August 28, 2016
By Iman Sadri
On a cold windy night in Sacramento in late December 1995, I witnessed unbridled greatness for the first time on a high school basketball court. I was a freshman at Rio Americano High School, and my school’s varsity basketball team was hosting the annual Jack Scott Basketball Tournament. Sitting in the stands I was eager to witness five neighboring high schools play at my school for this three day weekend long basketball tournament. Including my school, Rio, which was the host there was a total of six teams competing for the Jack Scott tournament trophy. It was the third and final game of the opening night of the tournament. Rio Americano was hosting against Del Campo High School. Warming up on the floor prior to tipoff, I saw him for the first time. I didn’t know his name at that very instant. I would later learn it by halftime, Matt Barnes. He was tall and skinny and was wearing the road blue Del Campo jersey with yellow and white lettering. He stood head and shoulders higher than everyone else.
As the game got underway it was apparent that it was not only Barnes’ height that exceeded his competition, but his play as well. He seemed to corral every rebound. He would score with great ease. Making shots from long distances and in the low post. He would control every possession by bringing the ball down the court. On defense he was relentless. His long arms snatched the ball from his opponents, creating many steals and retrieving an array of loose balls. Watching him for the first time reminded me of an amalgamation of Scottie Pippen and Penny Hardaway. At halftime I rushed to the scorers table to learn more about this electrifying man among boys. The scorekeeper didn’t just tell me his name. He also told me that Barnes had 33 points and 15 rebounds already. When I asked him which college Barnes was attending in the fall the scorekeeper replied, “The kid is a sophmore.”
Being a freshman and witnessing Del Campo High for the first time I was stunned that this player I was watching was only 15 years old at the time. He was simply bigger, faster and better than everyone else. When I learned that he was only a sophmore I both frowned and smiled. Frowning because I knew that he would beat Rio for two more years in this competition. I smiled because that meant I would get a chance to watch a local basketball prodigy for the next two and a half years.
In the second half of the game Del Campo High pulled away and Barnes was given an early second half rest by his coaches. Del Campo ended up winning the game by more than 30 points. Barnes did not play or shoot much in only a few minutes of action during the 3rd quarter. Despite Rio’s varsity team being on the losing end I still felt like a winner in some ways. I felt a rush of pride knowing that my hometown of Sacramento could produce such an elite athlete. Barnes finished with a scoring average of just under 40 points a game for the duration of the tournament.
If one could purchase stock in an individual based on their growth potential, similar to a promising startup with robust potential to change its industry, it would have been fitting to purchase stock in Matt Barnes on that cold winter night in 1995. I knew I was witnessing the spawn of greatness.
As Barnes’ high school career evolved I would scour the Sacramento Bee to lookup his boxscore from the previous night’s games. In addition to Barnes becoming a star high school basketball player he excelled on Del Campo’s football team as well. Barnes would go on to break several California high school football records. I would go and watch him live as frequently as I could despite Rio being in a different division than Del Campo. I would get to watch him play deep in the CIF High School Section playoffs several years in a row at Arco Arena, where my beloved Sacramento Kings called home.
Barnes went on to star at U.C.L.A. playing college basketball. I was a year behind him at U.C. Davis, but would watch as many of his games as I could on TV. I rooted for his Bruins teams during his four years playing from 1998 to 2002. His tenure in Westwood was prolific with multiple N.CA.A. Tournament appearances. Several of his teammates ended up playing in the N.B.A. as well. Including but not limited to Jason Kapono and Dan Gadzuric.
Barnes entered the N.B.A draft in 2002. That summer as I was doing an internship in San Francisco and I nervously followed the Draft on NBA.com sitting at a coffee shop. When Barnes was selected in the second round with the 46th pick I jumped for joy and yelled and shouted, much to the dismay of the coffee drinkers sitting next to me in Union Square. Two years after being drafted Barnes signed with my Sacramento Kings. Seeing him wear a Sacramento jersey knowing that he grew up not too far from Arco Arena and played at Arco in high school, and I saw him then and was seeing him play for my Kings as a pro was joyful.
Barnes has enjoyed a durable career in the N.B.A. He has maintained a career scoring average of 8.3 points and has played in the N.B.A. Playoffs seven times. Early last month he signed a two year $12 Million deal with the Sacramento Kings. Barnes would be 38 by the time his contract expires. After 16 seasons in the league, a duration far greater than many of his peers, one could infer that Barnes would retire a Sacramento King. Barnes will be starting his 15th season in the Sacramento Kings’ brand new arena, the Golden One Center, which is opening its doors for the first time this fall. He will be reunited with Dave Joerger, his Memphis Grizzlies coach from the past few seasons. The Grizzlies are also the team that drafted him.
If Barnes does end up finishing his prolific career in Sacramento then one could quote G.K. Chesterton who said, “It was his home now. But it could not be his home till he had gone from it and returned to it. Now he was the Prodigal Son.” For Matt Barnes if home is where the heart is, then Sacramento is a locale fit for this King.
Iman Sadri blogs for Persian Media outlets and be followed at @ImanSadriTV