Though all sports are distinctly unique in their own rights, if there is one trait that athletes across the board are measured by it is their toughness. Even with the strides made with advanced statistics, the most informed minds still try to rationalize the most subjective qualities. Defining a player's toughness is a very broad task and isn’t something you can easily identify through an athlete's in-game performance.
Being tough in sports often has multiple meanings and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Allen Iverson was applauded for playing through injuries on a nightly basis due to his small stature. He also came from a background that shaped his demeanor on and off court. That was considered an aspect of his toughness. Stephen Jackson was considered an enforcer on the court and earned the tough guy label through his no-nonsense demeanor. Like Iverson, he was raised under less than ideal conditions and had to overcome personal and professional odds to make it in the NBA.
On the other side of things you have a player like Blake Griffin. Griffin is one of the best all-around athletes in the NBA, who has played through injuries and routinely takes hard contact (exaggerated or not) in every game. Despite this he has seen his fair share of criticism as being soft. He's essentially the poster boy for non-tough guys. Griffin is 6’10" and about 250 lbs., and yet people are so used to him not sticking up for himself in games that it’s laughable when he does.
While there isn’t any one completely factual reason for this, there have been several guesses over the years. He didn’t have a particularly hard upbringing like an Iverson or Jackson. His demeanor is more passive than many prefer. None of that warrants a soft label, yet it is still there. Reasons have ranged from everything to jealousy at the national spotlight he received so quickly to hints that his biracial identity also plays a part in his perception. The latter is interesting, though no one will outright say it's possible that Blake’s toughness is questioned because he isn’t seen as “black enough.” Without knowing the things that have been said to Griffin behind closed doors whether as a player for the Los Angeles Clippers or the Oklahoma Sooners, it does spark intrigue when one of his teammates speaks on his own experiences and sheds light on that specific issue for himself. Though they may seem like polar opposites, Matt Barnes is quite similar to Griffin.
Often seen as a wildcard in games, Barnes has garnered a reputation as either an enforcer or a fake tough guy depending on whom you’re asking. The California native is most known as a career journeyman in the NBA, although he has found a home with the Los Angeles Clippers for the past couple of seasons. While he isn’t quite the superstar that his teammate is, the good folks at Vice Sports understood that his story was one worth sharing.
Like Griffin, Barnes was born as a child of an interracial couple. That distinction has shaped his experiences and perceptions on life, especially as they relate to having to prove his worth constantly whether in grade school or the court. Barnes has lived a life in which he was harassed with racial slurs and still told that he wasn’t “black enough” by other standards. Having been exposed to hardships and street life that few in his position can truly relate to, Barnes reveals a side of himself that extends beyond the aggression he displays on the court. His toughness comes from having the mental fortitude to not be hindered by his environment or the naysayers.
One of the most intriguing parts of this profile is at the 5:35 mark, where he touches on his time as a Philadelphia 76er, and his tensions with former head coach Maurice Cheeks. That insight provided is very intriguing considering the sad state the Sixers were in at the time.
If you have 12 minutes to spare, I strongly suggest you check out VICE Sports' profile on Barnes. It will certainly help in realizing that there is no single trait to measure toughness, not even for professional athletes. One's experiences shape his identity, and for Barnes his has little to do with what he has achieved on the court.