Yago Colás plays a ton of pickup basketball, but he can’t quite figure out why he never talks trash.
How do you get to be a trash talker? What is that all about anyway? Why do I love it? And, since I love it, why can’t I seem to do it? I don’t mean, why am I incapable of executing trash talk? I mean, why am I unwilling to talk smack? What is it that stops me short?
Last fall, on one of my recent commuting trips from St. Louis to Ann Arbor, where my job is, I played a little pick up ball at one of the campus recreation buildings. The team I ran with on that particular day won six straight games before I had to leave. I’d played well, gotten a good work out, and enjoyed the wins, some of which involved exciting rallies in which we banded together to lock down on defense and worked patiently to get higher-percentage shots on offense.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel a little empty, a little disconnected from the action. Though we were all—my teammates and our opponents—clearly working hard to win games, something was missing. The only sounds were the pounding of the ball, the squeaks of their sneakers on the polished wood floor, and the occasional correctly called out “pick right!”, “switch!”, or “shot!”, and then the obediently mumbled “good game” after the run ended. They were competent, business-like and joyless. I thought about my recent experiences playing on the outdoor courts at Heman Park in St. Louis and how joyful and expansive I feel after every run, even when my team loses so that we don’t get to hold court like my team did in Ann Arbor.
I’m guessing that most people reading this know that trash talk, also known as talking smack or smack talk (and probably by a bunch of other names that I don’t know), involves a running commentary on the action while a game is underway. It usually takes the form of boasting about your own talent, declaring the success of the play you are about to execute, insulting your opponent’s abilities, or a combination of all of these. Sometimes it sounds serious and intense, though in my experience it’s mostly humorous.
At Heman Park, it seems to me, everyone talks trash—everyone but me. From the prepubescent eighth-grader, Mook, who is talented but still shoots a push shot from his chest, to the 6-6 “Old School” guy, whose name I don’t know, but who dominated play the couple of times he showed up to play, trash gets talked. Even Bob, a 64-year-old white dude with knee braces, a backward baseball cap, and wrap around sunglasses. Bob can’t even walk without visible effort, but he talks trash. Just like Mook, just like Old School.
Chaz, about 6-4 and in his late 20s, I would guess, and who looks like Dwyane Wade, pulls the ball out to the three point line, executes a series of complex stationary cross-over and between-the-legs dribbles, all the while repeating, “Class is in session. Hoopin’ 101.” Then he laughs, and just before either flying past his defender or draining the three-ball, asks “You ready for school?” and then, after the play, “Go home! You ain’t ready for school!”
My favorite is probably Vic, the nearly toothless, 42-year-old drunk who plays in street clothes and boots and one time not only won our game of “buckets” (the St. Louis version of “21” —actually played to 32), but then went on to lead us to four victories before leaving us with this vintage piece of smack for our opponents: “Y’all can’t guard me and I’m drunk. I’m ‘a come back sober and y’all really see something.” Everyone broke out laughing and a bystander came back with “If you were sober, you couldn’t even find your way here.”
I loved this exchange as I love all the trash talk on the courts at Heman. It’s an integral part of my enjoyment of the game. So, given the choice, I’ll take the game with the good trash talkers. The question is why doesn’t it come out of me? By the time I was in high school, I was regularly playing on playgrounds in Madison where trash talk was the rule of the day, so it’s not as though this is some unfamiliar cultural form or a court protocol that’s foreign to me. On the contrary, I immediately relax when I hear it, as though I were returning to my native land after a long stay abroad.
I feel like I have the requisite qualities for talking trash. I’m competitive. I love dominating as much as the next guy. I have no problem telling guys where to go on offense or defense, even guys I don’t know or those that are individually more talented than I am. I do tend to be a little shy socially at the park or gym, but that just seems to beg the question of why that is so and why my shyness doesn’t prevent me from asserting myself in other ways on the floor. So, like with anything else I find puzzling about my own behavior, I asked my therapist about this (yeah, I know). Doc did the therapist thing and threw the question back at me. In fact, I knew this would happen, like I know what would happen if I took the ball into the paint on Ben Wallace. “Let’s explore this. What comes to mind for you?”
“Larry Bird.” I could’ve said Michael Jordan or Reggie Miller or Kevin Garnett. Or, my favorite trash talker, because he looks like he’s having so much fun doing it: Rasheed Wallace. But at the time I had been reading Bird and Magic Johnson’s book about when the league was theirs. One of the things that stood out to me in that account—more as a reminder of a fact I’d forgotten than as something new—was Bird’s legendary trash talking. The usual stories were there, the ones I remember from his playing days. How during a Christmas game he told Chuck “The Rifleman” Person (who had previously made some comment about “The Rifleman going Bird hunting”) that he, Bird, had a present for him. He then proceeded to launch a three, right in front of Person on the Pacers bench, while saying “Merry Fucking Christmas,” just before the ball dropped through the rim. Or the time he pointed out to Xavier McDaniel the spot on the floor from where he would hit the game winning shot. Then went to that spot, got the ball, and hit the game winner over McDaniel.
So I tell my therapist about this and he sees me smiling and animated as I tell the stories. He asks me why I think I’m drawn to that story. My first stab is the obvious. “It’s the confidence. I mean, I feel pretty confident when I’m playing basketball and I know my limitations so I’m not too often in a position where I’m trying to do something that’s not going to work. But that just seems like a crazy level of confidence,” I say. Then I trail off, unconvinced and feeling that by-now-familiar feeling that there are more thoughts and more feelings. I’m observing them in my head or wherever they are, like a dark opening into a darker forest, and briefly but deliberately mulling over whether I feel like going there, like starting down that path that I know is going to lead to something surprising, something that is closer to the bone.
