It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for 14-year NBA journeyman Matt Barnes. He ate Philly cheesesteaks and drank Hennessy with Boogie Cousins after the Kings game in Philadelphia was postponed. In Brooklyn, he accidental converted on a three-pointer while throwing alley-oop. Knicks fans at Madison Square Garden serenaded Barnes with “Derek Fisher!” chants. He also turned himself in to the New York Police Department last Wednesday after being charged with assault for a December incident at a Chelsea nightclub.
Barnes has gotten himself into plenty of trouble on and off the court over the years. He’s been called a clown, a cancer, a goon, a thug and an a—hole. He throws elbows, spews profanity, and fights for every loose ball. He’s also had to fight for his job and paycheck at almost every turn. But his trademark, playing the role of a throwback tough guy, has kept the controversial forward employed.
“Absolutely, I think if I didn’t play with a chip on my shoulder I wouldn’t be here,” Barnes told me in the Sacramento locker room. “I played my first six, seven, eight years were auditions, I was on a one-year deal so every game I played like it was my last. So I’ve kind of kept that mentality throughout my career and man I’ve stuck around this long, so.”
The 36-year old Barnes was close to rejoining the Clippers for a third go-round in the summer, but the well-traveled veteran ended up signing with the Sacramento Kings on a two-year deal worth $12 million with a player option in the second year.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play for all four teams in California but heading towards the end of my career, with kids that are 8-years old now, I definitely wanted to be closer to home,” said Barnes, who grew up in the lower-middle class Citrus Heights neighborhood of Sacramento.
Barnes’ journey to becoming a league-wide mercenary for hire has been anything but easy. After playing four years at UCLA, he was drafted 46th overall in 2002 by the Memphis Grizzlies. But the gritty, 6-foot-7 swingman failed to stick and his first shot came with the Fayetteville Patriots of the D-League back in 2002, the second year that the NBDL was a thing. The following season, Barnes suited up with the Long Beach Jam of the seven-team American Basketball Association, where he averaged 18.9 points and briefly was teammates with Dennis Rodman during the 2003-04 campaign.
“I mean obviously more eyes were on us,” Barnes said. “But just getting a chance to play with a legend like that, just a good laid back dude, was definitely a cool experience.”
Rodman didn’t exactly help kickstart Barnes’ NBA career, but in January of 2004 the Clippers came calling with a 10-day contract and the volatile forward has bounced around the Association ever since. He made a 6-game cameo for the Knicks during Larry Brown’s disastrous season in the Big Apple. Then came a stint with Allen Iverson’s 76ers. Barnes finally found his place in the league as a part of the 2006-07 “We Believe” Warriors of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and a young Monta Ellis. But he didn’t find a permanent home.
There was a season spent in Phoenix with Steven Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Shaquille O’Neal. Barnes then went to the Eastern Conference Finals with Dwight Howard’s Magic. He’s played in Los Angeles for Kobe’s Lakers and “The Lob City Clippers.” Last season, he was fittingly a part of the Grit N’ Grind Grizzlies. Heck, Barnes has been around so long that he’s played for Rick Adelman’s Kings and now Dave Jaeger’s. He’s been there for C-Webb and now Boogie.
The thing that always struck me about Barnes is that he brings an oddly admirable professionalism to the game. I call it “oddly professional” because he is not exactly the most gifted basketball player. He has never made any All-Star teams and he’s never played more than three consecutive seasons with any one team. He has never averaged more than 10.3 points per game or made more than $3.5 million in any given year before this season. No, Barnes knew exactly why he was there and what they were paying him to do.
“I play hard,” Barnes, who has mastered the art of the hard foul, said. “Some people take that one way, some people take it the other way. Like you said, when I’m with you, you love me. When I’m not you hate me. It is what it is. It doesn’t affect me either way. But when I’m out there I’m going to play hard, I’m going to treat my team like my family and even though I have friends on other teams when it’s game time there are no friends except your team.”
What Barnes brings to the table is beyond numbers. The unabashed agitator is the guy you hate if he’s on the other side and love when he’s on your side. He’s played the enforcer on every team in his career, perhaps making him a better fit in the Bad Boy Pistons era of the late 1980’s and ‘90s when the NBA was a man’s league. But Barnes also says that his reputation doesn’t entirely reflect who he is.
“I just play hard,” Barnes said. “I don’t necessarily know if it’s a tough guy image or mentality, I just play hard and my reputation I guess kind of precedes me.”
A lightning rod off and on the court, Barnes has racked up close to $390,000 in fines from the NBA since 2011 alone. He has long been one of league leaders in technical fouls per-minutes-played, and he’s been ejected too many times to count. He once famously said about his ex-wife’s current lover Derek Fisher, “violence is never the answer but sometimes it is.”
Barnes is now 36, no longer a starter and part of a Sacramento committee that soaks up minutes at small forward in the aftermath of Rudy Gay being lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles. In 49 games, he is averaging 7.4 points, seventh on the team, 5.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists. Last Tuesday marked his 900th improbable game, and despite everything the NBA’s last tough guy is still here.
“I wasn’t even supposed to make it and to be in my 14th year and still being productive, it’s a blessing.”