KIERAN SHANNON: Big-game players spreading the word

There’s little in sport as distasteful, as sly and scurrilous sledging, yet little as smile-inducing as a bit of witty in-game trash-talking either.

The past few weeks there’s been a lot of talk about some talk in the sporting arena, from Tyrone and Tipperary over here to Toronto and Washington.

The recent U21 All-Ireland football final was marred by a ‘he said he said’ debacle on and off the field, while across the Atlantic the engrossing NBA playoffs has been almost as characterised by some verbal volleys as the extraordinary number of buzzer beaters that have decided games.

Big-game players spreading the word

Sometimes the two trends have merged into the same moment and person. Last Saturday night, Paul Pierce, a 37-year old nerveless veteran and former world champion, scored a game-winning basket at the top of the key in the last second to give the Washington Wizards a 2-1 advantage in a best-of-seven series over the more-fancied Atlanta Hawks.

After the game he was asked by an on-court reporter: “Did you call Bank?”, a reference to the fact Pierce’s shot had required the assistance of the backboard.

Pierce’s shot back was as impressive as that which he’d launched in game-time only moments earlier.

“I called Game!” he retorted. “That’s why I’m here.”

The cocksure Pierce was also the reason why the Wizards were even playing in that Eastern Conference semi-final. They’d also been the lower seed in the previous round when they’d faced the Toronto Raptors. Before that series Pierce, a 2008 NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, had publicly declared about Toronto: “I don’t feel they have the ‘it’ that makes you worried.” After he was proven correct as the Wizards won the series 4-1, the Raptors’ Greivis Vasquez, identified the ‘it’ they were missing was Pierce himself.

“We don’t have that. We’re all good guys that just don’t want to [talk trash]. You need to have that spiciness, you need to be a little bit like an a-hole, like he is.”

That’s the dilemma with Pierce and trash-talking in general. Sometimes he hasn’t been that witty at all and been a straight out “a-hole”. Five years ago Stephen Jackson of the Charlotte Bobcats called him to task. “Certain things were said. Me personally, I can take getting beat, if it’s about basketball. But when it gets to the point where you’re being personal and being disrespectful as a man to another man, that’s when I have a problem.”

A similar storyline emerged last week in the gripping Cleveland Cavaliers-Chicago Bulls series when LeBron James took issue with Joakim Noah.

Big-game players spreading the word

“As a competitor, I love Jo’s emotion,” James would tell reporters after Game 1 of that series. “But I think the words that he used to me were just a little bit too far. I’m a father with three kids and it got very disrespectful.”

This weekend as our own football championships kick off in earnest, a similar line is likely to be challenged, even crossed in Ballybofey. Donegal and Tyrone face off once more and in recent years some of the digs dished out between the counties have been with the tongue and not the fist or elbow.

Some of those verbal exchanges have tickled the opponent’s ribcage as much as others thumped it. Owen Mulligan in his book recalls the 2012 Ulster championship clash. The Tyrone man was still scoreless when he took a swig from his water bottle. “Jesus, Mugsy,” Eamon McGee apparently said, “are you on the drink already? Vodka, I suppose.”

“Nah, lad,” Mulligan would quip back. “I drink gin and I’ll have plenty of it tonight after we beat youse.”

Big-game players spreading the word

Mulligan claims he likes the McGees and that Donegal team, and it’s clear from his book that he liked trash talking even more. In games where he was playing particularly well, he’d be particularly chatty. “Here lads, get the ball in to me, I’m roasting this man. He’ll be sleeping with no sheets on the bed tonight. Get the suncream out!’”

Even in 2008 when an opponent would remark on how much he was struggling with his weight, Mulligan would come right back with a line from the Zimbabwean cricketer Eddo Brandes: “Well, if your woman would stop feeding me biscuits every time I call round to see her whenever you’re out, I wouldn’t be this size.”

But Mulligan could be quiet too. “If you’re playing well you’re entitled to give verbals,” he’d observe. “If you’re playing shite you have no right or need to start them.” That’s why Steve Kerr, Michael Jordan’s old teammate, didn’t instigate or take part in such encounters. “To be a trash talker,” he once remarked, “you have to be a great player. So I just listened.”

Of course, it could be said if you were a great player or playing great, you’d no right or need to start verbals either. But thankfully for the sake of sporting lore and their own, some greats were more than happy to yap away.

Jordan himself possessed a tongue as lethal as his physical game. One of his regular direct opponents was the Miami Heat’s Steve Smith. When Jordan scored the opening basket in one of their encounters he shouted to Smith “38!” Then he hit another one. “36!” It was then it dawned on Smith: Jordan was giving a step-by-step countdown on the 40 points he was taking Smith for.

In that way and more, Jordan was following in the steps of the most supreme trash talker of them all, Larry Bird. Often before regular-season games, the Boston Celtics great would ask away-team ballboys what was the scoring record for that building to set himself a challenge. More than once, he’d make a similar query to a direct opponent.

“Why?” the innocent would ask.

“Well,” smirked Bird, “you’re guarding me, aren’t you?”

Xavier McDaniel tells another story of marking Bird towards the end of a tied game. As the pair walked out of a timeout, Bird told McDaniel. “I’m going to get it [the ball] right here and I’m going to shoot it right in your face.” McDaniel nodded: he was waiting, ready. Sure enough, Bird cut for the ball, got it precisely where he’d indicated to McDaniel, backed him down, turned and drained the shot right in McDaniel’s face. That was the game-winner, but for McDaniel, not the killer: “Damn,” Bird had remarked to McDaniel while looking up at the scoreboard, “I didn’t mean to leave two seconds on the clock.”

McDaniel knew though he’d the consolation that all of Bird’s and Billy the Kid’s victims had: he’d make you famous. George McCleod was another. When as a rookie McCleod put into the game in the closing minutes, Bird yelled to the Indiana Pacers bench, “Hey, I know you guys are desperate but can’t you find someone who at least has a prayer?”

Maybe Bird overstepped the line. But invariably he backed it up, just as James responded in the best possible way to Noah with a game-winning shot of his own last Sunday night.

Pierce acknowledges he’s a dying breed in that league. “I don’t think this new generation is as competitive as we were,” he’s recently said.

In Ballybofey, they’ll be as competitive as anyone. Possibly too much so. Charles Barkley once commented upon his verbal as well as physical jousts with Michael Jordan: “Kids today think trash-talking means getting real personal and challenging your manhood. They’re missing the point. It’s just about trying to get to the other guy a little bit, having fun.”

We can only hope that on Sunday in Ballybofey that it’s only the suncream and vodka that are whipped out like they were with Mulligan. Or if there’s more verbals going on, that it’s from someone who can back it up or throw it back like a James, Jordan or Bird.


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