Blogtable: Toughest Player … Ever

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Dual dueling PGs in Houston | Tough Guy award | What to make of the Pelicans


Allen Iverson

Allen Iverson (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Derrick Rose looks like he’s back, Russell Westbrook is dunking in practice … who’s the toughest, most resilient NBA player you’ve ever seen?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comJerry Sloan was the Dick Butkus/Mike Ditka of Chicago basketball in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He didn’t get that clenched-fist profile hoisting pretty jumpers. Long before he was a Hall of Fame coach, Sloan was a spit ‘n’ vinegar Bulls guard alongside also-nails-tough Norm Van Lier. Those two — and more important, their opponents — needed cut men in their corners more than coaches on their benches.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comPound for pound, it’s got to be Allen Iverson. The little guy was bounced off more courts than anything without “Spalding” stamped across its face and kept right on coming back for more. Runner-up: Isiah Thomas.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Certainly it’s impossible not to immediately think of Michael Jordan, who played in at least 78 games in a season 12 times and through all kinds of injuries and illness. Larry Bird, too, with his awful back issues and Kobe Bryant, who had seemed almost impervious to injury until his Achilles blowout. Steve Nash is another guy who took all kinds of punishment and kept on coming. But one player fresh on my mind is Rudy Tomjanovich. I recently finally read John Feinstein‘s book “The Punch.” Tomjanovich wanted to walk right back on the court even though the punch Kermit Washington delivered caused Tomjanovich’s skull to leak spinal fluid (of course he didn’t quite know it at that moment). For him to come back after an injury that could have killed him and required multiple surgeries, to average 19.0 points and 7.7 rebounds a game the next season and make the All-Star team is nothing short of remarkable. Tomjanovich was always tough, but that brand of toughness stretches well beyond the imagination.

Kobe Bryant in the 2000 Finals

Kobe Bryant in the 2000 Finals (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Kobe Bryant could have been a hockey player. Ultimate compliment. John Stockton is in the conversation. He didn’t battle serious injuries, but he was a point guard constantly setting hard screens on bigs, he never missed games. Grant Hill and Zydrunas Ilgauskas defined resilient — the number of times they could have retired because of injury, refused, and built lengthy careers through determination as much as talent.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: It’s easy to recall both Jason Kidd and Steve Nash playing playoff games with one eye mostly swollen shut. I’ve heard stories about Chuck Hayes separating his shoulder on multiple occasions, popping it back in and getting back on the floor. But I don’t think anyone tops Kobe Bryant playing through the various injuries that he’s had over the years. In ’09-10, he put up over 1,500 shots with a broken finger on his shooting hand!

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: That’s a ridiculously tough question to answer given what passes for toughness in today’s NBA. I think the toughest and most resilient player I have seen during my time as a conscientious observer of the NBA would certainly have to be two different players (I always go with Charles Oakley and Derrick Coleman as the two toughest, based solely on the eyewitness testimony of guys who played with and against them during their era). If we’re talking about guys who have bounced back from significant injury to regain their status in the league or the guy who are willing to sacrifice life and limb to stay on the court, the guy willing to drag around a dangling limb if he has to in order to keep his team in a position to win, that’s another story. You never really know what kind of pain threshold a particular guy might have and you certainly have no idea if they are willing to push it to the limit in this day and age, not with all of the science out there that indicates physical trauma of any kind can having a detrimental and lasting impact on an athlete’s life for year and years to come. That said, Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo strike me as guys who have and will give it all up to compete and compete at the highest level. Kobe popped an Achilles and got up and walked down the floor and shot free throws, man. And you remember when Rondo got his arm twisted the wrong way and came back later and played, or when he tore his ACL last season and finished the game like it was no big deal. Come to think of it, I’m not sure if those things make you tough, resilient or just plain crazy.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogKevin Willis. Considering he started playing for the Hawks when I was a kid and then was still playing in the NBA by the time I was out of school and working covering the NBA… I mean, that’s a pretty wide span. He always kept himself in tip-top condition, which is why he was able to play until he was 44 years old. I had the pleasure of being able to share a few meals with Kevin toward the end of his career, and he was always terribly careful about what he would order and what he would allow himself to eat. (I was not so careful.) There may have been guys who were “tougher,” meaning guys who were ready to fight at the drop of a hat, but I don’t think anyone has ever been more resilient than Kevin Willis.

