March 1, 2005
The high drama of ACC basketball is at a fever pitch, and this year the competitive nature of the contests has boiled over to startling, trash talking verbal outbursts and occasional physical confrontations, even among the ACC's elite players.
Normally mild-mannered Daniel Ewing of Duke has been whistled for three technical fouls this year, while baby-faced Chris Paul of Wake Forest has developed a far from perfect rep in the minds of some observers. The constant exchanges between Florida State's Von Wafer and Miami's Guillermo Diaz in the first game between those two startled onlookers. The matchup between N.C. State and Virginia at the Pack's RBC Center featured a barrage of talk between a pair of New Yorkers, with the Wahoos' Gary Forbes (Brooklyn) and the Wolfpack's Julius Hodge (The Bronx) going at it all game long.
UNC's Rashad McCants (vs. N.C. State) and Wake Forest's Taron Downey (at Florida State) both used throat-slashing gestures, to the dismay of both players' coaches.
Of course, trash talking isn't an ACC-only problem; the phenomenon has seemingly swept the country in recent years. However, the league's coaches, players and administrators recognize that the issue must be addressed in some meaningful fashion.
"Throughout the country, there's been more talking between players and coaches and things like that," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "It's always been there and it always will be there because of the competitive nature of the game. What we have to do is make sure it doesn't become a prominent part of the game."
"It's good to have some [emotional] license, but you have to draw a line in the sand and we've crossed it a couple of times," said Virginia coach Pete Gillen. "I'm not blaming anybody, but we've all got to do better because we have to respect the game."
Interestingly, the blame cannot all be laid at the feet of the players. In some instances, coaches have allowed themselves to get involved in the action.
In 2002, Duke's Dahntay Jones barked at the Clemson bench after a dunk, prompting then-coach Larry Shyatt to charge off the sidelines toward mid-court to challenge Jones. Two nights before that debacle, Maryland coach Gary Williams took issue with Virginia guard Keith Jenifer lingering around the Terrapins sideline during a timeout, creating a scene. Wahoos assistant Walt Fuller interjected on his player's behalf. Both Shyatt and Fuller were reprimanded by the conference for unsportsmanlike conduct.
"This is intended to sound a loud, clear message that college basketball in the Atlantic Coast Conference is not going to be played in the way exhibited by these behaviors," said commissioner John Swofford in a statement.
And who can forget the feud that developed between UNC's Dean Smith and Clemson's Rick Barnes? In the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament in 1995, Barnes took issue with Smith talking to one of his players, prompting a toe-to-toe exchange. Then-commissioner Gene Corrigan fined both and even called a summit to air the differences between the two. The following year, in a regular-season game at Clemson, the two went at it again.
Notable sports author and Duke alumnus John Feinstein even suggested that trash talking and the changing nature of on-court demeanor might have helped usher Smith into retirement.
"He had some players in the program the last few years who he found frustrating to coach, who didn't respond to him, who wanted to do it in their way, who wanted to thump their chest when they dunked after big plays, who wanted to trash talk the other team, and Dean didn't enjoy that," Feinstein said on PBS's Newshour.
Some feel that the growing exposure granted to prep players through recruiting rankings and the AAU scene has perpetuated the "me-first" attitude. To be fair, though, there is some difference of opinion in just how much trash talking has grown since earlier times.
"Everyone tells you there is more emotion in the game than there used to be, and that's why you see players acting like they do," long-time ACC broadcaster and former Wake Forest player Billy Packer told reporter Kevin Brafford. "But you can't tell me the players are any more intense today than they were when I played. If some guy had pulled some of the stuff they do today back then, he would have been hammered."
"A guy will make a play that's not really spectacular, an average play, and they'll respond like they just won a championship," Wolfpack legend David Thompson told the Raleigh News & Observer. "Just the way they react to routine plays is comical at times. When I was playing, if I made a great play, I thought it was more effective if you made it seem routine, like it was no big deal."
There is no question that player-vs.-player matchups within team-vs.-team rivalries add to the excitement surrounding games. Years ago, the Tar Heels' King Rice could seemingly throw the Blue Devils' Bobby Hurley off his game with taunts and physical defense. With reputations at stake, fans love to see Duke's J.J. Redick square off against UNC's Rashad McCants, Paul take on Ewing, Duke's Shelden Williams tangle with Wake Forest's Eric Williams, the Heels' Raymond Felton match up with Maryland's John Gilchrist, right on down the line.
The rivalry between Hodge and McCants within the long-standing State-Carolina rivalry has reached seemingly mythical proportions.
"Players like that want to do something to get you out of your game," McCants told Sports Illustrated before this season. "Because he's been jealous [of me] from my freshman year. He wanted what I had: the power to make somebody mad. And I could do that easily trash-talking. He knew we beat them at our place first. I hit the game-winner, and I was talking cash-junk to him. He knew it was on when I came over there. He knew it was his place, and he had to hold his house down ... But he didn't back it up. That's the whole point with me. Don't say nothing if you're not gonna back it up. I laughed before the game, and I laughed after the game."
"Some guys may say I trash talk, some other guys trash talk," Hodge told the student newspaper prior to the season. "A couple of them, I get on the court and I'm just going to out-play them, out-work them. If they see that as being arrogant, they could. I just see it as being confident.
"I really don't care if opposing players don't like me. I would much rather have it that way because he could feel more anguish and disgust when my team is winning."
Part of the issue is that trash talking is so often celebrated and replayed over and over again on Sportscenter and local newscasts. The machismo is even seen as a positive thing at times in player circles.
"He has this arrogance type of image around the league, which is good for him," Ewing of Hodge. "He's a guy that takes on that 'I'm-the-man type of role.'"
"I am a humble, quiet person," Diaz told the Associated Press of his verbal warfare with Wafer. "But if a player is going to talk to me, I am not going to remain quiet."
More and more, the conference's most mature, well-respected and reserved standouts appear to be allowing themselves to be goaded into talking the talk. Whether that development hurts the terrific games that are customary in the ACC is up for debate, but what isn't is the fact that on-court chatter is on the rise - a trend that doesn't look to subside any time soon.
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