Two weeks before Christmas, on a December morning, Matt Barnes retired from his professional basketball life. It happens to everyone in the sport, a mortality you cannot escape, and yet it wasn’t a footnote, this particular end. The Matt Barnes career had always been part rage, part competitiveness, part mythology. The fake throw in Kobe’s face and Kobe didn’t blink. The trash talking and flagrant fouls, like when he threw James Harden to the floor like he was a rag doll just because Harden was dribbling in the lane. Glance around. There is a lot of fake toughness in the NBA today but Barnes was Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer old school real even if he often didn’t flick the on button to his brain. He was entertaining because he was so Matt Barnes, which he justified as “doing things my way.” My way lacked logic sometimes but even when he was short on impulse control, there was something human about Matt Barnes atonal NBA career path. He just reminded you of people you knew.
There were too many Matt Barnes dramatics that overshadowed his skill on the court. Cursing out James Harden’s momma, punching Derek Fisher in the face and then that whole season taunting Fisher about being a snitch, acting as if Rhianna had a thing for him. Matt Barnes once told Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated “There’s no bullshit to me”. He was 100% right. There was crazy to him but no bullshit.
For most players- well for most people- there is the perception and then there is the reality. The optics of Matt Barnes with all the ink and all the wildness on the court, the f-bombs and techs and ready to fight every single play, not to mention his clutch three point shots, all of it created the perception of needs Prozac half the time. But every team he has ever been on, and he played with great players, Chris Webber, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Dwight Howard, Boogie Cousins, Chris Paul, Steph Curry, loved his intensity, his faith, his unselfishness. He was a man you could trust despite being erratic in key moments when the pressure was thick. He was a ferocious competitor that at times was a spectacle.
But think about this for a minute. He was a second round draft pick who had a 14 year career. He wasn’t a great scorer. He was a better than average defender. He wasn’t a great rebounder. He wasn’t explosive. He didn’t block shots. He shot under 40% from midrange for his career. 52% of his shots were threes. He played 95 playoff games and only three years did he score in double figures. He personified journeyman and role player. Except most role players only have a 5 year career.
Barnes played basketball with heart and energy and toughness. He refused to yield. And the most important thing. He competed. He played every play with tenacity. He played every play like he was going to get cut the next day. Every city he played in- 9 if you’re counting- loved him. War meatphors in sports are redundant and vapid but Barnes played like a soldier. He lasted so long (despite his inability to just shut up and walk away from confrontation) because he was a great locker room guy and he was coachable, until he went full throttle brain freeze moment.
UCLA has produced a lot of pros. Kareem Abdul Jabaar. Bill Walton. Baron Davis. Reggie Miller. Kevin Love. Russell Westbrook. Trevor Ariza. Henry Bibby. Gail Goodrich. Lonzo Ball. The list is endless. UCLA produced Matt Barnes.
Barnes was drafted in 2002. As a draft, it didn’t change the league with exceptionalism. Only one Hall of Famer, Yao Ming. A lot of injured stars were in that draft who may have had better careers like Jay Williams and Amare Stouamire, if they hadn’t been unlucky. Solid careers for Mike Dunleavy Jr., Drew Gooden, Nene, Caron Butler, Tayshaun Prince, Carlos Boozer, Rasual Butler and Luis Scola. But Barnes has played more games than all of them. He played the most games out of the 60 drafted 2002 players except for Tayshaun Prince and Mike Dunleavy Jr, who played 57 and 88 more games than Barnes. If you measure longevity, Barnes did everything he was supposed to do. If you measure toughness, team chemistry and having a marketable skill, check those boxes too.
The Northern California football player brought the wide receiver mentality to the NBA. He played for every single team in California. He was drafted by the Grizzlies in the second round and then was traded to the Cavs who dumped him in the D-League. He nixed the NBA the following year, joined the ABA and the Long Beach Jam, balled out with 18 points and 6 rebounds and the Clippers were interested for the second half of the season. And that was it. First California team in the books.
That fall he signed with Sacramento, his second California team. He followed up his ABA glory with 17 points in his debut. But he was Matt Barnes so he was traded with Chris Webber to the Sixers.
The third California team, the Warriors, changed Matt Barnes career. He signed with them in 2006. Don Nelson loved Barnes aggression. He believed Barnes had a NBA role to play. The Warriors taught Barnes a lesson about expectations and NBA longevity. Develop the three ball and your career will last a long time. He was a team co-captain of the Warriors in 2007-08. They also gave him insight. A great coach can change your career trajectory.
