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The Biggest NBA Scandals

Publish Date: 24.04.2024
Fact checked by: Jackson T. Pierce

Few sports leagues are as popular or as lucrative as the NBA. It’s one of the fastest growing organizations on the planet, and that popularity only continues to increase due to basketball’s strong international hold. The league is the standard that all others look to.

Despite that, it’s not perfect. The NBA has had its share of scandals over the years, with some being much more severe than others. Though the organization swiftly responded to each one, they all had an impact on the NBA’s image, income, and bottom line.

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1.  Gilbert Arenas vs. Javaris Crittenton

Gilbert Arenas always had a bit of a loud and outspoken personality during his time in the NBA. That made him a strong competitor and a skilled player, but it also led to off-the-court issues every now and then. One of the biggest occurred in 2009.

While playing for the Wizards, Arenas brought his personal guns to the Verizon Center and kept them in his locker. That itself is against NBA rules, but the scandal then escalated when Arenas got into an argument with Javaris Crittenton.

Crittenton reportedly owed teammate JaVale McGee $1,100 due to losses during an off-site card game. Arenas backed up McGree, which prompted Crittenton to threaten Arenas.

In response, Arenas brought four unloaded guns into the locker room to intimidate Crittenton. Crittenton then pulled out his own weapon before teammates cooled them both off.

The incident never went beyond that, but the NBA suspended Arenas for the test of the 2009-2010 and gave him 4 years probation. Crittenton was also suspended and never played in the league again.

2. When the NBA Owned the Hornets

Most big NBA controversies typically involve players or members of the league. Rarely do they involve the NBA itself. However, that’s exactly what happened when the organization owned the New Orleans Hornets from December 2010 to April 2012.

Normally, that setup wouldn’t be a big deal, but there were many events that occurred during that time that led it to being one of the biggest NBA controversies of all time.

First, Hornet star Chris Paul demanded a trade and sparked a deal that would send him to the Lakers to team up with Kobe Bryant. Fearing a super team, the NBA blocked the agreement and sent Paul to the Clippers instead.

On top of that, the Hornets also received the first overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft that conveniently gave them Anthony Davis. While nothing is proven, many believe the move came out of a backdoor deal made between the NBA and new owner Tom Benson.

No matter what happened, those two incidents show that the league and ownership should stay as separate as possible to prevent any conflicts of interest.

3. Kyrie Irving’s Unfortunate Tweets

There have always been characters in the NBA with questionable beliefs. However, in the past such beliefs rarely made it into mainstream media. That changed over the last few years due to the rise in social media.

Players having their own platform generally tends to be positive, as it gives them a chance to express themselves and interact with fans. Sometimes though, as is the case with Kyrie Irving, it can be a nightmare for the league to handle.

Irving is a very outspoken player with many problematic beliefs. Some of them are harmless, like the flat-Earth theory, while some are much more serious. The one that got him in the most hot water occurred when he tweeted anti semitic doctrine back in March 2021.

The guard stated several troubling beliefs backing Black Hebrew Israelite ideology. He also supported claims about Holocaust denial, tweeted quotes from Adolf Hitler, and reinforced the false idea that Jews controlled the Atlantic slave trade.

Such comments made a lot of people understandably upset. Irving doubled down on his statements, which then caused commissioner Adam Silver to step in. The Nets suspended him for 5 games, sending a harsh message that got Irving to be more compliant.

4. The Unpopularity of Donald Sterling

There have been a few bad owners throughout the NBA’s long career, but almost all of them pale in comparison to Donald Sterling. The former Clippers owner didn’t just create a scandal, he crossed so many lines that he created one of the biggest NBA controversies ever.

It all started after he bought the Clippers in 1981. After moving them up from San Diego to Los Angeles, the league considered terminating his ownership due to the fact that he was late on payments to both creditors and players.

Not only that, but he refused to bring in high profile free agents, never bettered the team, and often heckled his own players while sitting courtside. However, the big spark occurred when he made several racist remarks to his mistress in 2014.

He chastised her for hanging out with black people like Magic Johnson and told her not to bring them to the games. That was the final straw. The NBA, desperate to distance themselves from the comments, banned him for life and forced him to sell the team.

5. Jason Kidd’s Abuse

Jason Kidd is one of the best point guards to ever step onto the hardwood. Unfortunately, he also has a troubled past. After exploding onto the basketball scene in the late 90’s, Kidd ran into trouble when he pled guilty to domestic violence charges in 2001.

The suit stated that Kidd assaulted his wife Joumana, which led to his arrest. The incident garnered so much media attention and did so much to tarnish his name that the Suns traded the perennial all-star to the Nets.

Though he didn’t serve jail time, Kidd did have to attend six months worth of anger management classes. He went to all of them and continued to go on his own after the mandatory period.

