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The Matt Harprings: The NBA’s 10 Toughest Players

By 06.30.11
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.

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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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