MORE THAN TEAMMATES
For Matt Barnes, Stephen Jackson’s signing with the Clippers two weeks ago meant a reunion with a lifelong friend, a family member, forever linked by sorrow and the compassion which arose from the darkest days of Barnes’ life.
Their connection is far deeper than the return of a former teammate, more than a revival of the halcyon days of ‘We Believe’ and inspirational postseason runs.
Barnes and Jackson are cut from a similar swath. They are two of the toughest, feistiest and enigmatic players you’ll meet, arriving as fixtures in the league only after toiling through basketball’s minor leagues. Barnes, 33, and Jackson, 35, rarely hint at restraint. They are genuine articles.
“We’ve very similar in our stories and our journeys to the league,” Barnes said, “kind of being kicked around and bouncing around and ending up on the same team, and being similar people as well. We hit it off instantly as teammates, as friends. Our moms were really close. Just to have one of those guys, where you know he’ll do anything for you, on or off the court, is a good feeling because I’m very similar in that way, too.”
The two first became teammates in January 2007, when Jackson was dealt from Indiana to Golden State in a multi-player trade that helped push the Warriors into a playoff darling four months later. When he arrived in Oakland, Jackson said Barnes’ family took his family in almost as their own.
“He was somebody that every time him or his family did something, they called us,” Jackson said. “Any time his sister did something she called us. [Our relationship] was something that wasn’t forced or wasn’t fake at all. It was real organic.”
That bond extended to Jackson and Barnes’ mothers.
“Matt’s mom basically embraced my mom the same way Matt embraced me when I came to the team. They became good friends,” Jackson said.
A few months later, Ann Barnes, was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Barnes began regularly commuting between the Bay Area and his hometown of Sacramento to be with her. Jackson and his mother, Judyette, offered support in any way they could.
“Matt’s mom goes to the hospital out of the blue and she was dealing with a real serious case of cancer,” Jackson said. “It just so happened that they (Ann and Judyette) had begun to get real close at the time. We were already growing a great relationship, but when things started getting tough and it was looking like she wasn’t going to make it, I think my mom was there for her and I was there for Matt.”
On Nov. 27, 2007, Barnes was in Sacramento while the Warriors were slated to play the Phoenix Suns at Oracle Arena, a game Barnes did not want to play in. But his mother insisted.
“I was in Sacramento with her and drove, and we played Phoenix that night and I didn’t want to go to the game,” Barnes said. “She told me, ‘Go to the game, baby. Go play your game and I’ll be here when you get back.’ Unfortunately, she didn’t make it through the night. That’s all she wanted me to do. She knew basketball made me happy and she knew that going through all the stuff [our family] was going through that that was my one time for two and a half hours to try and focus on something else.”
Barnes was never able to speak to his mother again. Ann passed away that night, just 35 days after her diagnosis. She was 50.
“You’re never prepared to lose anybody in your family,” Barnes said. “When you lose your mom, who is arguably your best friend, it’s good to know that there are people. I mean, this is basketball, you have a lot of different teammates and you move around a lot, to find true friends is something special. I would definitely say those two guys being there for me like that really showed.”
The Jacksons did all they could to help ease the pain. Barnes spent hours talking to Judyette on the phone and Stephen, and teammate Baron Davis, were fixtures at Barnes’ home.
“He was there at my house with me every day, just kind of talking with me, hanging out with me. Even if we just sat and watched TV and didn’t say a word to each other, we would just sit there and chill with each other. If I needed anything, I talked to his mom on the phone numerous times. They became almost a second family to me.”
Jackson added: “The bond was just, I guess, ordained by God. I hate that it had to be in that circumstance where Matt had to lose his mom for us to become close or for us to be there for him, but me and my mom didn’t think twice. Matt was my teammate.”
And now they have come full circle.
Barnes and Jackson, teammates for the first time since the conclusion of the 2008 season, return to Oakland, the scene of arguably their most unforgettable experiences of their basketball lives, on Christmas Day. They have been back there plenty of times before, but never together.
“I think us going back to where our friendship started for a big game, it being Christmas, it’s going to be a blast,” Barnes said.
Barnes played a role in helping bring Jackson, who signed Dec. 10, to the Clippers. Call it a verbal letter of recommendation from an old friend.
“I think Matt was one of the main guys fighting for me to get here,” Jackson said. “He knows I’m going to have his back. We’re similar players. We both take pride in playing defense and protecting our teammates.”
Said Barnes, “I was one of the big advocates to get him here, wanting him here, once I heard they were interested. I was kicking and prying and talking to as many people as I could to let them know that not only is he a great fit on the court, but a leader and a good all-around person.”
Nobody would know that better than Barnes.