Bad Boys and Good Times

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The Pest

The ever-agitating, never-backing-down Matt Barnes may hold the key to a Clippers title

The lawn sloped slightly toward the sky, giving way to a modest, three-bedroom beige duplex. No one bothered bragging about the Citrus Heights home in the shadows of Sacramento. Still, Henry Barnes, the proprietor of the picturesque lawn, tended to it as though it were the greens of Pebble Beach. “He used to cover it in plastic and threaten every kid in the neighborhood to stay off of his lawn,” said Danielle Barnes, his daughter. “Here we are living in the ghetto, and we have a golf course–quality front lawn.” Henry fiercely protected what mattered most to him, with a pride and stubbornness he passed down to his three children, including his eldest, Matt. “You protect your own,” Henry instructed. “Physically, if necessary.”

Today, Matt Barnes is a basketball irritant and the de facto enforcer on a deep Los Angeles Clippers team full of All-Stars and award winners. Barnes is neither. Yet he is one of the most integral pieces to a team with championship aspirations. A quick YouTube search yields him staring daggers into Kobe Bryant, shoving Serge Ibaka, trucking through Rafer Alston, and verbally assaulting Kevin Love. He agitates with the best of them.

Keith Smart coached Barnes at two stops: in Cleveland, where Barnes’s wayward NBA career began, and later at Golden State, where Barnes finally emerged as a regular rotation player. Smart compares Barnes to a baseball utility player. He is a piece, a valuable piece, but never the piece. And he’s comfortable in that role. “I don’t even know if there’s a word to describe what he does,” Smart said. “It’s that pestability to get beneath someone’s skin.”

Ten years and eight teams into his NBA career, Barnes insists he never starts fights. But he will end them. “If you look at my career, I’ve never really been messed with personally,” Barnes said. “When I’m in trouble, it’s usually me sticking up for somebody else or taking it for a teammate. I don’t think I’ll change that. I think I’ve toned it back a little bit, but I look at my team as my family, and I would do anything for my family just like I would do anything for my team. I think that’s given me a bad reputation with the referees. But that’s who I am.”

Ever the physical force, Barnes has even considered leaving basketball altogether for a return to another sport he loved in high school: football. His family has a history with the game. At 34, Henry tried out for and made two cuts with the San Francisco 49ers, and Matt’s younger brother, Jason, is a wide receiver for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. Matt hauled in touchdown after touchdown in high school in Sacramento, but leaving basketball would mean admitting that others had gotten the best of him. Barnes’s persistence has paternal roots.

“My dad was the kind of dad where I got spanked,” Barnes said. “I grew up fighting, so if I didn’t take care of my brother and sister, I would get it from him. He was ready to do whatever he had to do to protect us, just like I was.”

Henry Barnes meandered through life before he started a family. After he failed to get a football scholarship, he focused on a career in the Marine Corps. That lasted less than four years. “I went AWOL and punched a couple COs,” he said. “I was kind of a hothead, you know.”

That’s one way to put it. His son Jason has another. “My dad was a nut,” he said. “My dad was the craziest dude.” If you cut off Henry while driving, he’d compel you to pull over. If you cut him in line, he’d jockey for his place back. If you bothered his family — well, just don’t. Eventually, Henry found a career as a butcher. “I’ve cut a few tendons,” he said. “Never lost any fingers, though.” On the rare occasion the blade did betray Henry, he simply bandaged his hand and continued working.

After Henry married a white woman named Ann, he moved his family from San Jose; their interracial marriage stood out in the Citrus Heights neighborhood. Henry urged his children to never back down from a fight. “All we did: play sports in the street and fight,” Danielle said. “If we came home crying, my dad literally would send us back outside with another sibling to go and handle whatever happened. If it didn’t end in our favor, we were sent back outside to just deal with it.”

Henry is only about 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, but he knows how to use every last one of those inches and pounds. Josh Winston, who grew up playing basketball and football with Matt, remembers his friend’s father’s history of fighting. “Well, just one?” Winston said when asked to describe one of Henry’s altercations. “Henry used to get into fights. I’ll put it that way.”

