Photo: Emily Shur for B/R
Editor's note: This story features explicit language some readers may find offensive.
There are beautiful places in this world.
Where warm, sparkling water clear as life slides on pristine beaches without making a sound under palm trees that grow sideways.
Where, a continent away, little black children dash through slums dressed in school uniforms with white beads in their braided hair—their ebullient smiles shielding them from every ill they never deserved.
There is beauty in every corner of this world, he thinks.
He wants their eyes to look upon them. He wants their hearts to know them. To feel every beauty that the gray place he escaped never let him.
They are not like him.
The boys are rambunctious and unaware. They crash into walls and run up and down stairs. They are not afraid. Their smiles cannot be erased, even though they are missing baby teeth. Not on this summer day.
They have football practice today.
The off-white carpet on the steps is ragged and browning slightly. This is what happens when children are about.
He lets them fight in the living room, the one with the 6-foot regulation hoop and panoramic view flooded with sunlight, because it's the only way they may ever learn how to be tough.
He still kisses them on the lips. But thinks they might be too old for that.
It's everything he never got, so he overcompensates. He hates when they push away.
Carter and Isaiah don't know the stuff that parents know. Their innocence protects them. They are just boys.
They know only adventure. They are cared for obsessively. They have never been apart in seven years.
They have never been called nigger.
He is not like them.
In a life of anguish and regret, they are his greatest joy.
Carter darts down the steps to show off his fresh cut. He's seven, six minutes older than Isaiah. His father, Matt Barnes, named him after listening to Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III late in Gloria's pregnancy.
During the ultrasound, as the doctor ran his wand with that cold, blue-green jelly across her round, young belly, Barnes noticed a foot. He was the first one to see him.
He had known Gloria 11 years. They cried that day. Right there in the doctor's office.
One twin has a Mohawk, the other a hipster comb-over. He can't tell them apart in the morning until their hair is done.
"Whoa," Barnes says to Carter, "you gonna drive them ladies crazy, aren't you?"
The lad is as shy as he is dashing. He recoils at the sight of a stranger. He puts his hands over his face to shield himself.
"Introduce yourself," Barnes says softly. "It's OK."
"Hi, I'm Carter," says the boy. He is wearing a Kevin Durant T-shirt, though he loves Steph Curry way more. He scurries to the back bedroom.
"Where you going?" asks his father. "You got football practice."
"I gotta use the bathroom."
"OK," replies Barnes. "Don't pee on the seat."
"We Can Fight or We Can Play Basketball."
In an alcove just off the master bedroom of his four-story Los Angeles penthouse on the water's edge, the NBA's last tough guy—an enforcer held over from a bygone era of brawny ethos, stinking attitude and righteous brutality at the rim whose game is fueled by angst and retribution and a permanent survival instinct—is quite melancholy.
He is 6'8" with almost no discernible body fat. He is cordial, soft-spoken and direct. He scarcely makes eye contact.
He is bored with the Asian fusion in the Tupperware container he picks at with a clear plastic fork.
There are throw pillows on the bed. One reads, "FUCK YOU." The other, "FUCK ME."
Barnes enters his 14th improbable year of NBA survival in the same lane he started, playing the role of a hard-fouling, profanity-spewing, irritating, throwback tough guy who has long taken up residence under the NBA's collective skin.
"Early in my career I had to be a goon to survive," says Barnes. "I did everything I had to do and probably some things I shouldn't have. If I didn't I was gone."
He mastered the art of the hard foul and seemed to have a preternatural understanding of when precisely to deliver one to prevent a run from getting out of hand.
Hip checking, bumping, the accidental elbow to the temple when long arms get untied after the whistle. The inciteful nature of it all.
Matt Barnes has become one of a dwindling number of players willing to deliver a hard foul when necessary—and sometimes when it isn't necessary, too. (Photo: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
The silver bullet in his holster: a two-hand retaliatory shove to an opponent who has committed a grievous act of disrespect, physical or otherwise, against one of his teammates, which generally results in the NBA equivalent of drop-kicking a hornets' nest.
And most important, he strictly adheres to the boldfaced tenet of that hallowed doctrine of the rogue: never back down.
"I grew up in the '80s in an era that was tough. The Pistons, Celtics, Knicks, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason. It wasn't dirty. It was just men playing basketball. I was playing tackle football in the street at five years old. Always being physical. Always being tough, just like a man's man. It was just always about being tough.
"I love to be physical. I'm not trying to hurt anybody, but we're grown-ass men and they're making us play with flags on our shorts. You can't touch anybody anymore. Forget that."
Barnes' motor never stops. If it does, he dies.
"He's one of those guys you play against who makes you go ugh," says Sacramento Kings head coach Dave Joerger. "There goes Matt Barnes—ugh!"
He was told outright by coaches that he wasn't going to shoot and would never be a star. He's never averaged more than 10.3 points per game or made more than $3.5 million in any given year before this season. He's made less than $2 million per year in nine different seasons and never played more than three consecutive seasons with any one team.
But his trademark, orchestrated violence, the hired-muscle thing, has kept him alive. It dovetailed with his reckless skill set and innate need to protect whomever he extended his important, desperate love toward.
"I look at my team like my family," he says. "I would literally die for my family. I'm the protector. That's what I've always done. For some reason I've been on teams with stars—Blake [Griffin], Chris [Paul]—who were picked on or people took cheap shots at. I needed those guys to win, so I had to protect them."
On November 13, 2013, during a Clippers-Thunder clash at Staples Center, Barnes came to the aid of Griffin, who has been the object of hard fouls throughout much of his career, after he got tangled with then-Thunder forward Serge Ibaka.
Barnes shoved Ibaka in retaliation, which set off a prolonged scrum and a three-year war of words between them.
"He's just one of the best teammates I've ever had," Chris Paul says. "You just love him to death. Our kids are friends, he gets along with everyone and he's got your back like no other. There aren't too many guys like that."
"He had our back when he was here," Griffin says. "Those type of guys are so valuable. They're just so hard to find."
Ibaka said Barnes was a clown, his bluster an act. Other detractors who have taken to social media after one Barnes fracas or another also have played down how serious Barnes is.