Michael Jordan is widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time, but even he knew that you should never get into a trash-talk battle with Larry Bird.
Author Rafi Kohan’ new book Trash Talk: The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals That Isn’t Total Garbage reveals how MJ approached the Celtics legend when they crossed paths on the court.
Jordan didn’t want to give Bird, one of the best trash-talkers in NBA history, any ammunition. Jordan himself famously found additional motivation in the smallest slights, and he knew Bird would do the same.
Here’s the key excerpt from Trash Talk:
Even Jordan recognized the parallels, and he forbade his teammates from engaging with Bird on the floor. When the baby-faced B.J. Armstrong first joined the NBA, Bird took a run at him by saying, “I can’t believe they’re letting kids from junior high into the NBA.” With Armstrong about to respond, Jordan stepped in. He said, “Not a single person. Not one word. No one talk to Larry Bird.” To which Bird replied, pleading in his Indiana drawl, “C’mon, Michael. Let these guys get involved in it. Come on.”
As Kohan writes, top trash-talkers are not only looking to weaken their opponents, but also bring out the best of themselves. Bird fired barbs at Jordan, Dennis Rodman and plenty of other terrific defenders throughout his career, telling them exactly what he was going to do on the next possession before he made his move.
“The best trash-talkers are the people who want you to be at your very best because what they’re really saying is, ‘My best is better than your best, so let’s get to our best and see what happens,'” Armstrong said.
Of course, Jordan developed a Bird-like reputation as he became a superstar. In ESPN’s documentary series “The Last Dance,” author Mark Vancil said that Jordan “constructed reasons to play hard every night,” turning seemingly innocuous comments into “deep indignations.”
“Jordan was off-limits,” Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller said. “They had dirt on him. But nobody was game enough to bring it up because they knew Jordan had a long memory, and he would file that away.” (Kohan notes that Gary Payton, who faced Jordan in the 1996 NBA Finals, was the rare exception to this rule.)
Kohan goes into much greater detail about the psychological impact of trash talk in sports, but at its core, trash talk is “a kind of test.”
“It’s the presentation of a challenge, and it puts pressure on your opponent — and on yourself — by raising the stakes of that confrontation,” Kohan writes. “Now you both have more on the line. The question then becomes whether each of you can handle it, or whether you’re going to fold under that added pressure, even for an instant.”
Bird and Jordan won those challenges far more than they lost them. That’s why the best strategy was to simply not engage in the first place.
At the time of this publication, Trash Talk has a 4.7 out of 5 stars rating on Amazon.