Fire Constantly Burns Inside New Laker Matt Barnes
His "Dream Team," which includes Philadelphia's Jason Kapono, downed the San Francisco City Gold Rush 92-90 on Wednesday night to win the title in this late-summer Pro-Am league. After winning a best-of-three series in two games, the newest Laker is surrounded by stench and adulation in the back of a dingy locker room inside Kezar Pavilion.
Life as a role player will resume soon enough, but Barnes is the Kobe Bryant of this realm.
The red shirts bear his name -- Matt Barnes Ent. -- and teammates who can only dream of his good hoops fortune all compliment his game. They take pictures, share hugs and handshakes while the wild crowd waits outside. This celebration ends in true Barnes form, with a message at the huddle break that he surely must have scripted beforehand.
"Make 'em hate us!" they yell.
The nine-year veteran had that very effect on the Lakers back on March 7, when he spent most of his 32 minutes bumping and breathing all over Bryant in a 96-94 Orlando win at Amway Arena. The night was a memorable one by the regular season's standards, a possible NBA Finals preview in which Barnes' ball fake at Bryant's nose on an inbounds pass sparked tough talk afterward.
Lakers small forward Lamar Odom called Barnes a "monkey" and an "action figure" for his antics, then vowed to never let such a scene happen again. Barnes shot back via Twitter, saying Odom should keep his name out of his mouth lest the then-Magic small forward "put my sons (expletive) diaper in it."
The name-calling has long since stopped, though. And in a move that might win the award for most unexpected free agency union of the summer, Barnes' two-year, $4 million deal signed last month means they're calling each other teammates now.
It's the newest Laker trend, apparently, this penchant for rewarding anyone who is fearless and defiant when matched up against Bryant. Ron Artest was the first to take that path to Los Angeles, challenging Bryant throughout the 2009 Western Conference semifinals while with Houston and later becoming a key piece to the Lakers' repeat effort. Yet while Artest's fuse has clearly lengthened over the years, Barnes showed just days ago that he is as fiery as ever.
According to two fans who were at Monday's championship series opener and spoke to FanHouse, Barnes -- who was arguing a call with an official during the third quarter of a contentious game -- slapped an assistant coach of the Gold Rush team after a brief verbal exchange. The coach, according to a report on the web site Sports by Brooks, was Rick Lewis.
Having already diffused several "minor tussles," as one of the fans who spoke to FanHouse said, the officials conferred and assessed double technical fouls and let all involved continue play. Barnes told FanHouse on Wednesday night that the coach's taunting in his ear caused him to lose his temper but said he should have handled the situation differently.
"Some people do too much or talk too much, and there's only so much you can take," said Barnes, who does not expect the coach to pursue a lawsuit. "It's hard. It's definitely hard when the refs have it out for you, saying 'Oh, you're in the NBA, so you don't get this (call) and we're going to call this.' Then the coach is talking and completely disrespecting me.
"It's frustrating, but at the same time I've got to keep my composure because I'm a professional and I get paid to do this. I lost my professionalism for a little while, but I regained my composure and we won a championship tonight."
Which is all he wants to do with the Lakers, of course. Barnes -- a second-round pick out of UCLA in 2002 who has been with 10 teams in nine NBA seasons -- has been on winning teams in his past four seasons while in Golden State, Phoenix and Orlando, but has yet to win a title.
Yet it's his failed pursuit of a long-term deal for once-in-a-lifetime pay that he is more known for. Few, if any, free agents in recent NBA history have had a harder time reaping the rewards of a productive season.
And after so many years of short-term contracts and missed opportunities on the free agent market, Barnes' latest experience was no different. Before signing with the Lakers, he was confident enough that a two-year, $9 million deal with Toronto would go through via sign-and-trade with Orlando that he tweeted the news.
Yet in the end, the deal fell through because Orlando, in Barnes' estimation, "messed it up." And in an unexpected twist, Barnes turned down a more lucrative offer from Cleveland (two years and a combined $7 million) for a chance to win a ring.
"I do get frustrated (by his free agency history) because it's a business," Barnes said. "I'm going into my ninth season now, and I've had a rocky road. I played well for the last five years and nothing comes of it. You've just got to keep playing."
But he's more than willing to join forces with Bryant, whom he first knew when the Lakers star would work out at UCLA during Barnes' college years. More importantly, Bryant -- who was the lead recruiter in this free agency effort and has been in "constant contact" with Barnes since the signing -- was willing to welcome him. As for the others, Barnes said he has yet to talk to Lakers coach Phil Jackson, has had discussions with general manager Mitch Kupchak, and will be seeing Artest -- a former Sacramento King -- in Barnes' hometown of Sacramento this weekend.
"We talked after the (March 7) game, and it was fine," Barnes said of Bryant. "Everyone else tried to make a big deal because it was Kobe, but we've had some battles in the past and definitely have respect for each other and that's all it was. When you're playing the best player in the world, you can't back down. Whoever does is defeated from the jump. I tried to do my best to guard him that night and we happened to get a win, but now I'm very excited to be on the same team with him."
Barnes is headed to Los Angeles on Thursday, but not before doing his Lakers homework first.
"I've already been studying film of the offense, and it's obvious that this is Kobe's team," Barnes said. "You just try to fit in. They won two straight championships, so I'm going to try and do what's asked of me and play to the best of my ability. You can't be hesitant. I've got to do a good job of knowing what I've got to do so that when I'm on the court, I can just play basketball."
Because the real championship awaits.
E-mail Sam at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @samickAOL.