At home, the Barnes children swore their parents had them just so the kids could handle the household chores. That led to bickering. “If you stood in their front yard and listened to the conversations, you would think that Danielle and Matt hated each other,” Winston said. Danielle took after Henry most and fancied herself the toughest of all the children. Matt was constantly in motion, with the sole purpose, Danielle said, of irritating her. He clapped his hands in her face, danced in front of her, and pestered her whenever possible. “He was a pain in the ass growing up,” she said. “He used to torment me. He would just know how to get under my skin. I probably tried to fight him until I was 18. I physically thought I could take him.”

Chaos reigned in the house. Outside, they were a unified front. A girl once slapped Matt shortly after the kids boarded the bus for school. Danielle, who was in kindergarten at the time, instinctively removed her backpack from her shoulders and walloped the girl with it. “I was so little,” Danielle said. “It busted her eye open; she’s gushing blood all over the bus. She still has this scar above her eyebrow.”

Winston never saw his friend lose a fight. In elementary school, they mowed lawns to earn spare change. In fifth grade, a kid on a bike rode by and hurled a slur in their direction. Matt didn’t think twice. He sprinted after the kid, dragged him off his bike, beat the pulp out of him, and returned to work. “He walked right back and picked up the lawn mower, and we started cutting grass again,” Winston said. “To me, if you get in a fight, it’s a big deal, you go home and tell your family about it. It was just a regular thing to him.”

Racism was an inescapable reality for Barnes growing up. “I was lost in the beginning because I wasn’t white enough and I wasn’t black enough, so I really didn’t have any friends,” Barnes said. “I was always just shooting baskets by myself or just trying to sneak into the games the kids were playing.”

Barnes forged an identity for himself as an athlete. He enrolled at Del Campo High School, bypassing Grant Union, where his games became social gatherings. In football, Barnes’s 6-7 frame allowed the team to throw deep to him at any time. Still, his favorite route was a hard slant through the heart of the defense. “He was not fearful of going over the middle at all,” said former Del Campo football coach Steve Kenyon. Barnes typically played only the first half of games — by the second half, Del Campo had blown out most opponents. Barnes grabbed 58 catches for 28 touchdowns in his senior season. “I should have thrown him the ball 100 times,” Kenyon likes to joke.

But Barnes wanted a future in basketball. He can still remember jotting down his life goals in a middle school journal: play basketball at UCLA; go to the NBA and win a championship; marry and have kids. Steve Lavin, then a Bruins assistant, first heard about Barnes after a UCLA fan living in Sacramento clipped out an article describing his play. Lavin saved the article, and when he ascended to UCLA’s head job in 1996, the Barnes household was one of his first recruiting visits.

When Henry arrived home from work, Lavin was already sitting on his couch, chatting with Ann and Matt. The elder Barneses went for a 12-pack of beer and insisted Lavin crack one open. “I didn’t want to offend anyone,” Lavin said. “It was actually good because it kind of took the edge off and we were able to relax and kick back and just have a nice conversation. And at the end of it, Matt committed [to UCLA] in the home.”

Barnes had become a local legend — he once blocked 21 shots in a single game — before committing to his dream school. But he still had to navigate frequent racially charged taunting at games. Some student sections hurled bananas on the court. Others called Barnes and Winston monkeys. Barnes laughed on the outside, but he struggled with his anger. “When we go to the white schools, they don’t like us because we’re black,” Winston said. “We go to the black schools, they don’t like us because they think that we’re white. It’s one of those things: ‘Where do I fit in?’” Henry often found himself in the middle of confrontations at Matt’s games. At one football game, the parent of an opposing team’s player accused Henry of being on welfare. A separate shoving match quickly escalated until nearly half the stands were rumbling at a basketball game. “I’ve held both of them back before,” Danielle said of her brother and father.

The final straw came from inside Del Campo High School. Danielle was a freshman during Matt’s senior year, and after a verbal altercation, a boy hurled a racial slur at her. “She pointed him out, and I just took off on him instantly,” Matt said. “When we went to the office, the principal didn’t believe me. He was just like, ‘No, his dad is a high-powered attorney in the city and this is not in his nature, this is not in his blood.’ I’m just like, ‘So you think my sister is here crying with spit in her hair and making this up?’ They didn’t believe us. I got suspended for a week.”

