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The most memorable altercations in Rockets history

Let’s revisit the Rockets’ most electrifying verbal and physical confrontations and everything in-between.

Basketball Players Fighting on Court

The Tim Anderson and Jose Ramirez pay-per-view event this past weekend inspired me to recount the most memorable altercations in Houston Rockets history. We’re talking fights, feuds, scuffles, brouhahas, kerfuffles and everything in between. Let’s get ready to rumble!!!

The cream of the crop

Rudy Tomjanovich almost meets his maker

December 9, 1977

The Scene: A brawl broke out near center court between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Rockets and Rudy T. runs to the ruckus in an attempt to play peacemaker...but then all of a sudden, the hand of God reigns down on poor Rudy as Kermit Washington infamously unleashes a devastating right hand.

Do you know how heavy of a hand you have to possess to make someone taste their own spinal fluid? The resulting aftermath from this single punch altered the landscape of fighting in the NBA and these two individuals from here on out. Washington received the longest suspension of his era (60 days = 26 games). Tomjanovich, with a broken jaw and nose, concussion, facial bones detached from his skull and overall lucky to survive, missed the rest of the season.

From that point forward, punches meant an automatic ejection. The league added a third referee to the lineup. Washington ended up traded just two weeks after the brawl. Was there ever a doubt that this would top the list?

1986 Finals Brawl

June 5, 1986

The Scene: What’s better than a basketball fight? How about a PLAYOFF basketball fight!? It’s the 1986 NBA Finals and the competitive juices can’t be any higher. 7’4” Ralph Sampson doesn’t like how the Boston Celtics’ 6’1” (LOL) Jerry Sichting is battling in the post, so he takes a swing at him.

Has there every been a bigger size discrepancy for a fight? If you know of one, please let me know in the comments. Sichting isn’t the only guard who wants smoke though, as he’s joined by 6’4” Dennis Johnson until their larger teammate, Bill Walton, tackles Sampson to the ground.

Sampson manages to gets his licks in as he draws some blood out of DJ. The Rockets won the Game 5 111-96 behind 32 points from Hakeem (Akeem at the time) Olajuwon. What’s really funny is that Olajuwon was in there swinging too, yet still managed to play 47 minutes. I’m not quite old enough to remember a time when you could fire off some punches and still stay in the game.


The wee hours of January 16, 2018

The Scene: Per Adrian Wojnarowski, Chris Paul led many Rockets through back channels to confront his former team, the Los Angeles Clippers. Now see, this was Paul’s first game back at the Staples Center versus L.A. and the game had been very chippy. Austin Rivers was running his mouth. Paul and Blake Griffin didn’t get along. It’s safe to say that Lob City was very much dead.

Fast forward to after the game, a 113-102 victory for the Clippers, and the Point Gawd, along with many of his new pals, embarked on some hijinks. James Harden, Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green pushed their way to the Clippers locker room as Clint Capela ran decoy at the front door.

While security managed to thwart this ambush before any blows could be thrown, what really took it over the top was the response from the NBA on TNT crew. The comedic duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley losing their mind over Ros Gold-Onwude’s reports of a “police presence” is what ultimately elevated this fracas into infamy.

Chris Paul vs Rajon Rondo...and Brandon Ingram in a duel that was a long time coming

October 20, 2018

The scene: Chris Paul just has a way of getting under people’s skin. The truth is that he’s kinda an asshole on the court. Off the court he’s a terrific guy, but on the court, asshole. Can you blame him? If you’re that undersized and that competitive, you have to bring a certain edge to the table to be as great as he has been.

Anyways, Paul and archenemy, Rajon Rondo, found themself in a bit of a disagreement, which led to Paul putting his finger in Rondo’s face, alas punches being thrown. Upon review, it appears that Rondo, also known to be an asshole, gleeked some saliva over to Paul’s way, which prompted the poke.