Karan Madhok, NBA.com IndiaThe player that immediately springs to mind is Allen Iverson. Perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound player ever, Iverson played much bigger than his 6-foot stature and dominated opponents on a nightly basis in his prime. He was also tougher than nails when it came to playing through injury, highlighted by the memorable 2001 season when he carried the undermanned 76ers to the Finals while also carrying various sprains, contusions and who knows what other pain in his body.

Jacopo Gerna, NBA.com ItaliaI’ll pick up Bill Laimbeer. Despite an ordinary body, he was a four-time All Star and a clutch player for the Detroit Pistons when they won two championships. Coaches, players, fans … when they talk about “playing hard,” what does it mean? I suggest a Laimbeer DVD. Look how he was able to face down bigger centers, opening the court with his silky mid-range shot and 3-pointers, playing pick-and-pop alongside Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. For sure he committed many hard fouls, and sometimes he flopped to the ground after a slight brushing. But his reputation for physical play (“he’s a thug”, said his former teammate Dennis Rodman) overshadowed his skills. To me, he was always more than a “bad boy.”

Aldo Miguel Aviñante, NBA.com Philippines:  Kobe Bryant, no doubt. He has been playing through injuries throughout most of his career — mentally and physically no one can match the Mamba. He prepares himself and uses every advantage he can to take care of his body. The image of Kobe walking by himself with a ruptured Achilles is a testament of his incredible toughness and resiliency.

53 Comments

  1. Jeremaine Prieto says:

    The TOUGHEST is LeBron James! Every night he flops a gazillion times, that’s extremely difficult to keep dropping on the hardwood, twisting your body, contorting your face, flailing your arms, dribbling spittle, rolling your eyes, man, it’s endless agony…

  2. nba_guru says:

    Loul Deng

  3. Karlo Garcia says:

    Kobe Bryant comes to mind. How he shot those 2 free throws even with a torn achilles.

  4. Cripple Rapist says:

    Brian Scalabrine!!! Toughest player around… Just look at his curly red hair…. because he was a very tough nobody hires him, GM’s worry so much because of his toughness mostly get intimidated… The who team might crumble…. That’s how tough he is…. Brother of kobe from another mother Brian “the White Mamba” Scalabrine…..

  5. zackg0808 says:

    Willis Reed isn’t even mentioned despite playing in game 7 of the NBA finals with a torn thigh muscle.

  6. Brad Cox says:

    I’d say Craig Ehlo… because he kept showing up to play each time… knowing full well that Jordan was gonna have him posterized a few times each game they played each other. (I’d have called in sick)

  7. Alex says:

    What about A. C. Green, who played 1192 consecutive straight games?
    he should definitely be in the discussion.
    one of my all time favorites.

  8. Paul says:

    Dwight Howard!

  9. rodrigo rabina says:

    where’s my man?King James?!
    Mr. All Around..c’mon!!

  10. jam says:

    dwight howard of course

  11. RedMamba says:

    Pau Gasol definitely!….got ridden by Blake Griffin twice in one game and still got up off the floor to complain to the ref.

  12. Tomo says:

    Zelmo Beatty. Mel Daniels? Dan Issel? lets get some ABA guys in the mix. They were not only tough, they were crazy. Sloan has to be the toughest of all time though. He was going into the stands after fans. Would have been banned from the game if he played today.

  13. theflowsson says:

    There have been so many tough players in the NBA it is hard to pick one.

    One player IMO that really sticks out to me above most is Isiah Thomas. Who can forget that legendary performance in the Game 6 Finals vs the Lakers in 88 when he sprained his ankle really badly. He came back shortly after and was still single-handedly taking over the game, even though they ultimately lost. You could see how much pain he was in hobbling up and down the court and after every play he made.