While Barnes served his suspension, some kids vandalized the school with hate speech. Skinheads wrote graffiti threatening Barnes and set bathrooms ablaze. “We had the NAACP there to protect us afterward,” Danielle said. “We had police. We had meeting after meeting. We had death threats. They painted all the walls, swastikas everywhere. They put Confederate flags out in the middle of our courtyard at school. It was bad.”

School officials, Barnes said, believed him only after the school had been vandalized. “After that I was like, ‘Eff you,’” Barnes said. “I couldn’t wait to get out of high school. I’ll never give a dime to my high school. I’m not going to support it. I almost didn’t go back for my jersey retirement, because that’s how bad it was.”

Former Del Campo basketball coach Scott Evans empathizes with Barnes. “When it’s out there in a crowd or done on a wall anonymously, you don’t know who to vent at,” Evans said. “So that anger is always building. That’s the hardest thing, to not let that eat you up, because it’s not like you’re striking back or getting justice. There’s no one there. I think that was the hardest thing for him, just being angry and not being able to do anything about it.”

Henry had taught his children to protect their own. The school’s administration, Matt felt, had failed to do that.

“I don’t want to put his name out there, but one vice-principal,” Barnes said, “to this day if I see him, I’ll just walk by him. Because up until that point I had a great time [in high school]. I had a lot of support. I faced a little bit of racism, but that’s part of growing up. But that one time when he told me this kid’s dad is a high-powered attorney in Sacramento? That really hurt me.”

The Barnes family moved to another Sacramento neighborhood shortly after Matt graduated from high school. Through it all, Henry remained unfazed. “I just figured if we had to protect ourselves, we would,” he said.

Ray Young was a slick-dressing, sweet-shooting guard who didn’t know what to make of Matt Barnes when they became AAU teammates. “He looked like this skater Sacramento kid coming down to Oakland,” Young said. “I wanted to change the way that he dressed.” But Young soon gained an appreciation for Barnes’s versatile game. “He could play the 4, the 5, but still could guard the 2,” Young said. “He was just the utility guy. What did you need? Did you need him to run point today? Did you need him to post up? To play the 5?” Young also committed to UCLA, where the two roomed together, joining the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, which also included JaRon Rush — one of the best high school players in the country — and skilled big men Dan Gadzuric and Jerome Moiso, along with the stellar sophomore backcourt of Baron Davis and Earl Watson.

Barnes and Young found themselves near the end of Lavin’s bench. Young debated transferring. Barnes plotted a return to football. “I wanted to play both,” he said. But he was told his scholarship would have to change. “I got the whole runaround, and it pushed me back towards basketball,” he said. Barnes butted heads with Lavin, was placed on academic probation, and nearly quit during his first two seasons at UCLA. He watched as others he had kept pace with in high school and AAU — players like Carlos Boozer and Tayshaun Prince — starred for their college teams. The Bruins were deep at every position, leaving Barnes with a small role and little influence. “Eighty percent of the game is confidence,” Young said. “Matt had to turn his game down to play at UCLA. It took away his confidence. They didn’t want Matt just shooting 3s at the time, because that’s just not what our team needed, and that’s not what the coach wanted Matt’s role to be. That was a tough pill for him to swallow.”

Matt Barnes defends

A breakthrough came in Barnes’s junior season, after Moiso and Rush declared for the NBA. Lavin inserted Barnes into a game early in the season against North Carolina. The Tar Heels were trouncing the Bruins, and Lavin directed Barnes to head the team’s press. “We didn’t end up winning the game,” Lavin said. “We were down 20 or more and came all the way back — he played a big role in that comeback … He’d be at the front of that press, and he had great instincts and gifts, not only using his length to get deflections, but also anticipating when to come and trap a ball handler. All of his skills came to the forefront.”

But Barnes still had plenty of work to do. When the Bruins advanced to the Sweet 16, Barnes was forced into an unlikely position against Duke. The Blue Devils double-teamed Gadzuric in the post, leaving Barnes alone to shoot. “Matt shot it a couple times, but had no confidence in that shot,” said Jim Saia, then a UCLA assistant. “It was one of the reasons we lost that game, because at that time Matt was not a very good 3-point shooter. But between his junior and senior year, we ran the same offense, and he worked on that shot and knocked it down regularly.” The Bruins again fell in the Sweet 16 during Barnes’s senior season. Three months later, the Memphis Grizzlies snatched him in the second round of the 2002 draft and traded him to Cleveland.

