Mavericks’ Harrison Barnes on Sacramento protest, why he feels the need to speak out, and playing with Dirk
‘At the end of the day, although I play basketball and I do those type of things, I’m still an African-American’
Protests over the recent shooting death of Stephon Clark by Sacramento, California, police spilled over to the front doors of a game between the Kings and the Dallas Mavericks on March 22. Thousands of seats remained empty at the Golden 1 Center as fans were turned away because of the protest. The game went on, and afterward Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes talked about the news off the court.
“I thought that was powerful. Just because players getting involved, trying to make a difference, trying to figure out how to help the city, I think that’s important,” Barnes said. “I think that is a large reason why the [protests] are going on right outside the Golden 1 Center, to continue to not let people forget. To not let the news cycle go on, but to bring awareness to what happened. … It was a powerful moment for us, as players, to be in Sacramento at that time, to play the game.”
Barnes told the media after that Mavericks win that he was glad he had the ability to speak about “police brutality and citizen-police relationships, and the disproportionate number of African-Americans getting killed.” The 2015 NBA champion noted that such conversations need to be had to push for more accountability and spark more action from communities, policymakers and activists. He also stated that while activism is not easy, protesting outside of an NBA game brought more attention locally, nationally and worldwide to Clark’s death.
“I learned about it in the news, and I had heard some talk about potentially doing another protest before the game, so my antennas were kind of up on that,” Barnes said. “And then, when we went out there for the layup line, we saw the crowds empty and there had been some rumblings that it was because of the protests. They closed down the arena. By the time the game time started, everybody sort of knew what was going on.”
Barnes has quietly been one of the most eccentric NBA players, with his interest in government and Silicon Valley, as well as one of the most socially conscious players. He hosted a Black Panther viewing for 150 kids from the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Dallas. The sixth-year NBA veteran has also gone from being a champion with the Golden State Warriors to the leading scorer for the struggling Mavs.
Barnes talked with The Undefeated about the Stephon Clark protests in Sacramento, the importance of having a platform to speak as a celebrity, how the 2014 death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police officers brought him to tears, the ups and downs of the Mavs season, his Christianity, the video posted from his wedding reception that went viral, and more.
How weird was it playing in that sparsely attended game in Sacramento while a protest was going on outside?
It was one of those games where you could tell something bigger was going on. It was kind of like you’re playing, you’re competing, but at the end of the day you know something bigger is going on in this city. And I think that was important for us to realize, understand, why people were upset, how tragic and unfortunate it is, the work that needs to be done to be better about it in the future.
What has been your view on everything going on in society right now with black people and police?
On one hand, it’s almost like you just get tired of seeing these same stories. You get tired of seeing people of color being gunned down by police. People being marginalized, and no response really being done about that. I think the beautiful thing about the game of basketball, and how athletes are regarded in society, is that we have a platform not only to speak but also to amplify things that are going on.
We can essentially be a platform to bring awareness to certain issues like the shooting of Stephon Clark. We can team up with organizations who are doing great work. We can team up with activists who are doing great work. And we can say, ‘Look, you know what? We may not have the solution as basketball players. We may not know a whole lot or be experts about these specific topics. But these people have been on the ground since day one. Been putting in years of work, years of good community gatherings and awareness meetings, and trying to change the community for the better.’
And I find bringing attention to this group right here, boom. Or I want to talk about these people over here who are trying to help people get registered to vote in time for midterm elections, and these people who are working with those people who are incarcerated to get different jobs or these people who are working with families of those who’ve lost loved ones at the hands of gun violence. Whatever it may be, I think it’s important that we continue to speak, we continue to have that dialogue. We continue to bring it to the forefront because, with society now, there is always something new coming up in the news.
There is always something happening. It’s always easy to push painful things to the side and talk about things that are lighter, or funny, or just take less awkwardness to discuss, as opposed to discussing people getting killed, people getting marginalized, race relations, stuff like that.
Is there anything, specifically, that you are involved with now?
At the moment, nothing specific because I’ve always tried to work on, since I’ve been in the league, helping kids in underrepresented or underprivileged communities by promoting education, specifically literacy, because a lot of people know that communities are big resources to help them read. But not only just get to the right reading level but to just push them and to expose them and give them different thoughts. Not only about career paths and stuff like that, but just about their history. That is one thing that is really important.
But also registering people to vote; I think that is a big thing come November. I think getting people involved, getting people easier access to register to vote. And trying to pair with organizations that have been doing the work in that community, to hopefully try to bring more awareness to that.
So, are you going to do anything with midterm voter registration?
