It’s late on a Tuesday afternoon in November. I’m in a studio near New York's Bryant Park, and former NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen “Stak” Jackson are chopping it up after recording an episode of their new Showtime Sports podcast All The Smoke.
This episode featured noted civil rights activist Shaun King, and it was clear the conversation resonated with Barnes.
They eventually retreated to the back of the studio to decompress and prep for another episode. This time with recently retired New York Yankees pitcher and World Series champion C.C. Sabathia.
After recording two episodes sandwiched between a day of press interviews and meetings, the guys looked ready to unwind.
“This requires a different kind of energy,” Barnes told me. “It’s different, man.”
No one would ever liken 14 NBA seasons with hosting a podcast, but they both require levels of energy.
For over 30 minutes, Matt and Stak were candid, hilarious and insightful on topics ranging from the NBA’s player/fan dynamic, the ever-popular “top 5” debate and the moment they knew they’d be brothers for life.
The below transcript highlights from the taped interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
BET: You were “We Believe Warriors” teammates, what was it about the other that made you both realize, “That’s my guy”?
Barnes: I looked at his lips and knew he was a smoker.
Jackson: True. True.
Barnes: It was always playing against him and knowing what kind of competitor he was, and then him coming to our team. I know he was going to bring something special. And we did kind of have a look at each other and we both knew we had... similar interests in other spaces.
Jackson: (grinning sarcastically) Mmm hmmm!
Barnes: It became an instant brotherhood.
Jackson: Just the vibe. We knew each other from playing against each other. We just hit it off like brothers, and it's been like that since then.
Matt and Stak have always been outspoken. Since retirement, both were involved in NBA analysis for ESPN and Fox. Never afraid to criticize current players, these two kept that same energy from their playing days and would deliver biting, honest commentary.
BET: Where does that authenticity and realness come from?
Jackson: Born with it. You’re born with it. That’s just natural.
Barnes: Our upbringing. You know, different paths, but similar stories. We’ve always been that way and always been the way we are and people that grew up with us and knew us could never say, ‘Oh he changed.’ We’ve always stuck to our script our whole lives and our way throughout. And our journey and our paths, and I think that’s why we’re here now.
BET: Do you think there’s a correlation between how you played in the league and your upbringing?
Jackson: We always had something to prove, especially in the game of basketball. That’s what our whole “We Believe” team was. Having something to prove, and that’s why we had success. Nothing’s been given to us, we had to show that we deserve a lot of things...
Barnes: (interrupts) Or take it.
Jackson: Where we come from you are born with that attitude, as soon as you come out the womb and see your surroundings, and that’s just what it is.
BET: When you’re looking at the media landscape, do you think that it’s difficult for former athletes to speak freely about current players?
Jackson: It doesn’t sound like hating. We’re coming from a place where we love the game, and half the time we say something about players, they sitting there listening like, ‘Yeah, they are right,’ because it’s coming from an honest place and not a place of hate.
Barnes: We have an appreciation for what it’s like to be in those players’ shoes because we were once those players. I think there’s a way you can be critical of a player if it has to have a negative tone without disrespecting them.
BET: Do players ever hit you up and say, ‘Yeah, Stak. You were right about that’?
Jackson: They can. I remember when I said something about KD and the burner accounts on social media, and he reached out to me. But he understood it wasn’t a place of hate. When he heard my side of it without reading it on social media, he understood. Because I was coming at it like a big brother. Matt feels the same way. ‘You KD! You can say whatever you want to anybody you want. You the best player in the world.’ He should feel like that, and he understood that’s where I was coming from.
BET: Is it different now for players because of social media?
Barnes: This social media era is giving us a more in-depth look at our favorite people, and it's all aspects, from music to movies to television to sports. I think it has been somewhat of a distraction at times, but also a huge benefit. Now you have the chance to tell your own story and shape your own narrative. So if the media is trying to play you a certain way, athletes have their own platforms to say, ‘No, that's not really how it went, this is how it went.’ I think that’s great.
BET: Do you think the media often gets it wrong with athletes?
Jackson: The ones that’s looking for clickbait? Yeah. It’s a lot of them that are just looking for clickbait and not trying to educate their audience. You know what I mean? It’s a big difference. The ones that’s trying to educate their audience are well respected, and I don’t think guys look at them a certain way.
Take Doris Burke [ESPN] for example. Doris is going to shoot it to you straight, but I’ve never heard Doris come out with a story assuming something because of a relationship she has with somebody. It’s always been facts. You know what I’m saying? The ones like that get respect. But it’s very few. Very few.
Barnes: I think so, too. [Jackson] and I both had reputations that preceded us, but the media thought they knew the person. The competitor and the person are two different things, you know? We appreciate the people who take the time to get to know us and find out who we are. And everyone else who doesn’t, we really don’t give a s**t. But once you’re painted a certain way in the eyes of the media, they think that’s who you are as a person.
Jackson: And that’s why we glad we’re in this space now, because we can control our own narrative.
Barnes: And help other athletes control their narrative as well.
