The NBA hangs its hat on being the player empowerment league. One can argue that this reputation was most prominently displayed back in 2014, when the solidarity shown by Los Angeles Clippers players and numerous others within the NBA brotherhood played a role in longtime owner Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban following a series of racist comments captured and released by TMZ.
It was a monstrous event, one that transcended basketball and garnered attention worldwide. Now, the saga is at the center of Blackballed, Quibi’s new docuseries that examines the reaction from the locker room and society at large, along with the way this particular incident sat at the intersection of sports and culture in America. The first three episodes were released on Monday, May 18, with new episodes dropping every day.
Dime caught up with Matt Barnes, the retired hooper and co-host of the All the Smoke podcast with Stephen Jackson. Barnes, a member of that Clippers squad who appears in Blackballed, spoke about being at the center of this firestorm, his reaction to the doc, the role this saga played in the player empowerment era in the NBA, and much more.
How are you doing and how have you been keeping busy over the last couple of months?
I’m good. With the pandemic, it gives me time to actually sit down and spend more time with my kids. I’m a single father of three, so for me, I’m traveling for ESPN or Showtime or Complex. So I’ve been able to just sit home and do online school with my older twins that are 11, and then I have a 16 month old who runs the house, so just chasing him all around the neighborhood. So, we’ve been blessed, considering the circumstances.
When did you get approached to be involved in this documentary and how eager were you to get involved when it got floated to you?
Chris Paul’s a good friend of mine and I don’t remember exactly when he approached me, but he just said, “Hey, we’re doing something on the Sterling stuff,” and I’m just like, “Sh*t, count me in.” Because like I said, I’m someone who has dealt with racism from childhood into my 40’s. So, I just thought it would be important as players, for us to tell our side, because during that time we were trying our best to focus on the task at hand, which was the Golden State Warriors and the NBA playoffs. Doc did a great job of kind of shielding us from the media and allowing us to kind of have some sort of normalcy, and so we never really got a chance to speak on it. So, I thought it was just good to hear guys’ thoughts a few years removed and then finally the project coming to life six years later.
I’m guessing you’ve gotten a chance to watch it. Can I get some thoughts on the finished product?
I thought it was good. I thought it was really good. I thought it was, to reiterate, I just thought it was important for us to be able to tell our side. For Chris to be able to do what he did, being the president of the Player’s Association and how much responsibility he had, and he had his hands full in the process as well, along with leading our team in the playoffs. And then seeing what DeAndre thought, and J.J. thought, I wish we could’ve got Blake to talk, and Jamal Crawford, too, because those guys were integral parts of the situation, but I was really happy with the way it turned out, and Doc’s part in everything. So, I was just really proud that we kind of got to say our piece, and we’re in a time now where content is needed. I think it was very quality content that, from my understanding, everyone has been enjoying.
Could you take me through the period of time between learning that TMZ had something and then learning specifically what TMZ had? Because in the doc, it kind of comes off like everyone expected it to be a headache, but nothing to the extent that it ended up being.
Yeah, we didn’t really have a clue, and me being in L.A. since ’98, going to UCLA, I know how TMZ does stuff. They will over-hype it, or do stuff, but to me, I think they almost kind of undersold it, because we had no idea of the extent of what was on the recording. For us to find out late, maybe an evening and a half before the actual game, instantly, we’re all on our team group chat, talking in disbelief, kind of figuring out what the heck is going on. The next morning we have team breakfast and we discuss it as an organization. Like I said, Doc did a great job of kind of shielding us and taking the lead in it.
But one thing he stressed to us players was he didn’t really want us talking to the media about it, he wanted us focused on basketball, but he said whatever statement we made, he was going to support 100 percent, whether it be not playing or whatever we came up with. But he said, whatever we do, let’s make sure we do it together. So, we went through everything from not playing, to actually doing the idea that I thought of, which was taking our jerseys off at half court and then having the undershirt flipped inside out. So we bounced ideas off the wall and off each other and kind of came up with that.
Kind of along those lines, once you found out what it was, was it immediately obvious that this was going to be something much bigger than basketball? Or did it take a little — I think Adam Silver had that line in the doc, when he saw CNN was involved, Fox News is involved, all these non-basketball outlets, that’s when it really clicked for him.
Did you ever have a moment like that?
