NEW YORK — Lost in the bluster of this potential one-on-one pickup game between Kobe Bryant and Kyrie Irving is the way it all began: Two confident, arrogant guys who could not shut up. Irving seemed to initiate it by firing at Bryant first, and one of the league’s best smack talkers certainly was not going to back down from a kid.
It was funny, playful, and most certainly rare by today’s NBA standards.
“Trash talking is a lost art, especially with this generation of players," Bryant said recently before his Los Angeles Lakers took on Irving’s Cleveland Cavaliers. “Everybody grows up around everybody, so nobody wants to trash talk each other. I’m kind of from the old school. I was happy to see Kyrie get into it a little."
One reason for the reduced banter is the league’s crackdown on anything controversial. Officials simply will not allow it. Players are now assessed technicals and fines anytime they open their mouths to say anything other than “hello" and “thank you."
Cavaliers coach Byron Scott believes the brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills (Mich.) eight years ago triggered the crackdown.
The brawl reportedly began when the Indiana Pacers’ Ron Artest warned the Detroit Pistons’ Ben Wallace, “I’m going to (expletive) you up" on the next trip down the floor.
Sure enough, Artest hammered Wallace, who retaliated by shoving Artest. Soon both benches cleared, and the fight eventually spilled into the stands when Artest went after a Detroit fan. That was enough. The league immediately began cracking down on players’ on-court behavior.
It certainly has cleaned up the league from Scott’s playing days of the 1980s, but it has also stripped away a colorful component of the game. And no one was better at it than Larry Bird.
During one game between the Lakers and Bird’s Boston Celtics, Bird was alone in the corner and Scott was rotating toward him on defense. After Bird’s shot went up, as Scott went soaring by him, Bird said, “Byron, you’re a little too late."
“And when I came down, I turned around and looked and there it was going through the basket," Scott says. “He was a very respectful (trash) talker, but he did it just as well as anybody I’ve ever been around."
The stories from years past are endless. Luke Walton’s father, Bill, was an announcer in the arena on the night of the brawl at The Palace. He was also one of the league’s best centers 30 years ago. Luke was named after Maurice Lucas, a teammate of Bill’s in Portland for two seasons and one of the toughest enforcers in pro basketball during his 14-year career in the American Basketball Association and the NBA.
“They said anyone who ever messed with them, you can count on Maurice knocking him down on the next play," Luke Walton says.
Last summer, he was watching a game from his father’s era on NBA Classic when Robert Parish and Bill Laimbeer exchanged punches at the free-throw line. Neither player was ejected, and the game continued like nothing happened.
“I think in his day they just fought," Walton says. “And they didn’t even get kicked out."
Not all of the stars from past generations did a lot of talking.
Lakers legend Magic Johnson was not much of a trash talker, Scott said, until he was angry. Scott recalled a game against the Houston Rockets when Vernon Maxwell said he needed no help defending Johnson in the post. For three quarters, Johnson quietly went about his business setting up teammates and playing a typical game.
“Then in the fourth quarter, he started punishing him," Scott says. “All of a sudden, Maxwell was asking guys to come help double him and Magic said, ‘No, you don’t need no help. Stay down here and get this ass whippin’ I’m going to give you.’ And that’s what he gave him."
With the exception of Bryant and Boston’s Kevin Garnett, most of those players are long gone, having been replaced with a sterile, antiseptic generation of players who often meet on the AAU circuit, become fast friends in college and are all best buddies before even entering the league.
Walton is in his 10th season and said Bryant is easily the best trash talker he has been around, although players like Garnett and Rasheed Wallace belong in the conversation. During one game between the Pistons and Lakers a few years ago, Wallace called one of Walton’s Lakers teammates “Borat" in reference to actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s popular movie character. Walton would not give up whom Wallace was referring to, but he admitted that all of the Lakers could not stop laughing.
Walton was a teammate of Bryant’s for nearly nine seasons in Los Angeles and said Bryant is ruthless in practice.
“He’s so good at it because trash talking gets you mad as a competitor, and then he’ll just roast you as he’s talking trash," Walton says. “Most people, you can go hard and shut them down a little bit. But someone like Kobe, he starts running his mouth and you’re just on an island like, ‘Oh this is going to be a long day.’"
The relatively easygoing Walton, surprisingly, loves to talk trash and has received his fair share of fines and technical fouls for it. Players are fined $2,000 for each of their first five technicals, then the fine escalates to $3,000 for each of the next five.
“My trash talking happens when I’m angry, so it doesn’t always make sense," he says. “It’s kind of like throwing a couple different curse words together that don’t really make sense. ... I love trash talking. I don’t mind paying those fines."
The consensus is players like Bryant and Garnett get away with it more than others because they have that reputation and are sort of grandfathered in. The alternative, Walton said, would be to give them technicals every game. Bryant has three technicals this season, and Garnett has two. Not all of them are necessarily for trash talking.
When the last of those mouths retire, it will likely mark the end of an era in the NBA. When Bryant sits in his rocking chair alongside the rest of the greats like Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, John Stockton and Clyde Drexler, the league will get a lot quieter.
In the video featuring Irving and Bryant, which has been viewed more than four million times, Irving tells Bryant: “You have to guard me. You’re not going to lock me up." Later, Irving throws his arms up, looks in the camera and shouts, “He thinks he’s talking to a high school kid."
Bryant, off camera, immediately fires back, “You just came out of high school, kid!"
“I’m the best trash talker alive," Bryant says. “(Irving) tried to keep up. Hopefully you’ll see a little more of that from that generation, guys competing against each other. It was like then when I came into the league with Charles and Michael and Stockton and Drexler and all those guys. That’s how it was."
But that’s not how it is. The art of the trash talk is nearly extinct.