“Once he got drafted, I felt like he took his foot off the pedal,” Young said. “I think he got a little comfortable, and then when things didn’t pan out, he got shaken up.” The Cavaliers cut Barnes before his rookie season could even begin. “He couldn’t shoot a lick,” said Smart, then the team’s director of player development.

Can’t shoot a lick. It’s one of the worst tags an NBA wing can get saddled with. Barnes bounced to the National Basketball Development League, still in its infancy then, and did a stint in the American Basketball Association with the Long Beach Jam. Although the team played in basketball’s outer rim, it attracted NBA-level talent. Dennis Rodman played in a couple of games. Earl Cureton and Corey Gaines, the team’s coaches, knew what it took to make it in the NBA. They were veteran journeymen and told Barnes to pay attention to the little things and look beyond his current predicament. “Matt was playing the same way then that he’s playing now for the Clippers,” Gaines said. “The exact same thing. There’s no difference. There are people that play better, are faster, longer, jump higher, but you won’t find people who approach the game with that type of intensity every game.”

Barnes ultimately made his way back into the NBA, but ping-ponged around the league. Waived by Seattle in training camp, he played for the Clippers, then Sacramento, signed with Philadelphia but never played, moved to New York, and moved back to Philadelphia, all in a three-year span.

He again contemplated a return to football. At 26, he was still relatively young. But he decided to accept a training camp invite with Golden State in 2006. “My agent had [NFL] teams ready to give me a tryout,” Barnes said. “I was just like, ‘Give me this last chance with Golden State, and if it doesn’t work, I’m going to go to football.’”

Don Nelson had simple instructions for Barnes. “When a guy is trying to make your team, you don’t want to coach him at that point,” Nelson recalled. “You want to give him all the freedom to show you what he can do, and then once he shows you what he has to offer and makes a job for himself, then you can start coaching him and regimenting him. I just didn’t want to confuse him. I wanted him to go out there and play the way he felt he could.”

What followed surprised some, but not Barnes. All he needed was a green light. “I had been in places before, like Philly, where Mo Cheeks would be like, ‘Why are you working on your shot? You’re not going to shoot it here,’” Barnes said. “It wasn’t necessarily a mentality, it was just an opportunity and a coach that believed in me.” That Warriors team, which upset no. 1–seeded Dallas in the first round of the playoffs, lives on as one of the most entertaining teams of recent memory.

“Not only did we think we could beat you in basketball, we thought we could beat any team in fighting, too,” said Al Harrington, a forward on the team. “So that’s how we carried ourselves. We just wanted problems with whoever. Not too many people stepped to us like that.” Barnes was typically the first man into any melee. “He’s the type of guy I definitely want in the foxhole with me, because you know he’s going to ride for you,” Harrington said.

Five years into his professional career, Barnes had made only 10 3-pointers in his previous NBA stops. He hit 106 in the 2006-07 season. “Playing against him in Philly, the scouting report was: Let him shoot,” said Jason Richardson, a guard on the team. “All of a sudden, he came to Golden State and he was just letting it fly.” Barnes fit right into an eclectic ensemble in Golden State. Richardson, Davis, and Monta Ellis composed a dynamic backcourt. The midseason blockbuster deal that brought in Harrington and Stephen Jackson further bolstered those Warriors. “That team, they had egos,” said Smart, an assistant to Nelson. “But they all were harness-able. They didn’t get kicked out of games. They knew how far they could push the envelope, and that team had a swagger that was really unique in the NBA.”

Golden State Warriors v Utah Jazz, Game 5

Smart recalled a late-season trip when he made his way to the back of the team’s plane. He came across Davis, Jackson, and Barnes in conversation. It was Barnes, and not the more established players, insisting the team needed to get serious to end Golden State’s dozen-year playoff drought. “Although Baron and Stephen Jackson and Monta get a lot of credit, Matt had more to do with that big run than most people would believe,” Smart said. “Everything changed. [The team] was still a long ways from even having a chance at the playoffs. They just needed a spark. They needed something to happen to force the team to get on a run.”

