It may not seem important but I was incredibly small growing up. At one point, the pediatrician told my mom that I was “almost on the chart” for my age. When I got my learner’s permit at fifteen and a half, I stood 5’2” and weighed 95 points.
As I said, small.
Thankfully, I was never physically bullied but there was always talk, particularly as someone in the fray both in the classroom and on the field. By the time I became a teenager, every size-related quip had made it into my ears from all sides. Heck, one of my best friends called me “Little Napoleon” as a term of endearment.
While that stretch was difficult in many ways (most notably my lack of a basketball background at present), it also taught a lesson some never learn: nothing anyone said ever made me any smaller, any dumber or any less hardworking. Words of praise and words of condemnation are just that and always will be.
It was that sentiment that led me to my favorite quote of all time, attributed to Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach: “We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.”
Once I realized that what other people said would not affect me, it became a tool worth wielding. On the soccer field, I would pick my spots and try to shake the rattleable- after all, as someone who was small and refused to play dirty, the rest of the toolbox has to be available.
Then and now there were only two types of talk I considered off the table: slurs and specific threats. Hopefully the reasons for those exceptions are clear. Other than that, on the field whatever talking it took to get an advantage that would not get caught and penalized was fair game.
One quick aside: for me, trash talk always had to come from a position of strength. This and the nature of the sports are why I talked a lot in soccer but very little in baseball (where I struggled) and tennis. Others are capable of it from a disadvantage but that never really worked for me because it always rang hollow.
After high school, my personal athletic endeavors ceased but the talking did not. At the very end of my freshman year at UCLA, I asked one of the basketball players what they could hear on the court from the student section which was right off the floor and he said “everything” which functioned as a call to action. When in earshot, I would say absolutely horrible things to opposing players while still following the two rules from above, of course. Just like on the mean streets of Central Marin youth soccer, if they could not take it that was their problem. Of course, I only heckled when the opposing players could hear it- there is no point to trash talk without the intended effect unless it is against a Dodger, in which case it is always both suitable and necessary.
All that backstory explains why I was so shocked to see LeBron James’ reaction on the podium after Game Four of the Finals. He was rattled and his comments made it seem that his agitation was rooted in what Draymond Green said to him rather than the game (and the series, at the time) getting out of hand or anything else. While we probably will never know for sure, that likely played a role in precipitating the High Road Walkover which precipitated Green’s Game Five suspension (though that is entirely Green’s fault, as I wrote about at The Athletic) and a potentially historic series win for the Cavs.
The specifics of the situation were particularly fascinating for me as well. LeBron and I are less than four months apart in age and graduated high school at the same time. The first NBA game I ever paid to attend was to see him. While Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd were the luminaries of my youth, LeBron was a peer (in age, at least) capable of doing anything on the basketball court. Having the opportunity to cover that greatness for the last seven years has been one of the most fulfilling and satisfying parts of my sports media life, including and especially the last two weeks.
After spending some time thinking about it, LeBron being a little shook by some words makes a degree of sense. After all, when I was 5’2” and 95 pounds, I was sitting at home reading about and later watching a fellow high schooler who already looked like an NBA player and even got some of his high school games on ESPN. It would make sense that King James never went through that process because his readily apparent greatness has functioned as a buffer whether he wanted it or not. He never got cut from the varsity team like MJ and stands as one of the few great hopes to exceed the hype. There have been pitfalls and we will all have time to litigate his legacy later but he still has chapters to write.
While we need to be diligent to mark the line between trash talk and bullying/targeting that need to be handled and curtailed, outside of that there can be a value to learning that what other people say will not hurt you in any way. Today we are focused on the power words have and their destructive potential but the other side of the coin proves even more potent in the right hands. I respectfully disagree with Taylor Swift- the goal is not to shake it off, it is to never have the words of the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world stick to you in the first place.
“We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.”
One of the aspects of occupying a small corner of a field lots of people care about is that in the age of the internet there will be chatter about you, plenty of it negative and infuriatingly that is a certainty for my female colleagues. Knowing how to ignore hollow sniping (I saw it, Deadspin, but I do not respond and also do not forget) while also gleaning worthwhile insight from substantive criticism has proven invaluable thus far. Engaging with well-meaning detractors and critics will always bring value to my life and my work and I hope to do the same for others for as long as I have a platform.
Being able to agree without being disagreeable is a necessary human characteristic in the modern world that would add meaningfully to the discourse in sports and so many other topics and in some ways, that is the beauty of having the confidence and knowledge that other people’s words will not phase you. From my experience, it makes you less likely to engage in useless pettiness because it loses its appeal. There are too many wonderful things in this world to spend time taking other people down or listening to those who are not interested in constructive, mutually beneficial conversation. Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.
I am thankful every day that my combination of hard work and good fortune has brought me to a place that was inconceivable to that scrawny kid who memorized baseball encyclopedias and played Tecmo Super Bowl ad nauseam. To me, part of the obligation from even this small level of stature is to use my place to elevate those who deserve it and another part is to do what I can to elevate discourse in as narrow or broad a way as reasonably possible. Hopefully it helps.