Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Harrison Barnes remembers the pain of his UNC Tar Heels falling short in the 2012 tournament.
For as long as I could remember, I’ve wanted to play basketball at the University of North Carolina. Funny thing is, there was a long period of time when I wasn’t sure how much they wanted me.
Becoming a Tar Heel seemed like destiny in some senses. My mother chose ‘Jordan’ as my middle name, as a nod to her favorite basketball player. And growing up in Iowa, it was ordained from the time that I was born that I was to bleed Carolina blue and show respect for the storied program that provided the foundation for my namesake. I remember throughout middle school and high school how excited my mom, sister and I would be when a UNC game was on TV. It was required viewing.
But interestingly, when it came time to be recruited, Carolina was the school that always seemed to play hard to get. In fact, even though Roy Williams saw me play in person more times than any other major college basketball coach, they were the last school to offer me a scholarship. And even then, I was told that I couldn’t make the offer public because they were still recruiting a couple of other guys and didn’t want it to seem like the class was full. As any top recruit would, I took it a little personally. I wanted them to just tell me who the other guys were so I could go at them on the AAU circuit and there would be no questions about who was the best fit for their program.
But Coach Williams knew what he was doing. I accepted the scholarship and arrived in Chapel Hill hungry to prove myself.
Putting on that powder blue uniform was truly a dream come true for me and my family. Because I was so personally connected to UNC basketball, I had a particular understanding of what responsibilities came with the opportunity that was presented to me. Looking over our roster stacked with future NBA players — John Henson, Kendall Marshall, Tyler Zeller, Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and James McAdoo — there was little question that we had the talent to continue UNC’s winning ways and bring another championship to Chapel Hill.
Once again, it felt like destiny.
I really thought we were going to go all the way my sophomore year. When we came into that season, a lot of us had a pact that it would be our final year. Z was going to graduate. It was assumed John Henson was going to leave. Kendall was a lock for the Cousy award for being the nation’s top point guard, so it was obvious that it was probably in his best interest to enter the draft. We knew that season was our best shot at going all the way.
We cruised to a 29-5 regular season record, which was good enough to get us a No. 1 seed in the Midwest region. Our first three games moved along nicely, with solid wins against Vermont, Creighton and Ohio. We needed just one more win to reserve a spot in the Final Four.
I remember feeling so frustrated… I was completely out of rhythm.
And that’s when I crashed into my first difficult basketball lesson.
We were set to play Kansas, the No. 2 seed in the region, and to no one’s surprise, the game was close. We all expected that. At halftime, we were tied at 47. We were 20 good minutes away from the victory. But those minutes of quality basketball never arrived.
I did not play at a level of which I knew I was capable. I made just five of 14 shots, going 0-for-5 from three-point range. I also had three turnovers and just four rebounds. Down by just five with nine minutes to go, Kansas switched to a triangle-and-two hybrid zone defense. I remember feeling so frustrated that I couldn’t figure out how to score on that defense. I was completely out of rhythm.
Coach Williams kept telling us to play our sets, but it just wasn’t working. Our man-to-man offensive scheme was stifled by their zone. I remember dribbling at the top of the key and all I saw was the limbs of Kansas players everywhere. I drove right, and Tyshawn Taylor was there. I drove left, and Elijah Johnson stonewalled me. If I was fortunate enough to actually get to the rim, I had one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball that year in Jeff Withey waiting for me. And to make matters more complicated, the game was played in St. Louis, so the Kansas fans showed up big time and got louder as the game went on.
All I felt was pain, and to be surrounded by all the elation of the Kansas fans and players celebrating just made it that much worse.
At the time, I didn’t have the experience and the presence of mind to take a step back to see how I could solve the problem. You try to wipe from your mind that every play you make could determine the fate of your season, but it’s difficult to escape. I just kept feeling surprised by how effective their defense was. We made just two of our final 13 shots, and we lost by 13.
There’s no question that Kansas was the better team that day. I distinctly remember that moment when I was walking off the court and there was confetti dropping all around me, and it hit me hard that this was the last game of my college career. All I felt was pain, and to be surrounded by all the elation of the Kansas fans and players celebrating just made it that much worse.
But what’s really haunting are the questions left unanswered. What if we had played better? What if we had met Kentucky again at full-strength? What could have we have done differently to change our fate?
It’s the worst.
And the questions from that game followed me as I prepared for the NBA draft. I started to hear concerns from some of the GMs and coaches in my interviews. I was constantly asked what I would do differently if I could play that game again. Candidly, I didn’t have an answer.
But sometimes, when we don’t have the answer, life will present the opportunity to find it.
One year later, as a rookie for the Golden State Warriors, we were playing the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs. Denver was the higher seed and a fantastic team. They had just won Game 1 at home on a last-second shot. And not only did we lose that game in devastating fashion, but we also lost David Lee, one of our best players, to a leg injury.
Just before the start of the national anthem for Game 2, coach came over to me and said, “Harrison, you are going to start at the four.” I had never played the power forward position as a professional. And here we were, in a playoff game! As the singer continued, I broke out in a complete sweat. Memories of the NCAA tournament ran through my mind. And at that moment, I made a decision. I might fail in this game. We might lose. But I wasn’t going to go down passively. I was going to figure out whatever defense they threw our way, and I was going to take the action to them.
We beat the Nuggets by 14 points and gave them their first home loss in more than three months. I had my best night yet as a pro, with 24 points and 6 rebounds on 9-of-14 shooting from the floor. And we went on to win that series.
I did not let the size of the moment take me over. Instead, I played with an aggressiveness and confidence that the moment called for.
I still don’t know exactly where that performance came from. Maybe it was from my frustration with what had transpired against Kansas 13 months earlier. Maybe it was from the experience that I gained as a professional. Maybe it was from my teammates and my coaches. Or maybe it was just a kid from Iowa who wanted to let all of the North Carolina fans know how much he cared. How much he wished that he could have delivered the championship that they deserved.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.