Matt Barnes is seated at a table, signing a large stack of Los Angeles Clippers hats, accompanied by Baron Davis and Ray Young. A few feet away, two outdoor basketball courts are filled with youngsters running back and forth in a pair of ferocious scrimmages.
But that’s where the scene gets a bit surreal. Inside a nearby theater, another group of kids are playing one of EA Sports’ newest basketball video games — on a stage, with the action being shown on a theater screen. An audience of kids are watching the screen and cheering. Soon, Barnes enters the theater, but no one seems to notice him. All eyes are on the screen.
This anomaly, an unlikely marriage between the virtual and flesh-and-blood basketball worlds, is the brainchild of Clippers’ small forward Barnes and his childhood friend, EA Sports’ Roy Stigall. Barnes and Stigall grew up together in Sacramento, and eventually their career paths brought them back together to form a unique children’s basketball camp on the EA Sports campus in Redwood Shores, CA (about 25 miles south of San Francisco).
Now in its seventh year, the Matt Barnes Basketball Camp is one of the most successful camps in the nation — with 170 kids ages 5 to 14 on board this year, which is about 20 more than capacity.
Why the demand? Well, each year Barnes gathers a group of his NBA pals and former teammates to participate in the camp, held during the two weeks straddling July and August. This day, Barnes, Davis, Jelani McCoy, Ray Young and Ekpe Udoh are there. Oh, and we’re waiting for an appearance by Gilbert Arenas. Blake Griffin is supposed to show up on Friday.
But this is 2014, and the biggest draw is really the EA Sports Game Room. Kids at Barnes’ camp not only learn the fine points of screening and passing, but get to test a stable of the tech giant’s newest sports video games. And when the outside basketball world meets the virtual one, the results are kind of magical.
“It’s kind of impressive, seeing all those kids playing video games on that size of a screen,” camp director Moose Bailey, a former UCLA teammate of Barnes’, told me on Tuesday. “The kids get to test a lot of the new video games, and that’s a big selling point. Sometimes you don’t know if they’re here for that, or to see NBA stars.”
Ten-year-old King Wilhite, a fifth-grader from San Francisco, knows the truth.
“I love the video games, it’s the best part,” the youngster said. He had just played a video game a few minutes before, and ended up lying flat on the stage, exhausted, when the contest ended in a 22-all tie.
“But you learn a lot of other stuff, too.”
Barnes was born in Silicon Valley (Santa Clara), but grew up in Sacramento, attending Del Campo High in Fair Oaks. He and Stigall are childhood friends.
“When I joined the Warriors he was able to come to our games,” Barnes said of Stigall. “He had a job at EA Sports, and kept telling me to check out the campus here. I did, and fell in love with it.”
Barnes was planning his camp, and the two approached the EA Sports top brass about staging it on their campus. And so the unique marriage was formed.
“A lot of the camp involves teaching skills and fundamentals, but mostly we want the kids to have fun,” Barnes said. “And part of that is in this place right here.”
He takes me to the EA Sports theater — a medium-sized movie theater with several control consoles in the back and a stage and movie screen in the front. About 150 campers are in the theater seats, or standing near them, anyway.
Two sets of two kids each are playing the new NBA Jam game, which is projected onto the big screen. One team is the Clippers, the other the Warriors. Playing for the Clippers are Barnes’ two sons, 5-year-old twins Isaiah and Carter.
With each basket, the crowd goes wild.
Now Barnes is waiting for Arenas.
“He promised he’d be here,” said Barnes, signing another hat brim as he talked with me on Tuesday. “There’s a group of players who obviously do favors for each other, and each year this is one thing I get them to do. And I stick to them and get them to do this. This is important.”
Why is Barnes so devoted to a kids’ basketball camp? It’s obviously not the money — in 2013 he signed a three-year deal with the Clippers worth about $11 million.
“Matt is very committed to giving back to the community, and this is his way of doing it,” said Bailey, who is now a varsity high school coach in Brentwood, CA. “Everyone who really knows Matt, loves Matt.”
Bailey, whose younger brother is Toby Bailey (who led UCLA to the NCAA title in 1995), will have his top player back next season: Maxwell Kupchak, a senior and the son of Mitch Kupchak.
Barnes has many motivations, but one stands out, he said.
“Coming from nothing, I wish I had an outlet, something to do,” Barnes said. “Ever since I made it to the NBA I had been searching for a way to give back. It’s a chance to tell kids that if you believe and do the right thing, you’ll get rewarded for it.”
Despite his reputation as somewhat of a brawler and a hothead, Barnes is actually one of the mellowest, down-to-Earth interview subjects I’ve ever had. And the camp has also been a tonic for him. His 11th NBA season was one of his most emotionally grueling: his aunt was tragically murdered on July 8 in Sacramento, with Barnes reposting a photo of the alleged suspect on Instagram, asking his fans to help identify him. Apparently it worked, as police made an arrest last week.
Then there was the Donald Sterling fiasco, of which Barnes said: “Amazing, isn’t it? But it seems to be winding down now, seems to be just about over. We’re all thankful for that.”
Meanwhile, his dream is coming true true in the unlikeliest of places.
“I wish I could have played video games here when I was a kid,” Barnes said. “I loved video games.”
“NCAA Football,” he said. “Football was always my best sport.”