In the world of sport, athletes will do just about anything to gain a competitive advantage over their opponents. Years of work, training and repetition can get you to the next level of your discipline but staying at the highest level requires every advantage you can get. For players the mental advantage can be the difference between just being there and walking into the Hall of Fame at the end of your career. One of the ways that mental advantage can be gained is through trash talk, the art of getting under one’s skin through words, and basketball is the sport that this can be seen on full display. With no helmets to cover a face and the playing field relatively close to the spectators, the trash talk is within earshot and its resulting effects in plain sight. The NBA has a long tradition of trash talking and we have a list of the best of the best smack-talking players that have made getting into someone’s head an art form.
Larry Legend, outside of being one of the greatest basketball players ever, was also a legendary trash talker. Since he entered the NBA in the 1979-80 season he had a big game that came with equally big smack skills. There are many stories that have been passed down from many an NBA player and after hearing them they make you wonder how his opponents kept their confidence. The one that most people may remember best is during the 1988 NBA All-Star Game 3-Point Shootout, Larry went into the locker room before the event, looked at all the contestants and said he was looking to see who was going to be second. The best stories will always be about his in-game chatter like this story and this one.
Reggie Miller is not only one of the best long distance shooters of all time but he was also one of the most prolific talkers of trash. Though maybe not in the same vein as so of the others on this list, he was never shy to tell you that you couldn’t defend him and he did not discriminate between player and fan. His most defining smack talk moment came in Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Knicks when he willed the Indiana Pacers to a win in Madison Square Garden. He scored 25 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter and he famously jawed with director Spike Lee who was sitting courtside. Knicks and Pacers fans will never forget Miller holding hands to his neck in signal of New York’s choke at home.
Payton was one of the best all-around guards to play the game and he complimented his incredible court skills with an equally impressive smack game. The Glove, who was known as a premier defensive stopper, was a non-stop chatterbox and has many trash talk moments. He was a relentless two-way player with the ability to get into a player’s head by going at him with his verbal barbs, almost to the point of fighting. Payton, who took immense pride in his defense, took equal pride as he explains here, in his ability to get under your skin and by most accounts nothing was off limits. As long as it took you off your game, Payton explains he would use it and smile all the way to a win if he could. A harsher story that Payton admitted to was the time he spent a game chirping Lamar Odom about his mother, who had passed away from cancer when he was young.
Garnett was the first of the big wave of players that went straight to the NBA from high school and paved the way for Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and LeBron James to follow. This Hall of Fame player had an incredible intensity when he played and an equally intense sense to talk trash. Whether it was to himself or to his opponent Garnett was always talking and there were seemingly no boundaries. Aside from the usual “you can’t guard me” type of fare some of the things that KG was claimed to have said were incredibly personal and borderline offensive like when Charlie Villanueva said Garnett called him a cancer patient, or made his teammate GlenDavis cry. About as old school as a new school player can be, he was all about getting that mental advantage on his opponent by any means necessary and to his credit it led to his team getting wins. Here is one time that his trash talking went horribly wrong.
Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player ever, had incredible skills and athleticism but had that complimented with an even bigger drive to crush his opponent’s spirit with his trash talk. Unlike some of the others on this list, his form of trash wasn’t necessarily directed at the person. Chris Webber recalled a story on the Dan Patrick show, detailing the time he saw Jordan smoking a cigar before the game, acting as if he had already won before it began. Jordan cockily asked Webber’s team “Who’s checking me today?” and went on to score over 50 points on his defender. “I just remember how cutthroat he was,” Webber went on to say. It’s like Jordan didn’t think that much of you to tell you to your face. One of the more memorable direct trash talking situations that many remember is when Jordan famously welcomed then-Denver rookie Dikembe Mutombo by shooting his free throws with his eyes closed in Denver and then a few years later throwing down a vicious dunk on him and then finger-wagged on him when he was with Atlanta.