The residual ire and vitriol spewed in the aftermath of the 2023 NCAA Women’s Final Four was telling. However, one with 20/200 vision could notice it was brewing on the horizon. It was a mere continuation of a never-ending cinematic display featuring double standards and biases.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird locked horns in the highest-rated televised men’s college basketball game in 1979. It was riveting and yet dichotomizing. Two years prior, the quintessential sporting example of a so-called “good guys vs. bad guys” matchup occurred during the 1977 NBA Finals. It pitted the surging media darlings (allegedly fundamentally sound/traditional) Portland Trailblazers, captained by Bill Walton, against the (supposedly renegade/undisciplined/street-ballin’) Philadelphia 76ers. The latter, led by coveted relative newcomers to the NBA, Julius Erving and George McGinnis, was the odds-on favorite, notwithstanding.
In 1968, the roof of the new home of the defending champion Sixers—the Spectrum—was blown off twice in less than two months, ravaged by high winds. During the mid-to-latter 70s, that same roof was—metaphorically—set ablaze several nights a month due to the electrifying dunks of Erving, McGinnis, “World B” (Lloyd) Free, “Chocolate Thunder” Darryl Dawkins, and crew. It was entertaining for the fans. To most, even the pregame layup lines were a must-see event. For others, it was equivalent to nothing more than a ghetto-ball playground troupe in character.
Full of spectacular action, gravity-defying plays, and suspense, capped off with a bit of brawling, Philly dominated at home to take a 2–0 series lead. As game two wound down and the intensity had ratcheted up, known Portland pugilist Maurice Lucas (safeguarding teammate Bob Gross) and Darryl Dawkins got into a pseudo-brawl with more posturing than punch. Their shenanigans–hands high with plenty of head movement–nearly precipitated a riot. But Lucas, in squaring up with the mammoth man-child Dawkins, not only chumped the Sixers but fractured their roster cohesion (Dawkins was apoplectic that no one had come to his defense and attempted to demolish the Philly locker room after his ejection).
Thus it was a pyrrhic Philadelphia win.
The pendulum indelibly swung the other way as the series shifted westward for three of the following four contests. Immediately after the starting lineup announcements before game three, Lucas made a high-browed chess move. He strode into the Sixers’ huddle, seeking Dawkins. He was practically chest-to-chest, gripping the bewildered youngster’s hand, and said, “No hard feelings.”  Portland swept the next four games as “Blazermania” reached a fever pitch and won the title. Thirty years later, Lucas recalled, “After that, [Dawkins] was done. One of the smartest things I ever did.” 
Amid competition, strategic planning and psychological warfare are significant. Crucial maneuvers often transpire before the contest has even commenced.
In hindsight, the best team on the floor was undoubtedly the Blazers, utilizing an offense masterminded by coach Dr. Jack Ramsey. However, Dr. J is the best player on the floor during this series. His performance in the sixth and final game, where he scored 40 points, later served as a constituent of the highlights for his eventual Pro Basketball Hall of Fame induction. Although he would soon become a beloved figure by most fans, at the time, the Afro-wearing, Rucker, and ABA phenom was still deemed as one of them: a mere individualist and interloper with urban flair.
Had Walton lost in the NBA Finals that year, someone may have invited him to the White House. Walton, a Vietnam war protesting, anti-establishment figure to the core, would have declined politely. According to one author, “Walton’s been the rarest of white superstar athletes, one who’s unfailingly candid about pressing social issues. Asked why others aren’t as willing to speak out about injustice, he said, ‘I can’t and don’t speak for other people. I try to encourage, to inspire, to try to illuminate and elevate. I am a product of the culture and people and leaders and choices I made in my life.’” 
Bird, on the other hand, as competitive as they come and a trash-talker nonpareil, would have included a few expletives along with his refusal. Both gentlemen vehemently scoffed and eschewed the notion of becoming basketball’s White Hope.
Although splendid, Erving would only have received an invite from Washington D.C. with first leading the Sixers to the championship summit, which he did six years later. Assuredly not in 1977, when a burgeoning contingent in America perceived the post-merger NBA a tad too ebony, too violent, and deviating from what paleoconservatives yearned for the game to be. At that juncture, “[Many] white sportswriters of the time tended to characterize African-American players as childish, lazy, and overpaid.” 
