It is a fine stroke of luck that a city where drama is manufactured on a daily basis would play host to the NBA’s wildest B-plot. While other cities—Oakland, which has been trying to reinforce its championship structure, and Cleveland, which recently tore down its foundation in hopes of building a championship team—have produced worthy storylines, Los Angeles has played host to a different sort of campaign of destruction: trolling.
Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers’ highly touted rookie duo, have been exchanging insults on social media for most of the season’s first half. The affair heated up last month, when a 15-second Instagram story that Kuzma posted quickly went viral:
The video begins with a candid moment of downtime on the team plane. Lonzo is sitting alone in his Big Baller Brand hat, the brim over his eyes. The cameraman, Kuzma, snatches the hat, revealing a black do-rag. “Hell nah,” the text reads. Kuzma unveils the offending garment like a horror movie—swift and shocking, for maximum effect. He then zooms in and out to ensure that the viewer, even if not bothered by Lonzo’s fashion choice, at least gets seasick.
The jokes escalated as the month progressed. Kuz called out Zo for his Vans sneakers. (“Have y’all seen a 20 year old [sic] wear toddler shoes?”) And Zo followed up with a clapback of his own, viciously deconstructing Kuz’s postgame attire—a fox-fur coat with pink lining. “Boi got on a fake chinchilla (with pink silk on the inside) that’s bound to jump off his back at any moment along wit a turtleneck, BI’s Slenderman jeans, and some 9-5 boots…#IveSeenItAll,” Lonzo said.
While some may think the slights perpetrated by Zo and Kuz are part of an escalating war, a riff between budding stars, a closer read points to the blossoming of the NBA’s next great dynamic duo. The tone of the insults are good-natured, though still fierce. The jokes aren’t old-school trash talk—curses and insults whispered during timeouts—but something else—subtler, more public and curated with the express purpose of entertaining the fans. It is, in a word, Shade.
The art of throwing shade in the modern NBA has elevated to the level of sport, thanks to social media. Lonzo and Kuz have just put their own, unique spin on the game. They have refined the form into online gold, crafting characters for themselves that fans maybe can’t relate to but certainly can aspire to. It’s like the B-plot in a Game of Thrones episode, the secondary storyline that runs parallel to all the really important stuff. The A-plot, though, is still what happens beneath the rims.
Jousting between players off the court can inject some needed drama into what happens on the court every night. In October, during the preseason, Hassan Whiteside took to Twitter to respond to a Bleacher Report tweet about his run-in with 76ers star Joel Embiid: “Funny how y’all don’t show me telling him the same and 1-7 shooting or the first 2 flops I mean blocks. Lol y’all fan boys I swear.” Embiid responded:
Then, in November, after a game in which Knicks big man Enes Kanter and the Cavaliers’ LeBron James butted heads, the two traded shots: “Whatever you wanna call yourself—king, queen, princess, whatever—we’re gonna fight…and nobody’s gonna punk us,” Kanter told reporters. “Well, I'm the King, my wife is the Queen and my daughter's the Princess, so we’ve got all three covered,” LeBron replied. (Kanter would later get LeBron back.) In December, Embiid and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns waged a memorable back and forth on Instagram:
Soon thereafter, “Eurostepping through Minnesota” and “raising the cat” started trending in Philadelphia.
Embiid has established himself as the game’s pre-eminent trash talker because of his ability to come at you from multiple fronts. He provokes with smile on his face, a shrug of the shoulders and the occasional well-placed elbow. “Embiid’s the most trash-talkin’,” Kevin Garnett, a former NBA All-Star who hosts TNT’s Area 21, told me. “He’s probably the most noticeable of all the players that goes out and actually makes it his business to say you can’t stop me. You know you can’t stop me.”
Today’s player doesn’t necessarily take the art of trash talk as seriously as their predecessors, like KG. “You can get hurt, but you don’t take it personal,” Klay Thompson said. “Some guys are pretty sensitive, but they don’t take that personal, fortunately.”
“You don’t really get too much [trash talk] these days,” Paul George told me. “Not as much as it used to be back in the day. It’s competitive, but I think it’s a different type, different level of competitiveness. Today’s day and age, guys grew up playing with one another. There’s a degree of friendship. It’s never like a negative trash talk. It’s a friendly trash talk, if anything. You get guys occasionally with some history together and they trash talk, but not too much anymore.”
KG is quick to retort when told of the kids and their warm and fuzzy take on trash talk. “All the trash talkers I know—Gary Payton, Michael Jordan, Charles Oakley, [Anthony Mason], Tim Hardaway—these are all guys who can back it up with their basketball skills, hands, these are real cats,” he says. “These ain’t no fuddy duddies. Anybody who’s out here talking trash is doing it for a reason—for domination. I don’t know anyone who’s saying that with a tone of not taking it seriously. All trash talk is taken seriously, or why say anything?”
New York Knick Trey Burke said: “It depends on how you approach [trash talk]. When it comes to a guy like [Kevin Garnett], it does get personal. But then, other guys just trash talk to try to get in your head; other guys trash talk for it to be personal. In my opinion, I don’t trash talk unless someone starts talking to me. That helps me get hyped up, too. I feel like that helps me play better sometimes. If I go out there and I’m just talking from the beginning, that’s not who I am. If someone’s talking to me, I’m gonna talk back. That’s just how I’ve always played the game.”
