It’s no secret now that Larry Bird was a trash talker, but if you grew up in the 1980s watching Bird like I did, you wouldn’t have no clue. Obviously, there was no internet, so one’s access to Bird were on national television and through newspaper articles.
Bird always seemed to have a stone face on TV and the media portrayed him as a reclusive country boy that also happened to be one of the two best basketball players on earth at the time (the other being Magic Johnson).
What you see is not what you got; Bird was a voracious trash talker on the court. He ran his mouth not only as a way to intimidate and get in the opponent’s head, but as a way to motivate himself and… well, quite frankly have a good time.
Here’s four reasons why fans loved that Larry Bird talked trash:
First off, it’s because Larry Bird is a Caucasian in a league that was and is dominated by African-Americans. In that way, Bird was an underdog and we all know that fans love cheering for the underdog.
There’s not doubt that Caucasians felt more connected to someone of their own race (as I do with Jeremy Lin), there’s nothing wrong with that on the surface. I’m certain that there were more unsavory reasons around race why people liked Larry Bird talking trash, too, but I’m not going to get into that.
Secondly, Bird did his trash talking in a very undercover manner. As mentioned, Bird did a odo job sneaking in comments when NBC wasn’t on him. Players certainly heard him deadpan how he was going to score 40 on them, or tell them how where and when he was going to hit the game-winner, but fans weren’t wise to the fact.
Another reason (#3) why fans love the idea of Larry Bird talking trash was because, well he looked like a goofball. Bird had a mustache and a mullet, so it was like the nerd bullying the jocks in high school. Bird flipped the hierarchy on it’s head.
Is that farm boy really running his mouth… and backing it up? Yes he is.
The fourth reason (and the primary reason behind why I love Larry Bird’s trash talk) is that his smack talk was so different than any other trash talk you’re used to hearing.
With trash talk, there’s a certain rhythm and vernacular and Larry Bird didn’t follow any of those rules when he opened his mouth.
Larry’s boasts were good, but they were the NBA equivalent of a really good dad joke. Bird’s trash talk was funny, but with his twang, whatever delivery, and usually a smile (combined with his hair and mustache) his trash talk was so uncool that it was cool.
His persona added that extra layer to “What did he just say?”
Take this exchange between Bird and a rookie Dominique Wilkins in the early 1980s.From CBS Sports:
“One of the first times I ever played against him, I went out for the opening tip and I went to shake his hand. He just stood there and looked at me stone-faced with his hands behind his back,” Wilkins said recently.
“I was like, ‘Whoa.’ Then we were getting ready for the tip and he says to me, ‘You don’t belong in this league, Homes.’ I couldn’t believe it, but it happened so fast, I didn’t know what to think. […] Then they had the ball and I was on him and he said, ‘I don’t know why they got you guarding me, Homes. You can’t guard me.’ Then, whap, he hit a 3. Then he came down again and said, ‘They made a mistake putting you on me, Homes,’ and he took another 3.”
“So now I’m hot,” he said. “I’m hot. I mean, I’m steaming. […] “Then a little while later, I came down on a break and he was backpedaling. I just went right after him. I jumped up and he tried to challenge, but I took that right through the rim. He fell and hit the basket support. […] “He got up and said, ‘I like you, rookie. You’ve got(guts).’ I was happy for a second, and then he said, ‘But I’m still going for 40 on you tonight.’ ”
My favorite part? Bird holding his hands behind his back and not shaking hands with Wilkins before the game. Bird had no personal ill will with Dominique so it didn’t come from a level of disrespect, but was a mindfuck. Imagine if you were a rookie coming into the NBA and one of the NBA’s best players refuses to shake your hand and talks smack to you? It’s funny now, but in the moment itself, that would mess with even the most confident of basketball players.