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While it might not seem entirely sporting, trash talk is simply part of the game. Michael Jordan, for better or worse, understood that reality. His Airness was willing to do just about anything in order to gain an edge on the court. Unleashing a bit of verbal warfare was all part of the job.

That habit didn’t being in the NBA, though. As Kenny Smith confirmed, His Airness was already a pro in college, where he’d individually call each of his teammates in their dorms to remind them that school was in session.

Michael Jordan would trash-talk the old fashioned way at UNC

These days, telephone calls have largely gone the way of the dinosaurs. During the 1980s, things were a bit different. Landline phones allowed us to keep in touch and, in Michael Jordan’s case, facilitated a bit of trash talk.

“So, we had dorms, and our dorm numbers don’t change,” Kenny Smith explained on a recent episode of All The Smoke. “If you had dorm number eight, it’s the same phone number next year. You’re just a different person. So, when [Jordan] comes in town, this is before Instagram … you’d hear the phones go ‘brrring,’ one [beat], and somebody hang up. ‘Brrring.’ And you just hear it going down.”

As you might expect from that quick cadence, His Airness wasn’t exactly getting into deep conversations with his teammates. Instead, he was hitting everyone with the same three words of trash talk.

“So, it’s him,” Smith continued. “And all he’d say is, ‘School’s in session.’ Boom. ‘School’s in session.’ So, everybody comes in the hallway, be like ‘Mike’s here, Mike’s here.’ So he’d go and he’d call each room to let them know, come to the gym.”

Once the group hit the court, it’s safe to assume what happened. If Michael Jordan is promising a lesson, he most likely delivered it.

As Kenny Smith illustrated, trash talk has remained constant, even as methods change


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When we see today’s players chirping each other on Instagram or throwing shade on podcasts, it’s easy to feel like this is some modern phenomenon in which technology makes it easier to insult each other. As Smith reminded us, though, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

While there’s some room to debate basketball’s best trash talkers, the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Gary Payton will usually find their way into the conversation. All three of those men played in the same era, and that was when social media didn’t exist. They did their work on the court, through interviews, or, in MJ’s case, on the phone.

Beyond that, there are even some examples of a player taking it even more old school. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for example, penned a letter (albeit one in his book, rather than one sent through the mail) calling out ‘Wilt Chumperlame’ for falling short of his potential.

That’s not to say one form of behavior is better or worse than the others. You probably know how you feel about trash talk, regardless of the era, and some historical context isn’t going to change that. As I mentioned above, though, I hope it provides some perspective.

In sports, it’s easy to make historical comparisons. Player X is better than Player Y. Player Z never would have done this. Can you believe how spoiled today’s athletes are? And so on. It’s easy to extrapolate that into trash talk and, for lack of a better term, banter. When you see guys subtweeting their former teammates, it’s easy to feel like that’s a ‘softer’ aspect of modern times. Instead of talking smack during the game, it’s safer to pen a social media post from three cities away.

I would contend, though, that the medium doesn’t change the message. Pro athletes are always going to talk smack in the method that’s most relevant to the time. It’s not about softness, hardness, or any other value judgment. Instead, it’s about one person speaking to his peers in a way they would understand.

Plus, put it this way. If Michael Jordan was able to use social media to get inside of his opponents’ collective heads, you know that he would have jumped at the opportunity.

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