This week, a contentious back-and-forth between Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant and Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum on the latter's podcast spilled onto Twitter. During their conversation, and later on the social media outlet, McCollum called Durant's much-maligned decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join the dominant Warriors "soft."
Durant clapped back, calling McCollum a "snake" for questioning his integrity after having him as a guest on his podcast (warning: tweet contains NSFW language):
Durant knows the word all too well, of course. The insult was hurled at him from all corners in summer 2016, when he made that league-changing choice to join the Warriors.
During one game of the 2017-18 season, Durant wore a pair of his signature Nike sneakers in a green colorway with a snake image on the tongue—seemingly a nod to his detractors:
Plenty of players have taken issue with that term's use in reaction to their free-agency moves, especially when the notion of loyalty in sports is such a double standard. LeBron James, who received no shortage of vicious criticism when he bolted from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat in summer 2010, spoke out on behalf of his fellow players in light of the Los Angeles Clippers' late-January trade of Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons.
The previous summer, Griffin had reupped with L.A. on a five-year, $173 million contract, after the organization put together an elaborate presentation that pitched him on being a Clipper for life. Six months later, L.A. shipped Griffin and his hefty contract out of town in a move widely heralded as a smart long-term play for the team.
"When a player gets traded, [the front office] was doing what was best for the franchise," James told reporters following the Griffin trade. "But when a player decides to leave, he's not loyal, he's a snake, he's not committed. That's the narrative of how it goes. I know that firsthand."
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been burned three times in this way in recent years. Most famously, DeAndre Jordan reneged on a commitment to join the Mavs in summer 2015 after the Clippers' drawn-out effort convinced him to stay in Los Angeles. That day famously included all manner of emojis being tossed about by the parties involved, from JJ Redick to Paul Pierce to Blake Griffin. Somehow, the snake emoji was not one of them. (This summer, Jordan signed a one-year deal with the Mavericks, an indication that he and Cuban made up after this episode.)
As upset as the Mavs owner was about Jordan's spurning, however, it was nothing compared to his reaction when Jason Kidd had a similar change of heart in 2012. One year removed from helping to win the franchise's first NBA championship in 2011, Kidd appeared poised to return to Dallas before he changed his mind and signed with the New York Knicks instead.
Cuban ripped Kidd in a radio interview later that season, even going as far as to say, despite Kidd's importance to the 2011 title team, he would not have his jersey retired in Dallas.
"J. Kidd is a big boy; he can do whatever he wants," Cuban told ESPN Dallas Radio. "But you don't change your mind like that. That was … yeah. I'm sure I'll get over it at some point, but as of now, I wouldn't put J. Kidd's number in the rafters."
Months earlier, another veteran point guard left the Mavericks in a Cuban-irking manner. Derek Fisher signed a one-year minimum contract with Dallas at the start of the 2012-13 season then asked for his release after playing just nine games for a Mavs team that appeared lottery-bound. At the time, Fisher told Cuban he was having trouble being away from his L.A.-based family.
However, in February, he signed a deal with the Thunder in an about-face that led Cuban to publicly question whether Fisher was simply trying to maneuver his way to a better team.
"Look, my personality is to try to help somebody," Cuban said at the time. "Particularly somebody I thought one way about, even though it didn't turn out to be that way. I was just trying to be nice and help. Usually when you help somebody, you expect some semblance of loyalty back. So when you don't get it, it's more disappointing."
Kidd retired following the 2012-13 season and was almost immediately named head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, the organization with which he had played his best seasons when it was in New Jersey and with which he made Finals in 2002 and 2003. Kidd had his jersey retired at the Barclays Center before a preseason game (he had been suspended for the first two games of the regular season following a DUI arrest), and coached the Nets to a 44-38 record in his first year on the sidelines.
That summer, in a stunning turn of events, Kidd attempted to wrest player-personnel control from general manager Billy King and, when that effort failed, engineered his way out of Brooklyn to become the new head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks, it should be noted, had not previously fired head coach Larry Drew, who had participated in an introductory press conference with No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker just days before Kidd's takeover.
In the aftermath, a league executive told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt that Kidd's pursuance of a job that wasn't open while still under contract with another team violated widely accepted league etiquette.
That same summer, shortly after finishing his final season with the Thunder, Fisher took over as the Knicks head coach, working under team president Phil Jackson, his longtime coach with the Lakers
Fisher's season-and-a-half tenure as the Knicks head coach was fraught with controversy, as well as an appearance of the word "snake"—this time in a non-basketball setting. Just before the start of Fisher's second season at the helm of the Knicks, former Lakers teammate Matt Barnes had reportedly driven to Fisher's home in Los Angeles to confront him over a relationship Fisher was in with Barnes' ex-wife, Gloria Govan.
"Being stuck in the 'triangle offense' w my ex & snitch, I mean former teammate & friend.. Who went behind my back, messed w my ex, got caught, got dealt w for being a snake, then ran & told the Police & NBA.. Instead of taken that [expletive] whoopin like a man & kept it moving….!," Barnes wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post months after the incident:
Fisher was far from the first coach to be tagged with the "snake" label, and no one has seen it used more frequently in the recent past than George Karl.
Five of Karl's players have taken to Twitter with the insult over the years, when he coached both the Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings. In the lead-up to Carmelo Anthony's trade from the Nuggets to the Knicks during the 2010-11 season, Karl repeatedly questioned Anthony's defensive effort in front of reporters, leading this subtweet from Anthony:
JR Smith, who had a contentious relationship with Karl during their years together in Denver and later reunited with Anthony in New York, also made the allusion:
So did then-Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson in 2012:
Andre Iguodala, in May 2014—almost a year after leaving the Nuggets to sign with the Warriors—tweeted nearly the same quote as Anthony's after Karl accused him of being a mole for Golden State during the teams' first-round playoff series in 2013:
More recently, during Karl's short-lived stint with the Kings, DeMarcus Cousins responded to reports that Karl had lobbied for the All-Star center to be traded with a simple three-emoji tweet:
One of the NBA's longest-running beefs around the concept of loyalty involved Ray Allen and other former members of the 2008 Boston Celtics title team. In summer 2012, Allen left the Celtics in free agency to sign a less lucrative deal with the Heat, who had just beaten Boston in a down-to-the-wire Eastern Conference Finals. His decision didn't sit well with several of his former teammates.
Pierce told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears years later:
"That was a tough situation because we thought it was betrayal. I tried to call him, and I didn't get any return calls before he signed with Miami. That was our rival. We were brothers. We came in together. We just wanted a heads-up or a 'what's on your mind?' or something like. Then, all of a sudden, he left. That was the biggest disappointment on my end. Not even getting a callback at that moment."
As recently as 2017, well after Allen's 2014 retirement, he was still defending himself against "snake" comments from aggrieved Celtics fans on his Instagram account.
Now, in the offseason doldrums, Durant has brought a term back that had been used frequently against him. This time, it was over something much more trivial than a power-shifting free-agency move, personal upheaval or player-coach power dynamics. It was over a podcast appearance—a cause as emblematic of 2018 as could be.