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.