To their credit, both guys connected on their swings, which is surprisingly rare considering the eye-hand coordination required to excel in sports. What happened next was very funny. Hailing out of Kinston, NC, the Lakers’ Brandon Ingram ran into the scene to show off his wingspan as he swung at Paul. I almost forgot that he started this melee.

Ingram was just itching for a fight as he was frustrated from Harden initiating a foul call just seconds prior. As Harden pleaded for a shooting foul, Ingram two-hand pushed him away and that’s how Rondo and Paul ended up face-to-face.

Sir Charles goes off the heezy of Shaqeezy

November 10, 1999

The Scene: Another Lakers and Rockets face-off, what's up with that? While this wasn’t quite the rumble that it could have been, the larger than life personalities of both parties elevates it on my board. Chuck’s stare after boinking the ball off of Shaq’s large cranium gets me every time. Marv Albert on the call just amplifies it too.

Barkley was very much on his last legs at this stage of his career, but he was always ready to scrap until the end, and I can appreciate that. Barkley’s take down was as textbook as textbook can be as it goes for a man of Shaq’s size.

Thankfully for us, these days they can joke about this tussle. Just look at them now, nearly a quarter of a century later, making some of the best TV out there.

Hakeem the hothead

The franchise’s greatest star gets his own section for good reason. Equipped with a bad temper, Hakeem Olajuwon found himself in numerous combats across the years (see 1986 Finals). However, a rededication to his Islamic faith helped quell The Dream mid-way through his career, and the now-calmer big man went on to make wonderful history.

But for those who don’t remember the less-zen version of Olajuwon, have a look-see.

Hakeem vs Mitch Kupchak

March 21, 1986

The scene: The most notable of Olajuwon’s spars. He definitely connected on some of those swings before the ref and other Lakers (Again?! What is up with these guys?) swarm him for the gang tackle. This being Kupchak’s last game and an elimination game is just brutal, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

Also, they don’t make non-combat sport refs like this anymore. I can’t imagine many taller tasks than separating two giants that are out for blood. Kudos to that guy.

Olajuwon vs Billy Paultz

April 28, 1985

The scene: Okay, I’ll admit this was equally funny and also uncalled for on Dream’s part. I didn’t see much there that required him to just casually pop Paultz in the face like that. The lack of retaliation is also very confusing here, but it was kinda hard to go back at Olajuwon when Ralph Sampson just waltzes to the rim for an uncontested slam. One wonders, should Dream be credited with an assist here?

Paultz ultimately gets the last laugh here as the Utah Jazz go on to knock the Rockets out of the playoffs and advance to the next round.

Olajuwon vs John Shasky

December 27, 1988

The scene: This scuffle seemed avoidable too as Olajuwon took exception to Shasky’s foul. The backup center for the expansion Miami Heat team appeared to try and hold up his counterpart after coming down on him with both arms. It wasn’t much of a hard foul for the era, but Dream was not amused and decided to show off his off-hand right in Shasky’s face.

Proceeding some time stoppage, Shasky responded with a dunk on the other end, but the Rockets prevailed over the inferior team.

Olajuwon vs Antonio McDyess

March 7, 1998

The scene: If I could read lips correctly (I can’t), I think Dream told McDyess that there can only be one number 34. No serious damage was done as you can see. The Rockets ended up winning 108-89, so I’ll score this for Olajuwon.

Mad Max: Made for Mayhem

Vernon Maxwell, the man who wouldn’t stand down to anybody, and I mean ANYBODY. Not Hakeem, not Gary Payton, not even some guy on the Chicago Bulls, last name “Jordan”. It was Matt, I think? Or was it Matthew? Hmm, that sounds right. Matt Jordan.

Here’s a nearly nine-minute supercut of Vernon Maxwell altercations.

Anyways, as much as Mad Max’s fury has been chronicled over the years, it’s always been impressive to me how versatile he is when it comes to feuding. Of course he had the run-of-the-mill encounters with opposing players, but how often do we come across someone that really abides by the mantra “anybody can get it”?

