The tension was palpable last Thursday night at The Palace, in Auburn Hills, Mich. The visiting Philadelphia 76ers were hot and hungry for a win that would give them their first Atlantic Division title since 1983. The Detroit Pistons already knew they would finish in the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but it had been a long, hard season, and the Pistons were somewhat frustrated and tired from the burden of defending their NBA title.
Sixer forwards Charles Barkley and Rick Mahorn, those head-butting Brothers of Bulk and Bully, were on hand, and so was Detroit center Bill Laimbeer, whom Barkley, like most of his peers, does not care for. Before the game, in fact, Barkley had signed a needling message, expletive included, and sent it over to Laimbeer in the Piston locker room. Now, invite any one of that trio to afternoon tea with the Queen and there might be trouble; throw them together in a late-season NBA game that was consequential for one team and nothing but an irritant for the other, and a rumble seems almost a certainty.
Detroit had already discovered that playing against Mahorn, whom it left unprotected in last spring's expansion draft, is a lot less fun than playing with him. After beating the Sixers 14 of 15 times in the three previous years, the Pistons had dropped two of three to Philly this season. Now it was the Detroit players who had to feel the sting of Mahorn's elbows, and, indeed, there had been minor skirmishes in the earlier games between the teams.
So those were the ingredients as the 76ers raced to a 53-43 halftime lead. Isiah Thomas rallied Detroit, but he grew frustrated when the Pistons couldn't sustain their run; with 3:40 left, Thomas took a swing at Mahorn after running into him. The blow grazed Mahorn's shoulder, but Thomas was ejected.
April 29, 1990
That was a mere prelim. With 14.8 seconds left and Philly leading 105-95, Mahorn slammed home a dunk that seemed to add unnecessary punctuation to the Sixer win. Piston forward Dennis Rodman fouled Mahorn on the play, after which Mahorn made a semitaunting gesture at Rodman, but both the foul and the gesture were minor. The ugliness started in earnest when Laimbeer, trailing the action, arrived on the scene and shoved the ball in Mahorn's face.
Mahorn did not move to retaliate, just as he had not gone after Thomas a few minutes earlier. (We do not often find Smilin' Rick on the high road, do we?) But Barkley charged at Laimbeer and landed a couple of punches, including one to Laimbeer's left eye.
Both benches then cleared, and soon players were grabbing one another and falling to the floor. Detroit reserve forward Scott Hastings landed what referee Jake O'Donnell later called a "sucker punch" on Barkley's back as bodies rolled around the floor. Mahorn, meanwhile, stayed on the fringe of the melee, at one point severely testing the elasticity of James Edwards's Piston jersey when he pulled Edwards away from the pile. Mahorn and Edwards are close friends—Barkley would say later that "Rick hates everybody on that team except Vinnie [Johnson] and Edwards"—but as Edwards's scowl indicated, he didn't appreciate Mahorn's attention.
After order was restored and the game was finished—the 76ers won 107-97—several players called the fight, which lasted about 10 minutes, the worst they had seen in the NBA, though no one was hurt. Rod Thorn, the league's vice-president of operations, said after reviewing the videotape last Friday morning that it was one of the worst fights in his four years as the NBA's chief disciplinarian.
Laimbeer, Hastings and Barkley were ejected. As Barkley was led up the tunnel to the locker room, a fan leaned over and took a swing at him. Barkley retaliated by spitting in his face.
Barkley and Laimbeer were fined $20,000 apiece, and Hastings was fined $10,000. Five other players on each team were hit with $500 fines for coming off the bench to participate in the fisticuffs. And the teams were fined $50,000 apiece for failing to control their players. The total of $162,500 in fines (including Thomas's $7,500 for the earlier incident) is a pro sports record for fighting. In addition, Barkley, Laimbeer and Hastings drew one-game suspensions.
Still, the league would have really sent a message if it had done more than give "serious consideration"—Thorn's words—to suspending Barkley and Laimbeer for a couple of playoff games and had actually done it. As for the fine money—well, Barkley has now chalked up a league-leading $35,000 in such assessments this season, and his one-game suspension cost him another $31,700. Still, he had this to say after the game: "I don't care if I get fined. I make $3 million [actually $2.6 million]. What's a couple thousand dollars?"
Detroit and Philly could meet in the postseason, and Piston forward Mark Aguirre said, "I'd just love it." If that happens, fight fans might hope for more fireworks, but that wish would be shared neither by the NBA office nor by anybody else who cares about sport.