With or Without a Future in Politics, Sacramento Kings Forward Harrison Barnes Wants You to Vote
LAS VEGAS -- Harrison Barnes’ latest tour of duty with USA Basketball didn’t end with a gold medal like his last one in 2016. But falling well short of a first-place finish at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China isn’t likely to keep the Sacramento Kings forward from answering the next time his country comes calling, perhaps for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“Assuming that everything's good with my family and my health is good, my answer for USA Basketball is always going to be yes,” Harrison said during Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas this past August. “And as long as they continue to invite me, as long as I can continue to be here, as Marc Stein [of The New York Times] called me the old head, I'm gonna keep coming out here and keep playing.”
For now, the anticipation of that invitation moves to the back burner as Harrison returns to Sacramento. After the Dallas Mavericks sent him to the Kings this past February, just ahead of the NBA’s annual trade deadline, he declined his player option for 2019-20 and subsequently re-signed as a free agent for $85 million over four years.
That new contract should help to ensure a secure future for Harrison and his wife, Brittany, who were wed during the summer of 2017. Depending on how things pan out with the Kings, it may well mean a long-term future for the 27-year-old and his family in Sacramento.
But while Sactown is far from the NBA’s most glamorous market, for a small-town, civic-minded man like Harrison, California’s capital may well offer particularly intriguing opportunities beyond (and after) basketball.
When you think of NBA players talking about broader political and social issues, LeBron James and Stephen Curry are probably among the first ones who come to mind. Both have been passionate advocates for specific causes and favored candidates, and each has had his own public spat with President Donald Trump.
In this arena, Harrison has been a bit more cautious, though he’s hardly a shrinking violet.
When he arrived in Dallas during the summer of 2016, shortly after five of the city’s police officers were shot and killed, he organized a dinner party for local luminaries—including a former police chief, two now-former mayors, leaders in business and law, and Dallas sports legends Emmitt Smith and Michael Finley—to discuss community policing and delve into other significant issues facing the city. That roundtable spawned a series of Q&As that Harrison conducted with a wide range of public figures, from singer John Legend and civil rights activist Dr. Harry Edwards to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, for The Players’ Tribune.
When, in April 2018, he and the Mavs beat the Kings inside a Golden 1 Center kept empty by protestors demanding justice for Stephon Clark, who had recently been slain by officers in Sacramento, Harrison spoke out about police brutality and the disproportionate threat it poses to the African-Americans community And when, in August of that same year, President Trump berated LeBron on Twitter following the latter’s interview with CNN’s Don Lemon at the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, Harrison was among many in the NBA who came to the superstar’s defense.
Harrison’s interest in politics and current events long predates his time as a pro. Growing up in Ames, Iowa, he was captivated by the parade of presidential candidates that passed through his home state every four years to drum up support for their campaigns. His mother, Shirley, idolized Michael Jordan for both his superlative play and polished persona. She made sure that Harrison and his younger sister, Jourdan-Ashle, were prepared to present themselves well by putting her children through mock interviews.
By the time Harrison became a national prep sensation at Ames High School, he was already well-equipped to handle the searing spotlight as a teenager. That served him well at the University of North Carolina, where Harrison Bryce Jordan Barnes faced the pressure of living up to his more famous middle-namesake.
On the court, he acquitted himself well, particularly in front of dignitaries. In 2011, he scored a game-high 17 points to lead his top-ranked Tar Heels to a 67-55 win over future Golden State Warriors teammate Draymond Green and Michigan State in the Carrier Classic atop the USS Carl Vinson, with President Barack Obama watching from his courtside seat.
Once Harrison joined Golden State as the No. 7 pick in the 2012 NBA draft, he proved to be so smooth in interviews that the team’s television analyst, Jim Barnett, started calling him “The Senator.” The nickname stuck, to the extent that when the Warriors visited the White House in February 2016 to celebrate their 2015 championship, President Obama gave him a good-natured ribbing for it.
For Harrison, staying known as “The Senator” had as much to do with how he comported himself in public as the causes he took on. He’s been an advocate for supporting and educating underprivileged youth, be it through partnerships with the Boys & Girls Club in cities across the country, founding a Reading Academy in Ames, working with President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative or supporting After-School All-Stars North Texas.
In June 2016, Harrison dipped his toes into electoral politics—not to support one candidate or another, but rather to encourage people to vote through a Schoolhouse Rock!-style video produced by the Warriors.