For instance:

Maxwell enters the stands

February 6, 1995

The scene: Say you paid some money for some good seats at the game, does that make you off limits for some fisticuffs? Not if you get into it with Mad Max. Now I’m fine and dandy with a good heckling, but once you go over the line, I think you should be prepared for anything.

The heckler in question allegedly yelled some pretty nasty insults towards Maxwell, and for that, he got what he was asking for. Maxwell ended up with a 10-game suspension and a $20,000 fine, but he did what needed to be done.

Do we think that fan heard the Seinfeld theme song going through his head before or after he got hit? It’s a shame that it wasn’t Larry David being interviewed in that video because the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme would have been the chef’s kiss.

Vernon Maxwell vs the state of Utah

September 12, 1965 - The end of time

This is by far my favorite ongoing beef. That hexagonal-shaped state just has nothing to top whatever jabs Max has for them. The origins of the feud go back to Maxwell’s playing days, but I'd like to think that he was born destined to hate Utah.

Will we ever see Maxwell take his foot off their necks? It looks like he's having too much fun, so I sure hope not!

Maxwell almost stabbed Olajuwon???

The Source? Vernon Maxwell himself. Remember earlier when Chuck and Shaq were giggling about “police presence”? If there was ever a scenario that required it, it’s right here. I don’t think any words I can write about this situation would do it more justice than Max telling you himself, so just watch him explain it to Gilbert Arenas in the video above.

Honorable Mentions

I thought I would add some personal favorites before we close this out. None of them too serious, just a little seasoning on top.

Shaq does some shoving

November 13, 2008

The scene: This really was nothing more than a shoving match as it started with Rafer Alston and Matt Barnes getting in each others face. What I remember the most about it is Shaq just comically clearing EVERYONE as he played peacemaker. Even at 36, with thousands of miles of wear on his tires, the big fella was still a unit. Down went McGrady. Down went Yao. Just an absolute unit.

Skip To My Lou acts a fool on Sasha Vujačić

March 16, 2008

The scene: Another shoving match instigated by Alston. However, he played his tail off this game, embarrassing the Lakers with 31 points and eight threes. With that, his alter ego “Skip To My Lou”, came out to celebrate.

In the waning minute of a 104-92 Rockets win, the And1 legend broke out his patented handles on Vujačić, resulting in a take foul. Again, no violence occurred, but the showmanship was a treat to see.

Russell Westbrook barks at babies in The Bubble

September 12, 2020

The scene: Please just entertain me here. I’m very aware that this is a doctored video and that Russ wasn’t actually yelling at children. However, this edit never fails to make me laugh. The truth is that he was going back and forth with Rajon Rondo’s brother, but that doesn’t hide the point that the only people in the stands were family members of the players as this was during The Bubble.

Either way, I’m advocating for more youth heckling going forward. We saw how effective Diar DeRozan was not so long ago.

All-time brawl starting five

Hypothetical here: Let’s say you’re at the Toyota Center and a Malice at the Palace situation occurs and you need five former Rockets to clear the way towards your safety. Let’s give it a catchy name, how about Toyotathon? Who do you have on your team that will ensure your survival. Here’s my squad:

C - Hakeem Olajuwon

See credentials above.

PF - Nenê

I’m of the mindset that anyone who just goes by one name is a pretty big deal and there’s no exception here. His minutes came at center for the Rockets, but I’m sliding him down here for some extra muscle. The big man from Brazil stonewalled many players during his career and I’m certain that he would have his way if all hell were to break out.

SF - Ron Artest

While his Rockets tenure only lasted one season, there probably isn’t another player in the history of the league that is more well-equipped for this task.

SG - Vernon Maxwell

See credentials above.

PG - Russell Westbrook

Like Artest, Russ was only here for a year. There were some other options to run point for my All-Brawl squad, but my vision for The Brodie is to act as a roamer. Westbrook lurking in the shadows would be the best utilization for one of the most athletic players to ever grace the sport.