Skip to main content

Matt Barnes: The Clippers' polarizing pariah who tells it like it really is

When people talk about Matt Barnes, one word often comes to mind. It's not safe for work.

When people talk about Clippers forward Matt Barnes, one word often comes to mind. That word is a--hole.

“When he was with the Lakers, I hated him,” says Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. “And I mean hated him.”

Barnes fouls hard. He talks trash. He’ll tackle your star player, fight your center and threaten your owner (these are not hypotheticals; Barnes has done all three during the last two years). He never stops, stalking the court and scowling and cursing so loud that his neck veins distort the topography of his neck tattoo.

All of which causes plenty of NBA players, and fans, to expect the worst when Barnes joins their team, an occurrence which, it should be noted, is all but inevitable. In 12 seasons, the 35-year-old has taken the court alongside everyone from Kobe Bryant to Dwight Howard to Allen Iverson while playing for eight teams. It’s only a matter of time until he joins yours.

But once he does, something strange happens. People don’t just tolerate Barnes, or like him. They love him. “Once he joined us, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is going to be great,’” says Jordan. “He’s all about team. All about family.” Clippers point guard Chris Paul says he used to “really hate” Barnes as well, but he now calls him, “an unbelievable teammate”, mentioning “how hard he plays” and his “selflessness.” J.J. Redick played one season in Orlando with Barnes in 2010 and for years after, whenever asked, cited Barnes as his favorite teammate ever. “And I bet,” says Redick, who’s now reunited with Barnes in Los Angeles, “if you ask a bunch of guys that have played with him you’d get the same response.”

matt-barnes-face.jpg

*****

When I meet Barnes, on a recent Thursday, one of the first things he says is, “There’s no bulls--- to me.”

He’s seated on a white couch in his waterfront condo in Marina del Rey, Ca. A liquor cabinet in the corner is stocked with Crown Royal and Captain Morgan. To his right, about seven feet up the wall, hangs a regulation basketball hoop, installed for the benefit of his twin six-year-old boys, Isaiah and Carter. Across from the couch, a large flat-screen TV is tuned to the NCAA tournament, where Barnes’ alma mater, UCLA, is playing in the first round. It’s been 13 years since Barnes was in Westwood, where he played with future NBAers Earl Watson, Baron Davis, Jerome Moiso. Dan Gadzuric and Jason Kapono. Today, Barnes is the last one left in the league. He has no illusions about why. “I’m a role player, a journeyman,” he says, “I know who I am.”

Fine tuning: Coaching Stephen Curry, best shooter in the universe

There are, Barnes explains, two NBAs. There’s the one you see on TV, populated by LeBron and KD and Chris and Cliff Paul, a world where every paycheck bubbles with zeros, millions of Chinese teenagers rock your jersey and, if you don’t like a coach, you can just get him fired.

And then there’s the NBA where Barnes resides, a, Darwinian landscape where the average playing career is 4.8 years, you’re always one injury away from irrelevancy and to survive is to succeed.

Every time Barnes takes the court, even now, he feels like he’s auditioning for a job. It’s been that way his whole career: from the Fayetteville Patriots of the D League to Sonics training camp to the ABA’s Long Beach Jam to the Clippers, Kings, 76ers, Knicks, Warriors, Magic, Suns, Lakers and, once again, Clippers. He’s never averaged more than 10.3 points per game or led the league in anything—though he has an outside shot at doing so in personal fouls this season. He does, however, consistently rate well in advanced stats; he’s top 100 all time in Effective Field Goal Percentage and top 40 this season in Real Plus/Minus. But these are not the types of measures that get you big contracts. In over a decade, Barnes has never made even the mid-level exception—approximately $5.3 million—and, up until his current deal, had never signed a contract that lasted more than two seasons.

Two years ago, Forbes named him the most underpaid player in the NBA, Photoshopping him into a janitor’s uniform to make the point.  

******

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

matt-barnes-tattoos.jpg

People form assumptions about Barnes based on his appearance. His body is covered with tattoos. One on his arm reads “Sactown’s Finest.” A spiderweb envelopes his shooting elbow. Most visibly, the script “Believe” traverses the right side of his neck.

Because Barnes has dark, straight hair, light skin and a small, impeccably-maintained mustache, he is occasionally mistaken for being Hispanic, and he has a vocal following among Latino fans at Staples Center. In reality, Barnes is half-black (his father) and half-Italian (his mom). At 6’7", he’s also surprisingly tall for someone with normal-sized parents.

Mookie Blaylock's downward spiral and the family he dragged with him

​​Early on in life, he learned about accountability. His father, Henry, was a butcher by day and, according to Matt, a drug dealer in his spare time. Matt was charged with looking out for his younger brother and sister. If anybody messed with either of them, he was expected to “take care of it.” “If I didn’t, I’d get beat by my dad,” Matt says. “So I learned early, you’re going to have to fight.”

