Featured Gallery, NBA / Jun 30, 2011 / 5:00 pm

The Matt Harprings: The NBA’s 10 Toughest Players

Wesley Matthews

Wesley Matthews (photo. Aaron Hewitt)

Numb though? Yes, as insane as it seems, Wesley Matthews told the Oregonian he played much of last season unable to feel his right foot. He tore a tendon in his ankle, then went out and scored 26 points the following night (a January win over the Suns) before playing the rest of the way with a flat tire.

So Matthews has pretty much become the inspiration for this post: who are the NBA’s toughest players?

We’ve tackled this before, and will continue to do so simply because it’s one of the real measures of grit. Would Bill Russell have always gotten the better of Wilt Chamberlain (and thus put himself in position to be called the greatest ever while Wilt shouldn’t be?) if he wasn’t insanely unselfish and content to play what people would call today a “glorified role player” role? Would Michael Jordan be considered the GOAT if he didn’t live for a shot to slit your throat with the ball in a one-possession game, down one?

Also, great debates are sparked by differing definitions. What exactly is toughness? You can’t pin it down.

For me, mental toughness > physical toughness ANY day of the week because like 80% of all physical toughness comes from mental toughness anyways. You don’t play through injuries because you can throw a bunch or people are scared of you or you look like you should be on the cover of Muscle & Fitness. You play through them because you can learn to grasp the pain, bottle it up and forget about it. You adapt and teach yourself to ease instead of inflame.

Like the time Isiah Thomas wanted a title so badly, he played on a bum ankle, turned in a classic performance and nearly toppled the Lakers. Or the time Allen Iverson refused to come out of a game so, as his lip bloodied, he just sucked up all the blood.

This isn’t elementary school. I don’t consider someone tough if they can pull an X-Man McDaniel or a Kermit Washington and knock you out (not to say those guys weren’t tough). Is Ron Artest one of the most physical players in the game? Hell yeah. Do I think he’s one of the 10 toughest? Maybe. You might, but I’m not sure. (Besides, in this generation, how many “tough” guys do we actually have? I can probably count them with my fingers. The days of Chris Mills standing outside of team buses, rolling deep, ready to throw down are pretty much over. Shit, the days of Matt Harpring being an insanely tough SOB are pretty much over.)

Tough is John Havlicek. Dude played 1,442 out of 1,475 games for his career.

Really, physical toughness is sort of a misinterpretation, a fallacy (not entirely, but let me explain). Without mental toughness, none of that matters. You play through injuries because of your mental toughness. You hit big shots and come through in tight situations because of your mental toughness. You overcome obstacles and bad breaks, bad luck along the way because of your mental toughness. Being physically tough IS being mentally strong.

You can’t quantify what exactly “toughness” is. Everyone has their own definition. That’s mine, and here are the 10 players I think best showcase it.

*** *** ***

10. Udonis Haslem - From overcoming being fat in college to playing a role that garners virtually no praise at all, Haslem is one of the NBA’s ultimate warriors. He’s a throwback, corny as it sounds, the new-age Kurt Thomas.

Similar to Nick Collison (who probably should be on this list as well), Haslem has played the same exact way for over a decade now (I’m going to count his years at Florida too). Need one piece of evidence how many people trust and admire him? He’s averaged only 10 points for his career, and yet played all 608 NBA games with one team.

9. Anthony Carter – Carter has always just struck me as the type of guy you want with you when you’re going to battle. When I look at Carter, tough is really the only word that comes out (DeJuan Blair is another like that…he really could’ve been on this list as well). Maybe he seems like an odd guy to put on this list, but I think it’s telling that when I initially thought of some names for this post, he was one of the first guys I wrote down.

He’s been doubted his whole life, been told he wouldn’t make it, that no one wanted him. And yet he’s stuck around the NBA – he’s now 36 years old – for basically one reason only: toughness and nastiness. Even when his agent completely screwed him over in 2003, misread a contract, and basically forced him to give up a boatload of money – the one time he had a chance to make bank – to sign in San Antonio (where he didn’t last), Carter regrouped just as he did after going undrafted and made it (That whole story is just insane. Where is that agent now?).

8. Grant Hill - I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be Grant Hill. People love to talk about Penny‘s issues from back in the day and how he could’ve been one of the best ever. But Grant Hill was BETTER than Penny. And it wasn’t like he had one devastating injury that cut him down. He’s dealt with problems year after year after year. From 2000-2007, he played exactly 200 regular season games. Total. And yet, here he is, closing in on 39 years old. People underestimate the mental toll it takes to constantly fall victim to injuries. I remember during my playing days, I got snake bitten and within a three-year period, had knee surgery, broke bones in both hands on identical plays in consecutive summers, had a concussion and probably 54 ankle sprains. I was brought to tears numerous times, so sick and so beat down from the constant battle at the time in my life I most wanted to play. And that’s NOTHING compared to what Grant Hill went through.

