For Harrison Barnes, the Desire to Make a Difference Is Unceasing

The Kings forward has amplified his charitable efforts this season, but giving back to the community has always been a fixture in his career.
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Throughout Harrison Barnes’s eight NBA seasons, the 28-year-old forward and his wife, Brittany, have worked diligently to connect with those in the various communities in which they live. That’s the mindset that helps explain why last October, Barnes, then fresh off signing a four-year deal with the Sacramento Kings, elected to pay the majority of the funeral costs for Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old woman who was fatally shot by a police officer in her home in Fort Worth, Texas. “We’ve heard the story too many times,” Barnes says nearly a year later, reflecting on the cause of Jefferson’s death.

“This is about us really trying to figure out a way to honor her and her life. And celebrate it,” Brittany Barnes adds.

The gesture last October marked the beginning of the Barnes’ relationship with the Jefferson family. They have had subsequent conversations to show their support and have expressed a continued interest in how the Jefferson family is going about raising awareness for Atatiana’s death.

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One of the tangible results of those conversations came to fruition this summer, when Barnes donated $25,000 for every game he played in the NBA’s bubble to a different foundation, additionally highlighting their mission on his social media platforms. The Atatiana Project was one of the eight he selected, with the organization particularly looking to help children find a path toward careers in science, math, engineering and technology.

“He really found a really creative and important and impactful way to make a difference out there,” Brittany says.

Such gestures have been a fixture throughout Barnes’s professional career. He has provided nearly $200,000 to help refurbish his alma mater, Ames High School in Iowa. He donated $40,000 to deliver weekly groceries for families and senior citizens in Sacramento and another $40,000 to provide daily meals for the Dallas Independent School District. This past June, he also spoke about the importance of civic engagement at a protest in the wake of George Floyd’s death. All of which demonstrates why Barnes was one of five players honored with the 2020 NBA Cares Community Assist Award earlier this month and why, more recently, he was added to the newly formed NBA Foundation’s Board of Directors, which also features NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Hornets governor Michael Jordan and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts.

“It’s just a matter of paying it forward to the next generation,” Barnes says. “We have a lot of issues going on and a lot of issues affecting our society, especially in the Black community. And so how do we leave this society in a better place than what it is now?”

That desire to make a difference is something that Barnes has carried with him throughout the entirety of his life. His mother, Shirley, raised him as a single mother, making tireless sacrifices to improve the lives of both her son and Harrison’s sister, Jourdan-Ashle, but also others with whom she came into contact. The future UNC star took note of his mother’s work ethic and how she “always tried to figure out the heart of a person,” in Barnes’s words. Throughout a period of social unrest in America, she’s continued to push both of her children to be vocal and unafraid to speak their minds.

“I’m not able to be in this position without the sacrifices long before me,” he says.

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Barnes was especially cognizant of his potential impact ahead of the league’s restart. While the NBA had made a public effort to bring awareness to social justice causes, Barnes undertook more individual reflection, looking to devise what he thought was an effective measure of change. Brittany was taken by his idea—to spotlight eight different organizations—when he informed her of it and, like her husband, saw it as a way to make a meaningful difference.

“I’m just really proud that he’s really come to the understanding that he has an amazing platform that can be used to literally help save people’s lives,” Brittany says.

In late September, the Kings forward and his wife organized a series of Zoom calls with figures tied to the organizations they helped. They spoke with Atatiana Jefferson’s sisters and Trayvon Martin’s mother, while Michael Brown Sr. provided an upgrade on his “process of grief” and how he was continuing to build upon his son’s legacy.

“It was without a doubt one of the most moving things I’ve been a part of, that I’ve experienced since being drafted,” Barnes says.

As Harrison continues prepping for the 2020–21 NBA season, whenever it may begin, he and his wife hope to continue imparting change off the court. He says while speaking out has always been important to him, he now feels a “heightened sense of urgency.”

“We definitely want to try and do what we can,” Barnes says. “And hopefully this will be a start, just in terms of doing what’s right.”