Matt remembers going to the flea market on weekends as a little boy and watching while his father beat up other men. Sometimes it was over a petty dispute. Sometimes, the person just bumped into Henry. “He always carried a little knife or a gun back in the car, but most of the time it was just fighting,” Matt says. “At the time, I thought he was a badass.”

Today, Matt’s feelings about his father are complicated—it took until his mother’s death in 2007 for the two men to hug for the first time.  But the fighting instinct remains, especially when one of his own is threatened. If Blake Griffin takes a hard fall, or someone pushes Chris Paul, Barnes is invariably the first man on the scene, fists balled, eyes burning, ready to send a message, a hockey enforcer in shorts and a tank top. If the NBA kept a statistic for having-your-back, Barnes would be at an All-NBA level. “These are my teammates and I need them to play well for us to win,” he explains. “You’re not going to intimidate them and you’re not going to take cheap shots, stuff that’s not basketball.”

He pauses. “If you do, we’ll see where that goes. I treat my teammates like they’re family.”

*****

mb-react.jpg

A sampling of activities for which Barnes has been suspended and/or fined while treating his teammates like family: Fighting Rafer Alston (2008), chucking a ball in the stands (2009), criticizing referees (2010), escalating a fight between Jason Terry and Steve Blake (2011), fighting Greg Stiemsma (2013), failing to leave the court in a timely manner (twice; 2013), kicking a water bottle into the stands (2014) and talking to fans/cursing at Suns owner Robert Sarver(2015).

[youtube:https://youtu.be/ceGRVUjXqM4​]

Amount in fines Barnes estimates he’s paid to the NBA during his career: About $500,000.  

What Barnes thinks would have happened if it had been him, and not James Harden, who “accidentally” kickedLeBron James in a sensitive region of the anatomy in a game in February: “I’d be put in jail. Or at least suspended for several games.”

What happened to Harden: He received a T. He stayed in the game. His team won. (Only later was he suspended one game).

******

For years Barnes hated that his parents sent him to a white high school—Del Campo High in Fair Oaks, outside Sacramento, which is predominantly Caucasian— because he felt like he never fit in. Now he understands. “They wanted it better for me. They wanted me to have a chance.”

His family moved from the Bay Area to Sacramento so his father could start anew, but it didn’t take. Barnes sought safe havens. He spent nights at friends’ houses then, eventually, holidays and vacations. He saw a potential future. “Once I saw how these white people were living, all eating dinner together and taking family vacations and they were just a family, I was like, ‘S---, I want that.’”

One of those friends was Crystal Dahl, whom he first met in fourth grade. They got their ears pierced together. She fantasized about being a movie star; he fantasized about playing for the Lakers. They are still good friends. “We can go a long time without talking and yet if I ever need someone to lean on, he’s always there,” says Dahl, who still calls Barnes by his given name, Matthew Kelly. “If you befriend him, he will have your back forever.”

For Barnes, sports were the only obvious route to a new, better life. By high school, he was an elite talent, a game-breaking wide receiver on the football field who played everything from point guard to center on the basketball court. It was a heady time, and he took advantage. But the same people who wanted to be his best friend often wanted to see him fail. As a mixed-race kid, at times it got ugly. To some, he was too black; to others, he wasn’t black enough. At road games he was spit on. Opposing students waved bananas. His senior year, when a Del Campo student spat on his little sister, he decked the kid and got suspended. When he returned, weeks before graduation, someone had spray-painted the high school walls with “Matt Barnes Die” and “KKK.”

[pagebreak]

westbrook-barnes-ap.jpg

NBA players tend to fall into different categories: prima donnas, workers, specialists. Barnes classifies himself as a “dog”.

Some other dogs in the league, by Barnes’ estimation: Draymond Green, Kevin Garnett, Andrew Bogut, LeBron (“at times”), Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul.

Russell Westbrook opens up: All there really is to the Thunder superstar

​To illustrate Paul’s dog-ness—if that is a word—Barnes tells a story. Last month, Paul was banged up with a knee injury and visibly limping. The Clippers’ next game was against the Thunder. At the time, Russell Westbrook was in full psycho basketball god mode. So Barnes went to the coaching staff. “Let me guard Westbrook and let Chris guard someone off the ball,” he said. “So we can save him for the offensive end.”

The next day, Barnes told Paul the plan.

“F--- that,” said Paul. “I got him.”

“You sure?” Barnes asked.

Paul just stared at him.

The next day, the Clippers won by 12 and Paul held Westbrook to 5-of-14 shooting.

Asked about this, Paul nods. “Hell no I’m not letting him cover him,” he says. “And Matt knows that. But Matt’s the same way. If Matt was hurt and we were playing against the Cavs and I said, ‘I got LeBron,’ he wouldn’t let it happen. We’re alike in a lot of ways.” Paul pauses. “I think that’s why we get along so well.”

*****

UCLA was rough at first for Barnes. He went from being a high school celebrity to a bench player on a stacked team, asked by coach Steve Lavin to guard opposing power forwards.

