Boxer Muhammad Ali was arguably the greatest trash talker in history. But even he has admitted all the famous rhymes about floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee were more about promoting fights than getting inside an opponent’s head. Modern day pugilists Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. have continued this tradition, insulting and threatening opponents in pre-fight press conferences, but it’s the stars of the NBA who have elevated trash talking to new heights in an attempt to get under an opponent’s skin.
Brooklyn Nets coach Lionel Hollins, who coaches one of the league’s best-known trash talkers in Kevin Garnett, says there’s good reason. “Trash talking works,” Hollins admits. “I’ve heard Larry Bird talk trash, Charles Barkley, Michael [Jordan], all those guys. It’s just part of sports, part of competition.” With a wink and a smile, Garnett will deny everything, but former teammate Paul Pierce says Garnett is guilty, and for good reason. “Why? Because you get under people’s skin,” Pierce said. “That’s what trash talking is. It’s psychological warfare. It’s the game within the game.”
As the only point guard ever to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Gary Payton built a reputation as one of the best players, and trash talkers, of all time. Payton admits he tried to get into the heads of his opponents and believes mental toughness is as important as physical play. His mouth often got him into trouble, but Payton maintains he used trash talk as a tool and never crossed the line. “I never take it too far,” Payton said. “I just try to talk and get their mind off the game, and turn their attention on me.”
Former Indiana Pacers Guard Reggie Miller unhinged the New York Knicks with 25 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, all while trash talking the entire Knicks team and filmmaker Spike Lee, who sat courtside. The two teams squared off again the very next year and Miller’s mouth kept running. In fact, Miller’s talk got inside Knicks Guard John Starks’ head so deep, Starks head-butted Miller and got himself thrown out of a critical game. “Hey, I was only doing my job,” Miller recounted. “70% of everything I said on the court was just to get myself motivated. [The other 30% was] to see if I could get inside my opponent’s head.”