Editor’s note: The following is part two of a three-part series looking at the life of Ames High School basketball star and future North Carolina Tar Heel Harrison Barnes.
Basketball hasn’t made Harrison Barnes famous. The top high school recruit in the country believes, in his heart, that his gifts are from God.
“Faith is the basis of [our lives],” said Barnes’ mother Shirley. “One of my proudest moments was when [Barnes] was in third grade, he was the only person in our church to go to Sunday school 52 weeks consecutively and he got an award for that. I think that is the only time any person has ever done that.”
Barnes was raised as a Baptist, but today, he prefers to be called a Christ follower. Although faith has always been a part of Barnes’ life, in his sophomore year, it took a big leap forward when he met Paul Sabino, the family ministry director at Cornerstone Church in Ames. They met at a retreat Sabino was running called “Awake.”
Sabino’s first memory of Barnes is when they played football together at the retreat. He had not heard of Barnes, but he was impressed with his good hands.
“I commented on him in the middle of a message,” Sabino said. “I said, ‘Some of you have physical ability, like this guy — [I motioned] to Harrison — who is great at playing football.’ And people kind of chuckled because I had no idea he played basketball.”
By the end of Awake, Barnes had made a commitment to follow Christ. Since that retreat, he has been “all in for Christ.”
“It’s who I am and who I want to be defined as,” Barnes said. “When people look at me, I don’t want them to just say, ‘There is a good basketball player.’ I’d rather them say, ‘He’s a good Christian.’”
Barnes and Sabino have been close since the retreat. Barnes described Sabino as a mentor in his faith, discussing various aspects of life with him, from growing up without a father to his past relationship with the pastor’s daughter to what it means to be a real man.
“My definition of a man has always been biblically biased and not necessarily the perception of the world itself, so that is something I try to imitate,” Barnes said.
Barnes has taken these lessons to heart and said he tries to act like a Christian and spread the word of God everywhere he goes.
As a freshman in high school, Barnes came up with the idea to start a Bible study group. Shirley was wary of the idea.
“I was like, ‘Harrison, you know, you’re a freshman. We’ve got to separate church and state,’” Shirley said.
Although Barnes let it go at the time, he rekindled the idea in his junior year, informing his mother only after the Word on Wednesday’s club had been approved by the school.
“I wanted to leave an impact on the school, and I wanted Christ to be represented there,” Barnes said. “So I wanted to start that Bible study just to get a coalition of believers together and also integrate non-believers in there and just have that fellowship.”
The group meets Wednesdays before the members’ school day begins to discuss a topic Barnes prepares each week.
“I come up with the lesson pertaining to what issues I think need to be addressed at the high school — maybe jealousy, judging others, priority of personal worship, heaven, hell — our response to that and then from there we usually get a discussion going about the passages I select,” Barnes explained. “Then from there we break up into small groups and just pray about it.”
Although Barnes is known primarily for his basketball prowess at Ames High School, he has also gained a reputation as a deeply Christian student among those who know him.
“Every day in study hall, he is trying to get people to come the next day, and he is trying to spread the word,” said Barnes’ longtime friend Seth Forsgren.
Barnes is also looking to spread the word at North Carolina, where he will attend college next year.
“A great example of what I’m trying to aspire to be is Tim Tebow,” Barnes said. “His faith in God is his most important priority, and how he makes that known to all those around him and all the people around him that he has influenced.”
Although Barnes is still in high school, he has an idea how he will try to live his faith next year as a Tar Heel.
“I try to make [God] the center of my life and then just have that infiltrate all other spheres, such as glorifying Him on the basketball floor with all the gifts that He’s given me, or glorifying Him in the classroom with all the knowledge that He’s given me,” he said.
To Barnes, that means trying his best to nurture those talents. It is that mentality that has led him to become the top basketball recruit in the country, as well as to attaining a 3.4 GPA.
Next year, Barnes is likely to get plenty of playing time on a championship-contending basketball team. But as exciting as that is, Barnes is also excited to begin classes in Chapel Hill. With the Advanced Placement credits Barnes has amassed throughout high school, he will try to graduate in three years with a business degree.
That degree is as important to Barnes as basketball.
“I have aspirations of going to the NBA, and it’s a business there,” Barnes said. “I want to be well-adapted, because I want to run my own business someday and create my own business empire.”
With the NBA almost certainly in Barnes’ future, he continues to push himself. He wants to get better at saxophone so he can possibly play some jazz shows in college, he wants to continue to spread the word of God and he also has plans of being an entrepreneur, all at 17 years of age.
“Having been in basketball and seen the kind of guys that come through, whether it is players or coaches, with all due respect to them, I would say that Harrison Barnes is one of the few who, basketball needs him a lot more than he needs basketball,” said Barnes’ mentor and fifth grade coach Jafar Azmayesh. “If they outlawed basketball tomorrow, there would be a lot of starving guys. Harrison would just figure something else out and go kick ass at it.”