When I was a kid, I had the privilege of watching guys like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant play basketball. What little these men lacked in talent, they almost always made up for with a certain mystique: an ability to instill fear and an unmatched talent for making their opposition feel terrible. Bryant and Garnett could talk trash like nobody’s business and in the National Basketball Association of the late ’90s and early 2000s, that skill was nearly as important as being able to set good screens or finish around the rim.
During my own high school varsity athletic career, primarily spent as a striker in soccer, I often found it valuable to emulate my favorite NBA stars. While standing still at set pieces or rushing down the sideline, I would, at times, say things in order to make opponents doubt themselves, their skills or their abilities to defend me.
While my love of trash talk might be the only thing I have in common with Kobe, I do think that there’s something gratifying on placing one’s pride on the line in a matchup. Nothing truly significant ever came of talking smack, neither for me nor for greats like Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller. But smack talk did and still does make the game a little more fun.
As much as we, as both spectators and competitors, attempt to portray athletic contests as friendly outpourings of sportsmanship and togetherness, it does seem to deny elements of inherent competitiveness that make our games what they are. When you step out onto a basketball court under the shining lights of an NBA coliseum or the dimly lit blacktop of your hometown neighborhood, you are putting your ego on the line.
I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for athletes who, rather than attempting to divorce themselves from that fact, put their pride on the line and told other guys “you know what, I’m better than you, and I’m going to beat you.” In virtually no setting other than sports is speaking that way acceptable, but competition provides us with a low-stakes opportunity to humble or be humbled.
Nobody’s ever died because they lost a soccer game, or starved because their opponent told them they’d get beaten up in the boxing ring. But some of humanity’s most amazing athletes did define their careers by talking trash and backing it up.
Muhammad Ali, a legend within and beyond the boxing world, might be the most legendary example of a great trash talker. I still remember his “I Am the Greatest” speech nearly word for word. When Ali, a kid in his 20s, stepped into the ring and beat guys like Sonny Liston and George Foreman, the world paid attention because Ali told them to.
While Ali’s greatest contributions to our country certainly came outside of sports, I still admire the late, great champion’s willingness to risk his pride to give the world a show. His trash talking, if nothing else, turned a fight into a spectacle.
But at the end of the day, I think what I love most about trash talk is the idea that it makes us play a little better, try a little harder and ultimately have a little more fun. The only thing I’ve ever lost on the soccer field or basketball court is some pride, but I’ve gained a lot more than that. Taking the opportunity to mouth off doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes you a competitor. While there’s certainly a time and a place for talking smack — and plenty of office pickup games or father-son sack races where it might not be terribly appropriate — I’d tell my friends to take advantage of the moments where they can get mouthy about their game.
So, next time you see me in the gym, or out on the field, feel free to tell me how you’re going to dunk on me or spin me out of my shoes. I’ll bring out my inner Rasheed Wallace, prove you wrong, and we’ll have some fun.
Marc Cugnon is a senior in Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .