Matt Barnes played in the NBA for 14 seasons, winning a championship with the Golden State Warriors in 2017. He was a teammate of Kobe Bryant and played against LeBron James in the Finals, but never encountered anything in the NBA quite like he did while playing for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Barnes is a part of the new Blackballed multi-part series on Quibi, which examines a major controversy in league history involving Donald Sterling and the Los Angeles Clippers.
In 2014, racist comments from Sterling, who owned the Clippers, were released by TMZ in the middle of the Clippers’ first round series against the Warriors. Sterling already possessed an entire portfolio of unflattering behavior, but the grotesque manner in which he expressed his views on race was the end of his disastrous run in the NBA. The documentary offers the perspective of Clippers coach Doc Rivers and many of the players from that season’s team, including Barnes, on their reaction to Sterling’s racist comments—and reveals just how close the Clippers were to sitting out and forfeiting games in protest during the '14 playoffs until NBA Commissioner Adam Silver enforced a lifetime ban on Sterling.
Barnes spoke with Sports Illustrated, offering insight on the Sterling scandal and sharing some of his history dealing with racism. Barnes also discussed his choice for the greatest basketball player of all time, a debate that included Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
Justin Barrasso: What we can expect to learn from the players’ perspective in Blackballed?
Matt Barnes: We didn’t stand with Donald, we never played for him to begin with. He just happened to be the owner of the team that put us all together. That was a crazy, uncertain time for us as players, and we were glad that [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver acted as swiftly as he did.
Barrasso: Sports provide a unique platform to discuss race in America. In the third episode of the Blackballed documentary, you were able to share a part of your life when you were a high school student in Southern California and were judged exclusively by race. How do you describe the feeling of having someone profiling you based solely on skin color?
Barnes: It’s frustrating. Me being someone who grew up bi-racial, being half Italian and black, I faced racism at a very early age. It boiled over in high school, to the point where someone was calling my sister a n-----. We happened to fight right after that, and a day-and-a-half later, the KKK vandalized my whole school. They burned down a bathroom and it made national news. I learned at an early age, even though I was very proud to be mixed, I was looked at as a black man.
I’ve had enough racist events in my life to understand that racism is real and alive, so the stuff with Sterling didn’t surprise me. He was just dumb enough to get caught, but he wasn’t the only one thinking that way at the time or still thinking that way now.
Throughout this pandemic, one thing that has stood out to me is that there is still a lot of hate in this country. I’ve personally lived through a lot of racism, and that’s why I have such a strong opinion and view on it. No one is born racist. People are taught to hate, and it’s unfortunate, but the cycle continues to repeat itself.
Barrasso: The racist incident with the KKK sounds more like an event from 200 years ago, but it’s frightening to think that happened in 1998.
Barnes: It was scary to think that the area where I lived in California was filled with so much hate. I was a star football player and star basketball player headed to UCLA, and I’d been shown a lot of love, but at the same time, this made me realize, ‘No matter what, you’re still looked at as a black man.’
N----- was painted all over my school. Swastikas were all over my school. There was a mannequin that had my football jersey on that said, ‘Die n-----.’ It was real, and it was a wake-up call that said, ‘Don’t ever get too comfortable. You’re still always going to be looked at as a black man.’
Barrasso: Connecting this back to the Clippers incident with Donald Sterling, an easy contrast is the relationship between Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, which was full of mutual respect and admiration. But with the Clippers, none of that respect or admiration was present playing for a team owned by Sterling.
Following the release of Sterling’s comments, which TMZ aired in '14 between Games 3 and 4 of that first-round playoff series against the Warriors, how big of a factor was Doc Rivers in keeping you and your teammates focused on the team?
Barnes: No question, Doc was the shield. Doc did everything he absolutely could to try to allow us to focus on the task at hand. This happened 36-48 hours before a road game. When you’re in the playoffs, it’s almost like the team abandons their family—you’re so locked in with your team, and that’s all you constantly think about. To arguably have the biggest NBA scandal in the history of the game thrown at our faces, and it happened to be racism and 90% of our team was African American, it was a very tough situation. But Doc did everything he could to shield us from that, to answer all the questions, and bring some sort of normalcy to our routine.
Barrasso: That Clippers team had won 57 games in the regular season and was a legitimate title contender entering the playoffs. Those opportunities don’t present themselves very often, but Sterling’s words were full of hate and extended beyond the game of basketball. How close was the team to sitting out and forfeiting before the league acted?
Barnes: We debated not playing Game 4. That was a serious debate, and that rung true not only in our locker room, but also in Golden State’s locker room. But at the same time, we felt we had a championship-caliber team. We thought we could do something special that season.
There were too many unknowns if we forfeited the game. Do we sit out until Donald Sterling is gone? There were so many ifs for our team, but we really debated whether to sit out one game or play until he was gone. And then, in the next round in the Oklahoma series, there was the story that he was not leaving.
We focused on finding something solid for our team to show we were together and let the world know what he did was wrong and we didn’t agree with him. At the end of the day, it was never about him—it was about the guys in the locker room, the staff, our families, and our fans, and that’s who we performed for.
Barrasso: On a lighter subject, we briefly mentioned Michael Jordan, who has been even more relevant as of late because of The Last Dance doc. You came into the NBA after Jordan retired, but you played with the legendary Kobe Bryant on the Lakers, as well against LeBron James, most notably in the '17 NBA Finals. No one has a perspective quite like the players on the court. How do you rank Jordan, Kobe and LeBron in terms of greatness?
Barnes: Those are the top three players in the history of the game. It bothers when I see the disrespect. ESPN just came out with a list, and they had Kobe at nine. When you ask players, they’ll tell you, but it’s always the ‘experts’ that make these lists.
My list would be Jordan at number one, Kobe number two and LeBron number three. LeBron can pass Kobe if he can capture another title. That would be a title with three different teams. He’s moving up the scoring list, he’s on the assist list and as far as all-around, he’s one of the greatest we’ve ever seen. Right now, it’s Mike number one, Kobe number two and LeBron three, but depending on how long he sticks around, LeBron can pass Kobe and he’ll definitely be in the discussion with Jordan.
Barrasso: Do you mean if LeBron wins a title in a full season? Or even if the NBA resumes play and holds the playoffs this summer?
Barnes: You hear guys like Charles Barkley and Shaq say they shouldn’t play, and if they win it’s tarnished, but to me, it’s even a greater accomplishment. These guys had to put the brakes on. March is the best time for basketball. As players, that’s when we’re getting our engines started for the playoffs.
We’ve never seen LeBron this rested. We’ve never seen Kawhi [Leonard] or James Harden this rested. Once guys get their rhythm and timing back, the playoffs are going to be electric. I think the Heat won the championship in '12 following the lockout, and no one even talks about that anymore. It’s just a championship. For all the critics that say they’ll be an asterisk, five or 10 years from now, it’s just going to be a championship on their resume.
Barrasso: And that goes for the Spurs with their title in ’99, too—it’s just considered another title for Tim Duncan and his teammates, not one that comes with an asterisk. On a final note, what stands out most to you about the Clippers’ story from '14?
Barnes: I think it’s important, and we ask people to put themselves in our shoes. One thing we hear a lot of us is, ‘We wouldn’t have played, we wouldn’t have done this, we wouldn’t have done that.’ The uncertainty of what sitting out would do to one game or an entire series, we didn’t know enough about that, so we decided to stay united and make a statement as a team.