Unfortunately for him and the NBA, however, that wasn’t quite the end. He and his wife stayed together for a while, but Kidd filed for divorce in 2007. He cited extreme cruelty as the reason for the move, prompting his wife to counterclaim.

In her statement, Joumana said that Kidd abused her several times, some of which led to a broken rib and smashing her head into a car console. However, the league didn’t take action that time around, letting the couple deal with the disagreement on their own.

6. Len Bias’ Death

There have been many big NBA controversies surrounding players, especially around high profile athletes. One of the largest happened with Len Bias, the number 2 overall pick in the 1986 draft.

Bias, like so many lottery selections, had everything needed to succeed in professional sports. He was fast, strong, and had a versatile skill set that made him valuable on both sides of the ball. He also had a high vertical, great shot, and excellent speed.

Unfortunately, the two-time ACC Player of the Year also had a cocaine habit. While the league typically looked the other way on such activities back in the 80’s, everything came to a head when Bias passed away due to a drug-inspired heart attack just two days after the draft.

The shocking death rocked the sports world and completely changed the way the NBA handled drugs. They cracked down on the substances and did everything they could to clean up player habits moving forward.

7. A Player Chokes a Coach

Latrell Sprewell always had a hot head during his time in the NBA. He was known for his various on and off court antics and constantly got into altercations with players and coaches alike. Even so, the league tended to ignore his antics until a crazy incident in 1997.

During a practice with the Golden State Warriors, Sprewell got into an argument with head coach PJ Carlesimo. During the altercation, he choked the coach and threw him to the ground. He then kept on choking until other players pulled the 4-time all star off the coach.

That incident is one of the wildest fights between a player and a coach in league history, which led the NBA to take immediate action. They suspended Sprewell for the rest of the season, 68 games in total, and watched him carefully for the remainder of his career.

8. The Punch Heard Around the World

Though the NBA tends to be a tamer sport today, it wasn’t always that way. Fights and on-court problems used to be much more common. Though such incidents typically didn’t lead to any lasting issues, one of the worst altercations came on December 9, 1977.

During a game between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers, forward Kermit Washington grabbed Rocket’s center Kevin Kunnert’s shoulders as they were going up the floor. That led to a fight, which then quickly led to a much bigger brawl.

As things escalated, Rudy Tomjanovich came off the bench to break it up. Washington reacted to the newcomer by turning around and hitting him in the face. The impact dropped Tomjanovich immediately, knocking him unconscious, splitting his face, and causing several facial fractures.

Though Tomjanovich would come back after the brutal injury, Washington received a 60 day suspension for the fight and a $10,000 fine. It’s still one of the reasons the NBA is so strict about fighting on the court.

9. Refs and Illegal Bets

There are many types of scandals that can plague professional sports, but some of the most notorious center around gambling. Betting scandals directly impact the integrity of the game and damage general faith in the sport. That’s exactly what happened with Tim Donagny.

Donagny served as a longtime referee in the NBA before an FBI investigation with league cooperation found that he bet on games during the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons. He put money on many games that he called, which allowed him to influence their outcome.

That’s one of the only times the NBA has been embroiled with long term betting, and it’s one that wasn’t taken lightly. Donaghy served 15 months in jail and 3 years of supervised release.

He also mentioned that the NBA supported his fixing, allowing him to rig critical games or playoff series to bring in more money. However, such claims have never been supported by anyone else.

10. A On-Court (and In-Stands) Fight

There have been many fights throughout NBA history, but most of the time those occur between players. That changed in November 2004 when, during a game between the Pacers and Pistons, forward Ron Artest and center Ben Wallace got into an altercation.

After a hard foul, Wallace shoved Artest. Things quickly escalated after that contact and led to a full on brawl. During the quarrel, a fan named John Green threw a drink at Artest. In response, Artest went into the seats and grabbed another fan in the commotion.

That further raised the stakes, leading to an all out brawl both on the court and in the seats.The game was called early, 9 players faced suspension, more than $11 million in fines were handed out, and 5 players were charged with assault and a year of community service.

Now known as The Malice at the Palace, it’s one of the biggest controversies in NBA history and continues to be the only one to directly involve fans.


The NBA does a lot to maintain a clean image, but every now and then something slips through the cracks. There have been more than a few scandals throughout the league’s long history, which then reflected poorly on the NBA and soured public perception.

Some of the above incidents, such as the gambling and fights, continue to hold a dark cloud over the league. Others are largely forgotten. Either way, the NBA has gone a long way to mitigate such scandals and deals with them as swiftly as possible.

It’s impossible to stay completely clean when running a huge league, but the NBA does a lot with rules and regulations to try and make sure the above examples don’t happen in the future.

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