No, I don’t have anything in the making. I’m going to do my research, so if anyone has any good ideas, I’m all for it. I definitely want to help and do my research as soon as possible.
Is there anything racially that you had to deal with growing up in Ames, Iowa?
To say that I had to deal with any race issues personally? No, I didn’t have any moments or anything like that. I really stuck out, but I also would have to admit that, because of the fact that I was an athlete, my experience was different than most of my peers. The ability to travel, how athletes are treated and all that type of stuff. It’s just different — and I don’t mean to say that as if I got preferential treatment. I was always exposed to just different things, so I don’t want to say that my experience was the experience that everyone had growing up.
Since you haven’t been racially profiled, you easily could have turned your back to it, and said, ‘Hey, this didn’t affect me individually.’ So why do you have it in you to not be scared to speak about it, and feel like, ‘Hey, what can I do to help? I’d like to help’?
At the end of the day, although I play basketball and I do those type of things, I’m still an African-American. My mom didn’t grow up with privilege. Our family, we weren’t necessarily well-off and have everything, an easy life. Everything was a lot of hard work. As you get older and you have a broader understanding of the lives that African-Americans live here in the States, it’s hard to sit back and say, ‘I’m just going to ignore that.’ I mean, those are your fan base. Those are your friends. Those are going to be your kids someday, and you want them to have a better life than you had.
To sit back and just see the pain, the struggle, particularly black history itself, I mean, the deaths, the tragedy, the hardships, the fight, the inequality, the marginalization, all of that type of stuff, it’s hard to see all that.
Anything in particular, in recent years, that really hit you in terms of African-Americans being marginalized?
My man in New York. ‘I can’t breathe.’ The death of Eric Garner, to me … I remember, I was on a plane. I don’t know where I was going. I remember getting the YouTube video, and watching that, and just being horrified. Upset. You just wanted to yell and cry. It was just a bunch of different emotions watching that. And obviously, I don’t mean to say that it’s, like, his death was the catalyst for me, versus other people. In itself it is really what just made me double down on just trying to stay in the know, trying to see how I can help, doing my research, my history, talking to people and just trying to get involved.
Not the best of segues, but can you talk about the Mavericks’ season?
It’s been a tough season. But that’s part of any rebuilding process. It’s going to be difficult. There are going to be some good days, some tough ones, but I think we’re building for the future. And the guys have gotten better this year, despite our record, despite the wins and losses, and how those games have been going. I’m optimistic that we will continue to build and get better next year.
For someone who has played in the NBA Finals twice with the Warriors, how tough is it to not be in the playoffs at all?
It’s the worst. You want to play in the playoffs. That’s just a whole different level of excitement. It’s fun. As a competitor, you want to play on that big stage. It’s definitely more motivation to. This is the second year now of missing the playoffs, so my motivation is to get back to it.
Would it be safe to say that last year was the first time you missed the postseason since before you went to high school?
Since my sophomore year in high school. Yeah, that was the first time I wasn’t in the postseason, and that was tough. It was a tough pill to swallow. Just because as a competitor, you want to play in the playoffs. You want to get to the first, second round thinking, ‘Oh, can we get to the conference finals or the Finals?’ You don’t want to be like, ‘All right, our season’s done on this date. Let’s enjoy a five-month golf season.’ No one goes into a season saying that.
What can you say about your faith in Jesus Christ, and Christianity? Seems like your team also is pretty strong. I assume you guys do some Bible study together. Perhaps some of that started with the Warriors. Where does your faith come from?
I was fortunate to be able to grow up in a Christian home, to know the faith at a young age and throughout the course of my life, and especially my basketball career, to have godly teammates. To have people who could encourage me in the faith, in the ups and downs of tough personal times to tough times on the court.
It’s rare to kind of have those brothers that just kind of push you and move you forward. And when I got to the NBA, the Warriors, we had a bunch of guys who believed — we went to chapel — who spurred each other on in the faith, that was great for me to see. It’s one thing when you are all in high school, you’re all from the same city, or you’re in college and you guys live together. But everyone talks about how the pros are so different, with a lot of different personalities.
Some guys are young and single. Other people have families. But to just have that shared connection over God was huge. And guys who I made connections with, I still have connections with to this day, from that team, and then I was fortunate again, when I came to Dallas, that faith was another big part of this team. Not only with the coaches, with the players, the organization. I thought that was huge. You know, we have chapel before the games. You’ll see some coaches in there, some players in there, couple front-office people.
