Having spent four years of a former life chronicling everything Charles Barkley did or said, and hoping for an occasional respite during which there was neither to report, I can say confidently that the dustup this week between Barkley and LeBron James is very small potatoes indeed.
I was in Milwaukee the cold winter night Barkley took off his shirt on a city street and broke the nose of a bodybuilder idiot who threatened him, so calling James "whiny" doesn't really rise to the level of controversy that gets my attention.
It got LeBron's attention, though, and he fired back, saying, "I'm tired of biting my tongue. There's a new sheriff in town."
Well, remind me to move.
If James is determined to engage in a running dialogue with Barkley, there are two things he has to understand: Very few will be pulling for him, and, he will lose, anyway. In the history of dumb debates between famous people, funny is undefeated. LeBron doesn't stand a chance.
It doesn't matter that James is the greatest basketball player of his generation and in the conversation for any generation you choose. It doesn't matter that he is entertaining on a nightly basis and plays a game any basketball fan must appreciate. It really doesn't matter that he has taken his team to the NBA Finals six straight seasons and won the title three times.
Greatness isn't to be confused with popularity, and if you need current proof of that, try finding a Patriots fan outside of New England this or any week. Greatness, at least as demonstrated by anyone outside our own rooting interest, is admired grudgingly, if at all, and is generally no more than annoying.
LeBron James is a great basketball player, but, man, he has become annoying. He was only peripherally annoying until he pulled that whole taking-my-talents-to-South-Beach crap in his prime-time celebration of Me, as if the sandy strip of nightclubs and boutiques was the actual locus of an NBA franchise and not merely the bling of the thing.
If the rest of us have been annoyed ever since, despite LeBron's greatness, apparently veteran basketball observers like Barkley felt the same way and then some. Constructing an all-star team in a city of your choosing isn't exactly an organic way to work toward a championship. That was true when James decamped Cleveland for SoBe, and it was true when the tide fell in Miami and he made his triumphant return to Ohio. "I'm taking my talents to Lake Erie."
Now, it might be sour grapes, and it might be jealousy, and it might just be the eternal grumpiness of old dogs sleeping on the porch, but when Barkley criticized James for not being satisfied with the roster of a team that is the top seed in its conference, he had a point.
"He's the best player in the world. Does he want all of the good players?" Barkley said. "He don't want to compete? He is an amazing player. They're the defending champs."
The Cavaliers, while paying James $30 million this season, spent themselves well over the league's elastic salary cap to keep him together with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and a deep rotation of role players. The team will pay millions in luxury tax. All James has to do is take what has been given him and lead it. That is the expectation. For his part, however, he expects more help, and has been agitating for another playmaker. Barkley says shut up and play.
"I'm not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that," James said in an interview with ESPN.com. "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 partying all weekend. All I've done for my entire career is represent the NBA the right way. Fourteen years, never got in trouble. Respected the game. Print that."
Barkley chuckled, complimented James for his book report, and took issue only with the stuff about not paying debts and being late to All-Star Weekend. Otherwise, have at it.
"It doesn't mean I was wrong," Barkley said.
Of course, this little squabble isn't a matter of right and wrong. The greatest crime James committed is wanting to win another championship. Barkley's greatest is saying what he thought, which is not only his job, but a habit he appears unlikely to shake.
Barkley is savvy enough to know he picked a great target, however. When Wilt Chamberlain said nobody roots for Goliath, he was talking about mere height. The same goes for success of the kind LeBron James has enjoyed. Seeing the mighty fall, whether by slam dunk or well-slung stone, is always more popular than the giant who crumples. For more on that, check out the reaction should the New England Goliaths hit the turf with a thud on Sunday.