Searching For the NBA’s Version of the Charlie Sheen Fiasco

In the wake of the ongoing Charlie Sheen chaos, I was (of course) racking my brain to find a comparable NBA analogy. Ideally you’d want to find a situation with the following parallels:

  • It involves a winning team. Although I have personally never seen an episode, Sheen’s show Two and a Half Men is apparently wildly successful, as Sheen is quick to point out to anyone who will listen. So any NBA equivalent would have to involve a good team, probably one that had been a contender for multiple years.
  • It involves that team’s best player. Monetarily speaking, Sheen is the #1 scorer on Two and a Half Men, and in fact the league’s top player — he made $1.8 million/episode in 2010, making him the highest-paid actor on television. The basketball equivalent would have to deal with a similar star in his prime.
  • The team releases that player mid-season. Production on Two and a Half Men‘s 8th season was halted midway due to Sheen’s behavioral problems, so an NBA version would have to involve a team waiving their best player in the middle of the season.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single situation in NBA history that meets all of those requirements. In fact, as far as I can tell, there are only a few remotely comparable situations:

  • Roy Tarpley, 1991: Tarpley certainly shared Sheen’s penchant for drug use, and he was Dallas’ leading scorer when he was expelled from the NBA for substance abuse 5 games into the 1991 season. Plus, the Mavs had won 47 games the year before and were 4-1 at the time of Tarpley’s expulsion. But Tarpley was not really a longtime star, and besides, the mandate for Tarpley’s dismissal came from the league itself, not the team. A true Sheen situation would involve a player being so self-destructive that he is dumped by the very people he was making money for.
  • Vin Baker, 2004: Like Sheen, Baker was a heavy-duty alcoholic, and no stranger to hotel-room benders. He was also the highest-paid player on a quality Celtics team that followed a Conference Finals run in ’02 with two more playoff appearances in ’03 & ’04. Baker was even released midseason after an alcohol-fueled confrontation with his boss (Celts coach Jim O’Brien). The only differences are that Baker had not been with Boston throughout its successful run, and he wasn’t their best player at the time of his dismissal (3rd in PER, 2nd in WS/48, 5th in PPG).
  • John Lucas II, 1986: The 1986 Houston Rockets were prominently featured in Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball as the lost Western Conference mini-dynasty of the Eighties, and Lucas had been one of their best players (2nd in WS/48, 4th in PPG). But with Houston contending for a division crown, Lucas was waived on March 14, 1986 because of a drug relapse. In a possible future Sheen parallel (John Stamos, anyone?), those Rockets went on to defeat the powerful Lakers in the West final and took one of the all-time great Celtics teams to 6 games in the NBA Finals.
  • Allen Iverson, 2009: Unlike Sheen, Iverson’s saga was largely unrelated to substance abuse… but it did have a lot to do with delusion & self-aggrandizement. Like Sheen, the self-proclaimed “rock star from Mars”, Iverson had an overinflated sense of his own abilities, maintaining that he was a starting-caliber guard and refusing to accept Pistons coach Michael Curry’s decision to bench him (“I’d rather retire than be a reserve”), which led Joe Dumars to shut him down for the season’s final 2 weeks. Signing with Memphis the next fall, A.I. again refused to confront the possibility of coming off the bench, and was waived by the Grizzlies after just 3 games. Now Iverson plies his trade in Turkey — an option Sheen should probably look into as well after burning all of his bridges in America. As an added bonus, Sheen even referenced Iverson’s “practice rant” during one of his own insane interviews this week.

But I think the most Sheen-like situation belongs to…

  • Isaiah Rider, 2000: No, the Hawks weren’t good that year, and an ill-advised Steve Smith-for-J.R. Rider swap was one of the major reasons why. But Rider remains the only player in NBA history to lead a team in PPG (playing a minimum 25% of team games) and still be waived midseason. And when it comes to sheer misbehavior, Rider can easily go toe-to-toe with Charlie Sheen. In 2000 alone, he was late on the first day of Hawks training camp, feuded with Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens (who would resign from the team following the 2000 debacle), was caught with marijuana in an Orlando hotel room, refused drug rehab, and apparently was even disciplined for parking in the reserved space at Philips Arena belonging to Atlanta Thrashers head coach Curt Fraser. Despite the fact that he was their most talented player, Atlanta cut Rider loose on March 20, 2000, and Wikipedia sums up his overall impact on the Hawks thusly: “The now-infamous Rider trade left the Hawks franchise in ruin; only a year after finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference, they finished next-to-last in the division and would not return to the playoffs for nine years.”

    Add to that Rider’s rap sheet in other seasons (kidnapping, domestic violence, spitting at a heckler, possessing an illegal cell phone that charged calls to someone else’s bill, auto theft, assaulting a cab driver, etc.), and I think we have a “winner”.

