January 20, 2013 by Shane Diesel
Until recently, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the art of “trashtalking”. The KG vs. Melo feud is dominating the headlines right now but trash talking has been going on since James Naismith was throwing soccer balls into fruit baskets. Labeling trash talking an “art”, depending on whom you ask, is debatable in itself. I argue that the masters of trash talking have a skill comparable to a lethal jump shot or a devastating crossover. This skill is unique because it transcends the physical. The other side might argue it’s just senseless bullying but it is nevertheless a part of all competition; a fundamental aspect of sports culture that everyone has experienced in one-way or another.
We love to psychoanalyze athletes, and for good reason. The mind is a very mysterious place. It’s something that extends to all sports. Look at slumping baseball players for example. The issue isn’t that they forgot how to hit a fastball; the problem is all in their head. Same thing can be said for struggling jump shooters or strikers in a rut. Sometimes thinking can be an athlete’s worst enemy. There are really good athletes that are smart and equally talented players that are incredibly stupid. The greatest athletes, however, are a balance of both; they are cerebral enough to analyze any situation yet dumb enough to let pure instinct and athleticism take over when needed. It’s a zen kind of dumb, i.e., clearing your mind of all rational decision making (Kobe is great at this). The master trash-talkers can take a balanced athlete and push them toward a mental extreme.
Its worth looking at just how powerful talking a little smack can function. Take the great LeBron James for example. LBJ’s first season with the Heat after “The Decision” was marked with a considerable amount of hostility. LeBron faced criticism from all angles; he went from golden boy to villain overnight. Everybody was talking shit, be it fans, critics, player, hell the entire state of Ohio. We saw a different side of LBJ for the 2011-12 season. He seemed to carry himself in a defensive manner all season, ultimately leading up to his famous disappearing act in the Finals. Did one of the greatest basketball players in the world suddenly forget how to play ball? Lose his talent? No, the physical ability never left, it was his psyche that crumbled.
This wasn’t your conventional trash-talking affair, but more a result of a culmination of things outside the realm of normal trash-talking. Talking smack isn’t necessarily an in-your-face attack. Sometimes it’s much more deliberate and calculated. Shit-talkers can get into your head well before the game and linger days after, embodying both the properties of an uncomfortable date and the slow squeeze of a pair of testicles by a hand that has just been in a refrigerator. The LeBron example goes to show that merely exploiting his weak psyche can disarm even the most physically gifted of athletes with one of the highest basketball IQs in the league.
There was another instance last season during a road game vs. Detroit when microphones on the announcer’s table picked up LBJ telling a fan to stop heckling him because it was getting too “personal”. Are you kidding me King James, a drunken fan had you frazzled? After the game, Hostess called wanting to know if they could use James’s psyche to fill Twinkies. There are a few different reactions to trash-talking but in LeBron’s case, when I think of his mental fortitude, I think of Calgon commercials. LeBron is a classic case of a very intelligent athlete who, when push come to shove, does not quite possess the mental strength of tuning out all the excess around him. When pushed to an extreme he disappears, abandoning his well balanced game.
The most recent shit-talking episode that’s reached the public occurred between Boston’s Kevin Garnett and New York’s Carmelo Anthony. KG is widely known as one of the more vocal trash-talkers in the NBA. Garnett is one of the masters of trash-talking due to his ability to completely take you out of your game while elevating his own at the same time.
Melo complained that KG “crossed the line”, citing that Garnett got too personal. C’mon Melo, there’s no such thing as getting “too personal” when it comes to talking shit. I assume KG would agree; he allegedly called Charlie Villanueva a “cancer patient” during a game in 2010. Villanueva has a condition called alopecia universalis, a medical condition that results in total hair loss.
I’ve never met him but I’m inclined to think that Kevin Garnett isn’t such a bad guy. He’s just one of a select few that has both mastered the art of trash-talking and has the talent to back it up. Garnett has been asked about his smack talking ways, he said, “I’m a passionate player. If you don’t like the way I am … I play this way the last 15, 16 years. I leave it on the court”. The masters of the craft can truly make you feel their words even if they may not believe what they’re saying themselves. It’s not personal to KG, just a part of his psychological warfare. Once the buzzer sounds, the wars over and he just leave it on the court. It’s not so simple for the weak minded, as evident in Anthony’s reaction.
It’s unknown what KG said to Melo that made him lose his cool but it’s clear Carmelo took it personally. At the end of the day it’s all just words but the true shit-talker makes you believe that they’ve got a genuine beef with you. That’s the game they play. Once you engage with the trash-talker, he’s got you.You’re in his world now and he’s the architect, constructing a place where you’re about as hopeless as Rocky reaching the Phily Museum Of Art running up Penrose’s staircase. Anthony finished the game with 20 points, 6 for 26 shooting (.23%) with 5 personal fouls and 1 technical foul in a losing effort by the Knicks. KG turned one of the NBA’s purest scorers into Brian Cardinal on a good day!
Take Garnett and his strategic mental assault out of the equation and Anthony is the leagues second leading scorer, averaging 29.2 points a game at .46%. Garnett took Melo out of the game by exploiting his soft and fragile mentality and pushing him to an extreme. He made it a one on one battle between himself and Melo. All the while KG is in total control the whole time.Michael Jordan was no stranger to the art of trash-talking, in fact, he might just be the Picasso of putting Darryl’s in their place. MJ was lauded as one of the best trash-talkers and its no wonder why. He was in his opponent’s heads before they even entered the building. Jordan had the ability to pick apart his opponent’s psyche while using any retaliation as motivation for his already unrelenting drive. When opponents faced MJ they had to stand up to him both physically and mentally. Jordan’s ability to get in his opponent’s head could even disrupt an entire team. He knew if he could get you to take his smack talk as a one-on-one confrontation, then it would disrupt the team concept.
Not many mortals are going to win a 1 on 1 battle with MJ, let alone execute a team offense. This is what master trash-talkers do, they disrupt and manipulate. Once you play into their trap, your game will start to fall apart faster than Okonkwo did.
So, lets not wave our finger at these trash-talkers for doing something bad, but rather we should praise these masters with the gift of gab for being really good.