Harrison Barnes Is Paying It Forward

The NBA Bubble brought with it waves of players with energy – nervous, angry, hopeful, and otherwise – looking for ways to find their voice, use their voice, and put their voice into tangible action. Whether through voting initiatives, protests over the racial injustice that’s permeated into every facet of society, a desire to keep family members and friends safe by following expert guidelines during COVID, or otherwise, stars around the league turned to action in a time when they felt their efforts could be the most impactful.

For some, this was a chance to educate and be vocal for the first time. For others like Harrison Barnes, it was a way to amplify efforts that had already been put into place. If Barnes isn’t the most well-read player in the league, he’s damned close, and he’s seen his role off the court transform and adapt the same way he’s seen himself as a veteran shift from Golden State to Dallas to Sacramento.

The Ames native has planted seeds everywhere from Iowa to Chapel Hill and each of the places he’s played, carrying responsibility and an obligation to pay it forward every step of the way. As his profile rises, so does the gravity of the conversations he has with teammates and community leaders, which has led to increased visibility. Barnes was one of the NBA’s Community Assist award nominees, finished fourth in the NBA’s sportsmanship award voting, and was named to the league’s Foundation board of directors along with Gail Benson, Adam Silver, Tobias Harris, Tony Ressler, Michele Roberts, Larry Tanenbaum, and Michael Jordan.

Dime recently caught up with Barnes for a wide-ranging interview late last week as he discussed his community efforts, what he’s reading, how he’s staying in the fight for justice, and how he continues to make an impact locally and universally, one day at a time.

Martin Rickman: I always appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. I think the last time you and I talked was right before the Olympics back in ’16. So it’s been a minute, actually.

A lot of life has happened since then.

Yeah, seriously. It feels like a lot of life has happened, just in this summer alone. I guess that’s a good start for me. This week has been a pretty eventful one for you, especially heading into the news of today with the board of directors. What does that mean for you to kind of put, not just all the change that you’ve been enacting and all the work that you’ve been putting in, not just over the last couple of years, but especially this summer, to not just get the recognition, but to see that kind of snowball into more and more ability to affect change and to do so with the backing of the league?

Yeah, I’m definitely honored to have been selected for the Community Assist Award amongst all those guys who were selected as well. I’ve been following all of their work very closely. And just being even mentioned with those guys is humbling. And to be able to be selected, as well, to the Foundation. To have worked with the NBA and the NBPA of how to distribute the funds in that, to make change, I think it really just is a great opportunity. With everything that’s going on in our society, to be able to pour into the Black community, minority communities that have been disenfranchised.

A big thing I remember when we talked in the locker room forever ago at UNC was you wanting to build that brand for yourself. You spent those years doing that and have had pivot, after pivot, after pivot, in doing so. And you’ve got this opportunity now where yourself … it’s bigger than you. Right now, the moment is bigger than all of us. Is this a situation where you just knew that your voice mattered, and this was something that you could pivot toward to make that difference, because you have that ability that maybe some people don’t, or some people’s voices are voiceless, but you have that opportunity?

For me, it starts with education. And I think being around different voices, exposing myself to different people in different fields, whether it’s authors, whether it’s activists, whether it’s just people in the locker room, people in different organizations, getting as much information as I can and just saying, “Okay, how can I make change?” Yes, I have this platform, but everything that you give to doesn’t have to be national campaigns. It can be something local, it can be something in Ames, Oakland, Dallas, Sacramento, wherever it may be. And that became my focus, and how that kind of snowballed into 2020, is simply just saying, I may not be able to reach millions and millions of people, but hopefully, if I can just reach two or three people and have an impact, whether that’s voting, whether that’s educating them on the violence that’s being committed on the Black community by police, whether that’s education disparities, whatever it may be, that’s what kind of led to today.

Yeah, I know really operating locally seems to be something that you’ve taken a lot of pride in. You’re never going to forget Ames, and keeping your hometown in place is always going to matter, because you have to build the community from where you grew up. But it seems like you really have left those breadcrumbs in each of the places that you’ve been in addition to that, because of the career that you’ve had and the chances that you’ve had to kind of leave that legacy, but not leave a place behind.

Absolutely. Now, I was fortunate growing up that I had people who cared and gave opportunity, who sacrificed a little bit to give me confidence, to give me a chance and opportunity. And, if I can pay that back, whether that’s with somebody who I have a direct relationship with, or who went to the same school as me or whatever it may be, that’s something that I try to do. And, I may not ever meet that person, but hopefully some of the things that my wife and I do, hopefully they can be impacted by that.

