Riley is the only coach on this list but he’s here for a very good reason. He was in charge of the New York Knicks for one of the most exciting periods of their recent history. The Hall of Famer led the Knicks for four seasons in the early 1990s. They made the postseason every year and even played in the Finals but lost against the Rockets. It appeared as though they were in touching distance of a win but it never came.
Suddenly, Riley was gone. He sent a fax saying that he wanted total control over the team and a controlling stake in the franchise. Then, he went on a merry jaunt to Greece. Riley never coached the Knicks again because he took charge of the Miami Heat in 1995 (via Sportscasting). Meanwhile, Riley became an instant villain because fans resented the way he walked out on their team.
In hindsight, it’s remarkable that Bryant’s reputation recovered to the extent that the media almost deified him after his death. The incident in 2003 tarnished his image in the eyes of many because it was very shady. A 19-year-old hotel concierge accused him of violating her in his hotel room. Bryant was the NBA’s golden boy at the time but this instantly turned him into a villain.
The case didn’t go to trial because a judge believed the victim was unfit to face questioning. However, Bryant and his attorneys settled with her in a civil suit. “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way that I did,” Bryant said in an infamous statement. This came after he admitted to adultery (via ABC News).
In 2015, Jordan agreed to sign a new four-year contract with the Dallas Mavericks. The deal was worth $80 million and fans were excited to keep one of their best players. Meanwhile, Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban breathed a sigh of relief. But then Jordan stunned the NBA when he did a faster U-turn than a race car driver. The Brooklyn Nets swooped in and offered him $88 million over the same time period.
Jordan duly accepted and rode out of Texas like Lee Van Cleef in a Spaghetti Western. Instantly, he sealed his status as a villain in Dallas because he betrayed their trust. Incredibly, Jordan even acknowledged this because he tweeted an apology to Cuban (via Bleacher Report). However, the owner wasn’t impressed and refused to accept the apology. That’s because he didn’t think that Jordan even wrote it.
Usually, nobody blames a top player for leaving a weaker franchise at the end of their contract. But fans cannot accept it when athletes mess around and act as though they’re going to stay. That’s exactly what Howard did before he abandoned Orlando for the Lakers. He became a Magic hero when he inspired them to a Finals against his future team. But he became frustrated when they failed to build on this.
That’s understandable but his later antics were unforgivable. Howard’s demands effectively saw Orlando’s GM and head coach lose their jobs. Furthermore, he made it impossible for them to achieve his full trade value. Instantly, he became one of the most hated figures in the NBA (via Orlando Sentinel). Everybody in Orlando considers him a villain because of his lack of loyalty.
Arenas was the second half of one of the most moronic lockerroom incidents in sports history. After Javaris Crittenton annoyed him at a card game, the Wizards star came back with four unloaded guns. He told his teammate to pick one of them. But he didn’t expect Crittenton to whip out his own pistol and threaten him with it. The reason Arenas ranks higher is because he was a better player.
Allegedly, Arenas also threatened to burn Crittenton’s car with him in it. He was the face of the franchise at the time and a three-time All-Star. But this was the beginning of the end of his tenure in Washington. Needless to say, the league and local law enforcement didn’t take kindly to his antics. He received a lengthy suspension as well as two years’ probation (via USA Today).
The hometown hero instantly turned to villain when he made ‘The Decision.’ This became one of the most notorious moments in NBA history because of James’s stature in the sport. However, he decided that he wasn’t in a position to win a ring in his native Cleveland. That’s why he departed for Miami in 2010, where he earned two of them. But Cavs fans felt betrayed and burned his jerseys in the street (via Sportscasting).
Eventually, James returned and healed his relationship with his hometown after helping them to an elusive championship. They accepted his second departure to the Lakers and recognized the different circumstances. But his initial decision to leave provoked an incredibly visceral reaction. Fans hated him for the decision and the team owner made sure to rub it in.
There was a time when O’Neal was the best player in the NBA, but he overstayed his welcome in L.A. This is all about his relationship with Kobe Bryant or lack of one. O’Neal was the face of the Lakers but the rise of the “Black Mamba” threatened this status. That’s why ‘Shaq’ undermined his teammate and attempted to bully him as he came off as a villain. But Bryant’s brilliance continued to shine.
In the end, fans were relieved when O’Neal left the franchise for the Miami Heat. It was better for the team because the drama was gone. Shaq’s form had gradually deteriorated as injuries and age caught up with him. After Bryant’s death, O’Neal revealed his personal shame. “The thing that hurt me was all the stuff that I wanted to say, I hadn’t said it. I never said it,” he told USA Today.
There’s no denying that Leonard is one of the biggest mercenaries in the NBA. He goes from franchise to franchise in pursuit of rings and riches. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because elite athletes have short careers. But the manner in which he departed San Antonio definitely rankled their fanbase. They expected him to stay put when he ditched them for the Toronto Raptors.
Now some analysts believe that he is lowkey sneaky. “Kawhi Leonard is a guy who throws stones and hides his hand. And when it comes down to it, we have let him off the hook for too long,” ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins said. “He’s a guy that flies under the radar and has been doing sneaky stuff, been getting catered to, and just because he’s quiet we don’t address him.”
It’s ironic that the most-hated players were often the most loved. That’s the case of Durant who was an icon in Oklahoma City before he quit the franchise. When he departed, fans burnt and even blew up his jerseys because they felt such a sense of betrayal. The Golden State Warriors were delighted to bring the 10-time All-Star to the West Coast. But they didn’t know that he would betray them too.
His on-court feud with teammate Draymond Green in 2020 revealed what everybody knew (via Clutchpoints). Durant left for the Brooklyn Nets with a cloud hanging over him. The reason he provokes such a passionate reaction is that he’s a brilliant player. But he’s definitely out for himself which is something that fans can’t accept. That’s why he’s well and truly earned villain status.
It’s safe to say that the Brooklyn Nets didn’t expect this when they rolled the red carpet out for Irving. They attempted to create an instant contender by bringing Irving, Durant, and finally, James Harden to New York. Immediately, there was talk of a new NBA superteam but then Irving threw a spanner in the works. He missed most of his first season because of injuries.
Then the Nets fell short in the playoffs against the Bucks. However, Irving made the full transition to villain after refusing to accept a vaccine in 2021 (via FOX Sports). This went against New York state mandates and meant that the Nets couldn’t play him. It was a very frustrating position for the franchise because there was nothing that they could do except look at trade options.