Though Harrison didn’t get quite so involved in voter turnout ahead of the midterm elections in 2018, he did use his platform on social media to support First Lady Michelle Obama’s “When We All Vote” campaign.
“As you get older and you're around different people, you just see how much your voice matters and how much people have sacrificed to give you the right, for example, to vote,” he tells CloseUp360. “I mean, just your civic duty. I think that's important and it's something that, as I got older, as I started to understand that I wanted to be an advocate for people learning first, making their own decision [on] what they want to do, but also hopefully trying to promote places and resources where they can go and get that information.”
When Harrison first arrived in Sacramento this past winter, he did so without any particularly strong ties to the Kings. He had never played with any of the team’s veterans or its young stars. Nor had he ever played for then-head coach Dave Joerger or the staff he’d brought over from his time with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Harrison, though, had at least one old friend around to show him the ropes: Festus Ezeli, his former teammate with the Warriors. Festus as practically a local in Sacramento. He’d moved from Nigeria to nearby Yuba City as a teenager, helped more of his family make that same journey to the U.S. and, at the time of Harrison’s arrival, was living with his mother and siblings in the suburb of Elk Grove while rehabbing from a prior knee injury.
“Fes is my guy,” Harrison says. “Obviously, [we were] drafted together. We talk every week. So just to be able to go to a place where he was at, kind of just get to know him, helped me get to know the city through him. I think that was big.”
When he wasn’t busy working his way back—and Harrison wasn’t criss-crossing the country with the Kings—Festus would often squire his fellow 2012 draftee-turned-close friend around Sacramento. He would pick Harrison up from his hotel, give him pointers on how to get around, and show him the best spots in town to eat, including Pushkin’s Restaurant, which Harrison now counts as one of his favorites.
“When you have those relationships that you build as you grow in the league, it's always good to see them come full circle,” Harrison says.
That still leaves plenty of places for him to visit heading into his first full season in Sacramento. Among those that Harrison is most eager to check out in the coming months is the California State Capitol.
Not that he has any plans to run for office in the near future. For one, he has at least another four years left in the NBA, based on his current contract, with plenty more to follow, health permitting.
And though “The Senator” would seem a natural in politics once his playing days are done, Harrison is careful not to cast himself in such a role.
“It's so difficult. That's not really something you can just jump into,” he says. “You definitely have to do a lot of work, have a lot of education, and I'm sure there's tons of people who are much brighter than me who are already getting started with that.
“In terms of officially doing anything, it's a long shot, but I definitely want to do something, whatever I'm doing after basketball, just helping out in the community and trying to be a positive voice for change.”
Should Harrison eventually turn his full attention towards politics, he’ll have no shortage of high-level mentors on whose advice he can lean. He and Obama are already well-acquainted from when their paths have crossed. He’s also gotten to spend time around and learn from former president Bill Clinton, among others well-versed in the ways of Washington, D.C.
“I've definitely been exposed to a lot of bright minds and definitely have some people I can bounce ideas off, or ask how I can lend my voice to help,” Harrison says.
Of all the nuggets of wisdom he’s culled from past presidents, the one that sticks with him most is also among the simplest: Learn. Do your research.
“Things happen cyclically, so knowing what you're probably experiencing now, somebody else or maybe a couple different generations or every decade has experienced the same thing,” he explains. “The more you can prepare, the more you can learn, the better off you'll be.”
Harrison might’ve absorbed the same lesson from Steve Kerr, one of the NBA’s most outspoken coaches, during his time in Golden State. Or from Gregg Popovich, for whom he played with USA Basketball at this year’s FIBA World Cup.
“Both of those guys are very smart, very well read, very engaged in what's going on,” Harrison says. “I don't think they're afraid to speak—but not just speak emotionally, but speak from a factual basis.”
Harrison Barnes played for Gregg Popovich on Team USA this summer. (Amir Ebrahimi)
Harrison can apply that approach to his own public musings, if and when he chooses to speak out on issues of importance to him. Given his track record in Ames, Oakland and Dallas, and a long-term commitment to the Kings, he may well add to his extensive resume of community work with initiatives helping the youth in and around Sacramento.
And with the next presidential election cycle set to pick up steam as 2019 gives way to 2020, don’t be surprised if Harrison spends some of his spare time promoting voter registration and participation.
“I definitely want to lend my voice, lend my platform and support towards that right now,” he says.
Perhaps someday, he’ll put those same resources to use getting voters to turn out for him.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.