English and the NBA: Why Can’t the Players Learn to Speak?


Back in the day, listening to Wilt Chamberlain give an interview was pleasurable.

His perspective was interesting, and his responses were intelligent and well-reasoned but, above all, like with so much else, Chamberlain’s English – both word selection and diction – was exact, superior to that of most peers. The same could be said for Michael Jordan.

Televised interviews with most NBA players, however, are often cause for leaving the room or switching the channel. What I hear all too often is offensive, sometimes mentally grating, occasionally almost mindless gibberish.

I was listening to an interview the other night where I held my head. Yes, certainly that player was making an enormous amount of money but does the enormity of a salary compensate for an enormity of English impoverishment? More to the point, does making a lot of money playing basketball preclude the importance of speaking well?

Obviously not. In fact, never. Certainly, Wilt made a great deal of money at everything he did, in part because of his ability to effectively communicate.

Too many players have been pampered academically because they could play basketball well, and their conversational ability has suffered accordingly. This is, of course, a travesty.

The other night, when I held my head, the thought of the opening song to my favorite musical, My Fair Lady, came to me. The song is entitled Why can’t the English learn to speak? In a fit of pique, I’ve taken the lyrics of that song and tweaked them to fit the NBA.

Professor Higgens
“Look at him, a prisoner of the gutter!
Condemned by every syllable he utters!
By rights, he should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue!”

NBA player

Professor Higgens
“‘Shiiyihh.’ Heavens, what a sound.

“This is what the American population
Calls an elementary education.”

Colonel Pickering
“I think you’ve picked a poor example.”

Professor Higgens
“Did I?

“See them down at Madison Square
Garden in short outerwear,
Slurring English any way they like.
You, sir, did you go to school?”

NBA player
“Wun-a’-dun a’ LSU.”

Professor Higgens
“I hope he never stands before a mike.

“Hear a Cavalier…or worse,
Hear a Timberwolf converse.
I’d rather hear a choir singing flat.
Chickens cackling in a barn…
Just like this one.”

NBA player

Professor Higgens
“‘Aaaywuzzupdawg.’ I ask you, sir, what kind of word is that?

“It’s ‘shiiyihh’ and ‘aaaywuzzupdawg’ that keep him in his place,
Not ‘one-and-done’ or ring-pierced face.

“Why can’t the NBA teach their players how to speak?
This verbal class distinction by now should be antique.
If you spoke as he does, sir, instead of the way you do,
Your “vocabulary” would be multiple tattoos.”

Colonel Pickering
“I beg your pardon.”

Professor Higgens
“A player’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him.
The moment he talks he makes someone literate despise him.
One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get.
Oh why can’t the players…learn…to…
Set a good example for people whose English is painful to your ears?
Carmelo Anthony leaves you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely disappears.
In Denver they haven’t used it in years.

“Why can’t the NBA teach their players how to speak?
J. R. Smith is incoherent; Kenyon Martin slobbers Greek.
Derrick Rose’s verbiage makes you wonder what he said…
(The Bulls don’t care what they say, actually,
Since no-one understands the others anyway).

“Dwayne Wade does a crossover at the speed of summer lightning.
Nate Robinson does it backwards which is absolutely frightening.
But use proper English? You’re regarded as a freak.
Why can’t the NBA…why can’t the NBA…teach…their players…to speak?”

A solution? Perhaps the NBA Players Association Player Services division could establish a literacy program with vocabulary, grammar and elocution segments. A player would have the option of completing the program before, at some point, stepping in front of a microphone.

You smile. Unrealistic? Too little too late? Oh, be serious, you say?

If player welfare is to be taken seriously – not to mention that of their younger fans – some type of effort should be made. It would be beneficial for the players under any circumstances, if for no other reason than there is life after the NBA.

Will something like this be considered? Probably not unless the Players Association is convinced there’s money in it, so, no, it probably won’t. And players will continue to unremittingly embarrass themselves while grating the ears of more sensitive listeners, and reinforcing poor English among those to whom they are role models.

Wilt, yet once again, we miss you.