Slowly, Barnes worked his way into the rotation as a do-it-all player. In 2002, the Grizzlies drafted him in the second round, with the No. 46 pick. Then the odyssey began: ABA, D League, NBA fringes. Year by year, he learned the realities of life in the NBA.

One early lesson came from Iverson, his teammate for half a season in Philadelphia. “Allen was the first guy that showed me how NBA players spend money in strip clubs,” Barnes says. “That guy went. HARD. He’d throw so much money, and this was when I was first in the league, that I used to take my foot and scoop the s--- under my chair and either re-throw it or put some in my pocket. He’d throw $30,000, $40,000 every time we went. I’m like, ‘You realize what I can do with this money?’”

Philly is also where Barnes learned that it’s a star’s league. At the time, he was the 12th man, clinging to a job. As Barnes tells it, he was working with shooting coach Buzz Braman after practice, hoping to smooth out a hitch in his shot, when Sixers head coach Mo Cheeks walked by. “I don’t see why you’re working on your shot,” Cheeks said. “You’re not going to get to shoot here.” Barnes fumed, but said nothing.

• MORE NBA: 'Little school on the hill' with the major NBA pipeline

A week later, in practice, things came to a head. “I came down on a 3-on-1 and hit pull-up 15-footer off the glass and [Cheeks] stopped practice,” says Barnes. “He yells, ‘What are you doing? What are you shooting the ball for? You know that’s not your job, you gotta pass the ball!’”

Barnes was shocked “What? But I made the shot.”

Said Cheeks: “That’s why you don’t play.’”

And then, Barnes says, he lost it. “I was going to chase him down and whoop his ass, so I took off after him and AI grabbed me and I got through him and Chris [Webber] grabbed me and bearhugged me and I said to Mo, ‘You’re lucky.’”

Says Barnes now: “I hated Mo Cheeks. He was a dick.”

*****

barnes-nelson.jpg

The same year one coach derailed his career, another saved it. That summer, with no NBA job, Barnes was considering trying out for the NFL. Then Baron Davis, his old college teammate, invited him to an open run with the Warriors. Barnes did his usual Barnes thing, scrapping and passing and spacing and defending. Unbeknownst to him, Warriors coach Don Nelson was watching from the coach’s office, high above the gym floor.

Warriors: From one-dimensional and one-and-done to NBA title favorites

​Nellie came down and extended a training camp invite. There was one catch: the Warriors already had 14 guaranteed contracts and 17 players in camp. Barnes made the team anyway. Early in the season, thanks to injuries, he got a chance. And not just for spot minutes. “Nellie told me, ‘It’s OK if you turn the ball over. I don’t want you to, but if you do you’re going to keep playing.’’ For Barnes, forever on a leash, it was a revelation. “People don’t realize that everyone in the NBA is really good,” he says. “The difference is having a coach that believes in you.”

By late December, when the Sixers came to town, Barnes was a starter, the perfect hybrid athlete for the run-and-gun, position-less style of Nellieball. Before the game, he told his coach how much he hated Cheeks. Nellie smiled and laughed that Nellie laugh.  “Alright,” he said. “Do your thing tonight.’”

That evening, at Oracle arena, Barnes scored 25 points while hitting seven three-pointers. To this day, it remains perhaps the best shooting night of his life. And every time he sank a jumper, he turned and let Cheeks hear it. Colorfully.

*****             

A related note: If you are like Mo Cheeks and have hated on Barnes, he’d like to thank you.

On the rare occasions when Barnes isn’t feeling his usual energy before a game, he will grab his phone and look through his Twitter mentions. He scrolls past the compliments and wannabe groupies and requests for RTs until he finds what he needs: negativity. “…[you’re an] invisible man on the court, ur a better talker than a player”. “Matt Barnes looks like that deadbeat uncle that buys you alcohol in high school…” “…If only the Clippers had a better starting SF offensively than Matt Barnes…”

Sometimes, Barnes clicks on profiles, to see who’s dissing him. Sometimes he responds. Then he seeks out more insults. He admits this is a bit masochistic, but he fears that without sufficient anger he will lose his edge. And, to Barnes, that edge is everything. “That negativity is what keeps that chip on my shoulder, what makes me a dog, what makes me an a--hole on the court.” he says. And being an a--hole, he knows, is what’s kept him in the league. So he stores away the criticisms. Later, during the game, if he needs inspiration during a down moment, he cues up the hecklers in his head. “And then I’ll be like, ‘Lock back in, let’s go!’”

Barnes is so grateful for your disrespect that he even has a gesture planned. “If I ever win a ring, I’m going to get it sized for my middle finger,” he says. “To thank all the people who doubted me, because you guys are what drove me to my ultimate goal.”

[pagebreak]

barnes-kobe.jpg

Some facts about Matt Barnes that may surprise you, especially in light of that last anecdote: He runs a foundation called Athletes vs. Cancer; he has a film production company; he’s had discussions with the NFL Network about being an analyst. Also, his life goal is to be the mayor of Sacramento. Last summer, he says he spent a week shadowing current mayor Kevin Johnson and his staff.