Late in a game in early March, the surging Los Angeles Clippers were beating the Phoenix Suns when an incident occurred that could easily have derailed the game, and possibly much more.
The Clippers were up by 14 with 5:20 left. Clippers’ small forward Matt Barnes took a deep three point shot that bounced high off the rim. His teammate, young superstar power forward Blake Griffin, jumped for the rebound but lost balance, falling in a heap on top of small forward P.J. Tucker, a hard-nosed, physical young player who made his mark in the NBA this year as the Suns defensive stopper and physical enforcer.
In a league full of physical specimens, Griffin might be the most outrageously gifted of them all. He is 25 years old, 6’10 and 250 pounds. He is massively muscled, Hulk-like, but what is most unusual is that his size does not prevent Griffin from possessing an almost ethereal agility. He leaps and runs with the grace of a world class track athlete but the force of an NFL linebacker. His physical gifts combined what coaches like to call “ high basketball IQ” — an instinctual, unteachable sense of the game’s flow — make him a nearly unstoppable offensive player. As a result, opposing players have resorted to to simply beating on Griffin. Arguably no player in the NBA is subjected to more physical punishment on a nightly basis, but he bears it with an icy poise — he glares after hard fouls, but is disciplined enough to never take the bait.
But when Griffin landed on Tucker, the two became tangled, and as Griffin tried to stand up, Tucker took a shot at Griffin’s head. His skull was jolted back on his neck; the big man reeled back on his feet for a moment, and then something seemed to snap. He started to roar forward.
“Blake is as hot as I’ve ever seen him,” said Ralph Lawler, the Clippers play-by-play announcer who has seen every professional game Griffin has ever played.
Several players ran towards the melee, and a small, brave referee jumped in between Griffin and Tucker. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, another body dove into the pile, like a football player going after a fumble. Barnes had run full speed from half court, where he’d been backpedaling to play defense, and somehow was able to cut through the mess of bodies, grab Tucker, and pull him away from Griffin, towards the Suns’ sideline.
Barnes, who is a wiry 6’7, has long been one of league leaders in technical fouls per-minutes-played, and he has been ejected — rightly or wrongly is a matter of some debate — four times in the last two seasons.
But Barnes had just played the role of peacemaker.
Had Griffin fought back, he would have been ejected, at a minimum, and could easily have faced suspension. Barnes prevented this from coming to pass, and managed to it without getting ejected himself.
“I didn’t throw elbows, I didn’t punch nobody,” said Barnes of the incident a few weeks later. “I just kind of broke it up. And maybe a few years before it would have been different.”
Barnes, known for his volatility, praised Griffin’s equanimity.
“He really gets beat up every game,” Barnes said. “We tell him, ‘You know, one time you just might need to clean someone out.’ And he has that in him, but he’s like, ‘No, I don’t want to get tee’d up, I don’t want to get kicked out, I don’t want to get suspended and hurt my team.’ So you really have to take your hat off to jim to put up with that physical beating but still keep coming at you. With me, that wouldn’t happen.”
Barnes, who is 34 and has played with eight teams over the course of a ten year NBA career, has grown into a leader on a young Clippers team that for the first time in franchise history is a legitimate title threat.
He is one of the team’s best perimeter defenders and outside shooters. After battling injuries for the first half of the season, Barnes has emerged as the team’s starting small forward. He is second on the team in three point shots made and, remarkably, third in rebounds per game.
But what Barnes brings to the table is beyond numbers. Barnes is the guy you hate if he’s on the other side and love when he’s on your side; he’s relentless, physical and gets inside opposing player’s comfort zones as a defender. He’s also the team’s enforcer. Everytime there is a scuffle involving one of his teammates, Barnes inserts himself in the middle of the conflict. It’s earned him a reputation among referees that has often made him a target for technical fouls and quick hooks.
Coach Doc Rivers calls him the team’s “edge” and says he wouldn’t have it any other way. He embraces Barnes’ reputation.