Definitely, because I think … I was speaking in a previous interview, this was not necessarily pre-social media, but before players were using really using their social media as platforms to speak and let the world know how we feel, you know what I mean? So although we knew it was a black eye, obviously, on the league and on our team, we had no idea the route it was going to take. And like you said, for the national media to pick it up instantly, once the media really gets a hold of it, I mean, sports media is one thing, but then when you talk about national media, worldwide coverage, we knew it was going to be a monster.
And it couldn’t have come at a worse time considering we felt like we had a championship contender, we’re playing a young up and coming Warriors team that people remember. We were the one team that was consistently beating the Warriors, and that was the last year, we beat them in seven games before they started their dynasty run. We had a tough young team to deal with and we knew that, and it just couldn’t have came at a worst time.
How does it feel to look back on it? Because on one hand, it’s this messy saga and there’s everything that you just said about feeling like you were a championship contender, but on the other, I think you can make the argument it was this major moment for the player empowerment era in the NBA.
Absolutely. Whenever I talk about this, I like to give LeBron James credit, because I think he, as a superstar, opened his platform up to speak on things, which allowed it to be easier for people such as myself, who aren’t superstars but people who are very concerned and woke in current events — not only in sports, but around the world. So, it was definitely an empowering moment. We made our statement, the Miami Heat made their statement, the Golden State Warriors, talking to them after the fact, were ready to do whatever we did. So if we weren’t going to play, they were right there with us.
So, I think it was a very important turning moment as far as player empowerment goes, and it’s only continued to rise since then. I definitely think it was a stepping stool, and like I said, in the documentary, it was the worst time in Clippers history, but then again, the best time in Clippers history, because after 30-plus years of ownership, and they’ve been trying to get him out since he bought the team, the league was finally able to get him out.
Chris had this really good line about how you didn’t play for Donald Sterling, you guys played for one another. Was there something about that locker room that made it uniquely able to come together and make this really powerful statement, and also focus on some of the biggest basketball games in franchise history?
Yeah. I mean, it was known, kind of, Donald’s antics up to that point, and his history of discrimination, and quote-unquote being a slumlord, and everything that kind of came with the Clippers organization. To me, winning starts at the top, and when you have a bum owner, you’re going to have a bum product. When we have finally turned the corner as an organization and they got superstars in Chris and Blake, and DJ was up and coming, and myself, and J.J., Jamal, the whole cast, we really felt like we had something special. So when this hit, it kind of just reiterated what we already had known, because we saw V, his mistress, prancing around the Staples Center like she owned it. No one liked her, everyone despised her, no one could stand her. We knew this is our owner, but at the same time, it’s not even about him. It’s always been about our locker room, our team, our coaching staff, our family, and our fans. So, I just think that was just the icing on the cake of what we already knew.
I think that kind of answers my next question, which is, was it ever tough to focus on basketball with all of this craziness going on? Or was the mindset we’re professionals, we know what to do and basketball gives us a way to get away from all of this?
It’s tough because I don’t think the average fan understands all the stuff we have to deal with off the court. This and family and turmoil, there’s just so much that goes into a player’s mental focus and mental health and being able to block all that out. I think fans think because we’re paid a lot of money that nothing bothers us, but we’re as normal humans as everyone else, and we deal with tragedy and we deal with loss, we deal with ups and downs like everyone else. But when those lights come on, we have to go out there and do a job. So it was tough for us. It was just added pressure. Like I said, we felt like we had a good team. We felt like, hey, we could be the first team to possibly change the narrative of this franchise. So, there was a lot of stuff on our mind.
And like I said, the timing of this, coming into playoffs when we’re battling a young team, fortunate to get by them. And then it rears its head again in the second round when we’re battling another young team in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. So it was just added nonsense that didn’t need to be there. And like Chris, I don’t blame our losing in the second round because of it. It just added to the stress and the ability for us to try to have to focus even more, because we thought we’d put it to bed in the first round when we put the Warriors to sleep, and then come second round, we’re in a heated battle, outplaying Oklahoma City and then it comes that he’s not leaving the team, and so all the media starts swarming back around us again, asking our thoughts and our feelings. It was just like, “Man, we want to play basketball. We don’t care what this guy does. We want to get rid of him.”
