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Matt Barnes channels grief over mom's death into his foundation

August 12, 2011 |  1:50 pm

AnnThe dreaded phone call that changed his life vibrated in Matt Barnes’ pocket shortly after he boarded the plane.

Only a few hours removed from the Golden State Warriors’ season-opening loss to the Utah Jazz, Barnes set his eyes on the Clippers, whom the Warriors would play in Los Angeles two days later. Only seven months removed from playing an instrumental part in the Warriors’ first-round upset against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs as an eighth seed, Barnes also set his eyes on the possibility Golden State could build off that momentum.

That thought came to a screeching halt once Barnes clutched the phone in his hand. His mom, Ann, just informed him she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.

“I started crying, but then I sucked it up,” Barnes recalled four years later as a Lakers forward during a recent visit at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. The reason didn’t point to his fear of showing his emotions around his teammates. Barnes wanted to send a message to his mom.

“It’s OK,” Barnes remembered saying over the phone. “We’re going to beat this.”  

“No, baby, I have four different stages,” Barnes recalled his mother’s words. “There is nothing they can really do.”

She was right.

Only 26 days after the diagnosis, Ann died on Nov. 27, 2007. It was a time period Barnes described as a  “whirlwind." It was an event that proved to be “the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.” And it was something that sparked his foundation in 2008 called Athletes vs. Cancer, which Barnes’ fiancée and reality-TV star Gloria Govan said has raised $225,000 for local screening programs. Barnes’ foundation is also hosting various charity functions this weekend, including a Celebrity Golf Classic on Friday at Trump National in Rancho Palos Verdes and teaming up with Aflak and UCLA Medical Center to provide free cancer screenings Saturday at Bunnin Chevrolet in Culver City. 

“There’s not a day I don’t think about her,” Barnes said. “She’s definitely missed.”

After his mom told him of her diagnosis, Barnes refused to accept his mom's fate.

Even through the wave of emotions, Barnes stayed on the line and promised Ann she would return to UCLA Medical Center because of his belief that she’d receive the best treatment there.

The odds, however, seemed grim. Ann had developed two lumps on each side of her chest that Barnes compared to the size of a softball. The statistics provided by the American Cancer Society are sobering: one of five women die from cancer and most of the success stories point to preventative screening. At the local Kaiser Permanente, Barnes said, his mother met resistance in undergoing various treatments because she was considered “heavy set.”

“He was constantly fighting with the doctors,” recalled Govan, whose own mom has survived breast cancer since her original diagnosis in 2004. “At this point in time, we weren’t educated on cancer. Looking back there were some things we would’ve done in terms of flying doctors in. But you’re just listening to what they’re telling you.”

Barnes still tried.

In a season that he already considered a “wash” in November because of the anxiety over his mother’s health, Barnes drove from the Bay Area to Sacramento after every Warriors practice. That's where he went to visit Ann, whom Barnes, friends and family members say was his best friend. In turn, teammates such as Baron Davis, Monta Ellis and Stephen Jackson also made the trek -- teammates Barnes described as a “good support system.” That extended to his family, which included his father, Henry, his younger sister, Danielle, and his older brother, Jason. The family always remained close, but they noticed the bond tightened even more during those tumultuous 26 days.

“I know he was hurting,” said Jason Barnes, who's a player in the Canadian Football League. “He was probably the closest to mom. I knew how Matt was feeling, but he wouldn’t show he was hurt. He was trying to toughen everybody up. He knew if he lost it, everyone would lose it. He was the backbone. He let everybody else know it would be OK. I know he was hurting." 

That pain heightened Nov. 27. That night Barnes and Govan had been lying in bed all night at their Alameda residence wide awake with the phone resting on his chest. They remained restless for any update. Barnes received one, but it was one he didn’t want to hear. His aunt called him about Ann’s passing. Barnes and Govan embraced before Barnes asked if she wanted to make the 85-mile trip to Sacramento. Govan wanted to, but politely declined out of concern she’d interfere with any family private moments.

“He has been the rock of his family,” said Govan, who’s also the mother of Barnes’ two two-year-old twin sons, Isaiah Michael and Carter Kelly. “He handled it in my opinion very well. I would’ve been a wreck.”

Instead, Barnes channeled that pain into helping others get preventative screenings, a procedure he believes would've saved his mother's life had she done so.

The initiative has paved the way for Barnes to help an unnamed high school friend get $6,000 worth of initial treatment for his throat cancer. It led to him meeting a fan with brain cancer who later died and was buried with Barnes' autographed jersey. It's also paved the way for him to sell T-shirts titled "If cancer couldn't beat me, what makes you think you can?"

"There will never be happiness that comes from this," Barnes said. "But it’s inspired me to come out and make a difference."

There's various ways that help assuage the pain.

Following the National Anthem at every basketball game, Barnes prays in memory of his mother. Just this past season, Barnes got a tattoo drawn on his chest depicting his mother wearing angels' wings. He wears a red bracelet around his right wrist with the name Ann written in white between two hearts. Barnes also keeps a picture frame in his living room at his Palos Verdes home of him and his mother during the 2007 playoffs. 

During that time, Barnes had made a bold proclamation to Davis and Jackson that he'd shave his head into a mohawk if they made the playoffs, a hairdo Ann instantly embraced. He then made it a playoff ritual in her memory. 

"You could see how much influence his mom had on him with that haircut," said Barnes' barber, Demorea "Truck" Evans, who often talks with Barnes about his mother, Jean George, dying of breast cancer Nov. 5, 2005. "He lost the bet and he had to get this funny haircut. But as soon as she said she liked it, he didn’t mind wearing it."

That's because even with the loss, Barnes still feels her presence: "I always know she’s watching down on me."

Matt Barnes to wear mohawk during playoffs in honor of his mother

Matt Barnes' sons also get mohawk in time for Lakers-Mavericks series

--Mark Medina

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Photo: Barnes lost his mother, Ann, on Nov. 27, 2007, only 26 days after she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Credit: Athletes vs. Cancer.