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Talking trash: just plain, old NBA garbage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Danny Ainge whines, but that's not the same.

Bill Laimbeer bitches, but that's not the same.

Patrick Ewing glares, but it's still not the same.

Charles Barkley. Kevin McHale. Larry Bird. They're the same.

They woof. They challenge. They get down to some serious dissin'.

They talk trash. At times, constantly.

Sometimes for fun. Sometimes for motivation. But always to make a point.

In the National Basketball Association, with its cozy playing surface and up-close man-to-man defenses, the verbal joust has found a place alongside the physical joust.

"This year," Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone said, "there has been a lot more talking. If guys spent as much time working on their game, their teams would have a better record."

For some, the motivation is the conversation.

"Sometimes, there are direct challenges," Phoenix Suns forward Kurt Rambis said. "Other times, they do it to be funny. But sometimes, you don't know which it is, like when [former Lakers guard] Michael Cooper used to do it, telling guys, 'You can't score on me.'"

For the most part, the players who talk the talk also are the ones who can walk the walk. Rarely does a rookie get too long at the mouth, ergo the reduced bravado of Seattle SuperSonics rookie point guard Gary Payton. Even Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan was caught off-guard earlier this season when Miami Heat rookie Willie Burton got down to some serious woofing in the teams' first meeting.

At one point, Heat coach Ron Rothstein quipped to Jordan that he said he would go easy on his team. Recalled Jordan: "I said, 'Hey, that was until your rookies started talking trash to me.' "

In an informal poll conducted during the past three months, no player came close to matching the trash-talking reputation of Philadelphia 76ers forward Charles Barkley.

"Most of the guys are pretty calm," Bulls center Bill Cartwright said. "If I had to name anyone, maybe Barkley."

"Yeah, I guess if I had to mention one, it would be Barkley," Atlanta Hawks guard Sidney Moncrief said. "But he backs it up."

"I've never really been part of it," Rambis said. "But there are guys like Barkley who always talk on the court, not necessarily trash, but just being funny."

Ainge, who played amid the chatter of Bird and McHale in Boston, not only singled out Barkley as a personal favorite, but had no trouble singling out his favorite Barkley anecdote.

"I'll never forget a line Barkley had when we were playing the All-Star Game in '88 in Chicago," said Ainge, now a Portland Trail Blazers reserve guard. "Barkley and McHale were the forwards, on the floor together, and Kevin goes to the basket and gets a foul call, and Barkley doesn't like the call. Barkley didn't think Kevin got fouled. And he says to [referee] Jake O'Donnell, 'Come on Jake, don't give him that call, this isn't Boston Garden.'

"And these guys were on the same team. I was laughing and Kevin was joking about it, but Jake wasn't really happy about it.

"Then later, I remember Barkley sitting on the bench, telling [East coach Mike] Fratello how he's supposed to be MVP and he's sitting on the bench."

By and large, most woofing is humorous. Barkley has been known to work the crowd at the foul line like a comic in the Catskills. "You're not supposed to talk when you're in there," Rambis said. "But some guys are always talking as they're lined up."

In a way, the lineup alongside the key before a free throw is the equivalent of baseball's first-base get-togethers.

"Sometimes, you only play a team twice a year," Ainge said, "so you may get to talk to someone only once a year."

But when the action resumes, the trash talk, though laced with humor, also comes with some very real bravado.

"I know when McHale used to score on double- and triple-teams," Ainge said, "he would make comments like, 'I should get four points for scoring on you' or 'Come on down and help guard me, these guys can't guard me down low.'

"He used to tell Maurice Cheeks [then with the 76ers], 'Come down and guard me. Moses [Malone] can't guard me alone.'"

Malone is another who has been known for his low-post conversations.

"I think the guys who talk trash to each other," Ainge said, "are the guys who are more playful than serious."

Most, though, agree the challenges come primarily in the pivot, when big men often are groping for position. On the perimeter, the relations are a bit more distant.

"If you're out there and say something," Rambis said, "they'll just dribble right past you."

While etiquette suggests rookies don't woof at their seniors, the opposite is considered part of NBA decorum.

"I seldom saw Larry or Kevin talk trash to big-game opponents," Ainge said. "I don't think I ever saw Larry talk trash to Magic Johnson or anybody like that. I think it was something to get him more fired up or to get the opponent more fired up, you know, for a challenge."

Seven-foot-7 Philadelphia center Manute Bol, cited by Rambis as another voice of constant on-court reasoning, has been known to put his share of newcomers in their place after one of his awkward-but-effective blocked shots. "Don't they have cable TV where you live?" is the familiar refrain.

But even Jordan, caught off-guard by Burton's challenges, understands there is no point in creating a headache.

"I never pick out the star and get him fired up," he said. "If anything, I'm going to talk to the guys on the bench who never play.

"McHale used to do it a lot when I first got in the league. I never really said anything back until I earned their respect. McHale would talk and Larry would talk and I would just listen and play."

Some, though, can't just sit idly by. Minnesota coach Bill Musselman, for example, often belittles opponents by shouting their weaknesses to his players. Once, that meant making 'Wolves point guard Pooh Richardson aware that Warriors point guard Tim Hardaway supposedly didn't have much of an outside shot.

"He likes to use that psychology, that garbage stuff," Hardaway said. "He's always talking. That garbage ain't going to work. You ought to tell him that. Tell him that garbage stuff doesn't work on me."

For all the dissin' in the NBA, "it's not like you find it on the playground," Moncrief said. "And it's certainly not like it is in football, where every statement is vicious with the intention to intimidate."

The best retort to a woofer?

"You go back at them quietly," Cartwright said, "quietly but effectively."

Or you just don't get involved in talking trash in the first place.

"If you're like me," Rambis said, "you're breathing too hard to say anything, anyway."

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