“ I think half of that is earned, and half of it is misunderstood,” Rivers said. “You know, I don’t think you are given a reputation — I think you earn one, for the most part….I like what Matt brings and I like his reputation. He’s on the edge, and that’s good. He’s keeping it clean, and that’s good. He’s had a couple flagrants [technical fouls] that, if it was me, it wouldn’t have been one. But you know, it is what it is.”
Barnes, who was a star football player in high school in Northern California, likewise embraces this part of his role with the team.
“Yeah, the edge. I like that,” he said. “ I am a no nonsense guy. I don’t ever want to go out there and put air in my chest or act any certain way. I am just a competitor. I really think of myself as a football player playing basketball. Football is a very physical, tough sport, and that’s the mentality I try to bring — only to a certain extent, because they blow whistles at anything now. But you get down in that paint, it’s going to be physical, it’s going to be tough, and that’s my big part of my game.”
But Barnes also says that his reputation doesn’t entirely reflect who he is. He lives in Redondo Beach with his wife, Gloria Govan, and their twin 5-year-old boys Isaiah and Carter, in part because he loves the laid back vibe of the Beach Cities. He very actively runs a foundation, Athletes vs. Cancer, that he founded in memory of his mother, Ann, who died of cancer in 2007 just as Barnes was firmly establishing himself as an NBA player. The tattoo across his abdomen, in fact, is of his mother — with angel’s wings.
“I am such a competitive, aggressive athlete, but then off the floor I am a dad, I am a husband, and I have a foundation.” Barnes said. “I think I am judged a lot of times by my tattoos and my physical play on the court. But off the court I am chill, down to earth. I go to the beach all the time with the kids, relax, hang out, read, watch movies. People seem to have a major misperception of who I am, off the court.”
Barnes has not had an easy road to success in the NBA. After playing four years at UCLA, he graduated in 2002 and was drafted in the second round by the Memphis Grizzlies but failed to stick. He spent nearly two years in the development leagues, first with the Fayetteville Patriots and then the Long Beach Jam, before catching on for half a season with the Clippers in 2004. He bounced around the league for the next few years until in 2006-07 season, when he made his mark with the Golden State Warriors. Barnes began the season unheralded and emerged as the team’s starting small forward in a magical run in which the team made the playoffs and knocked off the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks. Barnes had finally found his place in the league.
“It hasn’t been the typical NBA career, or journey, that you hear about,” Barnes said. “Mine has been a constant battle, ups and downs, and persistence. I almost gave up at one point and tried football. But you know I just stuck with it and finally got an opportunity.”
Barnes’ role on that team was very much like his current role with the Clippers. He was its edge. “Very similar role, very similar team,” Barnes said. “I mean, that team was a lot crazier, and we were a lot younger — I think we got a lot of the partying and extracurriculars out [of our system]. But it’s a very similar team in how it’s come together.”
He was no longer in danger of not having a job in the NBA, although after two years at Golden State, he bounced around again, spending seasons in Orlando and Phoenix before landing in LA, with the Lakers, where he played two years.
Two summers ago, Barnes was once again a free agent and was scrimmaging at the Clippers practice facility with former Laker teammate Metta World Peace. According to Barnes, Clippers’ point guard Chris Paul took notice of how well he and Peace were playing and — assuming he was still a Laker — remarked at how tough their team would be. Barnes informed him he was no longer a Laker. “Well, you are a Clipper now,” Paul told him. Barnes was signed a few weeks later after talking with Griffin, with whom he’d scuffled the previous season. “I just kind of explained to him…I play basketball hard-nosed and if you’re not on my team, during that 48 minutes we’re enemies,” Barnes told the LA Times after signing. “He appreciated it and understood where I was coming from.”
The Clippers began to coalesce into an elite team. They’d been freakishly athletic since drafting DeAndre Jordan in 2008 and Griffin in 2009, but when Paul arrived via trade in 2011, the team began to cohere. Paul’s transcendent gift is that he makes those he plays with better. Barnes averaged a career-high 11 points a game in his first season alongside Paul. The team’s chemistry jelled.
