October 7th, 2011
You really have to be careful with what adjectives you employ when writing about UNC basketball. If labels like "unique" or "special" were used on every player who was an All-American or averaged 18+ PPG, you would be making a list too long even for diehard fans to recall. North Carolina wont even consider retiring your jersey unless you win National Player of the Year.
And even if you did achieve that accolade, it would not be uncommon for athletes in other sports at UNC to be on the same level. How many other college fan bases could run into serious confusion if the conversation was "All-Time Greatest Player". Are we talking about Michael Jordan, Lawrence Taylor or Mia Hamm? What if the conversation was greatest college coaches of all time? No not that one, this one. Or maybe it's this one? I think I made my point. You really have to set yourself apart to enter into the Tar Heel Pantheon.
It didn't take a long look at the High School version of Harrison Barnes to wonder if he was destined for that level of success. He was obviously different. Even casual fans were beginning to hear of the five AM workouts and defensive intensity that you just don't see in High School kids. Barnes gave interviews like a scholar, speaking clearly and forcefully. He made eye-contact and didn't say "um" every other word. Barnes even seemed aware of his potential brand, as he spoke of learning golf for business deals after he turned Pro.1
So even with his early statistical struggles last season, if you couldn't see that Barnes was a special player then I don't know what you were watching. Even after missing shots, he never lost confidence. While Illinois fans were giving him the business during the ACC/Big 10 Challenge, it seemed to roll right off the eighteen-year-old's back. Nothing fazed him.
I'll never forget when a friend of mine, a life-long Duke fan, jumped at the opportunity to accompany me to see the Heels play College of Charleston last November. I was surprised he wanted to go, but not after I heard his reason: he wanted to see Harrison Barnes in person. And remember, this was when he was quickly being labeled a bust by opposing fans. But I think my friend was just picking up on something before the rest of us: That Barnes was the kind of player you didn't want to miss.2
And that's what the stat-gurus will never understand as they try to break down Barnes with efficiency ratings and statistics. Sports are about moments. They're about the big plays and performances that make you grab your phone and start texting your friends. Michael Jordan isn't a legend just because he has the highest Player Efficiency Rating of all-time. It's because of "The Shot", the dunks and "The Shrug". It's because the steal on Malone and game-winner in the '98 finals was so clichéd you couldn't even write it yourself without smirking.
Barnes didn't give us stats in 2011, he gave us moments. I remember exactly where I was when he swished that three-pointer against FSU, and I'm sure you do too. I remember the horror I felt when he jacked up a step-back, fade-away seventeen footer (down two points with 1:13 remaining) in Coral Gables and drained it like he was playing street ball with friends.3 I'll never forget the eight points Barnes ripped off in sixty-two seconds when the Tar Heel's season was crumbling before our eyes in the Elite Eight. On a lighter note, my favorite highlights of the year were the back-to-back "Screaming-Dunks"4 at NC State.
I keep thinking back to Derek Jeter as a comparison. Jeter had good numbers in his first few years, but that wasn't how you knew he was big-time. It was how the twenty-two year old swaggered around NYC like an established celebrity. It was how he talked to reporters like he owned the place. There was no arrogance about it, just confidence. You could simply tell Jeter was big enough for the Yankee spotlight.
So obviously, even as a rookie Jeter passed what I like to call the "Saturday Night Live Test". It's one thing to be well-spoken and funny, but can the person live up to the big moment of live TV? There can be no mistakes; no second chances. When the lights are on, you have one shot. And of course, Jeter was a great SNL host. He passed the test (although you always knew he would anyways).
Like Jeter, Barnes has "it". The "it" that no one can ever perfectly explain, but we all know is there. It oozes out of him. Could you not imagine Barnes in the SNL scene below? (FF to 3:10 for Jordan's best part. It's worth waiting through the ad.)
I cannot wait for this upcoming Heels season. And apart from all the reasons I have every year to watch my Alma Mater, I'm excited to watch Harrison Barnes. I'm excited to see what he has added to his game. I want to see how he handles the target on his back this year. I want to see if he continues to hit EVERY game-deciding shot he's taken a as Tar Heel. And even if he doesn't, I'm sure as hell going to be watching. And isn't that what sports are all about?
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Barnes Dunks at NC State