Enes Kanter of the New York Knicks wants to make it clear that he no longer swears — in any language. But back when he did, at the start of his NBA career in 2011, he swore exclusively in Turkish. He went his entire first season without referees calling him on it.
“They had no idea what I was saying,” he said.
But as his career progressed, he found that his growing proficiency in English cost him. He has since collected 15 technical fouls, some of them for voicing his displeasure at officials.
“I should’ve stuck with Turkish,” he said.
There may be no greater sign of the NBA’s global growth than the fact that so many of the league’s players have multilingual potty mouths. Players swear in Spanish, Serbian, Portuguese and more — sometimes at themselves, sometimes at opponents and most pointedly at referees, who have the increasingly difficult job of deciphering whether foreign words are filthy.
“I knew some words,” said Jesse Thompson, a retired NBA referee who now works with basketball officials in Asia.
The NBA has become a true mélange of players from around the world. About a quarter of the league is international, and a record 62 foreign-born players from 33 countries were on playoff rosters at the start of the post-season.
These players make valuable contributions to the game of basketball. And sometimes they contribute bad words.
Consider the Philadelphia 76ers, whose polyglot roster includes players from seven countries. Reserve point guard T.J. McConnell said that teammates such as Marco Belinelli (Italy), Ersan Ilyasova (Turkey) and Dario Saric (Croatia) had generously shared bits of vernacular from their home regions this season.
“They tell me stuff all the time,” said McConnell, who is from Pittsburgh. “I can’t imagine it’s good stuff.” (Note to reader: Sorry, The New York Times cannot illuminate further. The Times has enough trouble publishing vulgarities in English.)
For referees, who have broad discretion in calling certain offenses, navigating such diverse terrain can be tricky. While swearing is discouraged, it usually generates only a technical foul if it crosses the line into abusive behavior. Now, with players blowing off steam in more than a dozen languages, how can referees reasonably determine whether to penalize them?
Joe Forte, a former NBA referee who also officiated at international tournaments, recalled his occasional struggles.
“You could kind of sense that they were using some kind of profanity,” Forte said. “But you didn’t know for sure, so there was nothing you could do about it.”
It should be noted that many players who come to the NBA from abroad are fluent in multiple languages, including English. Serge Ibaka, a Congolese-born power forward who plays for the Toronto Raptors, recently had a news conference where he answered consecutive questions in English, French and Spanish.
Marcin Gortat, a forward from Poland who plays for the Washington Wizards, said that if he were to curse at an official — and he does not condone the practice — he would do it in English, almost as a matter of courtesy.
“That’s how tough you are, that you’ve got to curse the referee in a different language? Just tell him in English,” said Gortat, who once argued that the league should allow hockey-style fistfights among players. “Be a man about it. Get mad, tell him what you think and pay for it. That’s it.”
Saric, a second-year forward, joined the 76ers after several seasons in Europe, where many of the referees are multilingual. Saric had a hard time getting away with anything. He recalled how he once screamed at himself in Croatian — “I said something about how I’m stupid,” he said — and got called for a technical foul by a referee who was from Turkey.
“I was like, ‘I didn’t say it to you!’” Saric said. “But it didn’t matter.”
With the 76ers this season, Saric was called for five technical fouls — a sign, perhaps, of NBA referees’ increased familiarity with naughty words in languages other than English. Saric could not say for certain whether that was the case. When he gets mad, he usually expresses himself in a mix of Croatian and English. But he did acknowledge that his technicals during the regular season were largely warranted.
“I probably didn’t say something nice,” he said.
Referees have a difficult job. As Ilyasova of the 76ers put it, “Everybody’s always complaining about something.” There are occasions, he said, when he counts himself among the complainers. Depending on his level of agitation, he may express himself in English, “but mostly it’s Russian.”
“When you’re upset, you don’t think much,” he said. “It just kind of comes out. You can’t control it.”
Several NBA referees are fluent in Spanish, and fourth-year official Gediminas Petraitis speaks Lithuanian, said Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s vice president in charge of referee development and training. While the league does not currently offer foreign language courses for officials, he said, “this may very well be an area of growth we explore in the future.”
Tomas Satoransky, a shooting guard for the Wizards who was born in Prague, is susceptible to what he described as “blackouts,” when he excoriates himself in Czech. Coach Scott Brooks has asked for translations.
“And I’m like, ‘Coach, I don’t even know,’” Satoransky said.
Steve Javie, a longtime referee who retired from the NBA in 2011, spent several summers officiating in Puerto Rico at the start of his career. He did not speak Spanish and could sense early on that some of the players were saying unpleasant things to him. His fellow referees clued him in.
“They would sit with me and say, ‘This word means this, and this word means that,’” Javie said. “Now I know more curse words in Spanish than normal words.”
But none of this is meant to suggest that players, foreign-born or otherwise, reserve their communication for cursing. As an NBA referee, Javie tended to enjoy his interactions with foreign-born players, whom he found respectful of the game and appreciative of their place in the league. Javie said he was glad to take the time to discuss calls with them.
“Because they came to you with professionalism,” he said. “It wasn’t a yelling or a screaming situation. Because if they were yelling or screaming, I would not explain the call to them.”
Bob Delaney, another former NBA referee, recalled that Yao Ming was one of the league’s more inquisitive players when he came to the Houston Rockets from China in 2002. Yao seldom complained, Delaney said. Rather, Yao sincerely wanted to understand why Delaney had made certain calls. Delaney found their exchanges almost refreshing.
Along those lines, Andrei Kirilenko, a Russian forward who spent most of his career with the Utah Jazz, had a ritual of shaking the officials’ hands before the opening tip.
“It was awkward at first, to be honest with you,” Delaney said, “because we weren’t used to it.”
As a high school student, Delaney took four years of Latin and two years of French, which he tried to dust off when point guard Tony Parker, who is French, joined the San Antonio Spurs as a rookie in 2001. Delaney introduced himself before a game: Je m’appelle Robert.
“So he started talking in French,” Delaney said, “and I said: ‘Wait a minute, brother. That’s all I got.’”
Delaney said he had a couple of general rules when it came to dealing with players, no matter what language they spoke. One was that if they swore, he tried to distinguish between adjectives (generally permitted) and nouns (not so much).
Another was that he wanted to make sure they understood him. Delaney has a thick accent of his own, he said: “I’m from New Jersey.”