As for being named the most valuable player in a losing cause, that would not have happened for Doc either. Laker Jerry West, “The Logo,” is still the only individual voted MVP as a runner-up in the history of the NBA Finals (Note: rumors persist that Larry Bird would have received the honor even if the Celtics–champions in 1984–had lost that year). In 1969, West was incredible as his Lakers came up short, despite being heavy favorites against the aging fourth-place Boston Celtics. The media generally depicted Jerry as a tragic hero (never a loser), having lost in multiple finals alongside fellow Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor in a quest for title glory. However, a formidable archenemy that year, John Havlicek, was equally impressive for Boston
capturing the title; even West will admit that “Hondo” Havlicek had a compelling case for the MVP award. Ironically, Jerry West’s prize was a car, and its color was “Celtic Green.”
Was Caitlin Clark a tragic heroine? If so, through whose prism? The Iowa standout was sterling, putting a rubber stamp on her 2023 Associated Press (AP) Player of the Year award with a sizzling performance throughout the real collegiate basketball season: March Madness. As the women’s tournament careened toward a capstone, whispers and murmurs became roars. In Pavlovian-like fashion, tribal lines were subliminally drawn by spectators in the sand (a là, the 80s Lakers vs. Celtics), becoming more sharply defined/delineated as the semi-finals approached. That contest would pit the University of Iowa against the University of South Carolina. Clark lived up to the hype, scoring at will and exhorting the Hawkeyes to a hard-fought win. The six-foot junior scorched the nets for 41 points–for the second consecutive contest–to go along with eight assists and six rebounds. She let her opponents and the crowd know about it via gestures and verbalization.
The much-anticipated championship matchup was good. With an estimated 9.9 million viewers, it is the most-watched women’s collegiate basketball game on record. Clark was again impressive, notching 30 points and eight assists.
In hoops, whether on hardwood or blacktop, organized or pickup, trash-talking is considered par for the course on any level.
Angel Reese was colossal during the entire tournament. Nevertheless, outside of Baton Rouge, the LSU star was presumed anything but heroic for a large swath of America. The 6 foot 3 inch Tigers’ standout made her presence known immediately after transferring from the University of Maryland—her 2023 stat line: 23 points, 15.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 52.5% field goals.
In addition to leading the university to its first hoops national championship, Angel garnered 2023 All-American and NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player awards.
Like her highly-skilled counterpart–Clark–she is a charismatic and bonafide floor general. Their actions in the heat of the battle have been well-documented. Reese voiced her feelings during and after the championship win.
“Reese, who is Black, received abuse for the [hand] gesture on social media. Others pointed out that Clark, who is white, had made the same gesture earlier in the tournament but had been praised for her fighting spirit. Reese referenced the double standard when speaking to reporters after Sunday’s game. ‘All year, I was critiqued about who I was. I’m too hood; I’m too ghetto;
y’all told me that all year,’ she said. ‘When other people do it, y’all don’t say nothing. So this is for the girls that look like me. For those that want to speak up for what they believe in. It was bigger than me tonight. And Twitter is going to go into a rage every time.’” 
Whether on the brightest stage or in a dimly lit gym, basketball is highly rivalrous and competitive, and trash-talk is an integral part of the sport. Once sides are chosen, it isn’t a game of “H-O-R-S-E.” These ladies are playing for keeps at this echelon until the final buzzer! If one can reinforce loquaciousness with fantastic play, so be it.
“I don’t think Angel should be criticized at all,” said Clark. “I’m just one that competes, and she competed. I think everybody knew there was gonna be a little trash-talk in the entire tournament. It’s not just me and Angel.” She continued, “We’re all competitive. We all show our emotions in a different way. You know, Angel is a tremendous, tremendous player. I have nothing but respect for her. I love her game–the way she rebounds the ball, and scores the ball is absolutely incredible. I’m a big fan of her and even the entire LSU team. They played an amazing game.” Clark said that women, like men, should be able to trash-talk opponents. “Men have always had trash-talk. You should be able to play with that emotion. That’s how every girl should continue to play,” she added. 
Both young stars are benefiting from NIL dollars.
“The On3 NIL Valuation accounts for an athlete’s roster value and brand value. Roster value is the value an athlete has by being a member of his or her team at his or her school, which factors in an athlete’s personal brand and the value it could bring to regional and national brands outside the scope of NIL collectives.” 
Reese and Clark have NIL valuations of over $1.3 million and $830K, respectively. Thus, both can proceed to the next level–the WNBA–when they’re good and ready.
