You can’t miss Pam Barber at N.C. State men’s basketball games.
Her son, point guard Cat Barber, doesn’t even have to look for her anymore. He just listens for her voice.
“He always says to me, ‘Ma, you’re louder than everybody in the gym,’ ” his mom, Pam Barber said.
It’s high volume and high intensity with Pam Barber. There are a few unpolished edges and even fewer apologies in her support for her son.
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“She be into the game, like she’s really playing,” Cat Barber said.
To her, the vocal support is an outward expression of her love for her son. She feels it deep. There is an instantly recognizable authenticity to Pam Barber, one that she shares with her son, whom she also considers her best friend.
“She’s caring and loving, but she’s not scared to speak her mind,” Barber said.
“Honest” is more than a hashtag for Cat Barber, who has adopted the word from the rapper Future and uses it frequently on Twitter. Being real is the only way Barber and his mom know, it’s how they learned to survive in the toughest parts of downtown Newport News, Va.
“There’s nothing fake or phony about Cat,” coach Mark Gottfried said. “He is who he is. What you get every day is the real Cat.”
It has been a bumpy start for the Wolfpack this season, losing two of the five games, but Barber has been the team’s leader and best player. He leads the team in scoring (17.8 points), assists (6.4) and minutes (39.2) per game.
Barber’s shooting percentage is down, but he has to do more this season for N.C. State, which made the Sweet 16 last season based on the strength of its guard play. Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner, the top two scorers from last season’s team, are gone and Barber has assumed Lacey’s leading role.
This is what Pam Barber has always wanted for her son, even before he was born. When Pam was pregnant, and she knew it was going to be a boy, she got the idea to name her son “Swish.” She swears that’s what the name was going to be on the birth certificate.
Anthony was born on July 25, 1994, but it wasn’t long after that Pam dubbed him “Big Cat” because she thought he looked like Simba from the “Lion King.” The nickname eventually was shortened to Cat by his older sister, Pamela. The only time you see Barber’s given name is in a box score.
“I don’t like when people call me Anthony,” Barber said.
The nickname came before Barber’s quickness and speed became his trademark on the basketball floor. It didn’t take him long to pick up an affinity for basketball.
“Once he was old enough to walk, he started dribbling everywhere,” his mom said.
You see people shooting every day, you see people running from the cops, you see people robbing people. It’s just crazy.
NC State guard Cat Barber on violence in his hometown
Basketball was, at first, a way to keep her son busy. Pam was 18 when Cat was born. She worked odd jobs around Newport News – fast food, day care and even construction (the sight of skinny little 5-foot-3 Pam Barber with a welding torch is one to behold, Cat says) – to take care of Cat and Pamela, who is a year older than her brother.
But a kid’s toy became a life preserver. Gun violence and drugs spawned the nickname “Bad News” for the projects near the James River shipyards in downtown Newport News.
Last year, one of Barber’s best friends, Jamar Thomas, was killed in a shootout outside of an area restaurant.
“You see it everyday,” he said. “You see people shooting every day. You see people running from the cops. You see people robbing people. It’s just crazy.”
Speed and cheering
Basketball is as much a part of the Newport News culture as any of the negative aspects. There are safe havens, like the Doris Miller Community Center on Wickham Avenue and An Achievable Dream Tennis Center off Ivy Avenue, where Barber played in recreation leagues and his first AAU teams.
“I just wanted to keep him out of the streets,” Pam, 38, said. “So he got a ball and he went to the gym.”
Stanley Bland, and his father Stanley Sr., coached Barber on the Newport News Vikings at the tennis center. There were two constants at the tennis center: Barber’s speed with the ball and Pam’s cheering.
“Everybody knew when she was in the gym,” said Bland’s mom, Mary, who works at the tennis center. “Pam was loud, but it was always about cheering for Cat and supporting him.”
And there usually was a challenge from mom, too, if she didn’t think Cat was playing the right way.
“Oh, she didn’t baby him,” Mary Bland said.
As Pam Barber is fond of saying, “Scared money don’t make no money.” She has been known to yell that at Cat during N.C. State games. It’s an old neighborhood colloquialism. You can’t win money in cards or a dice game if you’re scared to bet and you can’t be good on the basketball court if you’re afraid.
Barber has never had to cash any “scared money” checks. He became a local legend at Hampton High, leading the Crabbers to a 2012 state title as a junior and was a 2013 McDonald’s All-American.
He went on from the Vikings to play for Boo Williams’ renowned AAU program, which is based in Hampton, Va., but he still would play at the tennis center on Wednesday nights.
Mary Bland still remembers during Barber’s senior season, when he broke NBA legend Allen Iverson’s district scoring record, people were lined up at the tennis center just to see Barber play pickup.
“We had to put chairs out,” Mary Bland said. “There were people pulling up in cabs and coming in from all around to see Cat play.”
Iverson and NFL quarterback Michael Vick are both products of the same streets as Barber. For all of the problems in Newport News, there’s a certain badge of pride in making your way from a difficult start.
“It’s hard coming from where I’m from,” Barber said “But it’s a pride thing, too. When you’re from that area and you’re good and you come out, you that one, you’re the chosen one to come out of there and you know it’s your time.”
A new fan
Pam Barber has a new recruit in her sideline cheering club: Cat’s 10-month-old daughter Cadence. They went to two home games last week, including N.C. State’s 88-70 victory over South Alabama on Nov. 15.
Pam and her granddaughter were there to see Barber nearly record a triple-double (17 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists).
“Grandma is going to show her how to do it,” she said. “I tell her, ‘Make sure they can hear you all the way at the top.’ ”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio