Harrison Bryce Jordan Barnes

What’s in a name? For UNC star Barnes, everything

March 17, 2012 

On the evening of May 29, 1992, Shirley Barnes sat on her couch in Ames, Iowa, watching her favorite player, Michael Jordan, in Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. As she did with every game that the Bulls played on television, Barnes taped it for the son she might someday have. Jordan scored 29 points that night to help the Bulls win 99-94 and clinch the series, just as Shirley was going into labor.

When Shirley’s son was born at 1:03 the following morning, he had to be taken to the ICU to remove fluid from his lungs. The boy still teases his mother about how he may not have had to spend his first two days in ICU if Shirley could’ve just left Jordan and the Bulls before the game was over.

Two weeks before her baby was born, Shirley realized she had only picked out a girl’s name. She promptly decided that if she had a son, he would have four names. She knew that his surname would be Barnes because this would be her boy more than anybody else’s. Then she worked backward from there. She knew that Jordan must be in there somewhere. Then she added Bryce with her own distinctive flair. Finally, with a nod to the absent man who would give her son’s life such a clear direction, she chose Harrison.

When North Carolina meets Creighton in the NCAA tournament today, all eyes will be on Harrison Bryce Jordan Barnes.

“I wanted my son’s name to sound royal,” Shirley says. “Most people don’t have four names, but I just knew my guy would be special.”

BARNES

To figure out who Harrison Bryce Jordan Barnes really is, the story should start at the end. With the last name. Just as Shirley Barnes once did.

Growing up in tiny Enid, Miss., the youngest of nine children, in a three-room shack with an outhouse, Shirley was told from a young age that the name Barnes was one to live up to. “Where I’m from in Mississippi it’s a very respected, reverent, very proud name,” she says. “It’s a legacy name. To carry the name Barnes is impactful.”

One day when Shirley was in the fifth grade, her older brother Wilson phoned from Iowa to ask if she’d like to join he and his wife in Sioux City. His reason? He needed her as a tax write-off. Turns out that being a dependent sparked Shirley’s independence. It wasn’t easy moving from rural Mississippi to a place where she was the first African-American ever to attend her grade school. “From a family of nine kids, I didn’t get much to eat and I got all hand-me-downs so I looked at it as my chance to be an only child,” Shirley says. “The glass has always been half-full for me. Always.”

Shirley eventually moved to Ames to attend college at Iowa State where she met a former Cyclones basketball player named Ron Harris who would father her two children and then leave the family.

“I’ve adopted a work ethic established by my mom,” Harrison says. “Just watching her being a single parent and fighting through a lot of problems. She was always instilling in me being humble, but working hard. My mom is the most ambitious person I’ve ever met.”

No wonder that as a fifth grader, Harrison had already started his own business: Harrison’s Lawn and Snowshoveling Service. It’s the Barnes in him. “I have always tried to make something of myself,” Harrison says. “I figured I could offer a service to make some money and save my neighbors a lot of backbreaking work. So I made some business cards and started passing them out.”

For years Shirley worked in the music department at Iowa State and she encouraged her son to play the cello and the saxophone. Harrison sang in his church choir. He learned to speak Spanish. He started his own Bible study in high school called Word on Wednesdays. He joined the Student Council.

“From me he’s learned to be detail-oriented, loyal, accountable and very confident with himself,” Shirley says. “No one else is telling my son what makes him happy. To thine own self be true.”

Shirley also recognized early on her son’s potential as an athlete, but she wouldn’t allow him to be a one-sport jock. Young Harrison played soccer, ran track, even tried football for year. Shirley Barnes tried to give her son everything, but she gave him basketball first.

JORDAN

Five years before Harrison was born, Shirley began taping Jordan’s games.

“Just to witness Jordan and the magic he brought to the court,” Shirley says. “I thought to myself that if I ever have a little boy, I would want him to be able to see this guy play.”

The Jordan tapes became young Harrison’s morning cartoons. He would study Jordan’s moves, rewind them over and over, and then try to emulate them on his driveway hoop. He was the only fourth grader on his team trying to cup the ball and dunk.

“When I decided to play basketball my mom said, ‘You know, why don’t you try to be the best in the country?’ ” Harrison recalls. “At the time I was playing Parks and Rec League and I wasn’t even starting, so I didn’t know how realistic that was. But she kept encouraging me to the best. She wouldn’t let me settle.”

Harrison began to measure himself against Jordan. Literally. Because Jordan stood 6-foot-6, that became Harrison’s dream height. “Growing up the doctors told me I was only going to be 6-4 so I used to hang on the monkey bars to stretch myself and spend a lot of time outside to make sure I got good Vitamin D,” Harrison says. “When I finally hit 6-6, I thought, ‘Great. That’s accomplished.’ ” Then Barnes grew two more inches. He stubbornly kept listing himself at 6-6, until it became too obvious he was shorting himself.

Barnes was also blessed with a Jordanesque work ethic and hatred of defeat. After Ames High lost in the Iowa state tournament during his sophomore season, Barnes’ coach told his team to take a few days off, but before dawn the next morning Harrison had called him asking to get into the weight room by insisting, ‘We’re not going to win any championships taking days off.” Barnes’ team won the last 53 games of his high school career, along with two state championships.

The Jordan in him is the UNC in him. Without one, there might not be the other. Barnes and Jordan have spoken one-on-one only once, during a recruiting visit to Chapel Hill and because of NCAA rules they shared only a brief conversation. But that was the day Barnes decided he would become a Tar Heel.