People may look at Grant and say “Look at all the games he missed. No way can he be tough.” I look at Hill and say “Look at all the games he missed. And he’s still standing. He’s still playing!” Maybe he never became what we thought he would, but he’s had one of the most unique careers ever, and he’s survived strictly through relentlessness.

7. Carl Landry - No one might have a more Hollywood-scripted situation than Landry. Dude literally got shot in the leg, and then came back to play exactly three weeks later. Put it this way: that’s not something you see every day. It doesn’t matter how critical it actually was…it’s still a bullet wound (Although if this was Hollywood, Landry would’ve gotten shot seven or eight times, been momentarily knocked down, only to force himself back up and then start running around, decimating everyone in site like he’s Schwarzenegger.).

Besides that incident, Landry is a lunch-pail guy, who brings it every day. He has to as a 6-7 PF, or else he would’ve never made it.

6. Wesley Matthews – Pretty much the reason for this list. You can’t fully appreciate Matthews’ toughness until you actually talk to him. When I did for a feature in the latest issue, it was literally like talking to a machine. I don’t think the man knows fear or pain.

He also had one of the toughest routes to get to where he’s at now: undrafted, playing for Jerry Sloan as a rookie (no easy thing), and he attacked so hard that now he’s a rich man. The best Matthews story ever, besides the latest one, is when I asked him what he was doing on his draft day. The dude didn’t even watch it. He was in the gym all night. WTF (as a guy who literally didn’t have a clue if/where he was going, that’s crazy).

In fact, Marquette breeds tough guys…we could make our own list just from that school alone.

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  • Rainman

    i was thinking “Nash and Kobe both have to be on this list”

    and they top it, great choices overall.

    I do question the selection of Paul “Wheelchair” pierce in the top 5 tho.

  • http://theswamp51.wordpress.com Andrew Macaluso

    Kenyon Martin? ..

  • mark

    fuck kobe.

  • Kris

    “I do question the selection of Paul “Wheelchair” pierce in the top 5 tho”

    Why, the guy got stabbed multiple times left the hospital earlier than expected and started the season on time. That’s tough no matter how you look at it, or want to look at it.

  • thedu

    “Why, the guy got stabbed multiple times left the hospital earlier than expected and started the season on time.”

    Because of this display.. Pierce is a chump.

  • Not Forgotten

    Was about to make noise when I saw Paul Pierce but – the wheelchair incident has to be overlooked considering he got stabbed multiple times and came back…

    …if this list had been done only two months ago, no way Dirk Nowitzki would be on it, funny how winning a championship ring changes things. I wonder how long this lovefest will last…

  • nizzio

    Great list!

  • LakeShow84

    I think Pierces herk and jerk, “ima make this whiny face”, game kinda contradict the whole tough guy thing but aye

    Ima Laker fan lol

    I know of those other players make bitches faces at the slightest of contact tho.. And Dwight Howard should get a shout out..

    Dudes takes shots out there..

  • deagletime

    you wanna talk mental toughness? Manu playing with a maxi-pad taped to his face… AI3 woulda been like: ‘aww hell naw, not even at practice’

  • Me

    don’t forget when pierce was undercut and landed on his front teeth, knocking them bitches right out.

  • Lee

    Didn’t Nene play through cancer? And that bat can testify as to how fearless Ginobli is !!

  • http://deleted dagwaller

    Blatche was also shot.

  • Sean Sweeney

    @Andrew I thought about KMart, definitely had a tough road back from all his injuries

  • Mandirigma

    “I remember during my playing days, I got snake bitten and within a three-year period, had knee surgery, broke bones in both hands on identical plays in consecutive summers, had a concussion and probably 54 ankle sprains. ”

    54 ankle sprains? Either you’re being crossed up by one too many kids, don’t know how to land (for high flyers) or pivot the wrong way (for bigs).

  • Wake

    How about Rose. He makes it look easy when he drives but he takes a lot of abuse. There was one play during the season where someone undercut him while he was jumping, he lay flat in the air and slammed chest first in the ground. He continued to play more aggressive after that but got hammered again. He’d probably continue playing if Thibs didn’t take him out. He’s a tough kid. He never complains about injuries. When asked about it he just shakes it off and always says “He’ll be fine.”

  • Wake

    *meant to say “I’ll be fine” on my last post.

  • sh!tfaced

    well shit, paul pierce in a wheelchair and coming back from and killing the fuck to an opposing team is way better than fading away choking then blaming his haters for it.

  • sh!tfaced

    …is better and tougher than a self proclaiming 6’8″ 250 pound pussy ass douchebag with no championship heart…

  • Frank

    I read into the Anthony Carter situation a little.. his agent missed the deadline on his player option.. nice..

