Matt Barnes doesn’t care what you think of him. Go ahead, call him an asshole, call him a punk. He’s heard worse. Just because we live in an era of cheap outrage and make-nice apologies doesn’t mean he’s buying in. So other teams hate him? So what? Back in the ’80s and ’90s, being hated was a virtue, a sign of a primal competitive edge that’s been gradually smoothed away by sports agents, PR reps and the tyranny of the ever-present camera.
Always quick to a whiff of controversy, the media may sell Barnes as a rebel, unafraid to burst the bubble of the NBA’s tacit, mutual admiration society. But the bedrock truth is, the 12-year veteran (currently on his second stint with the Los Angeles Clippers) is a man with something to lose – namely, his job – and he plays like it.
Like Tayshaun Prince and Joakim Noah (or a young Dennis Rodman), Barnes is one of those rangy, psychotically competitive players who make it uncomfortable, and often unpleasant, for opponents to share the floor with him. This is an excellent quality in any player, but traditionally falls to unreconstructed specimens on the order of Kurt Rambis and the great Rick Mahorn. Instead, the 35-year-old Barnes is a rare combination of balance and versatility on both ends of the court, and while he’s not one to take over games on offense, he has an above-average shooting touch and a brawler’s heart.
As the Clippers prepare for Game 3 of their playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs, Rolling Stone spoke with Barnes about his hard road to the pros, his role as the team’s resident DJ and his many, many tattoos.
Recently, against Golden State, you got called for a late foul on Andre Iguodala that essentially decided the game. It seemed like a pretty loose interpretation of the NBA’s “undercutting rule”. What did you think of the call?
Man, I couldn’t believe it. When it comes to me, it seems like the interpretations are gonna be even looser than normal. I just think I kind of developed a reputation early on in my career. Kind of survival, do anything needed to stay, and now that I’m in, I’ve earned that reputation. I try to turn it around, but they’re not really giving me a chance to. So, oh well.
When did you first start playing basketball?
I actually came to basketball kind of late. I grew up playing football. I came from a football family, so a part of me didn’t take basketball seriously till around high school. I played everything growing up: football, baseball, basketball, track. I started obviously focusing more on basketball when I got to high school. So that’s how it went.
You’ve played in the D-League and the ABA. What was that like?
It was tough. The minor leagues are nothing to hang your hat on. Bus rides everywhere, terrible hotels, no money and just not a life I wanted to be a part of. So being there for a season really just made me hungrier and grind harder, and once I made it, it gave me a greater appreciation for the NBA.
How much money did you make in those leagues?
I want to say every two weeks you got around $2,000. And that was before the D-League [teams] were really flying anywhere. That was early on, so it’s just long bus rides, all over the East Coast. I hated it. To come from California and go to that – it’s freezing and snowing. It was a rude awakening.
Why did you move from the D-League to the ABA?
There was just a team in L.A., and I was hoping I could be seen by one the L.A. teams and get out of that hellhole. And it worked out.
I was told you were the Clippers’ resident DJ. How did that happen?
I always have music on no matter where I’m at, or what I’m doing. I just love music. I’ve always been that way. Anytime in the locker room, on the plane playing cards; sometimes we go to dinner and it’s just us. If we have a little private room, I’ll bring my boombox in my backpack, and you know, add to the party.
What’s in the rotation right now?
Right now? Big Sean and Drake, some Missy, Dom Kennedy. Kendrick Lamar. I like a rap mix, and then I’m a big ’90s R&B guy, too. My favorite music is definitely R&B, but my favorite rapper of all time is Tupac. I’m always listening to Tupac before the games to really get me going, but I know that’s probably not really for the masses – when I’m a team DJ, I gotta take requests.
You have a ton of tattoos. When did you start getting them?
My mom always said, “You better not get a tattoo while you’re living under this roof.” But I snuck one on my 17th birthday. It was a big one, on my arm, and I tried to hide it from her. And it worked for three days, maybe. But when she saw it, she kinda liked it, and once she didn’t cuss me out or ground me, I knew it was open season. I started going from there and I haven’t stopped.
What was that original tattoo?
It was the old And 1 shoe logo. They used to have the basketball guy who tore the rim off, and he had the ball in the other arm – a basketball tattoo that I’ve since covered up, but that was my first. I’m covered now. Waist-up. Arms-up. Top of my back. And I’m gonna do my last piece this summer on my back.
What’s that one gonna be?
I’m thinking ‘The Last Supper’. My mom died from cancer in 2007, so I’ll have her at the head of the table. And I told you how much I love music, so I’ll probably have, like, Tupac, Biggie, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson. Legends of the music game, along with my mom.
Is there an age limit for a person to get their first tattoo?
I don’t think so. This generation, we’re more of the tattoo generation. Before, it was socially unacceptable. It meant you were a thug or some kinda criminal or in a bike gang or a white supremacist. But now, you see CEOs and regular people with tattoos. If it’s meaningful, who gives a shit what anyone else has to say about it?
Do you play video games?
I don’t. I used to be big-time into video games, and then when I got with my ex-wife, she kinda shut that down. Now that my kids are getting into it, it’s my window to get back into it. So now I play my kids, who are six years old, and I beat them. So I may make a video-game comeback. I was deep into Madden.
What’s your favorite food?
Mexican or Italian. I’m Italian and black, so I learned how to cook at an early age from my mom and dad. I’ve been cooking and baking since I was 11 or 12 – everything from homemade lasagna to fried chicken to meatloaf, and I barbecue. I’m pretty well-rounded in the kitchen.
So I know you don’t want this season to end, but when it does – hopefully with a Clippers championship – what are your plans?
In the summertime, me and DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin usually pick three or four countries to travel to in Europe, usually for two weeks. We bounce around and do stuff on the fly. Last year we went to Greece, Spain, Croatia and Amsterdam.
Which was your favorite?
Greece is beautiful. Croatia was amazing. The only thing in Croatia I didn’t like was that all their beaches are rocks. Like, real rocks. So the way we walk around and play on sand is how they walk around and play on rocks! But my favorite was probably Amsterdam. Just a cool, laid-back culture. A lot of bikes. Everyone’s just at ease for some strange reason.