Sacramento native Matt Barnes’ personality shines on TV
Matt Barnes isn’t for everyone, as a player of his day or one breaking down players now as an NBA analyst.
He either has an acquired taste or none at all, and he’s okay with that. Barnes reveled in his role as an antagonist during his 14-year NBA career, the banger you might boo vigorously if he played against your team, but you’d defend him with all sorts of pride when he played for your club. He was like Dennis Rodman, but not as crazy.
A product of Sacramento through Del Campo High School, Barnes was not forgotten when he retired from professional ball in 2017. He is more visible than ever, neck-deep in the drafts. He is an ESPN radio analyst for the Warriors-Nuggets playoff; he makes ESPN “SportsCenter” appearances. ESPN is giving him a try as a radio analyst. Barnes is a natural, informative, hard-hitting, opinionated without dragging a show.
Barnes has also done the Kings’ pre-game, half-time and post-game work on television this season. He is the co-host of the wildly unpredictable and entertaining, raw and unfiltered “All the Smoke” podcast. He owns a cannabis brand called Swish—yes, he smokes green and he’s not going to apologize for it—and he’s the founder of Athletes vs. Cancer, something dear to him since he lost his mother to the disease during his NBA career.
The more Barnes, the better. Give Barnes a look or a listen. He could win you over, or you could curse him all the more. He’s OK with either result. He might even curse right away. Either you like the guy or you don’t, with no real common ground. It takes equal parts adoration and warmth on social media — and sometimes even in person.
“Some people still hold grudges for the way I played, hard, and I don’t mind that,” Barnes said in a phone interview this week as he scrambled from point A to point B “The fans will say anything. They are fans. Either they say things because they like us as players or ex-players, or they don’t like me, and they want a reaction. It comes with the territory with what I do and who I am.
Barnes on Kings
Barnes was solid with his Kings work, but one thing bothered me. I told him. He offered a hearty laugh and reasoning.
If you are not an employee of a sports team, this team is “they” or “them” and not “us” or “we”. Barnes has regularly said during his Kings breakdowns that “we have to bounce back better” or “we can’t expect to make that many mistakes and win.”
We? Yes, Barnes had two stints with the Kings, but is that enough to justify overuse of ‘we’?
With ESPN, Barnes is not playing favorites. He is firm and fair. Although he won an NBA championship as a reserve with the 2017 Warriors, Barnes doesn’t refer to Golden State as “us” or “us” on the airwaves. Before Game 1 of this Warriors-Nuggets series, Barnes was greeted on the floor of Chase Center by Warriors forward Draymond Green, who hugged him like a long-lost friend. They were teammates. On the ESPN radio show, Barnes said Green acted like he had never fould in his life, adding that he played the same way: relentless, but flabbergasted by the calls.
“When I talk about the Kings on air,” Barnes explained, “I say ‘we’ because I’m from here and I work for this team as an employee. So I can say ‘we.’ When I’m on ESPN, no. I don’t do that. I agree that some people don’t like it when I say ‘we’, but I think it’s okay. I’m one of the most outstanding players in get out of Sacramento, and Sacramento will always be a part of me, which is why I say “we”.
Barnes added: “I will always love Sacramento, although I know it’s 50-50 – half love me, half hate me. Most hate me because I did something wrong to them, even as a that player, or I’m fine.
Barnes at Del Campo
I first met Barnes when he was 14. It was 1995. He was a long-limbed freshman on Del Campo’s varsity team, each piece 6-foot-5, with arms up to the rafters. Freshmen just weren’t playing in college back then, or you had to be exceptional.
Barnes was outstanding. He had skills. He was tenacious. He told me then that he would land in the NBA. Lots of kids say that. I didn’t laugh, I patted his head and said, “Sure, kid.” Barnes was already speaking with conviction. Barnes was also introduced to football at Del Campo, where weight training sessions under the watchful eye of football coach Steve Kenyon helped toughen him up. Before Barnes did all the shoving in competition, he was the recipient of such tactics.
Barnes became a receiver to see when he wasn’t flattening linebackers down the middle with pancake blocks. He caught a regional record 28 touchdown passes in 1997, stretching his 6-7 frame into the end zone corner. Not bad for a national basketball rookie who was named our Bee Player of the Year during his junior season.
He did not earn this honor after his senior year. Typical Barnes, even then. He questioned my logic. My response was that he missed too many games as a senior due to injury, and he and his team weren’t as good in the playoffs as they were the season before. He accepted it. He always returns my calls.
Barnes made sports easy in high school, but life wasn’t always easy outside of competition. Here is a child from an interracial marriage, the son of a black father, Henry, a former NFL player, and a white mother, Ann, a beloved teacher. Barnes had a lot of heartbreak on a Fair Oaks campus lean on minorities. Losers once spray-painted messages on campus that read, “Matt Barnes must die!”
Barnes’ mother begged him not to go to school until things calmed down. Barnes has never been one to sit idle. He went back to school. He later stood up for his sister Danielle when she was bullied on campus, either offering to stuff some sort of mouth into a trash can or doing it. Barnes was called into the principal’s office for being a bully himself. Some think he was a bully and still is. For years, Barnes wanted nothing to do with his alma mater, but time has assuaged any ill will.
One of the most disturbing stories came when Barnes was a Del Campo senior. Playing at a rival school in the San Juan Unified School District, rival students waved bananas at him as he attempted free throws. It took restraint not to rush into the bleachers to see if they would do this to his face.
“Some things you never forget and never forgive,” Barnes told me years later.
“I’m just me on the air”
After his career at UCLA, Barnes decided to make his mark in professional basketball. He played inspired. He played angry. He was a scorer in high school, a scorer in college, a hustler in the NBA.
He went from being a second-round pick in 2002 to the Memphis Grizzlies to playing minor league ball for obscure teams such as the Fayetteville Patriots and the Long Beach Jam. There have been stops with nine NBA teams, including two stints with the Kings. Barnes has averaged double digits in four NBA seasons, with 9.8 and 9.9 seasons sprinkled. He played in 929 NBA games, starting 359, including 95 playoff games, with 48 starts.
Barnes is at peace with who he was as a player and who he is now. He is the father of three children and has to check his calendar to put everything away. He hasn’t changed much.
“I’m just me on air,” Barnes said. “Now that I’ve moved into the media space, I can relate to the players. I’ve been in those locker rooms. I now have an obligation to let (viewers and listeners) know what the players think. and cross. There are times when I have to criticize the athletes, but I can do it without being disrespectful. Sometimes I am out of breath. I always have to be me and never someone else.
Barnes is too committed to his new life to miss his playing days. But he misses his mother, always a calming influence. Ann Barnes died of lung cancer in 2007, weeks after her diagnosis. It was at the start of his first stint with the Warriors. Barnes’ twin sons – Carter and Isaiah – were born a year later. Her biggest regret is that her mother never got to meet them. And yeah, tough guys cry.
“It will be 15 years in November since mom passed away,” Barnes said. “I think about her all the time. I try to make her proud.