For the third and final installment of ‘The Marathon Continues’ speaker series, hosted by real estate development mogul David Gross and LMU MBA faculty Dr. Mitchell Hamilton, the Hilton School of Business welcomed NBA champions Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson. The founders of the All the Smoke podcast discussed their experiences building the brand that won iHeart Radio’s Best Sports Podcast in 2021 in its first year in production and went on to be nominated every year since.
According to Jackson, their pattern of success in not only their first highly competitive career, but their second and third as well, is an indication of foundational qualities.
“Every successful person has failed,” said Jackson. “It’s not about falling. What you do when you get up is what you need to be worried about. Are you going to make love through the ups and downs? Are you going to enjoy the bad times like the good times? That shows the real character of a person.”
Jackson shared the multiple lows he experienced during his career and life, including the disciplinary violations during his time in the league, most notably a $3 million fine for his involvement in the infamous 2004 “Malice in the Palace.” His involvement in a brawl with Ron Artest and Ben Wallace, widely regarded as the worst conflict in sports because of its inclusion of the audience in the violence, cost him brand partnerships and a number of other professional opportunities.
Barnes has an extensive record as well, including a long list of emotional ejections paired with fines, a well-remembered tense moment with Kobe, a feud with Derek Fisher, etc.
But being labeled as anti-heroes by people who don’t know them isn’t their concern. The problem, according to Barnes, is that narratives stemming from sensationalist media habits painted him and Jackson in a light that they feel is completely contrary to who they are as men.
“I was labeled a bad guy…there was a stigma on both of us,” said Barnes. “But it wasn’t who we were, it was the way we played. So we’ve been able to really shine who we are with social media to dispel the misconceptions of who people think we are.”
Barnes noted that for years, he along with other athletes weren’t given the opportunity to defend themselves publicly for drama involving their name, and that building a brand allowed him and Jackson to not only share their perspective, but create a discourse around what were previously one-sided streams of information in sports media.
“If you follow me you know how important my kids are to me. If you follow Jack you know how important social justice issues are to him. But you might not have caught that 10 years ago because we didn’t have a way to show that,” said Barnes.
For the two competitors, building a brand has been more than an exercise in redeeming their public image, as that had been accomplished in their time as sports analysts at ESPN and Fox 40. To them, it’s been about finding a way to remain authentic in the process of pivoting their careers.
“Every time we walk in a room we know who we are, we’re not trying to be anybody else,” said Barnes. “That’s what gained us respect in the league but it’s also what gained us this post-career success…building a brand with longevity is hard, and that’s why we have such a strong core audience.”
Gross and Hamilton, who have moderated each panel of the series, reiterated not only their intentions for the experimental course, which was to create a dialogue with moguls who are “building brands through culture,” but also its inspiration, late rapper Nipsey Hussle, who Barnes knew personally.
“What I loved about Nip is that he continued to evolve,” said Barnes. “When he started to grow as a man and a businessman and a father, you could hear that in his music.”
Jackson and Barnes stayed for an hour after the event ended to take pictures with attendees and answer any personal questions. Matt Morris, graduate film production student and co-president of The Black Filmmaker Rebellion, had only good things to say after speaking with the two.
“There’s a lot of famous people in LA, but very few who represent what you’re trying to go for in life; which is essentially getting to see someone at the pinnacle of their field, coming from the community I come from, in a place where they can be themselves,” said Morris.
He noted that the pair’s idealism is both the reason they’ve been misunderstood and what makes them rare.
“Their saying that they ‘treat the janitor the same way they treat the CEO’, that ethical code is something I don’t see celebrated like it should be, and it’s a way I think everyone should carry themselves, myself included,” Morris said.
When asked about Gross and Hamilton’s future plans for the course, Dr. Hamilton said, “We’ve got something in the works, no doubt.”