Israel Barnes began writing stories in middle school. They were gripping stories, so powerful they brought his friends to tears.
Barnes, Southeast High’s premier senior point guard, was nervous to share his writing. His words came from his heart through his brain to the pen, and he didn’t know if they were any good. So he hid them. Not even his mom, Stephanie, knew about her son’s second love until his first or second year of high school.
Since, he has written short stories, TV sketches and a screenplay. All serve as a flare that Barnes isn’t, and never was, an ordinary student-athlete.
“Just to watch him get so excited, kinda like he is with basketball – it was the first time I’ve seen it with something else,” Stephanie Barnes said. “I told him, ‘You can make a living at this.’ ”
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Basketball has almost always been there. Barnes’ dad, Todd, played at South in the mid-1980s. He eased his son into the gym at an early age, an act that became a lifestyle. But Israel Barnes’ education and addiction to it is what has made him into a Division I player.
Barnes signed Nov. 8 to play at Weber State in Ogden, Utah, joining former Southeast teammate Jerrick Harding. Barnes had offers from Tulsa and Texas Tech, and an Ivy League school, Pennsylvania.
His love for writing sent Weber State over the top. On his recruiting visit, coach Randy Rahe showed him around the facilities, explained the framework of the program and did all the other typically planned items on a recruit’s itinerary.
But there was one caveat.
Rahe set up a meeting between Barnes and the creative writing department head. They got to talking and hit it off, but Barnes wanted more.
“I emailed her a couple of times afterward, just trying to figure out what movies she liked, what writers I should read about and do research on,” Barnes said.
That fire has always been there. In eighth grade, his teacher assigned a paper and Barnes worked on it for days, refining and fine-tuning. He turned it in with confidence, but got it back with a “C” at the top.
Barnes bugged the teacher for a week, wondering why he got a “C” and what he could have done better. He still has that paper as motivation and clearly hasn’t forgotten that feeling.
That itch to grow as a writer translates directly from his time on the court. It is an itch that has Barnes wanting more heading into his senior season after a second-place state finish two seasons ago.
“I feel like every time I step on the court, I have something to prove,” he said. “This being my last year, I just want to make sure I’m the best leader I can be for my guys. Our ultimate goal is to get to state and try to win it.”
Todd Barnes used to coach youth basketball and was always conflicted when the fourth quarter rolled around.
He wanted to win, but he knew he couldn’t with one of his worst players on the floor. Still, he loved that weak link.
“ ‘You know what, son, why don’t you have a seat and let the other kids finish the game?’ ” Todd said. “He was probably 5 years old, and he was horrible.”
Todd never wanted to force Israel into becoming an athlete. Todd played at Independence Community College and Texas-San Antonio and knew how turbulent the path would be.
“But he wanted to play,” Todd said.
That summer, the father and son spent weeks together in the gym. Israel needed all of it, and it paid off. That following season, Todd would have been crazy to keep his son out of the fourth quarter.
Fast-forward to middle school, and Southeast coach Melvin Herring started seeing how hours in the lab had transformed Barnes. Barnes developed quickly with his AAU summer league team, MoKan.
Barnes was a general. His command of the floor was years ahead of everyone around him, and his intellect rivaled that of the then-varsity point guard. Barnes was bigger and stronger than the rest. And his numbers showed that.
But Herring didn’t get his shot with Barnes, at least not right away. Barnes went to Sunrise Christian Academy, a private school in Bel Aire. His situation was different. Most athletes who go to Sunrise are upperclassmen, looking to sharpen skills with the school’s elite team before going to college. Barnes was a 14-year-old freshman.
His playing time was limited, and Barnes was seeking a true high school experience, so he transfered to Southeast. He wasn’t the same at first.
Herring said Barnes needed a few games to get his legs back. Herring sat him down and told him plainly.
“I need the middle-school Israel to come back,” Herring said.
Barnes found his stride and exploded in his first year at Southeast. Herring said Barnes’ shoulders broadened, and he walked around with more confidence.
As a sophomore, Barnes averaged 19.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and a steal. He had more impressive numbers last season.
Still, a decade later, Barnes said he remembers those days stretching to midnight in the gym with his dad and a conversation that has shaped his basketball career and his future.
“This is what I want to do, dad,” Israel told him.
“How good do you want to be?” his dad asked.
“I want to be the best.”
Taking care of business
Barnes needs one more pesky credit to graduate.
His mom has been the mastermind behind his aptitude, and like high schoolers, that has come with some push back. Homework gets done, but there is always more to do.
Barnes is set to graduate with a solid grade-point average, a firm support system behind him, and most important for mom, an aim.
“One thing I’ve tried to instill in the kids is to always make sure that they have a Plan B, C and D,” Stephanie Barnes said. “I always say that, especially to Israel, being an athlete. A lot of times you see these athletes, and all they care about is basketball – that’s it.
“I wanted to make sure he was well-rounded, not just a jock.”
For Barnes, writing is still at the forefront. Creating characters, bringing them to life and having them relate to all people is what motivates him. He said telling a story through a different perspective is his favorite part about writing. Intertwining characters’ narratives and adding personal threads is what it’s all about.
There are no more nerves about sharing, though he wouldn’t say what he feels his best piece is to date.
“Eventually, when I’m done playing basketball and I’m done with college, I want to pitch a lot of the work I already have written and some of the ideas I have,” Barnes said.
In the same way, there are no fears of being called a nerd or hiding behind his on-court persona. He lets it hang loose and said his best work, in a way, reflects that mentality and how basketball has helped facilitate that.
“It relates a lot to the person I would be if I weren’t playing basketball,” Barnes said.
Writing has become a form of self-expression and a kind of art for Barnes, and he has become quite the maestro.
“It’s another way for me to create, outside of basketball,” Barnes said.
Hayden Barber, @HK_Barber