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Blowing the whistle on Shaq and JaVale

Both committed flagrant fouls against the unwritten rules of talking trash

OK, lemme referee this Shaquille O’Neal vs. JaVale McGee smackdown real quick.

We will abide by the unwritten rules of trash talk that have governed basketball from the times of PRO-Keds and two-handed set shots. All y’all ballers know the code: How much you can pop off before getting popped in the mouth. The level of family member mentions that can be weaponized – starting with girlfriends, progressing to children and ending with the sacrosanctity of “your mama” – and the level of acceptable retaliation for each. These are the rules that we live and hoop by.

O’Neal’s Shaqtin’ A Fool segment on TNT is televised trash talk for the social media era. It’s creative, witty and a performance in and of itself – all elements of great smack. Over the years, O’Neal has tormented McGee more than any other player. And McGee earned it with serial bonehead misadventures like hustling back on defense when his team had the ball or flinging a free throw-line dunk off the top of the backboard.

But O’Neal earns the first whistle for his new video rehashing McGee’s lowlights from years past. It’s at least a reaching foul – the video frames McGee as the comic book character Dr. Strange, a brilliant neurosurgeon turned sorcerer who has nothing in common with the awkward 7-foot center other than the word “strange.” It’s also a cheap shot. Only three of the 15 bloopers are from this season, McGee’s first with Golden State. The whole exercise seemed more like using decade-old mistakes as an excuse for O’Neal to hog the camera while wearing a costume left over from TNT’s production of David Copperfield.

So McGee was justified in responding. At some point on the basketball court, if a dude who’s been running his mouth makes one crack too many, the rules allow some type of get-back. Could be a STFU, could be a hard foul, could be a crew-deep follow to your team bus. Everybody has their limit. Even the iron-minded Michael Jordan was not immune. Don’t think for a minute that Jordan throttled Reggie Miller in 1993 because of some incidental body contact. Miller had been verbally violating for years, probably said something slick to Mike after depositing that tip-in – and Miller’s smart enough to have gotten amnesia about pretty much the whole thing.

But although a response would have been legal, McGee clearly stepped out of bounds by tweeting some choice words (and body parts) at O’Neal, plus two more slightly anti-gay barbs. His use of the peanut emoji was straight reckless, and his snack suggestions were flagrant. Yes, McGee was provoked. But his response was way extra. Not to mention a horrendous example for millions of young hoopers, like the 13-year-old girl in my own house forced to ponder the translation of “EAD.”

This is when things escalated like one of those Knicks-Heat brawls from the ’90s.

Improvisation is the beating heart of trash talk. Effective verbal savagery is like the brilliant pass in traffic, the emcee’s freestyle rhyme, the comic’s devastating put-down of a heckler. Take what’s unfolding in real time and flip it into something fresh, brave, and sharp enough to draw blood. That’s the tradition. Long may it reign.

O’Neal had McGee right where he wanted him. All he needed to do was tweet back a GIF of McGee’s ridiculous hand-through-the-rim goaltending this season, or emojis of O’Neal’s four championship trophies. Instead, O’Neal took it from the court to the gutter and declared, “I’ll smack the s— out yo bum a–” He also called McGee “stupid” and “dumb” and continued to physically threaten McGee with hashtags like #youneedmorepeople.

As if a national television personality would actually assault a player in the league he covers, on a championship-contending team.

Call it a flagrant-foul two with an automatic ejection. For real though, Shaq. What part of the game was that? O’Neal gets an additional fine for sticking with his “bum” attack by posting a photo of McGee’s face photoshopped on a homeless man. As if homelessness is funny.

I’ma eject McGee as well for tweeting “stick to cooning!” That’s way below the belt when directed at a black man who tells jokes on TV for a living.

The whole episode was trash talk turned tragic – like a guy in a pickup game talking so much junk that an opponent gets a gun from his car and the whole park runs for their lives.

Golden State and TNT authorities are now involved, Kevin Durant is taking shots at O’Neal to stick up for his teammate, and both O’Neal’s and McGee’s moms are taking sides. Those awesome Shaqtin’ a Fool segments will never feel the same again, and O’Neal may have talked himself into the title of his own spoof. All because two ballers didn’t follow the unwritten rules of talking trash.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.