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!”
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.
Charles Barkley and Inside The NBA clowning Jussie Smollett pic.twitter.com/qnEHlTTrnT
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) February 22, 2019
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.
Kenny Smith, a former NBA player and another panelist, tapped on the glass desk and remained tight-lipped as Barkley offered some advice to anyone thinking about breaking the law.
“America, let me just tell you something: Do not commit crimes with checks,” Barkley said through hearty laughter. “C’mon, man. If you’re going to break the law, do not write a check.”
“Cause you’re writing a check that your behind can’t cash?” Smith interjected, eventually smiling.
Barkley then pleaded his case directly into the camera.
“Get cash, man!” Barkley exclaimed. “America, do not write checks when you’re committing illegal activities.”
When they returned from commercial break, Johnson, the captain of the award-winning studio show, tried to steer clear of further Smollett discussion. But when the production team showed a tweet referencing Barkley’s jokes about the case, the crew returned to the topic. The former NBA players alluded to the claims that Smollett gave the two men he’s accused of hiring to execute the hoax an additional $100 to buy the items used in the attack.
“Chuck, I got one more question to ask you,” Smith said, looking more comfortable than he was earlier in the show. “Do you buy the face mask, the rope and the thing in the same store?”
That question elicited more laughs from O’Neal and even Johnson leaned back and cracked a smile. Johnson then buried his face in his right hand as Barkley proceeded to ask just one more Smollett-related question heading into the commercial break.
“Hey, Kenny, you think they put that on the receipt – face mask, rope, bleach – at the same store?” Barkley said.