John McEnroe was an excellent tennis player. He won seven grand slams, and recorded an astounding 83-2 record in 1984, still the best single-year mark by a male tennis player.
But like professional basketball, tennis has its dog days.
Tournament after tournament, week after week. Meaningless early round matches against unranked, nameless, uninspiring opponents. There are only four grand slams each year, and the rest of players’ time is spent pursuing money and ranking, and the only reason ranking is important is money.
So the challenge becomes getting yourself to play top-flight tennis despite the monotonous grind.
McEnroe did this by picking fights with umpires and linesmen. He has long since admitted that a major reason he got into so many arguments on court was for the adrenaline it generated, allowing him then to redirect the energy against his opponent.
This gambit was effective for the most part, though increasingly less so as he got older. Studies back then showed that McEnroe typically elevated his game following one of his rants, while his opponent's level of play declined.
Unlike McEnroe, however, NBA trash talk is directed not at officials but at other players. But the goal is still the same--motivate yourself, distract the opponent. Over the last month, much has been made of the on court trash talk by Celtics players.
First it was Garnett getting up close and profane with the Lakers. Then it was James Posey making fun of the Pistons and their fans. This week the attention was on Eddie House and Paul Pierce for talking smack to the New York Knicks.
The Pierce incident in particular was unsettling for some because it reminded Celtics fans of the Indiana Pacers playoff series where Pierce was ejected in one game and assessed with a technical in another. The Cs went on to lose that series in seven games, due in large part to the immature and unprofessional behavior of its players.
So there is clearly a risk in losing your cool.
But trash talk in and of itself is not inherently inappropriate or out of bounds.
The players are adults. They are engaging in a competitive enterprise, and are looking for anyway to gain an advantage of their adversary.
One need look no further than the Laker game at Staples to see the impact Garnett has on opponents when he talks smack after making a big play. By the end of the game, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum were afraid to enter the paint when KG was on the court, and when Odom made one final attempt to drive past KG, only to have #5 reject the effort and tell him to get that sh#t outta there, the effect on Odom was obvious—head down and shoulders slumped.
So combined with timely playmaking, trash talk can be effective.
I also have no doubt it can be self-motivational.
After jumping to a 29-3 start, clobbering everyone in sight, the Celtics looked at the schedule and saw what lay ahead, one bad team after another. Not surprisingly, they lost three of their next four games, two at home.
Equally unsurprising, the smack was back for the next game. And guess what? The Cs started winning again.
If the Celtics find trash talk an effective tool of self-motivation, a way for them to get focused against a particular team or player, then I don’t really have an objection. Sure, the language tends to be a little blue at times. But parents who bring their kids to games may just want to sit further away from the court.
Chuck Person, a well-known trash talker from the 1980s, describes his head-to-head match-ups with one of the greatest trash talkers of all times.
"Bird and I would talk trash to each other for 48 minutes. Our goal wasn’t only to pump ourselves up, but to distract the other guy, get him to make the battle personal and lose sight of the team’s game plan."
Sometimes there may be a fine line separating talking smack and getting yourself thrown out of a game.
But if you're gonna talk the talk, then you better learn how to toe the line and not cross over it.