BET: Are professional athletes afforded the same humanity as everyday people?
Barnes: They think that because we’re athletes that we are superhuman, or nothing bothers us, or we don’t have feelings, or we don’t have families, or we don’t go through the same shit everyone else goes through. You know, because you get paid a certain amount of money, that you’re always supposed to be superhuman, and it’s unfortunate and it’s hard sometimes. Because we really go through all the same ups and downs that life throws at us, but we have to perform.
BET: How difficult is it to come to work and perform when you’re dealing with those ups and downs life throws your way?
Jackson: It ain’t easy.
Barnes: It’s tough to stay focused and be able to separate life from our job. We are paid to perform, and we are performers. You gotta have good brothers to lean on. You know my situation with Jack, when I lost my mom, and we were teammates on the Warriors. He was at my house every day kickin it with me, talking to me, smoking, trying to get me through it, and it really helped. You know what I mean? The outside fan doesn’t realize what it takes day-in day-out to mentally be prepared to perform.
Barnes stops and turns towards the back of the room. “Who is talking so f*****g loud?” he jokingly asks.
Barnes and Stak share a laugh as they know it’s one of the producers of their podcast. “He’s always loud,” Stak says. “Always,” Barnes replies.
BET: What is it you want to achieve with the podcast and the content you create?
Jackson: It’s a show that Showtime is producing that is changing the game. One-on-one, it’s never been done before. Uncensored, raw from two NBA champions. People know we don’t have an agenda. We’re for the people, and anything that’s for the people that we need to address that’s for the culture. It’s a straight shot. No politically correct answers, nothing sugarcoated. We’re giving you raw game. That’s what the people want. Real life barbershop talk on Showtime.
Barnes: And he’s hoping it launches his rap career…
Jackson: Nah, I’m acting now. He’s behind the camera, I’m in front of the camera.
BET: You got some stuff you working on?
Barnes: Yeah, I’m doing some stuff behind the camera. Producing and directing. I feel like my face has been on TV enough in my lifetime that people don’t need to see me like that anymore. So I’ve taken the time to be more of a creator. But Jack can’t get enough…
Jackson: (interrupts) I’m a natural.
Barnes: Screen time. He gotta have his face all on the TV.
Jackson: I’m a natural. (He motions to the cameraman for a close-up.)
BET: Critics say players can’t work on their game and build their brand at the same time. Why is that a problem for some people?
Jackson: I’m still playing. I still play in the BIG3. Who are these people to put someone in a box? A rapper can act. Why can’t a basketball player do other things? They want to put us in a box because we make so much money off our initial gift…
Barnes: They shouldn't be able to make money off more?
Jackson: Exactly. Who is to say that? If I’m talented, let me explore all my talents and I think everyone should have that right.
Barnes: I think it’s unfortunate because I think LeBron probably gets hit the hardest with it. Now playing for the Lakers and all the off the court stuff he’s doing in movies and producing and executive producing. If he has a bad game it’s ‘Oh, he’s doing this and too much of that.’ That s**t is ridiculous. To me, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to do and have the platform we have, and you gotta capitalize on every part of it. As long as you keep your main job first, which 99% of these athletes do, I see nothing wrong with capitalizing in other spaces.
BET: What are your thoughts on how the league is handling the way fans and players interact?
Jackson: I wish they would’ve done it in ‘05.
BET: Is there a specific incident you’re talking about?
Jackson: Yeah, I wish they would’ve done that in ‘05 for “The Malice in the Palace.” Every time we talk about this, I go back and look. Nobody looks at how badly we were treated during that time. When I got up to the stands with Ron [Artest] before I hit a guy. This guy threw another beer in Ron’s face. I’m glad the league is putting more [onus] on the fans now. Even with the Warriors, and that’s my family, it was an owner that pushed Kyle Lowry [during the 2019 NBA Finals]. That’s way too far. If Kyle pushed him, he’s suspended and they lose the Finals. I’m glad they understand it’s not just us. We’re at work. Nine out of 10 times if an incident happens with a fan, the fan initiated it.
Barnes: I’m all for a great fan environment to cheer us if we’re home and boo us if we’re the opposing team. But some fans are over the line with the stuff they say, the stuff they do. They have to understand that we are still human. Just because you buy the ticket doesn’t mean you can say racial slurs like they were doing in Utah or talk about our families and do all this crazy stuff. I think it’s important to have an understanding, like Jack said, if there’s an altercation between players and fans, I would say even ten out of ten times a fan started it, because a player isn’t just going to start s**t. We have much more important things to do during a game.
I couldn’t let two of the best defenders of their era leave without asking the all-important Top-5 question.
BET: Who is in your Top 5 All-Time NBA?
Jackson: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Barnes: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and Magic Johnson.
For the record, my Top 5 all-time are: Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain.
Reasonable minds can disagree.
Talking to these two NBA legends, the vibe I got was raw, uncut and unfiltered.
Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson are here for ALL. THE. SMOKE.
For the full uncensored video interview with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, see below.