- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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If Kevin Garnett called Charlie Villanueva a "cancer patient" during a game, that wouldn't even rank in the top 30 of the worst things I've overheard on a professional basketball court while covering the NBA the past 13 years.
I've heard players talk about opponents' girlfriends, wives and mothers. I've heard men call other men the b-word (rhymes with snitch), using it as a noun, verb and adjective. I've heard players' sexuality questioned. And if I had a dollar for every time I heard a player call another one the n-word, I'd be in Bill Gates' tax bracket.
True story: I know a NBA player who, while his opponent was at the free-throw line, asked him if his wife still had the same birthmark. You don't have to be Albert Einstein to know what he was trying to insinuate.
Of course, this doesn't excuse Garnett, who has issued a statement denying Villanueva's accusations. But let's not pretend there isn't politically incorrect gamesmanship in sports, especially in the NBA.
I don't want to sound insensitive because I fully understand why the Detroit Pistons forward reacted the way he did. Villanueva has a condition called alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder that results in hair loss. In fact, Villanueva is a spokesman for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation and one of his focal points is eliminating the bullying he often experienced growing up.
It's admirable that Villanueva has taken up such an important fight, especially when you consider the recent tragedies that have occurred because of bullying. Kids can be cruel, even to a talented basketball player. And if you believe Villanueva's version of the events, adults can obviously be even crueler.
But as much as I applaud Villanueva for his activism, he broke an important code in sports the moment he made his spat with Garnett public.
Instead of confronting Garnett man-to-man, Villanueva aired his grievances via Twitter and by doing so, I'm sure he lost a lot of his peers' respect.
After Detroit's loss to the Celtics on Tuesday, Villanueva tweeted: "KG called me a cancer patient, I'm pissed because, u know how many people died from cancer, and he's tossing it like it's a joke."
Villanueva is right. Cancer is a foul disease that has robbed millions of lives. All of us have been touched by the ugliness of cancer and if Garnett used such a serious topic as a casual insult, it reflects poorly on him as a person.
But how Villanueva responded is indicative of how much things have changed in professional sports. I can only imagine how legendary enforcer Charles Oakley might have handled Garnett (since he's the same guy who slapped Tyrone Hill in a preseason game because Hill reportedly owed Oakley money from a card game).
I'm fairly sure this fight isn't going to end in violence, despite Villanueva saying he "would love to get in a ring with [KG]" and "expose him." But issuing Twitter threats isn't going to have KG shaking in his warm-ups.
But this is what athletes do now. Disputes are settled electronically, not directly. LeBron James tweeted in the summer that he was keeping a list of all those who criticized him for turning his free agency into an obnoxious spectacle(oops, guess I just made the list). Then, earlier this week, James took to Twitter again to blast a foe. This time, it was the gossip site, Media Take Out, which published rumors that linked James to Kim Kardashian and other women, none of which were James' longtime girlfriend, Savannah Brinson.
"Misery loves company and that's exactly what MTO and all them other gossip blogs are "MISERABLE," James tweeted. "We don't believe u, u need more people."
After LeBron's tweet, you can bet Media Take Out indeed got some more people. But if James were so appalled by the rumors, it seems LeBron should have run to a lawyer first, not Twitter.
This is such a strange age in sports. Athletes have more exposure now than at any point in history. The exposure has certainly expanded their wealth potential and on some level, it's given them their own voice in a widening and changing media landscape.
But the increased exposure has come with a price. It seems the concept of sacred ground, the spaces inside the lines where players like Garnett and Villanueva once settled feuds privately, no longer exists.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2hMichael C. Wright