrived , its like they are trying to erase Wade outta everybody’s memory, this guy lead all guards in points in the paint for a long time, He’s better than everyone on the list except Michael, yea that includes Kobe. He better hope that Dwade doesn’t get 2 more rings then you would have to compare Wade and Kobe’s stats.

    • Please don’t try and compare d-wade and kobe kobe has an all around better offense than d-wade as a matter of fact kobe held d-wade to 0-15 in a game on time please do your research on kobe bro I like d-wade but even if he got 2 more rings hes nowhere near kobe

      • droque77 says:

        Compare their stats, and then get back at me. Its obvious you haven’t done that. Kobe has never attacked the rim as consistently as Wade. Why do you think Miami can win without a big man? Oh let me guess, Lebron,lol, yeah right. Kobe cannot win without a big man and he’s not as efficient as Wade

      • Pakyaw says:

        Just like, even also Kobe get his 6ring , he’s nowhere near to I right?..

    • marty says:

      Its not about rings, its not about scoring, it’s about playing both ends of the court and accountability.If u use that metric u will understand why Miami is at the top right now..

    • FartyPantsMcGee says:

      for real, wade is an average shooter yet the guy can light up the scoreboard. ive never seen a guard attack the rim the way wade does. the guy acts like hes a power forward, he posts up defends big men fights for rebounds in the paint. kobes never done that, no guards have cept dwade

    • aaaaaa says:

      DWade attacks the rim slightly better than Kobe, but he can’t hit a 3 to save his life, while Kobe on the other hand is one of the better 3 point shooters in the league.

      • So just because he attacks the rims more hes better then that must mean d-rose is better than wade bc he ATTACKS the rim like no other kobes post game Is way better than wades and in his younger days he attacked the rim just as much as wade and defense ill take kobe bc at 34 he guards pg I don’t wade doing that bro

    • Kobe could go down as the greatest player ever Dwayne wade not so much not even top 10 maybe top 5 guards :/ it’s clear your dont watch either player

  12. ross says:

    I cant believe nobody has mentioned Scottiie pippen he may have been a silent killer but he competed day in and out. He picked up the slack when Jordan retired the first time. He played just as hurt with his back that any of those other guys mentioned, hit huge shots to win games. Jordan would always be on allstar but without pippen would never have 6 RINGS

    • Bigmatta23 says:

      When you refuse to go into a game because the play was called for Toni…and you cant play because of “migraines”…you lose all credibility in these rankings. Still one of my favourite players all time thoguh.

    • KramLessur says:

      Dude can you read? We’re talking about guards here.

  13. George says:

    Oh my. How in the world could they forget about steve nash. How quickly they forget a 2 time mvp who kept taking hits,shoulder charges and played on even with broken noses and closed eyes. In the playoffs no less.

  14. Zeitgeist says:

    D. Fisher Charge Champ

  15. dustydreamnz says:

    Muggsy Bogues.

  16. Cole says:

    Competitors and fearless in the NBA. Ill take Joakim Noah. Special players like Noah compete every possession despite not getting 20+ shots a game.

    You also forgot Manu Ginobili, KG. Bryant competes harder than those 2?

  17. Mike D says:

    How could you forget this guy?

  18. Christian says:

    manu ginobili

  19. Vuel says:

    Darrell Armstrong of the Orlando Magic’s Heart & Hustle era.

  20. ShawnKemp says:

    Steve Nash – tough player.

  21. tanibanana says:

    Payton, Nash, Wade,

  22. Rapido_ratrat says:

    greg oden

  23. Kaosune says:

    Funny how you don’t mention Rajon Rondo. You know, the guy that finished a game with a torn ACL. No biggie.

  24. Trey says:

    Ginobili shouldn’t b on the list silly rabbit,he misses 2 many games nowadays. 1 word about my dude A.I Fearless!

  25. myk says:


  26. Serious says:

    Magic johnson anyone?!?! Really!!

  27. Baseline Jumper says:

    What about Gary Payton? With defence like that, you can’t tell me he didn’t play hard every game.

  28. ddtheking says:

    Nate spud and d wade

  29. loled says:

    Darko Milicic

  30. txemapamundi says:

    drazen petrovic

  31. Brendan says:

    Corey maggette in his prime for clippers was the definition of a swingman

  32. Bob says:

    What about D-wade? He attacks the rim, gets hit, and crashes the floor more than anyone!

    • MV3 says:

      Wade should defs be on there. but nba writers have there favorites, and wade just isnt one of them. maybe if he never joined up with leflop he would get more attention, but nowa days hes just underrated and bron gets alll the credit

      • e says:

        bron gets all the credit cuz he does everything and carries that team on his shoulders. so yea…wade aint underrated. LeBron is just that good.

      • Akeem says:

        Totally agree. Take nothing from Bron, but Wade is on my list for this catagory.

    • Andre says:

      D Wade misses a lot of games. He is not durable like the other guys mentioned.

  33. Lawrence says:

    Great article, especially the part on Clyde Drexler. The only shooting guard of the 80’s and 90’s who could be compared to Air Jordan. Not only was he 6’7″, but he also had a strong upper body and yet still was able to hang in the air while executing a hard dunk or lay it in with a sweet finger roll.

    His stats were amazing and if it wasn’t for the Pistons’ amazing defense or the Bulls’ team work he would have finished with 3 titles.

    Fun to watch and amazing player who brought it day-in and day-out.

  34. Lakers-Warriors-Suns says:

    Best article of the off season. Thank you Fran. This shows you how much the league has changed.

  35. Kimmy says:

    What about Danny Ainge, Gerald Henderson, Tiny Archibald and Spud Webb!!!!

    • Wow... says:

      Who is this Gerald Henderson?

      • allen iverson says:

        gerald henderson Sr. The father of gerald henderson of charlotte. he was known for the “henderson stole it henderson stole the ball” moment in celtics time of larry bird

  36. #1KobeH8R says:

    SUPER-NATE ROBINSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!