Golden State finished the season on a 16-5 tear and squeaked into the playoffs. The Warriors became the first 8-seed to topple a 1-seed since the playoffs had shifted to a seven-game format. Barnes secured 16 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists in the clinching win over Dallas. “He was such an important player in putting the team together and giving it an identity,” Nelson said. “No matter if he had a good game or a bad game, he was always going to play hard every night. If something happens, he’s going to be there to protect his teammates. There’s so many things that don’t show up on the box score, and when he’s in the game, usually good things happen.”

The madness in the Bay Area didn’t last long — Utah easily dispatched Golden State in the playoffs’ next round. But Barnes had proven himself a more than useful NBA player. He’d found his role: refined muscle. A playmaker with an edge. And just as important, he accepted it.

“I know that a lot of guys come in here wanting to be a scorer because that’s where you get all the fame. But on every team, there are one or two scorers and everyone else is a role player,” Barnes said. “I think that’s what kept me in the league: I play hard and I know my role.”

All seemed to be going right, and then everything went wrong.

Shortly after the 2007-08 season opener against Utah, Matt received a phone call from his mother, Ann. Her and Henry’s 30th anniversary was just around the corner. If Henry was the Barnes family’s fists, Ann was the heart. And she had a soft spot for her eldest son. Danielle would accuse her mother of cooking and cleaning the house only when Matt was coming home. When Ann called, she informed Matt that she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. There was little doctors could do. Still, Matt tried. He sought the best medical attention and drove from practice in Oakland back home to Sacramento nearly every day. “We’re a tight-knit family, but at that time, we weren’t very close,” Jason said. “Everybody was spread out, so when that happened, I think it hit Matt and my sister the hardest. Everybody looked at Matt to hold the family together. They knew he’s always been the strongest person, so if we saw him break down, I know everybody else would have lost it. I know he was hurting, but he just maintained that role.”

Ann Barnes died on November 27, 2007. She spent time privately with each family member before she passed. “I don’t know what she said to him, but whatever she said, he felt like he’d become the family protector now, although he doesn’t have to be,” Danielle said. “He’s worrying about everyone else, and he’s got his wife and he needs to take care of her and his kids. It’s like my mom was his voice making sure he was OK. She was the only person that he talked to.”

The Golden State Warriors played less than 36 hours after Ann’s death. Matt Barnes returned in time for the game. “All she kept talking about while she was sick was that besides her family, the Warriors are why she’s still fighting,” he told reporters after Golden State’s win over Sacramento. “She wanted to see us play more.”

The Warriors won 48 games in 2007-08, the organization’s most since 1993-94. But they missed the playoffs in a deep Western Conference pool. The organization collapsed afterward, only recently emerging from a long rebuilding period.

“That team was amazing,” Barnes said. “Anytime we get together, whenever I see Baron or Jack or Monta, Al, J-Rich, that’s usually the first thing we talk about, how they broke that team up too fast. It was just a special team. A bunch of guys that nobody wanted got traded around and ended up on one team and made NBA history.”

Barnes signed with Phoenix. He still hadn’t found a permanent home, bouncing from here to there. Perhaps security meant being too comfortable, and that could give way to malaise. From Phoenix, Barnes dipped to Orlando, then the Lakers, and finally to his current home with the Clippers.

“He’s not a big numbers guy or anything,” said Stan Van Gundy, who coached Barnes in Orlando. “I think he’s a guy that people have probably too often thought was replaceable.” Van Gundy said that Barnes can influence a game without putting up statistics. “We always talk about players that help their teammates,” he said. “He doesn’t help them in a traditional way. He’s not Chris Paul. He’s not setting them up. But he helps his teammates in terms of the attitude and toughness he brings and the confidence he has in his team and his teammates.”

At each stop, Barnes cemented himself as the player you love to play with and hate to play against. In some ways, he hasn’t changed from the boy who would wave his hands and yell in his sister’s face.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers

Barnes’s most memorable dustup came in a game in 2010, when he dueled with Kobe Bryant. The two had played against each other often in summer pickup games, always competing but never quite tangling. But they pushed and elbowed throughout this game. At one point, Barnes pump-faked the ball directly into Bryant’s face as he prepared to throw it in bounds. Bryant, to his credit, did not flinch.

“What’s funny was, I didn’t realize how close the ball was, because if you look at the replay, I wasn’t even looking,” Barnes said. “I don’t know what made me do it. It rubbed his nose and he didn’t flinch at all. It just kind of shows who he is. He’s just a cold-blooded dude. I respect that about him.”

