Ranking Boston's greatest sports villains, with Kyrie on the mind


Ranking Boston’s greatest sports villains, with Kyrie on the mind originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Everyone loves a good villain. Without Lex Luthor, Superman is just kind of a self-righteous drip. Without Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker is merely a petulant brat whining about power converters. Without the Wicked Witch or Hannibal Lecter … you get the idea.

Boston sports has seen its share of villains, dating back to Harry Frazee and his sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, birthing one dynasty and burying another. The mere presence of a player, coach, or executive we love to hate immediately ratchets up the drama – finally vanquishing the Yankees in 2004 felt extra special because we knew George Steinbrenner had to watch it.

This brings us to the 2024 NBA Finals, which ostensibly pit the Celtics vs. the Mavericks, but are really just as much about Boston vs. Kyrie Irving. The traitorous guard packed a multitude of sins into his short Celtics tenure, and he undoubtedly will be the focus of ire when Game 1 tips off in TD Garden on Thursday.

But where does he rank among Boston’s biggest villains of the last 50 years? In honor of Irving’s No. 11, here are the top 11 scoundrels, malefactors, and reprobates in Boston sports history. (If you’re wondering why Bernard Pollard, destroyer of Patriots, doesn’t make the list, it’s because his knockout blows of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski lacked intent, unlike some others on this list).

11. John Henry

A recent addition that five years ago would’ve been unthinkable. John Henry, overseer of four World Series titles, a villain?

Ever since the firing of Dave Dombrowski, though, Henry has morphed into the worst kind of owner – absentee, disengaged, miserly. The Red Sox have become irrelevant on his watch, more concerned with the rest of their vast portfolio than the club that puts the “Fenway” in FSG.

Transform a marquee franchise into an afterthought through conscious (in)action, and yeah, you’re a villain.

10. David Price

He manned up in the 2018 playoffs and the Red Sox don’t win a World Series without him, but Price was so poisonously miserable in Boston that he deserves special mention.

Calling out the iconic, unimpeachable Dennis Eckersley – who happens to be one of the nicest, most genuine people you’ll ever meet – was bad enough. Price’s defiance made it worse. There were members of the Red Sox front office and coaching staff who feared that apologizing to Eckersley would filter back to Price and destroy their standing in the clubhouse.

There’s a word for that, and it is, “Yuck.”

9. Roger Clemens

It’s not that the Rocket left in free agency, because that’s as much a Dan “Twilight of his Career” Duquette decision as a Clemens one. It’s everything that happened afterwards.

Clemens began free agency by saying he wanted to play closer to his Texas home before taking the highest dollar from the Blue Jays, who play in Canada. He eventually found his way not only to the Yankees, but to the heart of baseball’s steroids scandal. By the time he faced Pedro Martinez in a memorable 1999 ALCS matchup, he might’ve been the most hated athlete in Boston.

Time has softened those wounds, but let us never forget the impromptu call and response of, “Where is Roger? … In the shower!” at Fenway that afternoon.

8. Bill Parcells

The Tuna blitzed through New England like a meteor – a scheming, prideful, grocery-shopping-aggrieved meteor.

He actually arrived not under Robert Kraft, but James Orthwein, the Anheuser-Busch magnate who wanted to move the franchise to St. Louis. Parcells immediately clashed with Kraft, and by the time the Pats reached Super Bowl XXXI vs. the heavily favored Packers, Parcells was already in the process of trying to find a back door out of his contract. He ended up joining the hated Jets and stealing the Patriots’ best player, running back Curtis Martin.

Prior to Foxboro’s Super Bowl Era, nothing topped the annual Tuna Bowls for intensity and drama.

7. Bill Laimbeer

Everything about Laimbeer was hateable, from his privileged Notre Dame leer to his preppy hair to the Hannibal Lecter facemask he wore on the court. Laimbeer was the old guy at the Y who compensates for being a step slow with sharp elbows and constant clutching, grabbing and mauling.

A proud irritant, Laimbeer reveled in leveling opponents. Robert Parish couldn’t take it anymore and decked him. Larry Bird fired a ball at him.