The First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, was in attendance during the title showdown. Post-game, rhapsodic with the performance of both young ladies, she opined, “[Suggesting] that Iowa should join LSU during the championship team’s traditional visit to the White House. ‘I know we’ll have the champions come to the White House; we always do. So, we hope LSU will come,’ she said. ‘But, you know, I’m going to tell Joe [Biden], I think Iowa should come, too, because they played such a good game.’”  Perhaps she was caught up in the moment and effervescent over the fervid level of play. Conversely, Dr. Biden could have hinted at her underlying imperceptible predispositions. Either way, given those optics, her sentiments alighted far below optimal. Dr. Biden was not sui generis in her ideas; she just had a mammoth platform. It is highly implausible that the LSU Tigers–in defeat–would have been tendered an allied consolatory summons.
“When asked about [Dr. Jill] Biden’s suggestion during a Tuesday appearance on ESPN’s SportsCenter, Clark told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap that she appreciated [Dr.] Biden supporting women’s basketball but said she thinks LSU should get their moment in the sun following their victory. ‘I don’t think runner-ups usually go to the White House,’ she said. ‘LSU should enjoy that moment for them. And congratulations, obviously; they deserve to go there. Maybe I could go to the White House on different terms, though.’” 
Clark added, “That [visit is] for LSU; they should enjoy every single second of being the champion,” she said. “I think that’s theirs to do.” 
BIRD OF PREY
For all the consternation regarding dialogue on the court, few in basketball, if any, outdistanced Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Larry Bird. He required no provocation; all one needed was to be an opponent on his schedule. Anyone—in his mind—was susceptible to his wrath. Above all, he could keenly ascertain the aroma of fear in any foe. Nevertheless, respect for him was universal by players of every hue, mainly because he always backed up his talk with stellar play. While keenly aware of his status, the 3x NBA MVP once said, “This is a Black man’s game. The greatest athletes in the world are African-American.” 
From top to bottom, players respected him. Bird shut up, focused, and delivered when the game was on the line. Still, many of his proclamations will live in infamy.
“One of Bird’s pet peeves during his playing days was a ‘white guy guarding me,’ as Bird told ESPN in 2004. 
“The one thing that always bothered me when I played in the NBA was I got irritated when they put a white guy on me. I still don’t understand why. A white guy would come out (and) I would always ask him: ‘What, do you have a problem with your coach? Did your coach do this to you?‘ And he’d go, ‘No,’ and I’d say, ‘Come on, you got a white guy coming out here to guard me; you got no chance.’ For some reason, that always bothered me when I was playing against a white guy.” 
Bird’s most uncompromising defender, fierce nemesis Michael Cooper of the Lakers, once stated: “I [hated] Larry Bird, but I respect the hell out of that man because I went against him in all those championships.”  Although the two usually communicated only via play and physicality, occasionally, things became linguistic. During an interview in 2020, the Laker swingman, whom Bird called the only man capable of “shutting me down,” spoke on the legend. Bird chatted out of the blue to “Coop” once during the 1987 NBA Finals, “Coop, I’m about to wear your a** out!” After dishing an assist to a teammate for an easy score, he looked at Cooper and stated, “I told your a**!”
Rarely ear-splitting or histrionic, former foes describe him as a discreet–yet perpetual–trash-talker. This all-time great was the epitome of audacity. Yet, the surname often granted “Larry Legend” aegis and immunity: the consensus was that he was merely endeavoring to get into an opposing player’s headspace. He was not surmised as heinous but a prized asset to hoops. The media viewed him as an aggressive, focused and combative participant. But what if the name had been Erving, Johnson, Olajuwon, or Duncan boasting similarly? Would that corresponding amnesty have been granted to them?
Better yet, what if the name were Miller, Swoopes, Leslie, or Angel Reese?
Since when has it been unbecoming for the fairer sex to set hard screens, box out underneath with elbows high, or dare an opponent to shoot the rock? Better yet, can anyone demystify why attempting to interrupt–if not ruin–an opponent’s psyche before or during a competition is egregious? No one requests them to flop, stomp one another, grab ankles, or come to fisticuffs in the locker rooms or adjacent to team buses. Just let the ladies flow within the natural cadence of the contest. Basketball has evolved.