Where do you guys get your approach to philanthropy? Has there been anyone who has guided you from a mentorship perspective, that kind of helped you understand, I have this opportunity to invest and be on boards, but a big part of doing that, also is in nonprofit and a lot of the community work that you’ve done?

We haven’t had a mentor for our philanthropic work, in terms of how to structure things or what our approach is. A lot of what we do is simply based off what moves us. Whether it’s food related, whether it’s community involvement, whatever it may be, it’s simply saying, look, there’s a need here and can we help? Whether that’s monetarily, whether that’s with our presence, whether that’s promoting things on social media, whatever it may be. And I think that’s what’s made it more authentic for us. And it hasn’t really seemed like it’s work on our end. And when you talk about bigger foundations and things like that, that’s not really something that we broach, as of this point. It’s mostly just been through our community.

I always see your ability to take what’s happening, kind of nationally, and contextualize it, either through what you’re reading, who you follow, kind of who you engage in, in conversation. And, consistent authors tend to come up, whether it’s James Baldwin or whether it’s someone operating right now, like Bomani Jones or Ta-Nehisi Coates. And, those individuals are able to kind of speak through the experience, and especially the Black experience, which matters so much right now. Who are the authors that you commit to and relate to, other than those? And just how important is staying as educated as you have been, to allow yourself to kind of further that voice and push that voice forward?

Ooh, that’s a great question. Ta-Nehisi Coates actually just did Vanity Fair. And I think, if you kind of go through that issue, there are so many great, great, talented, authors, poets, voices, thought leaders, in that piece. So, I think you could just run down that list and just pick any of those amazing writers, and read their work. And Dr. Carol Anderson is … I absolutely love her work. I was fortunate to be able to do an interview with her and she is great. I highly recommend any of her books because her style really, really, cuts to the heart of issues. So, those would probably be my two recommendations. I also want to add Dr. [Ibram X.] Kendi into that list as well. He’s gotten, rightfully so, a lot of acclaim about his book, How to be Antiracist. But his previous book, Stamped from the Beginning, yes, it is a dense read, but I feel like that is very great work. And I highly recommend people not only check out his work, but check that out.

Harrison’s Reading List


With regards to what you and your wife have done. I know how important it is to have Black women-owned businesses, and how proud you are to be associated with that? How did that business come about? It was a labor of love, it really seemed like, and a matter of years for you guys, on working on that.

Man, I might have to connect you with Brittany to address that because it was really birthed by her. She had been getting her hair done, just when we’re traveling throughout the league, and she really was seeing … she really wanted a place where she could have a great experience. She’d seen that in other industries, but, for Black women, there wasn’t that one place that they could go, in whatever city they were in, and have that. And so she, a couple of years ago was like, “I’m going to create this experience. I want to create this business for Black women to be able to go and to feel great about doing their hair.”

And a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication, COVID, all these things happen, but, she was able to open it up and it’s been a great experience for her. She’s enjoying it. People who’ve come in so far, have enjoyed it. The name of the salon is GoodBody. It’s based in Oakland. I’m just extremely proud that, she not only had the idea, but she had the follow through to see it open.

I feel like a lot of us have had to look internally at ourselves. What have you learned about yourself through this time that we’re in, both from the pandemic, but also from the social situation that has led you to have that personal growth? Because, it’s easy to remain stagnant in situations, but it really does seem like you’ve used this to propel, not just conversations, but yourself again, and to have that personal growth as an individual.

The ability to adapt has been the biggest change in my personal growth since COVID. Before, I would say that I feel comfortable being able to adapt and things like that, but to literally have your whole world shifted upside down, basketball stopping, being confined to the house. Everything now is virtual, hence, we’re on Zoom right now. All of these different things are just completely changing, and learning to adapt, learning to be flexible, learning to figure out different ways of connecting with, not only a family who you may not be able to see, but teammates, coaches. How do you learn virtually, whether it’s conversations with people you admire or just different reading materials?

All these different types of things. I think I just learned to just be adaptable and just say, “Look, this might not be ideal, but I’m going to make the best of this situation.”

It’s funny you say adaptability because, from a professional standpoint, that’s something that you’ve been faced with over and over again, and you’ve done such a great job of. So, it’s funny, we work, and we spend so much time working, but to have that chance to kind of do so in a personal standpoint where you didn’t think to do it, you didn’t think about that as being a personal growth aspect, because you just roll with the punches when it comes to your career, moving from team to team, or doing any of those things.

