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Talk is cheap. Everyone knows that. As American citizens, we are guaranteed the right to say whatever the heck we want. (See: the First Amendment to the Constitution.) In the realm of professional sports, however, talk can be very, very expensive. (See: Doc Rivers’ $25,000 fine for criticizing referees and being ejected from Monday’s loss against the Hawks.)
Once an athlete or coach inks a contract with a professional team, he loses the right to publicly express discontent with anything having to do with his league. Is it wrong for Doc to have stood up for Glen Davis, whose flagrant foul was later rescinded? No. As a coach, Doc is responsible for the well-being of his players. The NBA, however, is responsible for protecting the well-being of the referees whom Doc threatened, thus prompting the fine. So everybody has everybody else’s back, even if the backlash involves a monetary setback.
But what athletes do not lose is their right to privately express their discontent. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the world of trash talk. A recent Sports Illustrated NBA player’s poll found that an overwhelming 62% of 173 players surveyed reported that Kevin Garnett is the NBA’s biggest trash talker. Watching Garnett play, one would never guess that he is such a rabble-rouser. His intensity is menacing, but his play and his actions come across as very controlled and deliberate. I bet his trash talk follows suit.
Unlike baseball or football, basketball gives players ample opportunities to subtly trash talk. Baseball is so slow that first basemen regularly have full-blown conversations with opposing base runners. An opponent could be stuck on first for an indefinite amount of time, so it’s probably not in his best interest to heckle the first baseman.
In the NFL, I can imagine that trash talk flows freely when guys get piled up, or maybe downfield between a receiver and cornerback, but the play clock inhibits any sort of milling around between plays.
In the NBA, a player is constantly matched up against the same guy(s) on the opposing team, be it running up and down the floor or lining up for a free throw, which provides plenty of time for some caustic chit-chat.
OK, so back to KG. The guy has been around the block a few times. He has earned the right to run his mouth a little bit. If KG banks a fade away jumper in your face and wants to tell you about it, that’s fine. And if you do something he doesn’t like, he will let you know. Dikembe Mutumbo silently talked smack by waving his finger. KG is more of a vocal type.
The next highest vote-getter in the poll, with a whopping 7%, is Kobe, followed by Rasheed Wallace (5%) and Paul Pierce and Nate Robinson (3% each). We will deal with Nate in a minute. As for KG, Kobe, Rasheed and Pierce, all are seasoned vets who have won an NBA championship. Each of those guys established himself first with his play and then with a ring (or, for Kobe, rings), thereby earning them the right to speak their joys and frustrations to opponents.
There are, of course, notable exceptions to that theory. Tim Duncan certainly minds his manners. Dwyane Wade seems pretty chill. But that goes back to the thing about having teammates’ backs. The Celtics have the one of the most superstar-laden, and arguably hated, lineups in the league, so of course they are going to catch lip from their opponents. The most proven (with the exception of Ray Allen) and outspoken Celtics must bear the burden of giving that lip right back, and fortunately there are three guys who are more than willing to do so. The idea of trash talk has a negative connotation, but maybe it’s not all bad.
Has it been a minute? Let’s get back to Nate. Robinson has shown that he is freakishly athletic and capable of putting up big numbers (he exploded for 41 points on New Year’s Day), but his production over his four and a half years in the NBA hasn’t quite given him the right to yap with the aforementioned guys. Nate is pretty cocky and very frustrated in New York, which is a surefire combo for him to run his mouth. I would guess that 96% of Nate’s trash talk relates directly to himself. I would like to think that the Celtics’ yappers have a bit more of a team-oriented approach. Boston is a brotherhood.
Trash talk, when done under the radar, will always be a part of the NBA. There is essentially no way to stop it. What are players going to do, tattle to Stern? Frankly, as fans, we don’t know half of what is said on the court. It is clear to us, however, that the Celtics are a pretty tight-knit group of guys, and if that bond is underscored by a little (ok, maybe a lot) of trash talk, then so be it.