This time I do. I continue, “It’s not just the confidence. I have that when I play. It’s the verbal aggressiveness. It’s one thing to be confident, it’s another thing to explicitly assert your superiority by telling your opponent what you are going to before or while you are doing it, and then doing it anyway, showing up that they are powerless to stop you so superior are you.” Now, let me just acknowledge that I’m rarely in the position of superiority (the need to acknowledge that is like a vacuum sucking the trash-talk energy right out of me), but that fact doesn’t stop most of the players at Heman from talking trash.
The more relevant explanation is that I’m too concerned with other people’s feelings, too worried that too much feeling, too much self-expression, too much me will cause problems for them. So I’m a pleaser (interestingly, though Magic could talk trash, he rarely did, and close teammates described him as a pleaser too). This concern with other people’s perceptions becomes a kind of abyss for me when it comes to trash talking. A corollary avenue of exploration would be my almost compulsive need to say “My bad” on the court. My guy scores, no matter how tough the shot, no matter how good my defense, I will say “My bad” to my teammates (and “Tough shot” to the opponent). Pathetic.
First off, there’s just the obvious worry that I won’t deliver on the promise of whatever smack I throw out there. I see myself falling away on a baseline jumper—“Money!”—and then watch in horror as the ball barely grazes the bottom of the net. Then, there’s an additional worry that my trash talk will be outdated or in some other way idiomatically clumsy or inappropriate. But most of all, I’m worried that the other guy will be mad at me, won’t like me anymore.
What’s interesting to me about this is that the first two worries, which really aren’t seriously inhibiting concerns of mine, are the more likely outcomes in reality. On the other hand, my third concern, which I think is what really holds me back, is the least likely, particularly in a neighborhood game like the ones at Heman park where I know most of the guys by their first name and they know me. Maybe I’m unrealistically terrified in proportion as I am desperately grateful for the sense of inclusion that playing at Heman gives me.
That’s probably true. But it’s also true that after throwing all this out there for my therapist, as a kind of afterthought, I added “Larry Bird must have been filled with rage.” Awkward moment. I realize I have never read or heard that about Larry Bird. I feel as though my psyche just farted. Loud. I realize I’m not talking about Bird anymore. I’m talking about myself. It’s not just asserting myself, not just worrying about doing something awkwardly, it’s about expressing something particular that I feel: my rage. And it’s made all the more tempting because trash talk on a city playground is an absolutely acceptable form of expression and all the more alarming because I certainly have no reason to be angry with my opponent at Heman Park. That’s just what scares me about rage, that it will be off target, out of proportion, and out of control.
I think about the only basketball situation in which I was ever really comfortable talking trash. It was when I used to play one-on-one with my older brother, Juan. Juan is eight years older than me, the second in our family. Our oldest brother was probably the best athlete in the family and Juan never played competitively. But he was no slouch. He was about four inches taller and about 25 or 30 pounds heavier than me. He had a pretty good jump shot from the wings, released from behind his head which made it hard to block, and he was (having also played against my dad) physical and aggressive on defense and on the boards. As I got older, and spent more and more time playing ball, and as Juan got older and spent less and less time playing ball, I began to beat him more regularly. And I started talking trash to him.
Did I not care what Juan thought of me? Was I so sure of his affection for me that I could risk giving free rein to these scandalously excessive self-expressions? Maybe. But Juan, in addition to his accurate over the head jump shot, has a wickedly incisive, dry sense of humor. In other words, he started it (or at least that’s how I remember it). He might call me too weak, or too small, or tell me I didn’t have the heart to really d him up. And that would make me angry, and in my anger I would play harder and better and then, especially by the time I was around 18 or 19, I would want to humiliate him, not just by beating him, but by telling him I was beating him and how I was beating him and making it evident that there was nothing he could do to stop it. And if I started to feel a creeping sense of pity or guilt rise in my belly, I would ruthlessly suppress it, barking out mercilessly “What? You want some more? You ain’t had enough?”
I think of how many of my formative basketball experiences in that driveway in Madison were filled with rage. I don’t know why (it’s typical of me to think that there had to be some reason, to try to domesticate and justify and rationalize rage). I just know that as I contended with my father’s physical play, or my brother Juan’s teasing, or my oldest brother Tony’s effortless, unreachable superiority over me—as I contended with the feeling of being too damn small, smaller than everyone else, the rage would grow in me. I see my small body going harder, faster, digging in on defense, diving on the concrete for loose balls, seeking rather than trying to avoid contact, unafraid of pain, wanting to inflict it somehow.
I see the bemused expression on my brothers’ faces as I hurl my angry body around the court, and I get angrier, and I’m determined that when I grow, when I finally grow, I will leave them standing still, a blur on my way to the hoop. “You can’t check me.” I will swat the ball back in their faces, then give it to them to try again, and then swat it again. “Get that weak shit outta here.” And then, when it’s game point, I will spot up from way in the corner, 25 feet away from the hoop and when they dare me to shoot it, I will look them in the eye, and then as I effortlessly shoot my jumper I will say “Cash.” Of course, the ball will go in, and they will finally collapse like the deactivated droids in The Phantom Menace, left powerless and humiliated by the recognition that they can’t—that they never could and never will be able to—check me.
(Sorry. My bad.)