It started with the host of TNT’s “Inside the NBA” asking which of their panelists’ predictions about the rest of the season had no chance of coming true. Before anyone else could get a word in, Charles Barkley offered a reply that had nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with the arrest of actor Jussie Smollett over allegations that he hired two Nigerian men to stage a racist attack on him.
“Two black guys beating a black guy up,” Barkley said late Thursday, sending co-host Shaquille O’Neal into a wheezing laugh that had him banging the desk. The baffled host, Ernie Johnson, could only shake his head and muster, “I can’t believe you, Chuck.”
What followed was more than two minutes of Barkley, one of the most provocative voices in sports media, roasting Smollett for allegedly staging a brutal hate crime last month. The late-night riff at the intersection of race, politics, crime and celebrity came at the end of an emotionally charged day in which the “Empire” actor was arrested by Chicago authorities and charged with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly falsifying a police report over a homophobic and racist attack, all to help advance his career.
“Jussie!” the NBA legend hollered before midnight, laughing over a photo of Smollett. “You wasted all that damn time and money. You know what you should have did? Just went up in Liam Neeson’s neighborhood. He could have solved all your damn problems!”
With this joke, Barkley roped in yet another hot-button Hollywood story by referencing actor Neeson, who said earlier this month he had once roamed the streets to search for a black person to kill after someone close to the actor told him that an unidentified black person had raped her. (Neeson told “Good Morning America” he did seek help, and said he is not a racist.)
As Barkley was still giggling from the joke, a member from the production staff could be heard yelling something at him, perhaps in an effort to end talk of a sensitive story that remains raw for those who initially backed Smollett. Some online suggested that the person off-camera yelled, “Stop!”
Charles Barkley has some advice for America & Jussie Smollett pic.twitter.com/3JaW9FlHM9
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) February 22, 2019
The clip was widely circulated on social media, where it was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, shared tens of thousands times as of early Friday. Several videos of the segment each racked up hundreds of thousands of views. Barkley’s words represented an inflection point for the Smollett story, as people of varying ideologies were seemingly united on social media for contrasting reasons. Although most wanted to laugh with Barkley, whose opinions on race have sometimes met with pushback, others tagged their posts #MAGA in support of President Donald Trump and used the video as a way to pile on Smollett, his supporters and the media coverage surrounding the case.
Smollett returned to the “Empire” set Thursday following his release from custody, Variety reported, and maintained his innocence to the cast and crew. The actor, who was released on a $100,000 bond, has denied all wrongdoing. His next court appearance is scheduled for March 14.
The conversation started during halftime of a Thursday game between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers. From the start of the viral exchange, O’Neal provided the gasoline for Barkley’s roast, peppering his friend with questions, including what kind of hats the men were wearing when they allegedly attacked Smollett. “MAGAs. MAGA hats,” Barkley guessed. O’Neal then directed the conversation to the $3,500 check Smollett allegedly paid to two men to help stage the attack.
“Do you pay ’em with cash or write ’em a check, Chuck?” O’Neal asked, egging on Barkley.
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SOURCE: Chicago Tribune; The Washington Post, Timothy Bella