    He was the Iverson before Iverson, and in my opinion even tougher than him. Isiah would play with such reckless abandon, he was 6 ft tall yet it didn’t matter who was in the paint he would drive it, make contact and finish over big men consistently. It didn’t matter how many times he fell to the floor he would get back up every time. The time when Karl Malone gave him a vicious elbow to the forehead comes to mind. He’s played through so much injuries

    He was the very heart and soul of the Bad Boy Pistons. Without Isiah the Bad Boys would of never existed or be nearly as bad. He established the culture and mentality of the Pistons. Laimbeer, Dumars, Rodman, Mahorn, etc would not of been nearly as tough as they are considered to be without Isiah setting the example and leading. Mentally and physically he was as tough as one can possibly get.

    Isiah is a true warrior and I am surprised none of the writers picked him, it is almost an insult.

    Other players that come to mind are Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Iverson, Oakley, Rodman, Stockton, Payton, Kobe, Nash

    As far as the new school goes I would say Rondo, Westbrook,

  14. vic says:

    The Answer is Allen Iverson….. did he ever play without at least 10 injuries on him? 2001 finals he had over 20+ Played against guys twice his weight. That’s insane.

    Larry Byrd was tough too, he played with blood on his shirt ( back then it was allowed ). Barkeley, Dr. J, Rodman, MJ, no one could stop him.

    Karl Malone & Rodman are indestructible…….

    Kobe is all show, and i’m an angelino…..

    • Rob says:

      Since when is knocking down two clutch free throws with a ruptured Achilles to get your team to the playoffs all show? If that is show than he plays the role better than anyone. SMH in disgust come on basketball fans stop picking sides and state facts please!

  15. John Williams says:

    How did you guys forget LeBron James? It must be tough to get so much hate throughout your entire life basically, I’d say he’s the most tough of ALL time.

  16. miamiheatcar says:

    We’ve forgotten about Steve Nash. Played like a hockey player sometimes

  17. miamiheatcar says:

    Forgot all about Steve Nash in his prime, have we? Plays tougher than many hockey players.

  18. Nathan Nelson says:

    Isaih Thomas

  19. cdubbb24 says:

    the BLACK MAMBA of course.

    “The image of Kobe walking by himself with a ruptured Achilles is a testament of his incredible toughness and resiliency.”

    nuf said

  20. Peter says:

    There are a lot of tough players in both the story and in the comments, but I am shocked that no one mentions the man with the longest active games played streak in the NBA, and his name is AC Green. I watched AC play with a CAST on his arm. Chick Hearn would say things like “I think he likes that cast, he uses it to club folks”.

    I think AC gets overlooked for his toughness because he was a super nice guy and praised God every chance he got.

    But Heck, anyone who can be on the show time era Lakers and “Save Himself” until marriage has got to have some SERIOUS mental toughness just to do that.

    Lotta folks out there who look mean, but no one is tougher than AC was.

    • Tim NBA Fan says:

      He got some teeth knocked out near the end of that streak and played the next game, keeping it going. AC was tough.

  21. kris says:

    here’s a thought. LeBron James. He’s just indestructible, so tough that you don’t even notice because he never gets seriously hurt

  22. ksamarlond says:

    Steve Nash – one eye only – no problem
    broken nose – I’ll fix it myself . calf injury last season- just tape it over and let me in.
    Malone and his elbow – what elbow?

  23. seth says:

    I think the question should be: Who was the toughest while whinning/playing up the injury less. kobe is out. Stockton played with a bad knee which required surgery in one final. We only learned about it until after the season was over. Malone got to LA to discover that hed been playing with a broken finger for a while.

    so to me tough means not playing it up for attention.

  24. GOAT says:

    toughest ever? hey! did somebody forget the name Michael Jordan….MVP and defensive player of the year at the same time in a season.

