In NBA playoffs, taunting hurts more than feelings


New York -- It wasn't enough that Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen had delivered the highlight of this year's NBA playoffs, viciously dunking over the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing. But instead of continuing play, Pippen straddled Ewing and glared at him as he lay on the floor, earning a technical foul.

A blocked shot by Dikembe Mutombo led the Denver Nuggets center to shake his finger in the face of Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, essentially saying, "not in my house."

Ever since former NBA great Magic Johnson entered the league with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979, basketball players have become more demonstrative. But as incidents in this year's NBA playoffs have shown, Johnson's on-the-court enthusiasm has given way to players whose intent is to embarrass opponents:

* Knicks guard Derek Harper said the taunting by Bulls reserve Jo Jo English sparked an ugly, bench-clearing brawl in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The brawl, which spilled into the courtside crowd and right in front of commissioner David Stern, resulted in $162,500 in fines -- second highest in NBA history -- and suspensions to Harper (two games) and English.

* After scoring inside, Atlanta Hawks forward Duane Ferrell pointed his finger in the face of Miami Heat forward Grant Long, which led to a bench-clearing brawl that had to be broken up by police. Fines totaled $65,000, and six games' worth of suspensions were handed out.

The two incidents, replayed repeatedly on television, obviously have Stern concerned.

* In Game 7 of the Houston Rockets-Phoenix Suns series on Saturday, the Rockets' Vernon Maxwell reacted to a hard foul by Charles Barkley with a verbal assault. Barkley shoved Maxwell, and both were ejected.

"There are people who have been in situations where they have not reacted with dignity and class with which they normally conduct," Stern told the media last week, before a Knicks-Bulls game at Madison Square Garden. "We have to look at all the issues, the way games have been called . . . and what people say on the court."

The issue goes well beyond what people say on the court -- some of the NBA's biggest stars have been some of the most notorious trash talkers.

"Larry Bird was a big-time taunter, but the manner which he did it was very subtle," said Washington Bullets coach Jim Lynam. "He'd talk by talking out the corner of his mouth, and nobody in the building outside of Bird and the guy who he was talking to heard it.

"But now guys stick fingers in guys' faces while millions are watching on TV, which is an embarrassment. It's almost a challenge to one's manhood. You're forced to respond."

The style obviously sells. Golden State Warriors forward Chris Webber has a TV shoe commercial centered on a dunk in the face of Barkley, a play that set Webber off on a wild celebration. And Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal and Seattle SuperSonics forward Shawn Kemp are late-night sports show regulars, gaining the spotlight with the thunderous dunks and the glaring, posing and taunting that follows.

"I think that's ridiculous," said Bullets forward Tom Gugliotta. "And you're seeing that a lot. Hey, if a guy who's over 6 foot 11 dunks, they really shouldn't be that excited. All it is is kicking somebody when they're down or slapping somebody in the face. It's disrespectful."

"Dissing" someone on the court is the current trend, reaching even the youngest players. During a recent three-on-three tournament in Virginia Beach, Va., a youngster got in the face of another and shouted, "Get that ---- out of here" after blocking a shot. Both kids were 12. And no adult on the sidelines said a word.

"I once had a kid who would scream, 'Nobody can hold me' and stare other players down after he scored," said Stanley Anderson, who coaches a 7-to-11-year-old team in the Roosevelt Island Basketball League in New York. "He would even talk trash to the refs. I kicked him off the team."

But for every coach who frowns on trash talking, there are countless others who welcome it.

"Some kids taunt and talk trash to prove a point, but a lot of kids who do it don't have a game," said Norman Nolan, the Dunbar All-American who will play at Virginia next season. "I always have guys get in my face saying, 'You're no All-American. You can't play me.' I do it sometimes, especially when it's a big game. Sometimes, the intensity just takes over."

Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell said he's running into the problem more and more.

"A lot is immaturity, and a lot is the kids picking up what they see from the pros on TV," Mitchell said. "I'm from the old school: the heck with the trash talking and just play the game." What the kids often see is the glamour and the attention focused on such action in the pros. The focus of the Indiana Pacers-Knicks series has been the battle between Reggie Miller and John Starks.

Miller is a big-time trash talker, and Starks has a short fuse. Last year, Starks head-butted Miller in a playoff series, drawing an ejection. But the two were on their best behavior Tuesday, apparently to the disappointment of some reporters, judging from their post-game questions.

"Right now, I'm above all that talking," Starks said. "Now, it's about playing and winning."

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