"Bleep him in the bleep, Semih!”
Shaquille O’Neal bellowed from the Boston bench. The un-bleeped version of which drew an incredulous stare from the Philadelphia 76ers big man who had been defending Celtics rookie Semih Erden at that moment.
It was Boston’s preseason opener back in 2010 and the Celtics found themselves in Manchester, New Hampshire as part of their New England tour during the exhibition season. Media, typically stationed a good distance from the Celtics sideline at TD Garden (and most NBA arenas) were positioned on the baseline near the Boston bench at the Verizon Wireless Arena, which afforded the rare opportunity to hear a lot of the courtside chatter.
“He can’t guard you, Semih!”
O’Neal’s words had Boston’s bench cackling. Erden was a supremely raw 7-footer from Turkey who likely didn’t know enough English to even understand what O’Neal was suggesting. O’Neal’s words were more clearly intended to mess with the Sixers young bigs like Marreese Speights and Craig Brackins.
Download the MyTeams app for the latest Celtics news and analysis
The 38-year-old O’Neal, making his Boston debut that night, provided more entertainment from the bench than the game itself. His interactions with his new Boston teammates and his sideline commentary offered a unique glimpse into how someone on his last basketball legs could potentially aid a championship-minded team.
As media positions around the NBA keep shifting further back, we’re often reminded of that night in New Hampshire.
There are still some arenas where you get the occasional front-row seat (Oklahoma City and Phoenix jump to mind) but a lot of the chatter between players is still muffled by the crowd noise and arena entertainment. We’re left to settle for some Brad Stevens soundbites when he ventures near the scorer’s table.
Now, as the NBA positions itself for a fan-less return to basketball this summer, we might get to hear a lot more. And while the discussion around empty gymnasiums typically harps on how odd it will be without crowd noise, Stevens noted how hearing more on-court chatter could actually be one of the more intriguing parts of a restarted season.
"The sound will be great for TV,” said Stevens. "I think people would love to hear more of the coaches, players, referees, the dialogue between everybody, so I’m interested to see, if we do get in that scenario, whether the league would decide on pumping in noise or not.
I think the voices of the game would be a whole new world, and a lot of fun. And, to be honest, I think it would be most impactful in [showing] what these guys do, possession to possession, from a basketball standpoint and how much communication goes into it.
Our NBC Sports Boston mics have sometimes caught Stevens using some bleep-filled language of his own (which he likes to joke is then used against him by his teenage son). But quiet gyms will also spotlight the way Stevens quarterbacks his team, from playcalls at the start of offensive possessions to defensive instructions. And, yes, you will hear the occasional emotional outburst to a bad call.
"You will hear coach Brad for sure,” said Celtics big man Enes Kanter. "I’ve worked with a lot of coaches. [Stevens] doesn't cuss a lot. He does’t cuss much. That’s a good thing. He knows how to control himself. I had some coaches, man — I played with nine coaches, I had seven different coaches just in NBA. I worked with a lot of different coaches. Coach Brad is definitely one that can control himself.”
So what else will we hear from the Celtics sideline in a quiet gym?
"You will hear Marcus [Smart],” said Kanter.
Smart, Boston’s defensive coordinator, can often be heard directing traffic on that end of the floor. He’s also effusive in his praise of teammates, especially on hustle plays. On a team that doesn’t have a particularly vocal presence like O’Neal, Smart will be one of the more common voices heard amid the sneaker squeaks.
Whether it’s chatter between teammates, trash talk between opponents, or just conversations between referee and coach, the fan-less gyms could offer us a glimpse of an NBA we don’t typically hear.
It will be an adjustment for both fans and players. Kanter is sure Stevens will figure out a way to have his players focused despite the unique environment.
“Whenever we practice, coach Brad just turns on the loudest music actually in the gym. Because, during the game, it’s so hard to communicate with your teammates, he’s like, ‘Get used to this,’” said Kanter. "Now it’s going to be like quiet, all you're going to hear is coach Brad maybe screaming, and Marcus diving for the ball. I don’t know, it’s going to be very weird.
"Ball bouncing and shoe squeaking. I think it's going to be weird for sure. And it’s not going to be the same. It’s definitely not going to be the same. But I feel like we’ll take anything.”