UPDATE: Alert Twitterer Kris Johnson points out that I missed Stephon Marbury, and he’s totally right. While his most Sheen-esque meltdowns arguably happened after leaving the Knicks (vaseline?), his testimony during the Isiah Thomas sexual harassment trial was a major source of embarrassment to his team and the league, and he reportedly was a huge distraction to the Knicks during his latter days there, culminating with an incident in which he refused to play. Marbury was waived by the Knicks on February 24, 2009, but NY’s highest-paid player was basically put on ice by Mike D’Antoni in early December 2008 without playing a single game for the team in the ’09 season.

About Neil Paine

I work for Sports-Reference.com. I've been a freelance writer for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and Basketball Prospectus.

Posted on March 2, 2011, in Analysis, History, Insane ideas, Just For Fun, No Math Required, Rants & Ramblings. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Let me tell you this right now. Sheen is winning. He’s taken drug tests on each of the past two interviews he’s done. Both have come back clean for at least 10 substances. He has also laid out pretty much the most memorable quotes of the decade within a one week span. I wish I had half of the ability this guy does to put words together. He’s got the f-u money to live his life exactly how he wants to, and he’s doing it. How can we not be in awe of the bravado, staccato, the sheer entertainment value of these interviews?

  2. Paul Alexander

    I agree with P-Middy completely! The Ma-Sheen is on the loose!

  3. lol I’m sure NFL has a lot more examples of this

  4. Very creative Neil. I laughed. With the pending lawsuit, VIn Baker might take the cake (wasn’t there a legal question with Baker?)

  5. Surprisingly difficult quiz. 5/10.

  6. I was 6/10. The 911 question stumped me

  7. #6 – Right, I think Baker (in conjunction with the NBAPA) sued the Celtics for breach of contract at one point.

    #7 – Great find! 8/10 – I screwed up the face melting and the one about 9/11.

  8. Um, maybe not substance-abuse per se, but I’m pretty sure anyone with knowledge of the Iverson situation would say that his drinking played quite a bit into how things went south.

  9. Good point, although I wasn’t sure how much of a role that played in the Detroit situation (I thought that was more about insubordination/his refusal to go to the bench than anything else). Also, his daughter’s health was brought up a great deal with regard to his departure from Philly a second time, although Stephen A. Smith did report on the alcoholism as well:

    http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=4975922

  10. Kevin Hartrich

    How about T-Mac before went to NY? He on paper was still very talented, he wasn’t happy, wanted changes, and the show got canceled (Rockets missed playoffs) after almost beating the Lakers the year before.

    The best example though is the Artest melee

  11. If you believe in the (unfounded) rumors that Michael Jordan’s 1st retirement was actually due to his gambling problems, he fits the model pretty well.

  12. Ron Artest! Credit to thirteen, Artest is the closest thing you have to Sheen.

    1. Bright Future.
    2. Warning Signs.
    3. Key Moment.
    4. Irrevocably Public Madness.
    5. Breaking up the Band.

    A lot of people think the Pacers had something special going in that ’04 season. And 2005 was Artest’s best chance to shine. The only difference is it’s suspension/trades that ended the Artest era.

  13. Marbury doesn’t work because the Knicks were definitely not a winning team when he left

  14. I think I am with Bryan on this one. If we believe the conspiracy theories about Jordan’s 1st retirement, he’s the only one of them who after the whole fiasco could sit there and point to himself and say, “WIN.”

  15. I don’t know if waiving a player is really the equivalent here. CBS hasn’t fired Sheen, just suspended him for the last 1/3 of the season. They could still bring him back for next year, and given the cash machine that the show is, they may well choose to do so.

    If we look at great players who were just suspended for major portions of the season, the list gets much longer:

    * Gilbert Arenas (50 games)
    * Ron Artest (73 games)
    * Carmelo Anthony (15 games)
    * Latrell Sprewell (68 games)
    * Dennis Rodman (11 games)
    * Kermit Washington (26 games)

    I would vote for Gil as the Charlie Sheen of the NBA, not only because of his long suspension, but because of his bizarre media antics and the way those antics directly led to his suspension (which is analogous to how Sheen’s rants led CBS to pull the plug on 3/2 Men due to public embarrassment).

  16. “Gilbert is a fool. Fool. Troll. Weak. Defeated. He allowed defeat to be an option. I will not.”

  17. Shouldn’t the Sheen figure have a beloved and even more successful father from the same field who tries to reach out and save him but gets rejected on national TV? Too bad Jellybean wasn’t amazing, and his son recovered from offseason kneerapeallegationsurgery and ruined the story and my Celtics dynasty.

  18. Normally I don’t comment on your posts but I wanted to let you know I have placed a link to your page on my blog.

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