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.

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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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Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce, Dime #5

5. Kwame Brown – Kiddin’ (Actually, imagine if Brown was strong enough mentally to be on this list? How good do you think he could’ve been?)

5. Paul Pierce – Another player who deserves to be on this list for more reasons than one. Firstly, there might be 10 players in the league who have better minds than Pierce. He’s where he is today – as arguably one of the two or three best Celtics ever – because of his focus and mental fortitude. That’s a longer way of just saying he’s really smart.

To add on to that, Pierce once came back INSANELY early from a life-threatening stabbing incident, and had people like Bob Ryan saying it was an incredible risk to take. Then all he did was go out and drop 28 points on opening night. Many people’s first thoughts might jump to his infamous “I just blew my knee out!…Wait, no I didn’t! I’m banging threes now!” situation in the 2008 Finals. But I’m just going to chalk that one up to a misunderstanding considering everything else he’s overcome throughout his career.

4. Dirk Nowitzki – Maybe it’s the awkwardness, but doesn’t it seem like Dirk is always battling something? His gait, the way he runs, the way he moves, even his signature grimaces have him coming off like a wounded solider. But he always brings it, and has transcended the stereotype of the European player. Only once in his career has Dirk’s toughness been questioned, and that was in the 2003 WCF when there were a few who went in on Dirk, saying his knee injury wasn’t severe enough to keep him out and that he should’ve fought more against management for keeping him out.

His performance in the playoffs and in the Finals this year vaulted him into a new stratosphere. He played with a torn tendon in his finger during the Finals, and while Miami’s overhyped and overblown talent wilted in the pressure, he embraced it. Kobe has sort of dominated the talk about who you want taking a game’s final shot for the last five or six years. Dirk is entering that conversation. And that’s probably the greatest test of all for mental strength.

3. Manu Ginobili – Flopping aside, I’ve learned to respect Ginobili over the years. He went from annoying to awesome. I could watch him play all day now. Remember during this postseason when Rajon Rondo was being celebrated as the next Willis Reed? “I can’t believe this! What heart! He’s playing with one arm!” Well Ginobili ACTUALLY WAS playing with one arm. And he still gave Memphis 20 a night. Ginobili doesn’t care about the critics or the love. He’s just a nasty competitor (and rarely says a word about it all).

In my opinion, he’s easily one of the toughest players who’s ever played this game.

2. Steve Nash – Who remembers the playoff game against the Spurs when Nash’s nose started running like Niagara Falls and they had to take him out? He kept running to get back in the game, and they kept pulling him out, throwing on layers of gauze pads, sending him out there looking like Leatherface. They should’ve had him star in Unbreakable. I bet someone could club him in the face and he still wouldn’t miss any time (oh wait, that’s actually already happened.)

Honestly, when the Suns eventually hang his jersey from the rafters, they might as well dab it in blood because three or four times a year, Nash ends up with some type of ish flowing from somewhere on his body.

1. Kobe Bryant – It pains me to do this. It really does, because everyone knows Kobe is my dude. I don’t want to sound like a homer. But you can’t deny it. You can accuse the media of furbishing stories and painting the man with the same brush they painted Russell Crowe in Gladiator with, but the fact is if you polled 100 NBA players right now and asked them who the toughest player in the league is, I’m betting Bryant gets the most votes.

Gary Vitti didn’t have to come out and call Kobe one of the toughest guys he’s ever been around this summer (and he’s been training Hall of Famers since before a lot of us were born). But he did, as have a host of other well-informed people. From playing with almost no cartilage in his knees to messed up fingers to the entire season on trial where he was pulling mind-boggling performances out of his butt to when he first entered the league and people didn’t think he could make it…he’s one of the tougher players this game has seen.

What do you think? Anyone I’m missing?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

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