Barnes' use of epithet is complicated
Clippers forward is painfully aware of the word's force and ugliness
"I love my teammates like family," Barnes tweeted just minutes after he was kicked out for fighting during the Clippers' win over the Thunder on Wednesday night. "But Im DONE standing up for these n---as! All this s--- does is cost me money."
Barnes understands the powerful connotation of that despicable word. He is not ignorant. In fact, he might understand the depth, force and ugliness of that word as well as anyone in the NBA. He has seen it and lived it firsthand.
According to a 2001 story in The Orange County Register, in the spring of 1998, "skinheads" at Del Campo High, Barnes' high school in suburban Sacramento, tried to burn down the campus. They spray-painted swastikas and racial epithets all over the school. In one hallway, they wrote, "Die Matt Barns Die."
It was a scary, disgusting act. And it wasn't the only time that Barnes, who is of mixed race, experienced such contemptible behavior.
According to the article: "Barnes played for a predominantly white high school in a predominantly white league. When he stepped on the basketball floor or the football field, fans would wave bananas. Students would spit at his sister. Parents would shout words too offensive to repeat.
"'There was a lot of racial stuff at the schools,' Del Campo basketball coach Scott Evans said. 'It made him the tough kid that he is.'"
Barnes responded by fighting back and standing up to it. He became the best basketball player and football player in Sacramento. He earned a scholarship to UCLA and was a starter on two Sweet Sixteen teams. He went to the NBA and built a reputation as a tough-minded defender. The kind of guy you'd rather play with than against. An enforcer who pushes back before anyone can push him around.
And then, on Wednesday night, he became the guy who turned a fight on a basketball court into the latest cultural touchstone in a national debate over the use, misuse and abuse of the most vile of racial epithets.
How can a person of color with such a personal, painful history with that word and the hate behind it ever use it so callously?
How can anyone who has not had such a personal, painful history with that word and the hate behind it ever presume to know?
Was Barnes trying to reclaim or subvert its power? Was he trying to make people uncomfortable or get attention? Was he simply emotional after a fight?
"I am not aware," prominent New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry once wrote, "of any other word capable of expressing so many contradictory emotions."
We tend to have strong, black-and-white reactions to what is quite literally the most black and white of issues.
I myself have never said the word, or written it. Just seeing or hearing it makes my skin crawl. I can't stand to watch the recent video of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper yelling it at a country music concert, or to read the uncensored text Richie Incognito sent to Jonathan Martin.
Barnes' tweet made me cringe. Barnes' history, however, made me think.
There's something going on that no one but Matt Barnes can explain or understand. In the next few days, I'm sure he will try. Despite his tough-guy image, I've always found Barnes to be smart and thoughtful. He leads with his emotions, too often letting the chip on his shoulder become his compass. But there's a depth to him, a fire and a fury that's both complicated and compelling.
It is impossible for any of us to know just what he meant with that tweet or why he used such a disturbing word in such a seemingly casual way.
Blake Griffin, whose honor Barnes presumably was trying to protect by shoving Serge Ibaka, told me late Wednesday night that he would speak to Barnes about it on Thursday, once things had had a chance to settle down. When I asked him directly whether he took Barnes' tweet as a dig at him, he said that he did not.
In fact, a few hours earlier Griffin had called Barnes a "great teammate" and said that "we have his back, he has ours."
He also said that he felt Barnes escalated a situation that didn't need escalating and that he can take care of himself on the court.
In recent years, the Clippers have had a number of players whose unofficial job description called for a fair amount of sticking up for Griffin. Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Barnes and DeAndre Jordan have all done their part. Because of his style and substance, Griffin has become a favorite target for opponents to rattle. Because of his stature and star power, it is difficult for Griffin himself to retaliate.
There are those who will read Barnes' tweet as frustration at having to do the dirty work for Griffin. There might be some truth to that. At some point, you can get weary of fighting other people's battles for them.
But that's merely a symptom of a larger issue that has always troubled Barnes, not the cause.
Since 2008, the NBA has suspended or fined Barnes six times. After what he did Wednesday, another one is likely coming soon.
He has been punished specifically for fighting, for resisting arrest, for criticizing officials and for throwing the ball into the stands.
But mostly he has been punished for choosing to respond to a situation rather than walking away. By pushing first, before someone can push him around. Considering his personal history, that's understandable. It also explains why he continually expresses a frustration at the NBA, at what he perceives as a double standard when it comes to punishment for players, such as himself, with a reputation for bad behavior.
After Griffin and Ibaka's previous altercation in March, when the league fined the Thunder forward $25,000 for striking Griffin in the groin, Barnes tweeted, "Let me or @mettaworldpeace do that & I guarantee its a 5 game suspension.. I luv *how* there are different rules, for different people!"
Whether you agree with Barnes or not, it's clear he feels targeted. And knowing his history of being targeted, it's easy to see how that brings up deep, complicated emotions.
So, yes, Matt Barnes knew the power of his words when he sent that tweet. There is no one in the league who understands the magnitude of that word more than he does.
But contradiction and complexity don't always have to be untangled in a tidy way. Perhaps it's even good for all of us to sit with it a while, uncomfortable in its presence, and be reminded of how messy this issue truly is.