Afterward, Bryant said he was amused. Lakers forward Lamar Odom called Barnes a “monkey” in the postgame locker room and told reporters that “[Barnes] was an action figure today. He was really involved and really into the game. It’s too bad we are not going to see him again [in the regular season].” Barnes responded on Twitter, suggesting Odom should eat Barnes’s twins’ diapers.

Within months, they were teammates. “I remember one thing [Kobe] said was, ‘Anyone crazy enough to eff with me is crazy enough to play with me,’” Barnes said.

Most NBA players, Barnes said, do not want to fight. He’s different, he added, because he will when provoked. “I love when we can actually be physical and the refs let us play physical and there’s a little talking,” he said. “Whether people think I’m trying to get under their skin, more than anything, it’s just competing. You don’t see me grabbing them. If we’re banging, we’re banging, and if we’re running by each other and it’s physical, it’s physical. I’m not going to come out there and try to get in somebody’s head or stick my foot underneath his leg or pull his jersey or all the things you saw Bruce Bowen do. I don’t do that. I just go out there and play hard.”

Barnes considers himself part of a small fraternity of physical, targeted players. “Zach [Randolph], myself, Kenyon Martin, Tony Allen. Who else? Reggie Evans,” he said. “There are a handful of us, and I don’t like to use ‘us’ as a good term, but the majority of the time, it’s just a tactic. The fines are too expensive; if a fight happened, you’d really set yourself and your team back. So no one really wants to fight.”


Barnes ignited a controversy earlier this season after he shoved Serge Ibaka while coming to Blake Griffin’s aid. After being ejected, Barnes tweeted,1 “I love my teammates like family, but I’m DONE standing up for these n—-s! All this shit does is cost me money.” Commentators debated the use of the N-word in that context, which Barnes defended. Meanwhile, Barnes said he was mostly upset about the incoming $25,000 fine for the shove and for his comments on Twitter. Since November 2008, the NBA has fined Barnes $105,000 and suspended him five games for various offenses, including escalating altercations and throwing the ball into the stands.

“Don’t tweet while you’re mad,” Barnes said of the lesson he learned from the incident. “What really bothers me is that reputation is earned whether it’s good or bad, and I think that’s what my reputation is. But for me to get the drastic stuff I get for what I do — like I pushed someone and got suspended, fined $25,000, and you see people throwing punches now and getting the same punishment I get for pushing people. So it’s just frustrating the way I’m judged and disciplined. But with Adam Silver, hopefully it will be different.”

This season is yet another microcosm of Barnes’s career. He averaged a career-high 10.3 points and played in 80 games during the 2012-13 season. This season, he’s had to endure a thigh contusion, a retinal tear, and nearly being traded. The Clippers are deep at the shooting guard and small forward slots. Barnes, Jared Dudley, Danny Granger, Jamal Crawford, and J.J. Redick have all vied for minutes. But Barnes has held down the rotation as Crawford and Redick healed from nagging injuries.

“He’ll guard the best wing players on a lot of teams,” said DeAndre Jordan, the team’s center. “He’ll take the challenge of guarding the shooting guard, the 3 man; sometimes he likes to get down there and guard 4s. It doesn’t faze him at all. I feel like that’s a big toughness thing for him and a big pride thing.

“When Matt was with the Lakers, I hated Matt,” Jordan continued. “He was light-skinned and he had good hair. He would always foul you hard, so I hated him. Now that he’s with us, I love him.”

Barnes said he was finally able to relax this year after the trade deadline passed. “I haven’t had any rhythm or any timing,” Barnes said. “To hear that I’m going to be traded, I was really mad, because I hadn’t got a chance to do what I did last year because I had been hurt. After that trade deadline passed, I was just like, ‘I’m not going to be mad anymore, I’m just going to put everything behind me and play my game.’”

It’s showed on the court. He has scored in double digits in 20 of 26 games since the deadline. In March, he averaged 14.5 points on 49 percent shooting, which would easily be career bests.

“I think whether J.J. or Jamal is here, I’m still going to be aggressive, I’m still going to play my game,” Barnes said. “I’m not necessarily a scorer; I’ve been more aggressive because we were missing those guys.”

