From the cover of Dime to the cover of GQ, Kobe Bryant has been everywhere lately. Except the basketball court. And it’s been killing him. Previously on his way to one of the most impossible Iron-Man like seasons in recent NBA history — playing through well documented injuries to his fingers, back, knees, shoulders and ankles — Kobe finally had to show human frailty and miss some games sandwiching the All-Star break, including the All-Star Game itself. (Kobe may be the only guy in the League who takes the ASG seriously.)
Last night he returned to the lineup, and in storybook fashion, dropped 32 points and the game-winner in Memphis. This entire season for Kobe has been a self-inflicted cross-examination of his toughness, but is KB24 the toughest man in the NBA?
First, you have to define “tough.” A lot of people confuse it with “intimidating” or “ornery,” traits that don’t always match up. For me, a tough basketball player is one who plays through injuries, commits to defense on a daily basis, relishes the opportunity to crash the boards and mix it up in the paint no matter his size, knows he can still impact a game when his shot isn’t falling, and — this is very important — doesn’t have to go around telling everybody how tough he is. The Top-10:
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10. JASON MAXIELL — I could easily fill all 10 spots with so-called “undersized” power forwards who were drafted several picks too late, but I’ll try to keep it in check. Maxiell is the prototype bruiser sculpted from that mold, who has the extra benefit of years spent banging in practice with Ben Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace. It also helps that Maxiell kind of looks like Ron Artest in the face (or at least Daniel Artest), and he’s even a tough interview. I talked to him once, and it was the question-and-answer equivalent of fighting through one of Maxiell’s screens.
9. ALLEN IVERSON — Sorry, but he has to be here. Pound-for-pound, A.I. may be the toughest NBA player of all-time, and since he is still in the League, he has to crack any active ranking devoted to toughness. Unfortunately, the last two seasons have put a machete-like gash on Iverson’s reputation. He was accused of quitting on the Pistons when he couldn’t start, he definitely quit on Memphis when he didn’t start right away, and now the rumor mill suggests he’s quitting on the struggling Sixers.
8. GERALD WALLACE — While he does miss a lot of games (never playing more than 72 per season his entire run with Charlotte), Crash also plays through a lot of pain. The guy has had like 4-5 concussions and still throws his body all over the court (and into the crowd) because he doesn’t know any other way to play. Talk around the Dime office was that Wallace should lose points for clearly mailing in this year’s dunk contest and All-Star Game when he had a sore hamstring, but I’m not holding that against him. Crash hasn’t even sniffed the postseason in his six-year stint with the Bobcats; I think he’s simply got his eye on the bigger prize now that his team has a chance to be winners.
7. ERSAN ILYASOVA — As I wrote before, he plays like he’s auditioning for a role in a Universal Soldier sequel. Ilyasova is the new Kurt Rambis: Possibly the most awkward player in the League, but he’s undeniably tough and his teammates love having him on their side.
6. JASON KIDD — One of the few high-profile athletes to come back from microfracture surgery and regain his old form. About a month away from his 37th birthday, Kidd still grinds it out for 36 minutes per night, hitting the boards (5.2 rpg) better than any point guard in the League and giving it his all on defense (1.9 spg) despite obviously having lost some quickness and lateral movement over time. There’s a reason Kidd has universal respect around the NBA even though he’s never really been a vocal leader. He can play until he’s 40 and still be a starter somewhere.
5. DWYANE WADE — Seemingly headed down the same path as Penny Hardaway, D-Wade somehow came back indestructible last season, and only recently had to sit out a few games this season with a calf injury. If you’re building a franchise around D-Wade you have to worry about his borderline reckless style, but you also have to love his relentlessness.
4. CARON BUTLER — And if you think it’s just because he once spent time in juvie and his nickname is “Tough Juice,” you need to watch Caron play more often. Dude never backs down and will go head-to-head with anybody, relying on an unwavering confidence that he’s the better player. Somebody as competitive as Caron had his mental toughness tested by still coming to play every night while the Wizards were falling apart.
3. KOBE BRYANT — It’s like he ran out of challenges from other players, so he’s spent this season seeing just how far he can push his body. From what I’ve seen and heard, there’s a good chance Kobe’s right hand is going to be almost useless for him when he’s an old man. He’ll have to wear his fistful of championship rings on the left.
2. KENYON MARTIN — Another microfracture success story who actually had the surgery done on both knees, and yet at an old 32 still draws defensive assignments against some of the fastest, best players in the world. Who else could get a huge pair of lips tattooed on his neck, a tat inspired by his girlfriend who has put her own business very much in the street, and nobody dares make fun of him about it?
1. RON ARTEST — Like Gerald Wallace, Artest almost misses his share of games due to injury, but it’s understandable considering the amount of punishment he gives and receives. Artest fits every description of an NBA tough guy from his defensive mentality and willingness to take on anyone at anytime, but what sets him apart from the pack is what he does in those months when he’s not playing in front of 20,000 people every night. Artest is one of the few NBA ballplayers who still gets out there in the summer and plays all-out on concrete. Not just that, but on concrete against dudes with nothing to lose who go at him like he’s nobody special. That’s a kind of toughness most NBA guys either don’t know, or forgot about years ago.
How do you define “tough” when it comes to basketball? Who do you think are the toughest players in the NBA?