The practice of trading cutting remarks and insults has been a part of pro basketball for a long time, but it gained prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. As African American players from urban cities populated pro basketball, they brought with them the tradition of “the dozens,” a spoken-word battle of wits commonly played with spectators present to cheer and hiss the competitors. On the court, insults added a psychological element to what was primarily physical warfare. “It’s just leverage. It’s another way to get you off your game or get you out the game,” Garnett told me. “When you’re talkin’ shit, you gotta back it up. You talkin’ shit, he talkin’ shit. Now, when I see you, I gotta be about what I was talkin’ about.”
By the 1990s a number of players had made verbal abuse as much a part of their arsenal as fundamentals. Larry Bird wished Chuck Person a “Merry fucking Christmas” while draining a three. Jordan shrugged his shoulders after burying six threes in one half. (The gesture later became one of the most indelible memes in basketball history.) Dennis Rodman took the form to another level when, during an altercation with Frank Brickowski, then a member of the Seattle SuperSonics, Chicago’s Rodman smirked in his face with his hands behind his back like a precocious child. (Today, you can see Rodman’s influence in Draymond Green’s confidence, Patrick Beverley’s tenacious defense and Embiid’s wicked sense of humor.)
In 2004, the widespread acceptance of trash talk took a hit when verbal taunts boiled over into a physical melee—later known as the “Malice in the Palace”—during a contest between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons. The NBA, in an effort to clean up the league’s image, cracked down on overt displays of animosity between players. Then-commissioner David Stern also instituted a dress code for all players. “I could see them trying to control us after that situation happen,” Garnett said. “Fighting penalties came down a little stronger then.”
In recent years, the spirit of trash talk has re-emerged thanks to the most dominant personality in basketball—LeBron James—who has refashioned trash talk in his image. Where trash talk is brash and blunt and in your face, shade is down-low, vague and disorienting. It’s like the difference between being punched in the stomach and poked in the eye with a pencil. For LeBron, the sign of truly effective trash talk is when you don’t even know if you’ve actually been dissed.
LeBron has grown right alongside the rise of social media, which might explain why he’s been one of the savviest users of the medium for years. He supplies cable debate shows with juicy topics for weeks. In November, LeBron blasted out the Arthur fist meme, with the brief caption, “Mood” to his 35.3 million Instagram followers. What followed were countless parodies, debates about the state of the Cavs’ locker room and think pieces on what it all meant.
LeBron, the symbol, and LeBron, the meme, really started at a Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 2010. “The Decision,” as it was later known, was an exhaustive attempt at stage-managing a narrative—the pained expression on his face, the particular wording of the announcement (“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat”), the donation of all the proceeds to charity—but LeBron still couldn’t keep a firm grip on his image. The response was almost universally negative. NBA players, no matter how much they tried, were not fully in control of their own narratives.
Since then, LeBron has demonstrated a unique ability to bend the media cycle to his will by giving the masses calculated doses of his complicated image. His feeds are a steady amalgamation of cheery antics, inspirational quotes and passive-aggressive shade. He can make you laugh with the lip-syncing and encourage you to live your best life or make you believe in his dedication to winning another title with his workouts. He once tweeted: “Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN. Be apart of something special! Just my thoughts.” And the sports world tripped all over itself trying to sort out what he meant and whom he was speaking to. (Was LeBron calling out Kevin Love?) When LeBron speaks, the earth under the NBA trembles.
“LB has built the right and built the reputation to comment,” Garnett reasoned. “He’s one of the pillars of the league. He’s been through it. He’s been weathered; he’s earned his stripes. Now he can voice his opinion on whatever.”
Lonzo Ball has yet to earn the leeway of James, but he’s already coming at his contemporaries through all manner of shade. The next generation of NBA player has LeBron’s lead and taken its keyboard conflicts to another level.
On February 9, the Kuz-Zo beef appeared to be squashed when Kuz posted an Instagram photo of the two dynamic rookies chilling on the bench during a shootaround. “What up zo,” Kuz wrote. Zo, who liked the post, replied “What’s good?” He then turned his attention to his new teammates—Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas, who had recently been acquired in a trade with Cleveland. The photo, posted on Zo’s Instagram, showed Thomas and Frye wearing practical fleece sweaters while shaking hands. “@kuzmakyle you set this up?,” Zo wrote welcoming his new teammates. “#FleeceGang Newest members @isaiahthomas @channingfrye.”
Some former Lakers teammates of Lonzo and Kuzma’s avoided involving themselves in the online drama. “Nothing else is my job,” Larry Nance Jr., who was recently traded to the Cavs, told me in late January, as the Ball/Kuzma rivalry was beginning to blossom. “Yeah, I scroll through Twitter. Yeah, I see on Instagram. I see all the stuff, but it’s not my job to pay attention to it. It’s my job to play hard.” Nance might find a more hospitable environment for his social media preferences in Cleveland, where James goes on a total internet blackout throughout the playoffs, which he says makes it easier to focus on winning a title. Ball and Kuzma, on the other hand, likely won’t be playing past April. Plenty of time to find new things to fight about.
Additional reporting for this piece was conducted by Tom Haberstroh.