In the NBA, there is a skill paramount to winning that isn’t often taught in camps or clinics. Some are born with it and while they can hone the attribute over time, it is not always evident from afar like speed or springy legs. It’s the timeless art of trash talking and in basketball, a sport likened to one played in underwear, where there are no helmets and open space comes at a premium, verbal sparring is frequent.
But who is the best? Who has the most potent style? Who could jaw with such prowess that it helped gain their teams an advantage even before the sneakers are laced? Indeed, whose tongues provide the best weapons? Let’s dig in.
10) Rick Mahorn
When the Detroit Pistons won their first championship as the Bad Boys, it was 1989 and power forward Rick Mahorn started in most of the games. But it wasn’t because of his counting stats. Averaging about seven points and seven rebounds, Mahorn played because he intimidated. He could rough someone up flying in the air (like Michael Jordan). And he could protect his own superstar, the 6ft 1in Isiah Thomas. With all that muscle came a big mouth, too. “He had a lot to say,” former Piston Earl Cureton tells the Guardian. And it came at a time when talking wasn’t as rampant as today. “You’d get punched in the mouth in my era if you couldn’t back it up,” Cureton says. To wit, Mahorn once told the hulking Karl Malone point blank, “I got six fouls; all of them got your name on it, so bring it.”
9) Draymond Green
Speaking of punching people in the mouth, the Golden State Warriors driving force Draymond Green gets so hyped and amped he’ll even talk trash to (or punch) his own teammates. If you watch a Warriors game, it seems like Green doesn’t ever stop talking. It’s awe-inspiring, really. For most, to constantly jaw seems like it would take energy. But for Green, it’s as if he receives energy from it. The point-center, four-time champion and defensive player of the year talks trash during parades, in practice, on the bus, on the plane and to the press. It’s constant. If he talked trash alone in a forest, it would assuredly make a sound. But when surrounded by fans in the NBA finals, Green’s words, like when he called star of stars LeBron James a “bitch,” are heard far and wide.
8) Kobe Bryant
“Certain players are afraid,” said the late great Kobe Bryant. But he certainly wasn’t one of them. Instead, Bryant leaned on his opponents’ fear, gnawing and picking at it. To be the best, for Bryant, meant making everyone else feel like the worst. Like when he belittled former teammate Dwight Howard on the court, calling him “soft as a motherfucker”. To many, the former Laker was the greatest player of his generation. Not just for the five rings or many game-winning shots, but because he held the mental edge over everyone else in a game as much between the ears as it is between the lines. He was the sport’s boogeyman with a sharp tongue. John Wick crossed with Freddy Krueger.
7) Charles Barkley
If Charles Barkley’s basketball career is remembered for one thing, it’s likely his quote in the summer of 1992 while playing for the Dream Team. Speaking during a press conference, Barkley looked the reporters in the eye and said deadpan, about the upcoming opponent for his American team, “I don’t know anything about Angola. But Angola’s in trouble.” If the Angola team wasn’t shaking in their sneakers already, they must have contemplated forfeit after that. Barkley is such a good talker, he’s parlayed it into millions as a broadcaster today.
6) Micheal Ray Richardson
Like Draymond Green, Micheal Ray Richardson’s mouth never stopped during an NBA game. The man known as Sugar, who led the league in assists and steals during his second year, was known for talking trash to any within earshot. Whether it was to guys trying to guard him or to the press about how the Knicks’ “ship be sinking” or when, after getting banned by the NBA, he went overseas to play another 16 years, Richardson constantly kept his motormouth going. He would even go into the opposing locker-room and tell people he was going to “bust” their “ass”. The four-time NBA All-Star kept his talking going later as a coach in the CBA and USBL, often finding himself earning technical fouls. “Intimidation is part of being a successful basketball player and Sugar was the best,” LA Lakers great Michael Cooper tells the Guardian.
5) Kevin Garnett
You know that you’re a top-five trash talker when you can out-talk another all-time great. And Kevin Garnett, in a matter of a few syllables, did just that to Charles Barkley on national television. Barkley was left without words. But we’re not just talking TV here. We’re highlighting hardwood heroics. And Garnett is simply the Picasso of talking shit. Known for shouting things like “I smell blood!” while people were shooting free throws (and that’s just the tip of the tip of the iceberg), Garnett was driven by his own verbal assaults. It was his coffee in the morning. “Quieting down is backing down,” Garnett wrote in his 2021 memoir.
4) Gary Payton
With the Seattle Supersonics, Gary Payton was known as the Glove due to his tight defense. But if that name had somehow already been taken, Payton could have been called the Snarl. It seemed his upper lip was always raised and some skeleton-shaking trash talk was emanating from it. He used to drive teammates like Michael Cage to want to visit the actual library to get a little peace and quiet. Like KG and Draymond, Payton revved his engines by talking, thinking that if he could distract his opponent and get under their skin, he’d have the ultimate edge. So, he never ever shut up. Like the time he went eyebrow to eyebrow with Michael Jordan, cursing and smirking at His Airness.
3) Michael Jordan
When it comes to backing up the talk, there was none like the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Even more than basketball, it seemed that simply dominating another person was what he was ultimately after. It took place in games and in practices, even causing guys like Steve Kerr to get into physical altercations with him. Jordan wanted to break his teammates down with his game and his talk and if they could handle it, he knew they could handle the war of the playoffs. When playing against another team, Jordan knew his resume spoke so loudly that all he had to do was recite it to get opposing players weak in the knees. He even talked junk in meaningless All-Star games. Not to mention relentlessly in playoff games.
2) Reggie Miller
Whether he’s taunting world-famous movie directors with the choking sign, getting into head-butt competitions with All-Star shooting guards like John Starks or going at it with entire crowds at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks, the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller is an all-timer when it comes to trash spewing. But it all began in the back yard playing one-on-one with his Hall of Fame basketball sister Cheryl. It was on the court together where the siblings learned the power and value of a good verbal barb. Not only did he want to learn to get the other off their game, but he wanted to teach himself to be mentally strong enough to ignore what was said back to him. Miller perfected it all, making a career out of it. The most fun villain in sports in the 1990s.
1) Larry Bird
He couldn’t run very fast. He couldn’t jump very high. But he was one of the most skilled. One of the smartest. He was also the best trash talker the game has seen. While some superstars like Julius Erving didn’t talk a whole lot, Bird would always be offering venom. “The best trash talker I played with was Larry Bird,” Micheal Ray Richardson tells the Guardian. Famously, Bird would come out of a timeout with the game on the line and he’d tell the guy guarding him just where and when he was going to hit the game-winner. Then he’d do exactly what he said and walk off. “’You know I’m getting the ball.’ He’d say shit to you like that,” says Cureton. “Then he’d back it up.” Bird also famously walked into the locker room before an All-Star three-point contest and asked the participants, all NBA vets, “Who’s playing for second?” That’s the kind of unabashed smack talking that lands you here at the top.