A list of the NBA’s best trash talkers might also read as “the game’s most old-school dudes.” In our modern, hyper-aware media era, such behavior can quickly become public knowledge, as nearly all affluent Americans carry a phone that’s also a video camera and a microphone. So it takes a truly dedicated verbal bully — a special sort of vinegar-tongued competitor — to keep speaking in dirty, destructive insults when they could so easily be outed for it.
But to those with a genuinely vindictive approach, the possible reputation hit is more than worth it. As our president recently reminded us in his public squabbling with Michael Jordan — who chided POTUS about his golf game, only to be cited by Mr. Obama for poor management of the Charlotte squad he owns — athletic dominance is great, but sometimes, there’s nothing that cuts as deep as the perfectly chosen piece of rhetoric. If you say certain words, and target the most sensitive parts of a man’s psyche with them, you can cut to the quick. Here are the best of the best at doing so.
5. Lance Stephenson
Forget language for a second. Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson tries diving into the brain of his adversaries through more visceral means. In his attempt to rattle LeBron James in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals (when Stephenson was still with the Indiana Pacers and not Jordan’s Hornets) one of the silliest, most unforgettable acts of the contemporary NBA occurred when Lance blew into LeBron’s ear:
Stephenson learned from one of the best when he was in the midwest — Pacers executive Larry Bird. Lance recently told Grantland’s Zach Lowe that the former Celtics legend hasn’t lost his cagy touch with words. “Yeah,” Stephenson said, “he talks a lot once you get to know him. He’s a cool guy. Of course he talks trash. If that’s you, that’ll always be you. He talks a lot, and he’s always challenging us to 3-point contests.”
4. Kendrick Perkins
The enforcer of the Oklahoma City Thunder holds value not so much for his abilities as an athlete as for his effect on the comfort of his teammates and enemies; he makes his allies feel protected, while the other team grows weary of his menacing scowl and hulky figure. Kendrick Perkins is one of the scariest people in the league, and he uses it to his advantage.
He’s also a proud fighter whose character doesn’t break after the game. Once, he let Chicago Bulls big man Joakim Noah know that as Noah entered the OKC locker room to greet former teammate Thabo Sefolosha. Perkins didn’t want the enemy in his barracks, looking at Noah to rhetorically ask, “We just let anyone in here now?” After some more heated squabbling between the two centers, Perkins said to Noah, "get your ass up out of here.”
3. Paul Pierce
When the acidic Stephen Jackson says you’re being “disrespectful,” you know you’re a top-tier trash talker. Paul Pierce earned that badge in 2010 when saying God-knows-what to Jackson, then with the Charlotte Bobcats. Jackson, via ESPN’s Chris Forsberg, had this to say: "I respect them as a team, they're a great team and they play hard, but when they get to a point where they get to disrespecting people, and it's not about basketball, that's where I have a problem. Everybody knows me as a basketball player, but everybody knows me off the court, too. So if it's about basketball, I'm cool, I respect everybody on their team, and I respect them as being a good team. But when it gets to the point where you're disrespecting [me] as a man, that's another problem… Certain things were said, quotes by certain people, and there's no need for me to drop names, they know what was said,” Jackson said, obviously referring to Pierce after the two looked heated during the Celtics victory.
2. Kobe Bryant
Kobe’s slithery, Jordanesque scoring maneuvers on the court are still what he’s most known for — but it seems only a matter of time before he becomes remembered as a hyper-charged personality above all. Bryant’s downright sociopathic commitment to his process and winning basketball games has seen him smear irrelevant former teammates like Smush Parker and even become the target of some zen-laden scourge in a book by his old coach Phil Jackson.
Kobe is difficult to deal with. He’s also not afraid to talk big to King James, the man who stole the NBA’s throne from Bryant long ago. After James’ infamous “The Decision” production, Bryant sent him some gamey texts. From Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding: “With a brutal seven-game victory over the Celtics in the bank for Bryant, the 2010 offseason is dominated by LeBron James' decision to leave Cleveland for Miami. What matters to Bryant is Phil Jackson agreeing to return to coach the Lakers again in pursuit of a third consecutive NBA title. Bryant sends James a text message. It goes like this: ‘Go ahead and get another MVP, if you want. And find the city you want to live in. But we're going to win the championship. Don't worry about it.’"
1. Kevin Garnett
The stories surrounding KG’s crippling levels of verbal venom are endless. But perhaps none is more memorable than the 2013 tale of his words that got New York Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony so riled up that he waited for Garnett at the Boston Celtics team bus after the game. Police officers were on hand at the stadium, and the two never came to blows — but what could Garnett have said to so get under Melo’s skin?
According to now-infamous rumors, KG told Anthony that his wife LaLa Anthony “tastes like Honey Nut Cheerios.” Anthony never confirmed that phrasing — no one did — but in regards to what started the fissure between the two players, he replied, “there’s some things as men that you just don’t say.”
— John Wilmes