Early in his UNC career, Tar Heel fans saw another characteristic Barnes shares with Jordan. Seven times in his freshman season, Barnes hit a go-ahead or game-winning shot in crunch time. “Harrison wants the ball in his hands when the game is decided,” teammate Kendall Marshall says. “That’s his time in the game, just like it was for Jordan.”

BRYCE

Shirley Barnes flipped through the back pages of an old dictionary until one name listed there caught her eye. Brice. She read the name’s derivation, which she recalls as “unwavering leadership, valor and strength.” She liked the sound of that.

“When Harrison first got to Carolina as a freshman we would play pickup at 11 o’clock every night and then he would stay and work out until 2 or 3 in the morning even though we’d have to wake up at 6:30 for weights,” Marshall says. “Honestly, I thought something was wrong with him. But the last thing you want to do as a competitor is to be outworked, so he’s definitely led the rest of us through his example.”

But the name was about more than leadership. Shirley wanted it to set her son apart. She stuck the Y in there to make it even more different. Bryce. “I wanted part of his name to be really unique,” Shirley says. “I didn’t want the conventional spelling, because I wanted an unconventional kid.”

Look carefully. There’s a lot of Bryce in Shirley’s kid. How many college basketball players are former members of their high school’s Entrepreneurship Club? How many make their college decision based in part on their research into the country’s top undergraduate business schools? How many announce their college decisions over Skype dressed in a jacket and tie?

“Harrison is an unusual bird,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams says. “He reminds me of that sculpture, The Thinker. So many kids that I coach are all about basketball, but Harrison’s mind goes off in different directions that most people don’t even think about.”

HARRISON

Asked about the Harrison in him, Barnes pauses for longer than usual to respond. Finally, he asks, “What did my mom say about that?” Huh. Shirley predicted her son would ask that exact question. It’s a sensitive topic. The Harris part of Harrison.

Both Shirley and Harrison tend to choose their words carefully on the subject of Ron Harris. Harris was a 6-3 forward on the Iowa State basketball team in the early 1980s, who still ranks among the Cyclones leaders in points, assists and steals. But he didn’t hang around long enough to teach his son the game, so the only role Harris plays in Harrison’s story lies in how the void left by a father’s absence affects a son. It is telling that Harris wore No. 40 at Iowa State and though Harrison has worn No. 40 since high school, he said he didn’t even know it was his father’s number when he started wearing it.

“Me and him don’t really communicate,” Harrison says of his father. “Our relationship is pretty much nonexistent. I can’t even recall the last time we talked.”

Turns out that by leaving his family, Harris made them stronger. They call themselves Team Barnes: Shirley, Harrison and his 13-year-old sister Jourdan-Ashle. Marshall, who rooms with Barnes, says that Barnes has never talked to him about his father.

“I just know that it’s always been Harrison, his sister and his mom and you can see that he’s very family-oriented,” Marshall says. “As a team we sometimes ask each other, ‘What are you going to do with your first million?’ Some people are like, ‘I’m going to buy shoes. I’m going to get a car.’ Harrison says, ‘Honestly, I just want to take care of my mom.’ He really wants to be there for her the way she’s been there for him the past 19 years.”

According to Harrison, his father has never attended one of his games. Shirley has missed no more than a dozen games that her son has ever played.

“There is an openness about his love for his mother and sister that is because of something he didn’t have,” Williams says. “Harrison will never let his guard down. I love him just like a son, but he is still guarded with me.”

The Harrison in him has provided a convenient hiding place during those moments in his first two college seasons when expectations didn’t meet reality. It is a refuge whenever he has had to answer questions about how a guy who arrived at UNC as the first freshman ever named a preseason All-American could end the regular season of his sophomore year answering criticism that he shouldn’t even be first-team All-ACC. Barnes finished third in the ACC in scoring this season, but for some people that isn’t good enough when your name is so connected to an icon, Jordan, that it’s actually one of your middle names.

“It’s been difficult to face adversity on the court for the first time,” Barnes admits. “I try to be receptive to criticism and then turn my weaknesses into strengths. But the media can be sharks, so I’ve decided it’s best not reveal everything I’m thinking.”

For instance, when Barnes is asked about leaving early for the NBA as Jordan once did, he reverts into his trademark non-answer playerspeak, which so frustrates many in the press that some reporters don’t even bother to interview him anymore.

Still, Barnes’ teammates insist he is not the automaton the outside world perceives.

“He’s fun to be around in the locker room,” teammate Tyler Zeller says. “We get in a lot of arguments that are kind of stupid like who’s the better NBA player and we just have a good time. The public doesn’t see the Harrison we see.”

“Strange, quiet and aloof, that’s what I hear a lot to describe me,” Barnes says with a smile. “I think it’s funny, so I just kind of roll with it. My teammates think I’m goofy. How the media views me compared to how my teammates view me is like darkness to daylight, but I’ll probably always be misunderstood.”

Team Barnes is run on an acronym, A.B.I.F.F. that stands for Ames’ Barnes Investing For the Future. Harrison doesn’t talk much about that either. Shirley says it’s a term that dates to her days in Mississippi. Then she is asked in what context Team Barnes uses the term A.B.I.F.F.

“If I told you that, I’d have to kill you,” Shirley says. “You’re trying to unlock some security codes.”

Harrison Bryce Jordan Barnes

When the Tar Heels take the court against Creighton today, Barnes insists he will be prepared for the moment by everything his four names represent. The son relishes the royal identity his mom so carefully crafted for him nearly 20 years ago.

“I have always appreciated the weight it carries,” he says. “Barnes is what I am. Jordan is what I do. Bryce is how I do what I do. Harrison is how I choose to show who I am. Harrison Bryce Jordan Barnes. I try to live up to all four of those names every day.”

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