'A Lose-Lose Battle': NBA Stars on Tunnel Trash Talk and Why It Makes Them Snap

Dave Schilling@@dave_schillingWriter-at-LargeMay 21, 2018

B/R

Put yourself in the shoes of an NBA player. Yes, I realize they don't fit. You wear a size 11, and Kevin Durant wears a size they do not carry in your local JCPenney. Go with me anyway. You're very wealthy. You're athletically gifted to an extreme degree. You're pretty much guaranteed a good table at the best restaurants in whatever city you live in.            

But there are downsides. Here's one particularly unpleasant one: People will yell horrible things at you often, and you're supposed to just take it.

There's nothing that quite compares to the feeling of having someone's hot, drunken breath on you, insisting that you are, in fact, the worst. Or that your mother is the worst. Or your wife. Or your kids.

This is one of the reasons you and your teammates fight and claw for every win during the regular season—for home-court advantage in the playoffs. It's a lot easier to focus on the task at hand when people aren't insulting you. Home arenas are as close to a safe space as you can get as an NBA player.

It's why after winning Game 2 against the Warriors in Houston, Rockets guard Chris Paul's first shoutout was to the crowd. "Our fans were amazing tonight, and we're going to continue to need them," he said.

He knew to appreciate it while he could, because one of the league's most notoriously rowdy crowds would make him feel anything but appreciative in Oakland on Sunday. It's hard to hear yourself think in Oracle Arena, let alone sink a crucial free throw. "We know [it's] a tough environment to play in there," Paul continued. "We'll be ready."

"Be ready," meaning "grow thick skin" and "increase our selective hearing." But sometimes even that isn't enough, especially when emotions are at their highest and a stranger is getting personal with you.

Sometimes you, even as an NBA player, just snap. Look at Russell Westbrook. Three times this season, at least, he's been involved in instances of fan abuse.

In February in Denver, a fan came on the court after the Nuggets won on a Gary Harris buzzer-beater and screamed in Westbrook's face. During the first round of the playoffs in Utah, a fan yelled an obscenity at him on his way through the tunnel at halftime of Game 6. Then again after that same game. The last time, Westbrook boiled over and went for a fan's cellphone.

And who can blame him?

Some guys get it more than others. Draymond Green is public enemy No. 1 whenever the Warriors are on the road. He's the toughest guy with the biggest mouth on the best team in the league. He's outspoken, he's brash and he makes his presence felt on the court. The target on his back is substantial.

Fans in rival cities are already predisposed to hate him. Most of the time, it just means a cacophony of nameless, faceless hollering, mixed in with the arena's thumping pump-up music and wacky sound effects. But when something happens like what occurred in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals this year, when Green brushed off James Harden with a forearm shove after a Harden layup, the crowd is ready to tear him apart.

The jeers and the insults rained down on Green after that early-game incident. Then the Warriors had to go back through that tunnel at the end of the first half, with the game a fierce back-and-forth deadlock, giving fans some not-so-quality time with their enemies.

"As far as [being] tied up 56-56 walking into the tunnel, there isn't much somebody can really say," Draymond said of the moment. "I don't really pay much attention to what people are yelling from the crowd anyway. I can get in trouble and lose money; they can't. So it's a lose-lose battle for me."

That's why you listen to veterans like Paul's teammate, Gerald Green, when they say of interactions with fans: "It's tough. It's the league. You gotta be professional." Green has been in the league since 2005 and has played a large portion of his career in front of one of the league's most intense fanbases in Boston. He understands the grind of being on the road and what that means for a player's psyche. The instinct is to react, but the necessity is to disengage.

If you don't, you pay. Like Rodney Hood did, fined $35,000 for slapping a phone away from a fan as he exited the court in January.

You understand the league's reasoning. Proximity to the action is part of the appeal of the NBA experience, and the price of a ticket does afford fans a certain amount of leeway to express themselves.

Wealthy people pay top dollar for courtside seats. Part of what fans seated above the tunnel entrances are paying for is the chance to high-five the home players, get autographs, yell words of encouragement—and berate and harass visiting players. They can take candid photos of the players any time they want.

But again, like Hood or Westbrook, sometimes you snap.

Westbrook wasn't fined for shoving the Nuggets fan away or telling the Jazz fan to "back the f--k up" when he went into the tunnel for halftime. The key difference is, as Westbrook said after the Game 6 incident in Utah, he did not confront the fans. The fans confronted him.

"Here in Utah, man, a lot of disrespectful, vulgar things are said to the players here with these fans," Westbrook said. "It's truly disrespectful—about your families, your kids. It's truly disrespectful to the game, man. I think it's something that needs to be brought up.

"I'm tired of just going out and playing; then the fans saying whatever the hell they want to say. I'm not with that. If I was on the street, they wouldn't just come up to me and say anything crazy, because I don't play that s--t. So, to disrespect me and do whatever they want to do needs to be put to a stop, especially here in Utah."

In pressure-filled situations—with your legacy, your livelihood and your reputation on the line at all times—it can push you past your limit.

Security does the best it can to regulate hateful speech in the arena and to keep fans from abusing the players. That's not always successful, though, and issues do arise.

Sports can be cathartic, from two opposite perspectives—one, the joy of seeing your team win; and two, the sometimes perverse pleasure of getting your anger out when it isn't going quite as well as you'd hoped. As much as fans are paying to enjoy the spectacle and the stunning athletic feats of major professional sports, they are also paying to feel free to be emotional—to get mad, to be happy, to lose themselves for just a moment. Knowing that, much of the responsibility for keeping it together falls on the players.

The question is how a player can remain calm when he's heard one jab too many.

Listen to Gerald Green: "At the end of the day, we are human. At the end of the day, they're having fun with it, too. So, when it's all fun and games, and it's all within the sport, it's cool. It gets a little complicated when both parties get disrespectful, the player or the fan. It's not right to be disrespected. Once you keep it clean, keep it sportsmanlike, and just keep it on the game, a little trash talking is always good."

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Or to Draymond: "I think there are times in a ton of games where you just have to reel it back in, whether good or bad. You could be playing too good and get overhyped. You could be playing horrible and get down on yourself. I think that's all part of being a pro. It makes a difference having great teammates who always support you, having a great coaching staff who is always supporting. That makes a difference."

And that's the lesson.

Of all the skills an NBA player is required to have—and of all the ones to learn from Draymond Green—the most underrated of all might be patience.

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