Cracked Dunks On The NBA: 4 NBA Players With One Specific, Weird Skill
Welcome to Cracked’s Silly History of the NBA. This week, we’ll be exploring the oddities and eccentricities surrounding some of the most talented and richest people to regularly wear tank tops to work. We promise to solve no GOAT debates or write anything of consequence beyond fun and goofy stories about putting a ball through a modified peach basket. Lace up a pair of Jordans, put on a 90s throwback Penny Hardaway pinstripe jersey, and start counting to H-O-R-S-E. Check out parts one and two here.
Every team has stars, role players, benchwarmers…and then Guys Here For One Purpose. Players employed to never play, but keep the locker room tight or at least attract media attention. Maybe a guy is a veteran with sage financial advice to younger players who just became overnight millionaires while living in a new city. Or maybe the guy is just good at what Jalen Rose calls champagning and campaigning from city to city, we’re not here to judge. But sometimes players have really specific assignments, like:
Jack Haley: Dennis Rodman’s Babysitter
In 1995, future peacekeeping liaison to North Korea Dennis Rodman was coming off two frustrating seasons for the San Antonio Spurs. Rodman was rudderless without the steady hand of Detroit Pistons head coach Chuck Daly, whom Dennis had spent his whole career with. The all-American, Naval Academy-graduating culture that perfect human David Robinson set as star of the Spurs didn’t exactly jive with Dennis Rodman’s entire being. But there was one positive development: Rodman’s friendship with Jack Haley.
Jack Haley looked like your dad could beat him at basketball right now, no matter how old your dad is or if he’s even alive.
He has a career average of 3.5 points per game and the unofficial record for most tearaway pants buttons temporarily blinding coaches. But he was super valuable because he got through to the famously shy and moody Rodman. I am a huge Dennis Rodman apologist—check out this insightful piece from NBA superscribe Kelly Dywer on Rodman’s actually-named-that father, Philander, and try not to feel sympathy for Dennis—but it’s a given that he wasn’t an easy guy to be on a basketball team with. Without Jack Haley’s steady hand and friendship, the 1996 Bulls don’t happen. Not the way they did, anyway.
The Boston Celtics Had To Trade Larry Bird’s Drinking Buddy
The second-greatest small forward of all time, Larry Bird was nicknamed “The Hick From French Lick” for a reason. I’d put a note for the layout department to make sure the included video of Larry Bird features his hopelessly redneck blonde mustache and makes him look like he just drank a case of Coors, but I don’t need to leave that note. Every highlight video of the man with three championship rings and career averages of 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists always looks like he’s sweating out venison jerky while losing to the Stranger Things kids in a terrible haircut contest.
Rick Robey, on the other hand, was like the third-best center on the early 80s Celtics. He wasn’t quite the benchwarmer Jack Haley/Thanasis/Sim Bhullar was, averaging around 18 minutes per game in his short career. And his specific skill wasn’t a skill so much as the skill he hampered: Rick Robey was the reason Larry Bird played basketball on hard mode. Robey and Bird were drinking buddies, always going out carousing. Bird even got in a bar fight in the 1985 playoffs, possibly causing the Celtics to lose the Finals, and that was after the Celtics traded away Robey. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: before the 1984 season, the Celtics traded Robey for Dennis Johnson (starting point guard and key member of the championship-winning 1986 Celtics). Larry Bird immediately won three straight MVPs and two Finals MVPs.