    But then the Heat had some extra capspace which allowed them to sign Lamar Odom. Odom was later traded to LAL for Shaq, so that ‘misread’ worked out pretty good for the Heat..

  • Alex “robocop” Murphy

    Reggie Evans- Nut Buster- just ask Kaman.

  • JD

    wade should also be in this list.

  • Mark

    Great list! Had me cracking up when I read Kwame Brown. Great sense of humor.

    Nash and Kobe are a great to be in the top 5.

    There still seems to be somebody missing…besides Derrick Rose (mentioned in the comments) can’t think of anybody else.

  • flegman

    chuck hayes

  • reynoso

    Brandon Roy – body is barely together and hes leading 23pt come backs in the fourth quarter….18 of his 24 came in the 4th.

  • V.

    Chuck Hayes is a lunch-pail guy, who brings it every day. He has to as a 6-6 center, or else he would’ve never made it.

  • Richard

    I like how Rajon Rondo is not on this list. This guy plays through EVERY injury he has ever had. He dislocated his elbow and 6 minutes later, even though in PAIN, he still went out and played aggressive defense coming up with a steal and a dunk. His back, he played through that ALL season, ankle, it was swollen but he still put in heart into the game, his foot for god’s sake! He was still running up and down the court for 40+ minutes a game, and you are saying he is not on this list whoever wrote this list should go read a book.

  • First & Foremost

    Chuck Hayes, dude basically relives David vs. Goliath every night. Yet, still achors a defense and messed around for a triple double this season.

    Just for kicks… Darko! Drafted between 2 future HOFs. Has a lowlight reel in which he bricks back to back dunks in the span of 30 seconds, then a 3rd was blocked. Yet due to his mental toughness, he is still around. Has just as many final appearances and rings as Dwayne Wade. At one point in time he was leading the league in blocks this season. Because of his draft position, which he has no control over, he is always reminded how much of a bust he is yet he is still here and didn’t run away to the Euroleague. That is being mentally tough. Admit it.

  • bbb

    this may be too much in the kermit washington realm, but its hard for me to say dirk is tougher than landry when i think of their reactions after this collision two years ago.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UaVAL3DBauU

  • BigStick

    Great list. Honorable mention: Ronny Turiaf (didn’t/doesn’t he have a heart condition?) and Tayshaun Prince (played something like 400+ games in a row)

  • Doc

    just cause u got stabbed dont make u tough.he obviously healed up or he wouldnt have played.aint like he was out there with punctured organs.

  • ATK

    no ben wallace? no reggie evans ?

  • http://www.dimemag.com/author/kevin Kevin Zimmerman

    Funniest Steve Nash tough-guy moment was when he broke his nose in a game and straightened it out himself during a break in action. Hilarious.

    Also the Tim Duncan elbow to the eye.

  • http://www.dimemag.com panchitoooo

    i had season tickets to UH basketball while AC Carter still was in college. i remember watching countless games and going out and trying to play like him. i owe lots of my early baskets to him inspiring me to go out and play tough and fearless. you really cant see the swagger of a player on TV so attending games and watching AC kind of made me who i am as a baller now. its not likes hes an all-star now but back in college he used to be the man

  • jdizzle

    @Kevin Zimmerman Grant Hill’s reaction was priceless lol

    I agree that Wade and Nene should be on the list too. The guy has ONE BALL!

  • iCARNACKi

    I liked the first half of the list, some good writing. I was initially glad that the list was full of mentally strong guys and not some faux ‘tough’ guys who pretend they want to fight when in reality they want nothing to do with any physical confrontation *COUGH Chris Bosh/Kevin Garnett* whoah excuse me.

    Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki & Kobe Bryant are NOT tough guys, they are intelligent, mentally focused guys but they are not tough… Kobe and Pierce are whiners and Dirk got shook by SJax a few years ago and absolutely flopped… he might be more focused now and not as ready to back down but he isn’t ‘tough’ still.

    Manu Ginobili shouldn’t be here, he’s a resilient, scrappy guy but not tough… tough guys don’t flop.

    No homo but I love Carl Landry & Chuck Hayes, every team needs a guy like those two.

  • J

    Terrible list. Pierce and Kobe are fakers. Pierce one time needed a wheelchair only to walk later. Somewhere Larry bird was shaking his head in disappointment. Amazing that that same man survived a stabbing

  • http://www.twitter.com/tootalented21 Talented

    Dirk doesnt deserve to be #4 on this list. imo he would be closer to #10 or an honorable mention.

    Paul pierce is questionable. Aint he get stabbed like 15 times? If he was mentally tough he would have saved himself 10 extra stabs…I hope he at least found and hurt dude who got him.