Pro Basketball Hall of Famer and former WNBA star Lisa Leslie once commented, “I don’t really talk any trash, but if you talk trash to me, I will definitely respond. It might be in my game or maybe in a look. But that’s pretty much it. I’ve been talked trash to a lot. That’s just motivation for me. I’m one of those players you won’t want to get started with in that area because you will [improve me]. It’s not about making me angry, but it’s disrespecting me, and there is no reason for that because I’m sure I didn’t disrespect you. It will make me focus more and step up my game more. You’re better off leaving me alone, and I think most players and coaches know that.” 
Ivory Latta, previously of the Detroit Shock, stated, “I don’t like to call it ‘talking trash.’ I just like to get emotionally involved and get inside someone’s head on the court. That’s what I like to do. I just love to have fun. I don’t want to be disrespectful or anything like that. I just love to go out there and have fun playing. If I can get inside your head, then that’s great! It’s to our advantage!” 
Who sets the parameters regarding on-court etiquette in the grand scheme of things, and what makes the game sensational? Zone defenses are legal, but frequently, it’s about one-on-one match-ups. With each possession, the question arises: can you deal with the opponent impeding you or not? Some do it with fluidity, scoring or swatting a shot as if it’s nothing. And others, after surmounting a would-be defender, may choose to chat or gesture. In the sport’s progression, style and swag have become essential elements, while fundamentals remain paramount to maintain the quality and purity of the game.
Nevertheless, in the WNBA, the consensus is that this particular form of authenticity is frowned upon. WNBA MVP (2016) Nneka Ogwumike stated, “There’s this perception that they want our game to be family-oriented, and that means no trash-talking and no real, like, true natural expression.” She continued, “[Every year she has pushed back] against the demand, couched as respect for the game, ‘because we’re not allowed to be our full selves within reason,’ adding that her male peers in the N.B.A. are ‘admired and looked up to’ for their antics.” 
The recent Women’s Final Four put multitudes into arenas, sports bars, and in front of their home flat screens, not only because of the high-octane talent on display. The tournament yielded another illustration of the double standards that exist in society. Caitlin Clark, a white superstar, was revered for slaying a juggernaut in the win over the University of South Carolina while simultaneously chirping and gesturing. Her adversary, Angel Reese, was reviled for doing the same. The former was predominantly regarded as passionate and competitive—the latter: unsportsmanlike and an idiot (and worse) by some grown-a** men.
These young ladies, notably melanated ones, encounter the additional tariff of being scrutinized not only for their skin tone and culture but also for their gender. LSU versus Iowa was one of the greatest basketball slugfests of all time. Elite-level rosters battled, and both chief stalwarts competed! One’s biases cannot shroud this moment nor attenuate the spirit of their duel. The champions have earned the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor unobstructed by the presence of any runner-up. Their ever-emerging moxie and marinate will keep viewers coming back for more.
Self-proclaimed basketball purists have long been anti-flash, anti-dunk, anti-rhythm, anti-3-ball, and anti-expression. Despite this, the caliber of the game, its essence, pulse, and lifeblood will persist and progress. From the days of Philly battling Portland (the 70s), Boston vs. LA (the 80s), and now Iowa vs. LSU, the ubiquitous construct of race interposes to establish sects, coalitions, and boundaries long before tip-off in each instance. The resultant fractionalization is lucid. Previously hidden tribes materialize and speak out loud, especially if the outcome is not in their favor. In some other cases, their silence speaks volumes. The disdain is palpable. Yet, in victory, ecstasy is often protracted and hyperbolized. We have seen this motion picture before; inevitably, we will reexamine it again in our predetermined aggregates and alliances.
Words by Dr. Eric Hawkins (Dr. Hawk/@MDHawk on Twitter)
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(2) Bohls, Kirk. “It’s Bill Walton’s Rare Voice, Drive, & Pursuits That Have Made Us Luckiest.” Austin-American Statesman. Statesman.com. March 15, 2023
(3) Runstedtler, Theresa. “Black Ball: Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, And The Generation That Saved The Soul Of The NBA.” Bold Type Books. New York. (2023). p. 220
(4) Lutz, Tom. “Clark Defends Reese Gesture & Says Trash-Talking Is A Part Of Basketball.” The Guardian. Guardian.com. April 4, 2023
(5) Mistrella, Joey. “LSU Basketball Star Angel Reese’s Bonkers NIL Valuation Revealed.” Clutch Points. Clutchpoints.com. April 11, 2023 (6) Martinez, Gina. “Iowa’s Caitlin Clark Says Only LSU Should Visit The White House.” CBS News.