When I checked Twitter and noticed Larry Bird trending, I immediately assumed that it was connected to the Angel Reese/ Caitlin Clark debate surrounding trash talk.
I was right, and the discussions around Bird, a legendary trash talker, echoes the same racial tension that responses to Reese and Clark are exposing.
My basketball life was grounded in the 1970s and 1980s when I played a great deal of basketball—on school and rec teams throughout junior and high school as well as almost daily pick-up games in the late 70s and early 80s—and was an avid college and NBA fan.
That basketball life included being a rabid fan of Pete Maravich and Bird, and since I was a scrawny white redneck from a working class family, there were many aspects of race and social class entrenched in my basketball life.
Despite my compulsive practicing—much of that focusing on dunking and spinning a basketball on my finger—I was mostly a bench warmer on school teams; I was routinely humiliated by my teammates who were overwhelmingly Black.
In fact, on a 13-person roster as a sophomore, I was the only white guy on the team.
But probably the most important part of my basketball life, and ultimately my life in general, was playing pick-up basketball almost exclusively with Black guys throughout high school and into college (where I also played intramural basketball).
Despite my limited skills as a basketball player, I was pretty athletic, I knew how to play ball well, I was a physical player, and I talked trash. On the court and off, I was known for my gifted use of profanity.
Concurrent with my basketball life, I listened for hours to George Carlin and Richard Pryor comedy albums. Carlin and Pryor taught me the power of language while also disrupting much of my redneck upbringing that was often narrow-minded and bigoted.
I learned from Carlin and Pryor that being smart and gifted knew no race, but I also learned that individual power and autonomy was grounded in my mind and my verbal abilities.
On the basketball court, I had a great to deal to make up for since I was often the weakest pure player on the court. So I had to play hard, and I used one skill I trusted—running my mouth.
One year that stands out to me is playing intramural basketball in my first couple years of college when I was playing pick-up basketball nearly daily with members of the college team and local elite high school players. Again, pick-up gains were overwhelmingly with Black guys and a couple of my closest white friends who, like me, were very Black-guy-adjacent in their basketball and personal lives.
Looking back on these experiences, especially in the context of the reductive and racist debates raging over Reese/ Clark and including references to Bird, I am now vividly aware of the moral codes I was taught through the Black culture elements of basketball.
One of my white friends used to say to me often, “Paul, you’re going to get your ass beat,” referring to my trash talk. Notably, these moments were always about my antagonistic interactions with other white guys.
I could have, and should have, gotten my ass beat, by the way. I was more mouth than ass, and I really never monitored when the other guy didn’t understand the moral code I had acquired.
The mostly Black-guy pick-up games were intense with a great deal of mouthing. But we usually smiled, we often slapped hands or shook hands to compliment good play, and I really never expected anyone to come to blows.
Unlike white guys, as well, Black guys called their own fouls when they committed them. If you fouled guys and let it slide, you caught extra hell so there was a not-so-subtle message to do the right thing.
White guys cried and moaned about being fouled, and trash talking often teetered in the edge of starting a fight.
I am certain I learned to respect the game from Black guys, and part of that code had to do with respecting each other even as we talked trash. White guys were often petty, what I called back then “punks,” calling touch fouls, complaining, being soft.
Talking trash was as much of the game as dribbling, passing, rebounding, and shooting. But talking trash was also a sign of respect and a level of expectations.
If you talk trash, you are going to pay for it at some point.
Bird often used trash talking to gain an advantage, but Bird lost games and match ups many times over his career. I am sure many people let him know that.
Bird was very open about his respect for Black athletes, and even said aloud he took it as a sign of disrespect when coaches had a white player guard him.
There is a very complex and even uncomfortable set of lessons in the racial dynamics of the basketball world of the 1970s and 1980s, often represented by Bird and Magic Johnson but also involving Michael Jordan and the Detroit Pistons.
Basketball was much more physical and even violent then, but basketball in many ways (along with professional sports) represented a way for Black men to gain status in US society in ways mostly denied them.
We want to think sports is a meritocracy, and maybe it is more so than in other contexts, but the basketball world I grew up in pushed racial tensions, racism and stereotypes, and cultural norms into a stronger spotlight for me.
In 2023, I shake my head, I sigh, and I regret that white people remain trapped in the sort of pettiness I witnessed growing up—thin skinned and absent a moral code that respects all humanity.
The Reese/ Clark controversy is much bigger than these athletes, and it exposes how public discourse remains white-centered, shaping a much different narrative of Reese than Clark.
An unfairly different narrative grounded in race and racism but also extending a faux respectability politics onto Reese but excused in Clark.
There was an important camaraderie in the trash talking of my teen and young adult years that I cherish and miss (my basketball life was quite different than my all-white golf life that had a false decorum I never felt comfortable in). Dozens and dozens of Black guys made me a better athlete and person.
Clark like Bird likely understands that trash talk has its rewards but you will pay for it.
Millions of moments like the Reese/ Clark clash happened and do happen on basketball courts around the world, daily. But theirs was on one of the brightest stages and televised.
While too many people want to make claims about the character of Reese or Clark, the truth is that the debate itself is a window into the character of everyone choosing to debate their trash talking.
Too many people, mostly white, never learned the moral codes I did, never learned the lessons of race that were gifted me in the 1970s on vinyl records and on sweaty basketball courts.
If you are inclined to chastise Reese and praise Clark, you need to take a long moment in the mirror and consider holding yourself accountable before worrying about two young women playing college basketball at the highest level.