But like I said, you kind of have to deal with stuff as it comes. As players, we deal with so much that fans will never know, but that was more added nonsense that didn’t help.
I do want to talk about this through the lens of player empowerment. How strong was the sense of we as players have power here and we need to use it to do something?
It was very important. It was very important. Like I said, we were very close. There were talks about that game and the Warriors were on the same page with us. We just didn’t know because we were in unmarked territory. It had never been a situation like this, and so we didn’t know, okay, do we sit out? That’s going to be a loss on our record, are they going to replay the game? Do we sit out until he’s gone? There was just so much uncertainty to us as players, especially considering we felt like we had a championship-quality team.
So we knew whatever we did, it was going to go down in history. In hindsight, looking back, if we would have known we were gonna get our butts kicked by 30 points, we probably should’ve sat the game out, anyway [laughs]. But, we decided to play. We decided to make the little statement we made, we decided to stay to unified, we stay together, and we went about trying to let people know that this is our dream. This is, as a kid, what you grow up and dreaming about, is playing NBA playoff basketball. And that’s what we want to be able to focus on.
Did the thought of sparking that level of change, that you would be able to get someone who was this longtime black eye on the league out, ever cross your mind?
No. I had no idea, because when you think about it, Adam Silver works for the owner, so we never thought a new commissioner … obviously we know David Stern was mafia, but we didn’t know much about Adam Silver. So we have a new commissioner on the job, not really knowing who he is or what he’s about, and his actual power. Him being kicked out of the league and barred, you would hear people say like, “We can’t have this in our league. We need him out.” But we never knew that him being removed that quickly would ever be a possibility. So again, hats off to Adam Silver and everyone who made that happen.
You have your podcast now. And one thing that you and Stephen do, is you give players a platform to talk about stuff in a setting where they could feel comfortable and relate to the host. I know Doc said no media, but if he hadn’t said that, looking back, is that something you wish you could have been on the other side of during all of this?
No, because I think we all had very strong feelings in the moment, wrapped up in emotion, and it would have took us even more out of the focus of our actual job. Because me, I’ve always been off the cuff. I would have said some stuff that I probably would’ve got fined for. So guys were very hurt. There were guys that were visibly shaken off what had happened. And I think the best thing that could have happened was that Doc was just the shield for us players because in an emotional, vulnerable situation, considering 95 percent of our team was Black — and we counted J.J. as being Black, too — who knows what would have been said or done that could have possibly caused more of a distraction for our chance to move forward in the playoffs.
How have these two things, the Sterling saga and everything that happened there, and having this podcast that is such a refuge for players to be themselves, reinforced the importance of players having and using platforms to speak out away from basketball for you?
I think it’s very important, no matter if we’re speaking on the Sterling issue or other issues, because like it or not, players voices are heard. And I think when people like LeBron James, and Steph Curry, and Chris Paul, the cornerstones — Kobe Bryant, rest in peace — the cornerstones of our league speak up on cultural issues, they get attention to it. So you could even take it to be the Ahmaud Arbery situation that just happened, that played out in the media. It was because of athletes using our platforms, and artists and actors using their platforms, to really draw attention to issues that are not right that most of the time gets swept under the rug.
But when you start getting these bigger names, using their voices and their platforms that you have millions upon millions of fans, when you count us all together, I think it’s huge. And I love it. Like I said, I really credit LeBron James for opening that door, because he’s made it easier for guys like myself to do it. But I think it’s huge. I love that it’s continuing to grow and it’s a step in the right direction because there are a lot of wrongs that gets swept under the rug still and in the past. But now with so many eyeballs and attention on, we’re almost forcing the hands of people who are in charge to almost try to do the right thing over time.
When people watch the series, what’s the main thing that you want them to take away regarding that Clippers team?
That we did it for each other and we did it for our family, our friends, our fans, the guys in the locker room. That racism is as prevalent as it’s ever been, especially today in 2020, and the only way to abolish it is to come together with love and unity and trying to obviously out the people who are racist. So, like I said, I wish it could have been a little longer and we could of got into more detail, but I think obviously we covered the most important parts of what happened. But when you really talk about the bigger picture, it’s a racial issue, and it’s not just a sports racial issue, it’s a world racial issue. So, just continuing to shine light on the negativity to hopefully deter some people to realize that there’s no room in this world for hate, and hopefully together we can change that.