So it’s great to see that side as well, and when I was young I used to always be like, ‘Aw, man, my calling in life is to be a basketball player. I was put on this earth to play basketball.’ But I’m fortunate enough to realize that basketball is a part of my purpose, but it is not my purpose. My purpose is to live for God, to bring him glory and to share my faith. So I’m fortunate enough that I get to do that, and to play basketball. But more importantly, just to keep God at the center of my life, that’s the most important thing for me.
What kind of faith connection do you have with your Mavericks teammates?
Yeah, we have guys that go to chapel together. We’ve got guys that have been to church together, guys on a Bible app together, so we do a bunch of different things. None of it is forced. It’s all just whenever guys have time, whenever they want to do it. But I think it’s just encouraging to see guys growing in the faith like that.
It’s one thing, on the basketball court, to have great chemistry, and to go through the wins and losses and ups and downs of the season. But I think it’s another thing to really make that spiritual connection, that guys can take that with them, long after their careers are done, long after the ball stops bouncing.
How do you look back at your Warriors career at this point? Is it hard to not pay attention to what they’re doing?
It’s not hard to pay attention. They’re one of the best teams in the league, so naturally you’re going to hear about them. But I was very fortunate. A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to be put in a great situation, to be able to contribute to a great situation, to be able to have playoff experience early in my career. To be able to play alongside great players, All-Star players. It was phenomenal for me. So it definitely, it helped me grow a lot. A lot of those relationships I still have.
At the same time, obviously you want to be competitive. You want to compete against those guys. But I’m definitely very fortunate for everything that I learned and went through with the Warriors.
Well, what have you learned from Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki? What’s the biggest lesson you could learn from him?
Dude is going to play forever. He’s never going to retire. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. When I first came to the team, we were getting extra [shots up] after practice, and we’re going. And I looked at him one time and I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re almost 40, man.’ Most guys who are 40 … obviously, I’m on the same team as Dirk as far as, like, being able to work out with him every day, and to put in extra time, and, like, he’s probably too old to be doing that.
But I mean, whether it’s lifting, whether it’s offense coming in or it’s post-practice shooting, he is truly a gym rat. It’s a testament to him. When you look at everything he’s accomplished, the All-Stars, the All-NBA, the championship, the 30,000 points, it all comes back to his work ethic. And he constantly puts in work. So it’s been great these past two years. Going into next year, just being his teammate, we’ll see how many more years he’s got left. But I just think he’s phenomenal.
What are your thoughts on Mavericks rookie sensation Dennis Smith Jr.?
He’s been really consistent as a rookie, which is tough to do, especially at the point guard position. No question, he has all the tools to be a great player in this league for a long time.
What are your thoughts on the Mavericks hiring outside counsel to investigate allegations of inappropriate conduct by former team president Terdema Ussery in a Sports Illustrated report that described a hostile workplace for women?
How did you take it when that video of Stephen Curry dancing and Kyrie Irving egging him on got out on social media from your wedding reception last summer in which they were playfully teasing LeBron James?
At the time I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal. No way. I saw it when it happened live, but I’m thinking I don’t see any cameras, no one is recording anything, no one’s going to be seeing this.
So the next day, we go to brunch and one of my boys touched me, like, ‘Yo, the video is everywhere.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He’s like, ‘The video at the wedding …’ And I’m thinking there was no video at the wedding. No one had their cameras out or whatever. And, you know, there was a guest there who recorded video and put it out. It’s not like he had a bunch of followers or whatever, but …
Did you say anything to that guest?
At that point, it was like wildfire, so for me to be like, ‘Hey, can you take it down?’ or ‘What were you doing?’ It was like, that was so beyond. Even doing it was kind of like, well, it is what it is. If they have a problem with it, hopefully they’ll, you know, they’ll let me know and not internalize it. But it’s kind of just out there.
Kyrie and Steph actually left the next morning, early, so I didn’t even get a chance to see them and ask about it. But it seemed to be all good.
As a friend of Kyrie’s, what kind of support system did you give him last summer when he asked for a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers and wound up with the Boston Celtics? Obviously, all the trade talk was going on with him around the time of your wedding, in which he was a groomsman.
I was obviously happy for him, that he was able to be in a situation of which he’s happy. He feels like he’s able to do everything he can as a player. He’s obviously in a great situation with a great organization, so that’s always a win-win. And obviously I wish him best of luck.
You won an Olympic gold medal with USA Basketball in 2016 in Brazil, and you were placed on their 35-man national team roster from 2018-20. How did it feel to be selected again?
Representing your country is one of the highest honors, so I’m thankful for the opportunity to be in the pool of players for USA Basketball.