Exactly, and I think the quarantine really kind of opened up into, okay, if I had a limited time to do something, what would I do? If I said I was going to read this book, if I said I was going to clean this room in the house, if I was going to work on X, Y, and Z, what would be the things that I would do? And, some things I did, some things I didn’t do. But I think it just kind of gave me a little bit more perspective about how to be adaptable in your personal life, rather than just on the basketball floor.

Yeah, I was actually watching a conversation with George Mumford and Scottie Pippen as part of a Calm event through American Express. And that was something that they’d mentioned was, not just being able to wake up and face the day from a personal perspective, but being willing to kind of let those things in and do those body scans and be willing to acknowledge what’s happening that day, and then allow it to happen. I think we’re in a place here where, if you didn’t take this time to be more forgiving of who you are, but also to allow yourself that opportunity to grow, you almost did yourself a disservice. So it feels like it’s been that time where we all could reflect and then really work on that mantra of just “be better,” on a daily basis.

Mindfulness is huge. I read George Mumford’s book. It was actually recommended to me by Steph Curry. He worked with the Bulls, he worked with the Lakers. I think that’s such an important component, not just in sports, but just in life. And we’re fortunate here in Sac, we work with a great woman by the name of Dr. Andrea Becker, who’s definitely been helpful, especially during this COVID time of, how do you stay mindful? How do you stay present? How do you get the most out of every moment, which leads to the most out of every day?

Have you found that you’ve been able to take on a role with some of the younger players that you maybe weren’t able to do in the past? Just based on kind of the role that you were set in, whether it was in Golden State or Dallas, but now you’re in this situation in Sacramento where you’ve had to wear different hats and you’ve had to be different people, while still maintaining yourself and being who you are. But, this role is evolving for you. And just like in life, where we’re constantly works in progress, but, how do you use your voice to kind of reflect what you’ve learned and kind of build that within the team, just like the same way that you’re building that within the community, in some of the efforts that you’ve made there?

Yeah, I would say my leadership style is growing. Just coming up into the league, I had great examples of great players to learn from, to play alongside, whether it’s Steph, whether it’s Dirk, whether it’s an ultimate professional, like a guy like Andre Iguodala. So to be able to be around those guys and their leadership styles, it was always, the work came first. I’m going to be the hardest worker in the room. I’m going to take care of my body. I’m going to do the things I can do to excel physically, every single day.

So, that’s definitely a style I approach, I embody. But, as I’ve gotten older, I realize how important your voice is. And, while I’m an open book, it’s not necessarily my nature to necessarily go to somebody and, not tell them what to do, but subtly suggest what to do. So, that’s been an area of growth for me actually, just in terms of how I can engage younger guys and how I can, whether it’s share my experience, give my expertise, give my two cents, so they can get the most out of their abilities.

Do you find that some of the off-court conversations that you’ve had with those intelligent individuals, who’ve been successful in a variety of fields, that you’ve been able to kind of take away, either little nuggets of how they divide their day or how do they spend their time, what do they read, what do they do? But not just that, but almost attribute some of those things into practice, so that you can take those on the court?

Yeah, I would say, even since I was drafted in 2012, the approach to training, the approach to treatment, the approach to the game has shifted tremendously. If you watched an NBA game in the middle of February in 2012, versus a NBA game in February in 2020, you’d be like, “Where are the centers? Why is there a 6’4 guy playing power forward? Why are these different things going on?” So kind of what I was going back to earlier, just about being adaptable and just saying, “Look, this may be how I’ve done things, but now I understand the need to change.” And, I invite any of the younger guys that I play with, kind of into that experience of, look, this is an art. This is a constantly evolving art, the game of basketball. And you’re welcome to join my process at any point.

You feel like a lot of that, not just the on-court stuff with how the game’s changed, because that definitely is the case, but with how the process has been more open, and the way that players have kind of evolved in their ability to take things from a variety of different mediums, do you think that the time in Golden State had a lot to do with that?

One hundred percent, without a doubt. You got guys like Andrew Bogut, Richard Jefferson, Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, David Lee, Andre Iguodala, guys who were always having conversations with me about things that were outside of basketball, whether I was playing well, or I wasn’t playing well, whatever it may be. And that really kind of got me thinking, talking, having different conversations, and me learning so much from those guys. Each and every one of those guys, I felt like I learned something definitely, from them, and still have relationships with them to this day, because of those conversations.