After the Lakers won their second title in a row in 2010, Barnes joined the Kobe show when Kobe called him and asked him to come on board. Kobe rationalized it in simple terms. If Barnes was stone cold crazy enough to chuck a ball in his face and take the consequences, he was hard enough to play with Kobe. Barnes was a perfect fit, despite the paycut. He was Kobe without the talent, psycotic preparation and impulse control. He was sheer energy and ruthlessness and edge. He loved Phil Jax and vice-versa. Too many NBA coaches like to sequester players, put them in a box and make them stay there. Phil gave his players freedom.
Barnes returned to the Clippers in 2012. He got a lot of techs playing with the other L.A. team. There was something about Lob City that made Barnes release his inner Rage Against the Machine. There was the James Harden momma tech and the kicking the water bottle tech and cursing out a fan tech when he was actually trying to curse out Robert Sarver, owner of the Suns.
He returned to Sacramento and then was waived when Boogie Cousins was traded to New Orleans. He didn’t worry. He signed with the Warriors, played valuable minutes in Kevin Durant’s absence and ended his career with a ring.
The Warriors being the end of the Matt Barnes career just fits the circumstances, as far as stories go. The Warriors were the beginning, the team that clued him in on how to stay in the league. Play with passion. Play hard. Drain some threes. They were the finale. Northern California for Northern Californian. Full Matt Barnes circle.
Matt Barnes isn’t ashamed that he fights. It is a childhood carryover. His persona was shaped by a tough father who he had a conflicted relationship with. Barnes was charged with having to look out for his younger siblings and if he didn’t take up for them when things went sideways, there would be violence from his father. His father often modeled violence for Barnes as a way of negotiating conflict. As a psychology, it stuck and would, years later, create the foundation for his basketball identity. It wasn’t about scoring but taking care of your teammates by any means necessary. Competing as a family. And in conflict, be a hell raiser, the one who wins the fight and says the truth.
In childhood, Barnes had to deal with the kind of racial isolaton light skinned kids are used to. Not brown skinned enough for the black kids; many thought he was Latino. Not white enough for the white kids to embrace as one of their own. Racial consequences can be perilous and often they create decades of latent rage. One time, Barnes was suspended for beating up a fellow student who spit on his sister. He was suspended, of course. His welcome back was gaffitti. “Matt Barnes Die”.
In Sports Illustrated a while back, he recounted a Chris Paul story that revealed everything you think you know about the Chris Paul and Matt Barnes partnership. Barnes reputation was tough, Paul’s reputation was tougher. Both, though, were impressive competitors desperate to win games.
The way Barnes tells the story, after one game Chris Paul was limping. The next game was OKC. Barnes who had been ingrained to look after your brother or else went to Doc Rivers with a plan. He would guard Westbrook to save Chris. Once he told Chris Paul the strategy, it was instantly dismissed without details being delved into. Paul said something to the effect of “What did you say? F**k no.” That plan was never going to happen. Chris guarded Westbrook; Westbrook was awful and the Clippers won by 12 just like Paul knew they would. Matt Barnes wasn’t redeemed, he didn’t play with that kind of moral relativism. He didn’t make Chris Paul a better player that night either. He only reinforced Chris was family.
You think the NBA is like that across the board. Brother for brother and mercy. But it is far more selfish. Barnes counts just a few NBA players, among the hundreds he played against, as tough: Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Draymond Green, Kevin Garnett, Andrew Bogut, LeBron James (sometimes). It’s a short list.
In his career, Matt Barnes exhibited weaknesses on a grand scale for everyone to see, courtesy of his quick fuse that went 0 to 60 in three seconds flat. Often, his technicals were counter productive to the goal at hand. Often, his technicals were reputation based. He was too emotional to talk himself down from the ledge and show composure in the moment, to let a slight go. He paid for it financially and in his social media feeds. But behind the scenes, he was as beloved a teammate as there was. He was always willing to be in the fight. He never wasted his career, even in his low moments walking in the tunnel after being thrown out a game.
Matt Barnes was a second round pick who wasn’t supposed to get this far, play this long, be mentored by Hall of Fame coaches and talent.
The truth? Everyone can’t be a NBA star, can’t have money and affection thrown at them, don’t have their stats and play fetishized. The rest of the league, the glue, they have to figure out how to be relevant in such a vortex of star adoration. Give him credit. Matt Barnes sized the league up real quick and made a decison. If you can’t be a star, at least be remembered.