  25. Kevin Egan says:

    How about Kevin McHale, who finished the season and the playoffs with a broken foot, which is why he still walks with a limp? That was the very first name that came to mind when I saw this topic–can’t believe that hasn’t been mentioned!

  26. ryan says:

    where is the iron man ac green..?

  27. justsayin says:

    Bill Russell because it has to take toughness to win that many rings with your rebounding and D. And tough character and mentality to stand up as a prominent target in the civil rights era.

    Anthony Mason – the toughest to look at, though to be fair a good player in the trenches.

    Least tough? All the stars that chickened out of the Olympics post 9/11 and cost us the gold. Thanks for hiding with your millions and making us look like p—–s, guys.

  28. D says:

    MJ and AI are my top 2. Alonzo Mourning should be mentioned too.

  29. Daniel Polak says:

    What about Karl “The Mailman” Malone and Dennis Rodman!!!!????? The Malman being the biggest and toughest power forward ever alonside the skinny and super tough Kevin Garnett should be included in the conversation!!!!! Honestly we should name one for every position instead of “The toughest ever” That is just not fair at all. I would also say only guys who have lasted 10 plus seasons should be included in the talk and from what Ive seen they are.

  30. Selloy says:

    Zo!!!

  31. Grego says:

    AI hands down!

  32. treja23 says:

    Growing up in the 90’s and 2000’s, the player for me has to be Allen Iverson. I remember buying his Answer 9 shoes and the insoles listed all of his injuries. There were a total of 26! From contusions, to fractures and everything else in between, AI just took it and kept attacking the giants in the league despite maybe being 6’0 and weighing 165 lbs. For this question, he’s undoubtedly The Answer.

  33. jim kouts says:

    Larry Bird?

    played with a dislocated spine , two ruptured achilles. Back down from no one!, fought everyone from Dr J to the Bad Boys. Played through pain, played well. Put his body through hell and still toughed it all out without modern equipment, modern medicine to help him.

    remember the 1st round vs the Pacers and Chuck Person? How many players would slam their heads there , come back in the state his body was already in and play like that to decide a series?

  34. Carl says:

    Kobe played with a broken finger and no ligament in his wrist in 2012.

  35. LordP says:

    Put this name out there:Andre Miller

  36. shahieem francis says:

    cant forget fejj green who came from heart surgery and had a tremendous season last year

  37. Kikz says:

    Kobe Bryant #MAMBA #VINO #BLACKMAMBA #24 #8

  38. Youngblood says:

    its hard to name “THE” toughest player but a lot of different players come to mind. theres a long list of tough player so if u agree or disagree with any of these please comment and i will be happy to give u an arguement . 1.Kobe Bryant 2.Allen Iverson 3.Bill Laimbeer 4. Isiah Thomas 5.Charles Barkley 6.Michael Jordan 7.Metta World Peace 8.Dennis Rodman 9.Kevin Garnett 10.Rasheed Wallace

    • ben says:

      Sloan, played too long ago for most people that use the internet to remember, but he is at/near the top of any list of tough guys.

  39. Game Time says:

    A fracture in the finger is different than it being fully broken #Kobe’s finger. How do you pick Iverson over Isaiah being on one of the most physical and hated teams. They had targets on their backs ever game. My pick would be Arvydas Sabonis. Watching that guy play you could see the pain he was in, but still giving it his all.

  40. v says:

    2 out of three reported above; i go with A.I. nuff said!

  41. Got em coach says:

    Kobe Bryant & Allen iverson mos def

  42. Benjamin Revoy says:

    Kevin Willis and Iverson are who I would put as front runners among those listed here, but has everyone forgotten about the Junk Yard Dog? He sacrificed his body, took the hits and kept coming back for a long career. I think the man who walks away from unnecessary violence is tougher than the man who looks to be the “bad boy.” Oaktree is another one who tooks loks of hits and kept coming.

  43. federico braun says:

    what about D-wade?? Playing without knees during the last 4 seasons and still getting into the paint as he was still 23….completelly unfair not to even mention him