A couple of weeks ago, my wife and the baby and I were at the YMCA near our home in Houston. We’d gone there to go swimming, but had managed to show up during a 45-minute block of time that the pool was closed. Rather than go home, we decided to mill around for a bit and wait for the pool to open, which was just an excuse for walking back and forth in front of the doors that led to the basketball gym until she said I could go in there and play.
There were five guys in the gym — friends, it seemed — and they were all on the same side of the court about to start a game of 21. When I walked in, they asked if I wanted to join the game. I said yes. All of them were younger and taller and more handsome than me, so I already didn’t like them. They were also all pretty good at basketball, which made me not like them even more.
Of the group playing, there was one guy who was clearly the leader (he was easy to identify because he was the one dunking the ball before the game started), a second-in-command (smaller, but compact, muscular, and quick in a way that made him more intimidating than the guy dunking), two guys who jostled for the Third Best Player title, and a big oaf who was there just because, were I to guess, someone told him he’d probably be good at basketball since he was such a big oaf.
Now, you don’t need to know all the things that happened for the 45 minutes I played 21 with these guys. You just need to know that it started out politely enough and ended with me very loudly calling all of them bitches.
I couldn’t begin to guess what my career pickup basketball stats are, but I’d feel safe in assuming that I’ve remained somewhere near the league leaders in cussing at strangers. It’s just a thing that happens. It’s a compulsion. I can say, with certainty, that I’ve cursed at at least one person in every competitive game of basketball that I have played since I was 13. Which is why I was so surprised recently to learn that some people, god bless them, do not do this.
Some people, it turns out, just play. Without really saying anything at all. Like, not a single thing. That’s a thing I cannot abide, let alone understand. I asked a bunch of people who said they didn’t talk trash why they didn’t. The three most common responses:
1. “I’m not a confrontational person”: Duh. Most people aren’t, man. There are probably, like, 12 people on the whole planet who enjoy confrontation: DMX, Metta World Peace, J.J. Watt, the guy in Machete, Ronda Rousey, and the girls from Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta. That’s it.
2. “I’m a naturally quiet person”: That’s the second-best reason to trash-talk. If you’re quiet all the time, but then you get out on the basketball court and you start yelling at a guy that you’re gonna murder him, people are gonna be like, “Holy shit. Is Rick a murderer?” Boom, all of a sudden the guy you’re guarding isn’t so quick to put his shot up, because he’s afraid you might tear his throat out.
3. “I’m not that good at basketball”: That’s the best reason to trash-talk. Think about it like this: Let’s say you’re 5-foot-7 and kind of slow, and you’re stuck guarding someone 6-foot-1 and kind of fast. You’re gonna get roasted in that situation all day, right? Your only hope is to start calling him a “bitch” over and over again, and hope that he ends up playing four inches shorter than usual. That’s a little thing called game planning. That’s how Bruce Bowen was able to stay in the league for so long.
So: Here’s a guide to phrases to say during pickup basketball, along with the NBA spirit players.
Here’s What to Say When Someone Fouls You
There are three options here. You can say:
“Foul!” But don’t. Don’t ever call a foul ever in your whole life. Ever. I remember one time a buddy of mine called a foul during a game. Nobody talked to him for three years. YOU NEVER CALL A FOUL IN PICKUP BASKETBALL. If you’re driving to the bucket and someone stabs you in the chest, you die right there on that basketball court like God intended. This is you being Steven Adams from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“And-1!” An “And-1!” is the bathroom selfie of basketball moves; it’s completely self-involved. It lets everyone know you were fouled on a play, without actually asking to have a foul call recognized. If you make the bucket, everyone knows you did so while being fouled, and that means you’re strong. If you miss the bucket, everyone knows the only reason you missed is because you were fouled, but that you don’t want the coward’s way out of being given the ball to try again. “And-1!” seems a viable option, but it’s a trap. You don’t want to be the “And-1!” guy. Nobody likes the “And-1!” guy. You know who the “And-1!” guy is in the NBA? Carlos Boozer, bro.
He calls it even when he’s not the one being fouled.
One time, he was so excited about calling an “And-1!” that he punched a referee in the penis.
Don’t do it. Don’t Booz up your pickup game. What you should say when someone fouls you is …
[Silence.] Nothing. You’re a monk. If you get fouled, and it’s truly a hard foul, the other team will usually recognize it and just offer you the ball (DO NOT ACCEPT IT). But even if they don’t, not a word comes out. Vietnam POWs made it through unspeakable tortures without saying anything. You can make it through a slap on the wrist during a layup.
Here’s What to Say When You Violently Dunk on Someone
I don’t know. I can barely touch the net. :(
Here’s What to Say When You Chuck Up a 30-Footer and It Doesn’t Even Hit the Rim
“Ay, my bad, guys. My bad.” And you say it as you backpedal back down the court on defense. And you have to tap yourself on the chest twice while you say it. This is you being J.R. Smith.
Here’s What to Say When You Cross Someone Over
“OOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!” If you cross someone, like you SERIOUSLY CROSS SOMEONE, and they stumble or, heaven forbid, fall down, then everyone there will start screaming and running around and might even take their shirts off, or just sprint straight home.
