The suspension of the NBA season for at least a month promises to darken a number of pieces of my day-to-day routine, but one of the most immediate will be my podcast consumption. I listen to a lot of basketball-related podcasts. I listen to analysis podcasts (Greatest of All Talk, Brian Windhorst & the Hoop Collective), interview podcasts (The Lowe Post, The Woj Pod), Boston Celtics–specific podcasts (Anything Is Poddable, Celtics Talk). And these are merely a tiny sample. The problem is that all of these rely on the NBA actually happening in some capacity. In this unprecedented moment of stasis, I am unsure what the future holds for my dearest podcast friends.
Luckily this is not the case for a basketball-related pod that I’ve grown increasingly obsessed with recently, as my social life has steadily dwindled. Indeed, the show often has little to do with recent NBA games—or basketball at all. All the Smoke is a “video podcast” produced by Showtime (also available in more convenient, audio form) and hosted by retired NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, the latter of whom is exclusively referred to as Stack, Jack, or StackJack (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing). The show’s title is multivalent. Smoke is slang for confrontation, beef, shit-talking, a concept that perfectly encapsulates the amiably ornery dynamic between Barnes, Stack, and their guests, while also gesturing toward both hosts’ storied penchant for on- and off-court pugnacity. A few greatest hits: Barnes was once involved in an altercation with then–New York Knicks coach Derek Fisher, who at the time was dating Barnes’ estranged wife, an incident immortalized in Kanye West’s 2016 track “30 Hours,” and then–Indiana Pacer Jackson was suspended 30 games for going into the stands during the infamous “Malice at the Palace” brawl in Auburn Hills, Michigan, an incident that’s the subject of an entire mini-episode of the podcast.
But “smoke” also refers to more literal smoke. Both ex-players are outspoken advocates for both recreational and therapeutic uses of cannabis, and conversations frequently come around to the NBA’s slowly evolving stance on the substance. (Prior to his sudden passing back in January, former commissioner David Stern had become increasingly outspoken in his belief that the league should remove cannabis products from its list of banned substances.) The openness with which Barnes and Stack discuss their relationship to marijuana is remarkable, and it offers a unique window into the medicinal and therapeutic uses of the drug as it pertains to pro athletes.
Taken as a whole, All the Smoke is a riveting, absurdly profane, and often unexpectedly poignant show about basketball, weed, culture, and seemingly everything in between. As co-hosts, Barnes and Jackson are a killer combination. Barnes is piercing and acerbically funny, and a surprisingly great interviewer (albeit one who’s picked up the beat writer tic of opening would-be questions with the directive “talk about …”), while Stack freewheels between spacey and fiercely opinionated, the comic stoner to Barnes’ straight man. Both were members of the beloved 2006–07 “We Believe” Golden State Warriors team, a squad that won 16 of its last 21 regular-season games to sneak into the playoffs, then knocked out the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks to become the first 8-seed to win a best-of-seven series in NBA history. The two men’s friendship was forged in that magical run, and stories of the on- and off-court adventures of that crew pop up in almost every episode.
But aside from that stint in the same locker room, Barnes and Jackson were quintessential NBA journeymen. Between the two of them, they played for 15 different teams over the course of their careers. (Each played 14 seasons.) This means they have an unusual amount of insight into how the league works in various geographical and cultural contexts; it also means that they know just about everyone. The guest list of All the Smoke thus far (the show has 19 official episodes, plus a handful of mini-pods and bonus eps) includes an incredible mix of current NBA stars (Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMarcus Cousins), recently retired legends (Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, the late Kobe Bryant in one of his last extended interviews), and an assortment of memorable role players, past and present.
All the Smoke has fascinating things to say about sports, drugs, creativity, and the afterlives of professional athletes, among many other things. But what I personally find most valuable is its role as a sort of ongoing repository of oral history for an immensely significant generation of NBA players. Both Barnes and Jackson entered the league in the heat of the “prep-to-pro” era, a period from 1995–2005 when many of the best young basketball players in the country opted to forgo college in order to enter the NBA straight out of high school. Jackson himself is, indirectly, part of this cohort: One of the top players in his high school class of 1996, he was deemed academically ineligible to play at the University of Arizona and was drafted in the second round the following year, without playing a minute of college ball.
This generation of players—chronicled in Jonathan Abrams’ excellent 2016 book Boys Among Men, which I reviewed for Slate—was loudly and consistently maligned in certain quarters, despite producing a handful of the greatest players in NBA history, including Garnett, Bryant, and LeBron James. They were characterized as entitled, greedy, immature—it’s easy to forget, but as a high school senior James himself was the subject of a minor moral panic for the sin of accepting a couple of overpriced throwback jerseys. Not incidentally, this generation’s rise also coincided with growing fears that the NBA’s image was becoming too “hip-hop” and alienating its (presumably white) consumer base, leading to the implementation of the league’s notorious “dress code” in 2005. It was a generation that produced some of the league’s most memorable and remarkable stars, even as the hoops “establishment” often seemed to disdain the very idea of them.
Many of the best episodes of All the Smoke feature players of this generation, and two in particular stand out. The first is with Garnett, which comes as little surprise since he is one of the most magnetic and charismatic human beings on earth. But the degree to which he opens up in conversation with Barnes and Stack is jaw-dropping. He tells stories about playing in high school with future Hall of Famers like Paul Pierce and should-have-beens like the legendary Schea Cotton. He tells an incredible Michael Jordan story that also features the memorably mercurial J.R. Rider. He does spot-on, hilarious impersonations of Shaquille O’Neal, Kendrick Perkins, and Gary Payton, and dishes on Tim Duncan’s trash-talking abilities. It’s an incredible interview: raw, open, completely comfortable, and totally honest. (I’ve already listened to it three times.)
The other, somewhat unexpectedly, is with Al Harrington. Harrington was a solid if mostly unspectacular NBA player who entered the league out of high school in 1998, was drafted late in the first round by the Indiana Pacers, and played for seven teams over the course of a 16-year career. Like J.R. Smith, Lou Williams (both of whom have also appeared on All the Smoke), and others, Harrington represents the vast, unsung middle of the prep-to-pro generation, a kid who was remarkably skilled at basketball, decided to get paid for his gifts sooner rather than later, and cobbled together a respectably productive and undeniably lucrative NBA career. He is neither an all-time great like James or Bryant nor a cautionary tale like Leon Smith or Lenny Cooke. He is the sort of player who, after making the vaguely scandalous choice to skip college, was largely overlooked and underappreciated by anyone outside his own team’s geographical region.
It turns out Al Harrington is an absolutely fascinating guy: funny, charming, and remarkably well-rounded. He’s a history buff who espouses an explicitly Garveyist vision of black capitalism in his chosen post-basketball line of work, the medicinal cannabis industry. On All the Smoke, he speaks passionately about introducing his grandmother to cannabis to help with her glaucoma, allowing her to read her Bible for the first time in years. (His first company, Viola Extracts, is named after her.) It’s an unbelievably moving story. The episode is almost 90 minutes long, much of which is only tangentially related to basketball.
I miss the NBA, but until it comes back, All the Smoke stands as testament that the players who’ve made me love it for almost long as I can remember are awfully interesting people, too. If you, like me, love basketball for what happens on the court, the show is a welcome reminder not to take for granted everything that happens off it.