Listen: I’m not here to accuse anyone of alcoholism or trivialize problems, or even really make fun of Rick Robey, who I’m sure is a perfectly pleasant and thorough real estate agent. But it is amazing how quickly the body can rebound from issues you didn’t even know existed with a few dietary or workout changes. And it is hilarious that Larry Bird won three ding-danged MVPs right after Robey’s trade. Only Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain have ever won three straight MVPs. Not to be a white guy saying, “What coulda been?” about Larry Bird, but that guy was seriously a yoga instructor and court-ordered sobriety away from having like a 20-year career with six MVPs.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo Has A Career Because His Brother Does
Let me begin this entry with a reminder of the Brian Scalabrine Rule: the worst NBA player can stay on the court with LeBron, and you—yes, you reading this article—cannot stay on the floor with the worst NBA player. Thanasis Antetokounmpo is a very good basketball player. He is an NBA champion and an Olympian. He is Greek-born to Nigerian parents and lives as an immigrant in America with a breathtaking story of surviving on the streets as a child without a country. He has a Disney movie about him. Thanasis Antetokounmpo has accomplished a lot in his life and should hold his head high every day. But let’s not pretend he gets here without his brother, two-time NBA MVP, Finals MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and human giant who fully earned the nickname “Greek Freak,” Giannis.
Milwaukee, hilariously nicknamed Cream City, is a fine place that is not exactly cosmopolitan. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the second- or third-best player of all time, requested the most polite trade in history to get out of Milwaukee (paywall). It wasn’t a landmark destination for Black Muslims in the 70s, and in 2018, Bucks brass feared it wasn’t exactly a landmark destination for Nigerian-born Greek immigrants. To keep Giannis happy in the face of his upcoming free agency, the Bucks stuffed a whole bunch of checks in his brother’s pockets.
Don’t get me wrong, Thanasis is a fringe NBA player without Giannis. He had some G League time and would probably be an NBA benchwarmer or Euroleague contributor without his famous brother. But the Bucks are giving that man years' worth of security to keep their franchise savior happy. So far, it’s worth it: they won the 2021 title and were threats to repeat in 2022. They’ll be hunting for the Larry O’B in 2023. And Thanasis might even play a few games along the way.
Udonis Haslem Has Played For The Heat For Years; Hasn’t Played For The Heat For Years
It’s not unusual for a player to become a “coach on the floor” or “coach on the bench.” This is a guy who’s been with a team for a long time, has a good relationship with the coaching staff, but can also bend the ear of their teammates and set the tone for team culture. Lots of times, these guys become assistant coaches, but players make a lot more money than coaches, so if a guy’s up for the rigors of being ready to actually play, nothing says that player can’t stick around until someone takes them aside for the “you’re washed bro” convo. This player archetype is related to what Jack Haley was but is a little different because this player actually has some cache as a former star.
Udonis Haslem went pro in 2002 but joined the Miami Heat as an NBA rookie in 2003, the same year as Dwyane Wade. He was a starter or first-off-the-bench guy for a few Miami championships but settled into an elder statesman role sometime in the middle of the last decade. He’s played in 58 games in the last six seasons. That’s nuts. That reads, on a stat sheet, like Haslem basically treats basketball like Lester Freamon painting dolls the first few episodes of The Wire. It’s behind a paywall, but here’s Kelly Dwyer again, hilariously asking if Haslem will start this year.
Of course, basketball isn’t played on a stat sheet, or whatever the Eye Test people say these days. Haslem has an undeniable respected presence in the Heat’s locker room, and he’s no slouch, either. The Heat have strict rules about player health, suspending dudes from play if they go over a certain body fat percentage. As Point God Chris Paul explained it, “You need somebody like UD showing up every day at practice at 11 and he probably in the gym 8, 8:30 every day. To motive guys, to push guys.” It also helps if you are willing to beat those guys' asses if they try to revolt against your coach:
And sure, Haslem’s getting paid millions to do it, but he’s a man in his 40s keeping himself in the most rigorous shape possible just to hear the NBA blogosphere make fun of his lack of playing. Which, I mean, it is funny that he wears a uniform, but I also think NBA coaches should have to wear a basketball jersey and shorts at games.
Chris Corlew can shoot from three and handle some playmaking duties, but will absolutely not get back on defense. He is one half of b and the nothingness and co-hosts The Line Break Podcast. Send him DeMar DeRozan highlight videos on Twitter.
Top image: Miami Heat, via NBA.com