You just stand there and let them. You’ve reached the pinnacle. People will remember a game-winning shot for a few days, they’ll remember a megadunk for a few years, but they will never forget the time you made that one guy fall when you crossed him up. That’s your legacy. You’re a legend at that court for the rest of your life. For extra effect, you can do a little dance or you can take the ball and just punt it into the stands as hard as you can. What a joy. This is you being Andre Igoudala.
See? Not a word. Just the crowd.
Here’s What to Say When Someone Crosses You
Man. Nothing. You just gotta move to a new town, man. This is you being the guy Iggy just destroyed.
Here’s What to Say When You Hit a Jumper Over Someone
This is your canvas right here. The entire wide world is open to you. You can go basic, and use one everyone knows, something like “Wet!” or “Splash!” or anything that has to do with water. You can even just shout “Water!” and the intent will translate. You can go pro commentator, co-opting something like Mark Jackson’s “Hand down, man down!” or NBA Jam’s “He’s on fire!”
Or you can go weird, and just make up some cuckoo shit that doesn’t have anything to do with basketball. Something like “Tell your mom I said hello!” or “Looks like they’re serving corn dogs for dinner tonight, boys!” If you’re not comfortable with that, you can always go:
“Kobe!” Really, you can insert any NBA player’s name here.
“He can’t guard me!” This one is a fight-level insult.
“Heat check!” I like to shout “Heat check!” on my first shot of the game. “Heat check!” almost always precedes a miss.
“Bang!” Use this one if you hit one shot in a row.
“Bang-bang!” Use this one if you hit two shots in a row.
“Bang-bang-bang!” Use this one if you want to get punched in the face.
“That’s too much space!” This is my personal favorite. You don’t even need the ball to use it. Sometimes I just shout it out, like between game breaks, or when I’m putting my shoes on before the day’s games start.
“Gimme all three of these!” This is fine to say if you happen to luck into a 3-pointer, but it’s best when you say it when you’re not shooting a 3, because then people are like, “Does this guy think layups are worth three points?” Then they don’t try to guard you that hard.
You can also just stare at your own hand. Another all-time move. That’s you being Dwyane Wade.
Here’s What to Say When Someone Hits a Jumper Over You
“Luck!” Never ever give credit. You cut your tongue out before you tell someone on the other team something nice.
“Leche!” It literally means “milk” when translated from Spanish to English, but really it means “you lucky prick.”
“You gotta step up on that screen!” You say it to whichever of your teammate is standing closest to you, even if there was no actual screen that was set. This is you being James Harden.
Here’s What to Say When You Steal the Ball From Someone
“Call the cops!” Because you just got robbed. Get it? Pro tip: Don’t actually call the cops. Unless you know some cops who are good at basketball. Then I guess you can call those cops.
“Cookies!” Somehow this one got popular. It’s the worst. This is you being Carmelo Anthony. (I don’t have a link for you here. He just looks like the kind of guy that would shout “Cookies!” after he stole the ball from you.)
Here’s What to Say When Someone Steals the Ball From You
Any curse word.
Here’s What to Say When You Block Someone’s Shot
Oh, man. There’s no better feeling in all of the world than when you forcefully block somebody’s shot. There should probably be a rule in place that whenever you block somebody during pickup basketball, you get some sort of modern-day tribal war prize, like you get to choose between keeping that person’s car or having sex with his or her significant other. CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE?
Boyfriend: I’m home.
Girlfriend: Hi, babe. How was your game tonight? You play well?
Boyfriend: Not really.
Girlfriend: That’s too bad.
Boyfriend: Hey, so, um, I need to introduce you to Rodney.
Blocking a shot is the third-most primal, most manly, most intimidating thing you can do on a basketball court, short of obliterating someone on a dunk and the master class in flagrant fouls we see here:
So you really need something great to say when it finally happens. Some good ones:
“Gimme that!” A real winner. It’s nice and sophisticated and assertive without being prick-ish. For a nice flourish, you can add “bitch” to the end of it.
“Get that shit outta here!” Good to use when you really get a hold of someone’s shot, but also good to use if the person you blocked isn’t someone that you’re particularly fond of, but also good to use if you’re at home and one of your kids hands you a bedtime book to read.
“Not in my house!” Say this one only if you’re 50 or older. Also, maybe you should go sit down somewhere since you’re 50 or older. You kind of look like the old guy in bike shorts at the beginning of White Men Can’t Jump.
[The Mutombo finger wag.] You’re not Mutombo. Don’t.
“That’s embarrassing.” You block the shot, land back on earth, turn around, and then, in a soft, almost sheepish tone, you say, “That’s embarrassing” to yourself, but just loud enough that the person you just blocked can hear you. This is you being Dwight Howard.
I sent out emails to about 60 people while doing research for this article. A sizable portion responded with personal anecdotes about trash-talking they’d encountered during pickup games. This one, though, from Colin Maxwell, a student at Syracuse, was my favorite:
“One time I had a big guy guarding me and he rejected my weak layup attempt. As I ran back on defense he said to me, real quiet, ‘I’m gonna fucking eat you, homey,’ and lemme tell you, I was rattled.”
Basketball is the best.