Barnes is still a perpetual wild card. He could either help propel the Clippers to a championship or doom them with his aggressiveness. The skill is in knowing where the line is and not to cross it.

“He’s been great,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “One of the things with Matt is that there’s a difference between being tough and not. Just because you’re hitting somebody doesn’t mean you’re tough. We want to be on the right side of that all the time.

“If you’re just coming in delivering a blow, then no. But if it’s real and it’s focused, then you’re just a physical, tough guy. [Kendrick] Perk[ins], would be an example. Perk walks around down the street like that. He’s the happiest guy I know, yet when he’s on the floor, it’s business. I think Matt does a little bit of that for us. He wants to win, he wants to do the right things. I give Matt a lot of credit, because he’s been willing to change at 33, and that’s been important.”

The acceptance of a supporting role is what has made Barnes’s career. “The path I’ve taken has had so many ups and downs that I don’t know any other way,” Barnes said. “I think it makes me appreciate where I’m at, what I’ve accomplished, where I’ve come from, and really just respect the game so much more because I wasn’t the typical first-round or lottery pick where you breeze through and have a great 12-, 15-year career and everything is all good. It’s been a grind every year.”

Of that stellar UCLA team packed with can’t-miss future pros, only Barnes and Watson, arguably the two least-regarded players, are still in the NBA. Watson said he learned a long time ago that he would make his reputation through hard work. And Barnes? “He was so highly skilled that he only used to play off of his skill,” Watson said. “So he had to become edgy, and he had to become that guy who, if there’s a loose ball, he’s going to go for it and hit you in the face with an elbow, and if he gets kicked out the game, he gets kicked out the game.

“And clearly, he doesn’t play for the money, because he can’t stop getting techs.”

Henry Barnes, of all people, hopes his son softens up and sheds the reputation. “Hopefully, he calms down,” Henry said. “He’s got that intensity, too. If somebody messes with him, he just takes care of it quickly.”

In recent years, Henry has taken his own advice — sort of. Time has a tendency to calm even the angriest. One of Danielle’s kids recently threw a fit when Henry babysat them. The child threw his toys on the ground and refused to pick them up. Henry called Danielle in a panic, unsure what to do with the rampaging little one. Danielle wondered what ever happened to the quick-to-the-belt father she had grown up under.

But some habits die slow. Or don’t die at all.

Two years ago, Danielle received a phone call from her father. He wanted her to pick him up from the gym. “Why, what’s wrong?” Danielle asked. “Did your truck break down?”

“No,” Henry replied. “I might be going to jail.”

After Henry picked up a weight in the gym, another member accused him of stealing it off his rack. In fact, a gym employee, thinking no one was using it, had reracked the weight. When the man asked for the weight back, Henry refused. Henry was 56 years old at the time. The other man was 6-2, 230 pounds, and 30 years old.

Henry later told Danielle that the man hit him in the arm with a dumbbell. “Are you OK?” Danielle asked.

“I’m OK,” Henry replied. “He’s getting medical attention.”

As always, Henry handled his business quickly, pummeling the man. “He was bloody everywhere,” he said. “I was just defending myself. I can’t let somebody punk me like that.”

When Danielle arrived, she peeked at the other man through the window. “He’s this huge, buff, younger guy, and he’s got knots all over his head,” she said. “He’s bleeding and the cops are out there laughing with my dad.”

The cops, Danielle said, determined that the other man had been the aggressor. They only faulted her father for not stopping once he’d gained the upper hand. “If you can, you really should get this [security] tape,” a cop whispered to Danielle. “He whooped this guy’s ass. Your dad knows how to fight.”

“I know,” Danielle replied. “I know.”

When Matt gets into a flare-up during a game, Danielle tends to leap from her couch. Henry sits calmly, recognizing himself in his son.

“Matt’s a lot calmer than my dad,” Jason said. “They don’t like to start fights, but you can tell they love fighting.”

So, some things just don’t change — like Henry Barnes’s yard. He’s moved a few times over the years. Doesn’t matter. Today, his yard is still the best one on the block.  

Filed Under: NBA, Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Clippers, Kobe Bryant, Doc Rivers, DeAndre Jordan

Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution, is due out in March.

Archive @ JPdabrams