Dan Shaughnessy

Nothing is sacred, and little is secret

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / November 4, 2010

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It’s a tweet-eat-tweet world we live in.

And now you know a little bit about what it’s like on an NBA basketball court, where nothing is off-limits when the walks are walked and the trash is talked.

All-World yapper Kevin Garnett got into it with Detroit’s Charlie Villanueva with 2:39 left in the Celtics’ victory over the Pistons at Auburn Hills, Mich., Tuesday night. Villanueva suffers from alopecia universalis, a skin disorder that causes hair loss, and after the game, he tweeted that Garnett had called him “a cancer patient.’’ As part of a taunt.

Do not underestimate the power of the tweet. The story took on a life of its own. ESPN was quick out of the gate, then the story hit local sports radio. Just after 4 p.m., Garnett issued this statement: “I am aware there was a major miscommunication regarding something I said on the court last night. My comment to Charlie Villanueva was in fact, ‘You are cancerous to your team and our league.’

“I would never be insensitive to the brave struggle that cancer patients endure. I have lost loved ones to this deadly disease and have a family member currently undergoing treatment. I would never say anything that distasteful. The game of life is far bigger than the game of basketball.’’

“I actually heard what Kevin said,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said before last night’s 105-102 overtime victory over the Bucks. “What he released is what he said.’’

We’ll never know exactly what was said to Villanueva by Garnett, who scored 13 points last night, drew another double technical with Bucks center Andrew Bogut in the fourth quarter, and said afterward. “I’m a passionate player.’’

But the disclosure of Tuesday’s events was a rare window into what goes on between the lines, where the basic rule of engagement is that there are no rules of engagement. Nothing is off-limits. What has changed is that now we find out about vile garbage that dares not speak its name. We never would have known about it in the genteel good old days.

Whichever version you believe, it’s tasteless. It’s offensive. It’s way beyond the typical schoolyard, “You’re fat, you’re ugly, your mother wears army boots.’’ There’s nothing funny about poking fun at cancer. It is a universal scourge. It is off-limits in every arena of mankind.

But I can guarantee you that among the ballplayers of the Western world, Villanueva is the bad guy here. He is the one who broke the code.

“I don’t like the whole thing, and the fact that we are talking about it is silly,’’ said Rivers (who was particularly annoyed because news of a locker room fight between Celtics leaked in a similar manner last week). “It’s amazing to me that this is news. It’s not sports.

“What goes on with the team stays with the team. But you’re going to continue to have problems with this [Twitter] until we figure it out. I used to play, and Larry [Bird] said some terrible things to me and I’m still hurt. There are times when guys cross the line, but you get over that, too.’’

“I don’t know what he said,’’ Ray Allen noted. “But social networking is such a phenomenon. You have to protect your circle. It’s a very fragile world. It’s a very slippery slope, and you have to protect your message.

“I can only imagine what is said on the football field. I don’t want to know. You hear things you don’t want to hear.

“I’ve never been a trash talker. I always thought when you beat your guy, your guy knows he is beat.

“The best thing is to ignore it. If somebody says something, the more you ignore it, the more you show that person that you got the best of him.

“But this is sports. You can’t take the trash talking out of it. I do my trash talking with my family in board games. Yahtzee. Scrabble. Taboo. That’s when you’ll hear it from me.’’

“It’s a good thing they didn’t have tweets when we played,’’ said Celtics president Danny Ainge. “Nothing was sacred. Not your mom, your skin color, your religion, your family. You could not print the stuff that was said.

“But it was just done to get under the other guy’s skin. And I’m sure that’s all Kevin was doing. Whether he said what Villanueva says he said, or what KG says he said, it was just to get under the other guy’s skin. There’s no way Kevin would be insensitive to the battles that cancer patients go through.’’

“You could not print all the things we said,’’ said Cedric Maxwell, Ainge’s teammate from the 1980s and a Hall of Fame trash talker. “You could not write it all down. The families. The moms. Didn’t make any difference. We didn’t have to be politically correct. We could be asinine.

“I remember one guy, before the start of a playoff series, saying, ‘No way that bitch is getting 40 points off of me.’ Somebody wrote that down and it actually got in the paper.’’

I know. Because Max said it about Bernard King, and I wrote it down, and it appeared in the Sunday Globe on the day of the first game of the 1984 Eastern Conference semifinals between the Celtics and Knicks. King refused to shake Max’s hand before the game. King didn’t get his 40 until Game 3, but the Celtics won the series.

Those were the days. Those were the days when the horrible stuff stayed between the lines. Those were the days when the only tweets came from the whistles of officials Jack Madden and Jake O’Donnell.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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