Recently, I’ve tried to wrap my brain around words. Words that incite violence, words that evoke fear, and words that hurt. Late last month, the infamous Donald J. Trump put words of hate and distrust into an executive order that potentially would change the face of world travel. Meanwhile, in the sports arena words were being exchanged between another infamous talker and a current superstar — Charles Barkley and LeBron James. This exchange struck a chord with me.
On Jan. 27, during a TNT broadcast, Barkley, a hall of famer and professional trash talker, went on a tirade against James, directed at his recent pleas to upper management of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Barkley referred to LeBron as a whiner and a non-competitor. He called James’ comments “inappropriate and whiny”, adding: “He’s the best player in the world. Does he want all of the good players? He don’t want to compete? He is an amazing player. They’re the defending champs.”
Like any self-respecting professional athlete, LeBron took exception to the statement and proceeded to go in on Barkley in unprecedented form: “I’m not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that,” said LeBron, via ESPN. “I’m not the one who threw somebody through a window. I never spit on a kid. I never had unpaid debt in Las Vegas. I never said, ‘I’m not a role model.’ I never showed up to All-Star Weekend on Sunday because I was in Vegas all weekend partying.” Clearly perturbed by the constant criticism thrown his way, subtly or overtly, especially by Barkley, LeBron let him have it.
I bickered feverishly online, via text and through most social media outlets, with both friends and strangers about this exchange. Everyone seemed to have a distinct disdain and profound dislike for the current king of pro basketball, LeBron James.
For rap music, beef and battles are all too familiar to the hip-hop culture landscape. From LL vs Kool Moe Dee to Drake vs Meek Mill, to most recently Nicki Minaj and Remy Ma, rap music lovers have endured and enjoyed a multitude of epic musical fracases that polarized many fans, and have even divided coastal loyalties. The early 2000s saw a battle of epic proportions. Two juggernauts — Nas and Jay-Z — took their personal vendettas to wax. The effect was to devastate each other with verbal jabs so derogatory as to make the most rugged street corner thugs blush. All is fair in war, it seems.
LeBron James decided enough was enough, and chose to clap-back in a monstrous way. Like Nas and Jay-Z, he went for the jugular to annihilate and effectively silence his foe. Barkley claims never to have made personal critiques of any player he has discussed on TV. His on-court observations, however, have often struck a nerve with even the most stoic of professional athletes. Time had come, King James judged, to cut past the basketball rhetoric, and hit where it hurts.
Barkley is known for his tirades, delivered in his Alabamian southern drawl, usually targeting the new- generation NBA players whom he and some of his cronies deem inadequate in comparison to his basketball generation. Most players (not all) of Barkley’s generation uphold a consensus that, in some form, their era was greater than the current NBA’s. Such disdain resembles that of the old school heads of the hip-hop culture, who are stuck in the boom bap, backpack era of rap music, and who believe that anything other than 1980s or 1990s rap is simply unworthy of praise or props.
Things evolve. Wanted or unwanted, change and growth are as inevitably ever present in music, as it is in sports. For those in elder segments of a culture to reject any new form of growth by younger members is pointless, selfish and debilitating. Barkley’s TV platform has been given to him because of the outspoken and brash nature that he exhibited during his NBA years. That tenure allowed him to become one of the 50 greatest players ever to play the game — but one who never got to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy as NBA Champion.
Still, his incredibly disparaging remarks about LeBron not wanting to compete unless he is surrounded by more talent is like condemning Nas for having DJ Premier and Pete Rock produce his classic album, IIlmatic, and shunning Jay-Z for having The Notorious B.I.G and Mary J. Blige appear on his definitive LP Reasonable Doubt. Simply put, if you’re the best, you surround yourself with greatness.
With little to no help in 2007, LeBron transported his Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA finals. Was he not competing then? James knew that it would be ludicrous to expect that an NBA championship would be attainable without help from a supporting cast. Hence, his now infamous decision to join forces with Miami and, three championships later, to take his talents back to Cleveland with another assortment of stars.
Competition is in every athlete’s DNA; it’s why they do what they do. When one questions that, one is questioning an athlete’s work ethic, which is directly related to their personal involvement in and dedication to the sport. To say Barkley’s attack on LeBron wasn’t personal is absurd. Barkley’s relevance to the sport makes his assertion that much more personal. This is clearly why LeBron took offence to his off-handed commentary.
The currently prevailing narrative holds that LeBron’s response to Barkley’s statement was above and beyond what was necessary, and made for a personal attack on a man’s legacy, rather than on his past basketball prowess. That narrative contains faint truth, but there comes a time when enough is enough and, at whatever cost, your own legacy must be protected.
Kudos to LeBron for finally standing up to the bully on the TNT Studios pulpit. Today, Barkley is making his voice heard, but his content is discredited by his inability to have had his finger fitted with a NBA championship ring. That other bully, voicing words that hurt, from the White House pulpit, has also come to see those words resisted by widespread protest and, ultimately, repudiated by the U.S. courts, at least for now.