The tattoo used to adorn Matt Barnes’ left arm like a sleeve. It was a badge of honor, bold in its declaration.
“Sac Town’s Finest.”
Barnes, the Los Angeles Clippers’ tough guy starting at small forward, has since had the tattoo covered by a swath of others as he continues his quest for ink expression. He never proclaimed to be the region’s greatest basketball product, explaining, simply, “I’m trying to represent Sacramento.”
Give this much to Barnes: No one can dispute his grit and staying power. Now 35, the Del Campo High School graduate is playing perhaps his best ball, particularly on defense as a long-armed pest. Finding a home after eight previous NBA stops, Barnes concludes that his has been “an amazing journey.”
That journey started in an NBA venue, Arco Arena in 1990. As a 10-year-old – all arms and legs with shorts down to his shins – Barnes dazzled a halftime crowd at a Kings game, winning a “Hot Shot” competition. The Kings’ arena also provided a launching pad of sorts for the region’s other NBA starter, forward Ryan Anderson of the New Orleans Pelicans. Anderson watched the Kings teams of the 2000s in awe, then was in awe while powering Oak Ridge to the 2005 CIF State Division II championship on the same floor.
“You dream of the NBA, and you work and you hope,” Anderson said. “I’m very proud to be from this region, in the NBA.”
In the spirit of the NBA playoffs, we cobbled together an all-time area team, based on all levels of play. Each had to play at least two seasons of high school ball in Sacramento and have professional experience.
(Listed by position, name, high school and senior season):
Guard, Kevin Johnson, Sacramento (1983)
KJ remains the quickest baseline-to-baseline player retired coach Ron McKenna had seen in this region. After leading the state in scoring at 32.6 per game, Johnson excelled at Cal and logged 12 NBA seasons, averaging 17.9 points and 9.1 assists. His greatest assist, of course, was preventing the Kings from relocation as mayor of his hometown.
Forward, Barnes, Del Campo (1997)
Gaining toughness and using a never-back-down mantra in the weight room and football field, Barnes was a four-year starter at Del Campo, a four-year starter at UCLA and an off-and-on starter in the NBA. No one likes to mix it up more.
Forward, Anderson, Oak Ridge (2006)
The Bee’s Player of the Decade once outscored current 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick 50-34 in a high school playoff game, then bombed away at Cal. He has overcome injuries to emerge as one of the NBA’s top three-point specialists.
Forward, Darnell Hillman, Johnson (1967)
A leaper ahead of his time in high school, Hillman was a first-round pick of the Warriors in 1971 out of San Jose State. Instead, he signed with the Indiana Pacers in the ABA, where he won two championships. Known for his Afro, “Dr. Dunk” averaged 9.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. Once asked if it was true he could jump high enough to snag a quarter off the top of the backboard, per legend, Hillman responded, “Put a $100 bill up there and see.”
Center, Bill Cartwright, Elk Grove (1975)
The nation’s top prospect on the area’s all-time greatest team, Cartwright learned to work hard on his father’s farm in Walnut Grove, whacking down weeds in sugar-beet fields under the searing sun. He was scouted heavily by the 76ers as a prep-to-pro prospect but never wavered on his commitment to USF, emerging as the No. 3 pick in the 1979 draft to the Knicks. Cartwright won three NBA titles with the Bulls and has coached in the NBA and in Japan.
Guard, Ernest Lee, Kennedy (1982)
Shaving his head and wearing baggy shorts well before Michael Jordan made it cool, Lee led the nation in scoring at Division II Clark College in Atlanta, going for 34.1, 29.3 and 29.7 points per game, respectively. Lee played three pro seasons in Europe, but his disappointment of not reaching the NBA led to a downward spiral. He took his own life in 1994, jumping off the Tower Bridge.
Guard, Sean Chambers, Highlands (1983)
After leading Highlands to one of the region’s finest seasons at 33-1, the Chambers set records at Cal Poly and became a Philippine Basketball Association legend from 1989 to 2001, once averaging 37.7 points. He keyed six championship teams.
Guard, Isaac Fontaine, Jesuit (1993)
The Cal-Hi State Player of the Year led 35-2 Jesuit to the state finals, became Washington State’s all-time scoring leader, played part of one NBA season and played overseas from 1997 to 2005.
Forward, Jim Eakins, Encina, (1964)
The Division I State Player of the Year as a senior, “Jumbo Jim” played in the ABA and NBA from 1968 to 1978, winning two ABA titles with career averages of 10.8 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Forward, Rich Manning, Center (1988)
After leading Northern California in scoring at 29.8 points, Manning played at both Washington and Syracuse, was a second-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks in 1993 and played in the NBA, CBA and overseas until 2001.
Forward, Philip Ricci, Galt (1998)
The Bee’s Player of the Year, Ricci played for current Sacramento State coach Brian Katz at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, then Oregon State. He’s played in the Czech Republic, Israel, France, South Korea, Spain and Japan, where he still competes.
Center, Michael Stewart, Kennedy (1993)
Nicked named “Yogi” for his childhood fondness of the cartoon character Yogi Bear, Stewart set shot-block records at Cal and played eight NBA seasons with five teams. He once blocked nine shots with the Kings, a franchise he once worked for as a ball boy.
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.