Where does golf fit into this for you? One of our writers [the great Robby Kalland] feels like that’s his place. That’s where he’s able to go to kind of put himself in a headspace to basically do a form of meditation, even though he’s not a meditative guy. And I know Steph and Iguodala and some of those other guys are that way when it comes to golf.

Yeah, I’ve had tons of teammates that … it’s hot or cold. You either love golf or you hate it. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around different guys. Bobby Jackson is one of my coaches here in Sac, and dude is playing all the time. I’m out here on the course with him right now. Kent Bazemore, another guy, great friend and teammate, loves golf. So I feel like, for me, it’s an opportunity to work different muscles, mentally. This game, it has so many ups and downs in one day. And it’s a great way, and after you’ve gone to the gym, you’ve worked out, you’ve done all your stuff, to just come out here and relax.

Yeah, it’s really just facing you. And so, if you’re in a good place when you’re golfing, even if you’re not shooting well, you’ll be in a good place on the course. It’s just, it’s a mirror almost, to your own mindset and to who you are. And I think the people who struggle with that are the same ones who maybe struggle with being able to let go, or being able to just kind of let things happen. If you’re trying to force it, it’s just like trying to win a championship. If you’re trying to force a championship, you’re not going to win one. You’ve got to kind of let the process come to you.

Absolutely, and I am a terrible golfer. Somebody on their first time golfing is probably the level I’m at. It’s something I enjoy, coming out here and learning. But by no means, would I consider myself any good.

What does voting mean to you and what have these last months taught you about this process that you’ve been able to kind of share and keep pushing that message forward, whether that was in the bubble or otherwise?

A lot of the change you want to see in society lies in officials that we elect, we choose to put there. And I think, well, I hope, whenever this interview comes out, that people have registered, and have gone out to vote. And they’ve taken their time to educate themselves on these issues because it is very important. And for somebody to say, “Oh, my vote doesn’t matter and my voice isn’t going to be heard.” This is how you counteract that. And not just in November, but, whether it’s local elections that are coming up, in your city, in your state, those are just as important as well. And I think the more people that we have that do vote and that do make their voices heard, I think, the better shape our society will be.

Do you feel like there’s been a change within the locker room? Are the conversations changing a little bit within, even just team by team? And was there a specific event that, maybe was the catalyst for that, do you think?

I don’t know if it was a specific event, but I feel like guys have become more and more vocal about helping their communities, about addressing social justice issues, about voting. And, COVID, I think, was a big catalyst for, if a guy maybe, was on the sidelines, or maybe he didn’t know how to get connected, I think there are more and more resources that are being made available to guys, to do something. And, even not only just in the NBA, but even just the younger athletes who are expressing their voices and their thoughts on social media, whether they’re witnessing these protests, or maybe a part of these protests. So I think as we continue to move forward, I think more and more guys will continue to be more vocal, and those conversations in the locker room, are occurring.

Where does mental health fit into the picture for you personally? I know that’s something that the league has really rallied behind and you see guys like Kevin and DeMar and other individuals, even with the Stockton Kings, with Kyle Guy, who’s been so vocal about that, and his own struggles. Where does that fit in for you personally and kind of, how have you seen that change?

Yeah, I put mental health with, for me, with mindfulness, being present, trying to get the most out of every moment, not allowing anxiety or worry or doubt or any type of frustration or imbalance that I have going on, to kind of take me out of where I’m at, whether that’s on the basketball court, whether that’s when I’m at home with family, whether that’s, wherever I may be. I think that’s so important. And a lot of times, people, they just assume that they’re athletes, they just flip a switch, everything mentally just goes out the door and you just get to this level and play, but there’s life outside of the court. And while a guy can have a great performance, that person can also be hurting off the floor. And I think it’s so important to, just like you train your body, to train your mind and have self-care.

Last question for you. Just how important are programs like the Boys and Girls Club for you, and where does your devotion and your relationship to them stem from?

Man, the Boys and Girls Club to me is huge. I grew up in the Boys and Girls Club in Ames. I’ve always had reading academies in all the cities that I’ve been to, whether it’s in Oakland, Dallas, Sacramento, I’m associated with that. And I feel like it’s a great place for kids to go, to feel safe, to be themselves. You can get help with your homework, you can play sports. It’s a safe haven. And, it’s been an organization that I’ve been thankful for in my childhood, and I’ve tried to support, my wife and I have tried to support everywhere we’ve been.