“It matters a lot when you really, truly care about somebody,” Paul told ESPN last year. “You’ll dive on the floor for them. You’ll run through that screen for them. You really genuinely care how they feel. It just means a little bit more…You want to win for each other and not just for yourself.”
If the Clippers became a family, Barnes, along with Paul, took on the role of big brother. This is one area where basketball intersects with his life off the court.
“I was raised in a house where I had a younger brother and sister,” Barnes said. “And my dad was one of those dads where if you don’t take care of your brother and sister out in the street, he was going to take care of me. So I’ve always had that protective mentality — if you mess with my family, I am going to get you. That’s something I still carry. I think I’ve got a reputation with the referees because really, all the times I get in trouble in basketball, it’s not because people are messing with me — it’s because I am coming to the aid of someone else, and that is just always going to be in me. I tried to cut that down a little bit because it was starting to cost me a little bit too much money, but for the most part my teammates are my family.”
But there was a lingering sense of something lacking. When Rivers was hired as coach this year, the team made a crucial step in its evolution.
“People used to say we were kind of physically push-arounds, and we’ve got some of the strongest guys in the NBA,” Barnes said. “ I think the weakness was mental toughness.”
According to Rivers, that kind of toughness is part of the edge that Barnes gives the team. “He brings energy,” the coach said. “He’s making shots, which is good. We like his defense. His ability to stretch the floor has been very good for us. He’s been in the league a long time, so he has intangibles that young guys literally can’t have — ball movement, just know-how. The longer you play the more you know.”
Over the past two months, Barnes has been playing some of the best basketball of his life. He spent much of the first half of the season combatting injuries, and then was very nearly traded in February — the team’s charter plan was halted on the runway for two hours at LAX until the trade deadline passed.
“No one was really talking,” Barnes told ESPN the next day. “We were looking around and the captain said [the delay was caused by] bad weather and we’re like, ‘Yeah, bulls—, we’re waiting for that trade deadline.’ I’m just glad it’s over.”
Ever since, he’s played like a man liberated.
“You know, to almost be traded at the deadline was really frustrating, but at the same time I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, ‘I am going to be here, at least for another three months, so let’s just put our heads down and go out there and start playing,’” Barnes said.
If he had it his way, he’d finish his career here. His foundation is now partnering with UCLA’s teen cancer ward to provide scholarships to kids who lose one or both parents to cancer. His foundation focuses on preventative care, as well. His mother, despite regular health checkups, had undetected cancer; she died 27 days after her diagnosis. Barnes’ foundation’s approach to fighting the disease takes on the unbowed attitude he brings to basketball — its motto, borrowed from a cancer survivor, is “Cancer can’t beat me. What makes you think you can?”
He’s also putting down roots in Redondo Beach.
“It’s the beach, man. I mean, having kids, I think there there is no better go-get-your-energy-out running around all day and get tired than the beach,” Barnes said. “It’s beautiful. If they were going to be in LA, it’s so hectic, and congested everywhere. But at least you have some peace when you come back to the South Bay. Besides my one little incident in Manhattan Beach, it’s been great living here for the last four years. We are actually about to buy a house, so the South Bay is home for us now.”
He had a much publicized run-in with the Manhattan Beach police in 2012. The same officer pulled him over four times in a month, and tried to arrest him outside MB Post for what turned out to be a resolved traffic violation (and became resisting arrest instead). Like with referees, Barnes believes his reputation may have preceded him. He was driving home from practice wearing a “wife-beater” sleeveless t-shirt and his tattoos were showing when he was pulled over for not having a front license plate.
“They got me,” he said, laughing. “How many people don’t have a front license? At the same time, there are stereotypes, and you can’t really blame them. Because that is just the way the world is: people are pigeonholed sometimes. And I understand having tattoos could make me a target sometimes. But it’s just who I am. If people get a chance or the time to get to know me — I don’t know any people who actually know me who have anything bad to say about me.”