Laimbeer was the face of the Bad Boy Pistons and even became a punchline on Cheers, when Kevin McHale peered at an X-ray labeled “adult male gorilla” and noted, “That’s not me. Could be Laimbeer, though.”

6. Pat Riley

Call this one a lifetime achievement award. During the ’80s, Riley presented the Hollywood counterpoint to the lunchpail Celtics, all slicked hair and tailored suits and American Psycho smarm.

He constantly worked the officials when the Celtics beat up on his Showtime Lakers, and he celebrated two titles in Boston Garden. Then came his second act as Knicks coach, where he nearly ruined basketball with the unwatchable bully-ball style marked by Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason.

Now he’s the don of the Heat, Boston’s annual nemeses, looming courtside and somehow finding ways to win long after losing LeBron James. It would be admirable if it wasn’t so damn frustrating.

5. Jack Tatum

“Villain” doesn’t even begin to describe Tatum’s place in Boston sports history. “Pure evil” might be better.

He paralyzed Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley with an unnecessarily brutal hit in a preseason game in 1978, stood over his broken body, and then not only never apologized, but wrote a memoir, “They Call Me Assassin” that celebrated his destructiveness. He belongs in a separate category of malevolence.

4. Roger Goodell

You can say he was simply doing the bidding of the league’s other owners or trying to make up for his perceived shortcomings during Spygate, but Goodell willingly played the heavy during Deflategate, the scandal that consumed Patriots fans for months.

Whatever Tom Brady did or didn’t do to those footballs, we can all agree it didn’t merit appeals that reached the goal line of the Supreme Court. Goodell remains persona non grata in New England, and that will never change.

3. Ulf Samuelsson

You had to live it to appreciate the tragedy of Samuelsson’s dirty hit on Cam Neely during the 1991 NHL playoffs. The knee-to-knee collision created a degenerative condition that sidelined Neely for most of the next two seasons and ended his career at age 31, though not before he returned to score 50 goals in 49 games in 1994.

Samuelsson didn’t care. He embraced his reputation as one of the league’s dirtiest players – a stick to the eye six years earlier also ended the career of Montreal forward Pierre Mondou – and Bruins fans just wish the referees hadn’t intervened so quickly when Neely dropped the gloves with Samuelsson in 1993.

Neely got some straight lefts to the head, but karmic justice would be doled out two years later by a Tie Domi sucker punch that knocked out Samuelsson cold.

2. Alex Rodriguez

Hard to believe it has been more than 20 years since the Red Sox spent an entire fall engaged in the will-they-or-won’t-they pursuit of Rodriguez, only to watch him join the rival Yankees when their deal collapsed at the 11th hour.

Coming on the heels of Aaron Bleeping Boone, the A-Rod news felt cosmically unfair. The animosity only intensified when Jason Varitek shoved his catcher’s mitt in Rodriguez’s face during the 2004 season, and then when Rodriguez slapped Bronson Arroyo’s glove in underhanded fashion during the playoffs.

Add some whining about David Ortiz and his own shameful behavior during the steroid era, and A-Rod is an all-time villain.

1. Kyrie Irving

Recency bias? Nope. Irving forced his way out of Cleveland because he was tired of playing sous chef to LeBron James, which should’ve been a red flag. Even when things were going well in Boston, Irving presented as a self-absorbed know-it-all.

Then came the knee injury that ended his 2018 season in March, his disappearance before Game 7 against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, his promise to stay in Boston followed by angry proclamations that he didn’t owe anyone bleep, his public dalliances with Kevin Durant, the constant sniping at young teammates, quitting on the Celtics in the 2019 playoffs, his escape to Brooklyn, his return to Boston twice in the playoffs, flipping off Garden fans, and finally, his place as the final impediment to Banner 18.

Irving is the ultimate villain because he almost destroyed the Celtics from within and without, and the next chapter in this saga will be written by the end of this month.

Losing an NBA title this year would be crushing enough, but losing to Irving would be devastating beyond words.



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