words: Dwain Hebda
images: Dwain Hebda and courtesy Arkansas Rising Stars
The coolness of the gym is a nice respite from the Pine Bluff afternoon heat, but the sweat still flows out on the court as the Arkansas Rising Stars run through their drills. It’s tourney week, and some of the top AAU squads in the country await the Stars in Memphis. Team founder and Head Coach Steven “Jay” Barnett is hell-bent on making sure the squad is ready.
Coach Barnett doesn’t yell, but he never stops talking, either. Every athlete gets a steady patter of coaching and tips on footwork, on form and especially desire. The Stars aren’t as tall as some of the teams they’ll meet, and success goes to who wants it more. Thus, Barnett tolerates no shortcuts – the path to excellence is a toll road and here’s where you pay the fare.
“You owe me,” is about all Coach has to say to send a kid trotting dutifully to the side, and then hit the deck and crank out some push-ups for missing a pass or other slip-up.
“It’s one of those things where I’ve always been a leader,” Barnett said. “Growing up, I was the captain on the football team, the basketball team, you know, I always had leadership roles. My philosophy when I teach kids is discipline, hard work, and dedication.
“They aren’t going to get it all at one time, so it’s that constant reinforcement. This is competitive basketball; sometimes you just have to know when to let it go and have them try again another day. I don’t want anyone to think they can’t be kids.”
The first thing you notice about the squad is how much middle school basketball, and the kids who play it, have changed. The seventh-grade team, made up of players age thirteen and younger, is the elite of the Stars program. They’ve been here the longest and as such are the most tournament savvy and they look it.
Just warming up, you see the talent gliding effortlessly to the hoop; racing through dribbling drills, the ball under perfect control throughout; splashing dead-center three-point jumpers, easy as breathing. They look good, even if they don’t look like the seventh graders you remember playing at that age.
But boys are exactly what these athletes are, despite circumstances forcing some to grow up fast and try as they might to look and sound like men. Coach Barnett, who’s thirty-one, sees a lot of himself in his athletes, which is why his directions are taken with such authority. Two or three players tower over him, and most can look him right in the eye, but they don’t, at least not in a challenging way. Everything here is “Yes, sir,” and every direction is followed and followed immediately.
“As coach, you just got to be firm. You gotta let them know that it’s my show,” he said. “I’m here to teach you fundamentals and what you’re doing is not fundamental. What you see on TV, they get paid to entertain. At some point, those guys started where y’all did, and they had to do this.”
The Rising Stars came out of Barnett’s conviction that iron sharpens iron, be it in the classroom, on the court or in life. When his son X’Zaevion, now a member of the seventh-grade squad, was just getting going in basketball the elder Barnett didn’t like what he saw out of the coaching or the competition.
“When he got into playing rec league basketball, I saw the direction he was going, and it wasn’t going to do anything but handicap him,” he said. “I wanted to teach him the game the correct way. So I prayed about it and asked God if this is for me to do, show me a sign. After a week or two, God showed me a sign and my sign was: If this is what He wanted, to help me come up with a name. I came up with a name after about a week.”
Barnett knew what greatness looked like—he’d excelled in athletics throughout his growing up—but he’d never actually coached before, and he’d certainly never put a team together. Plus, this wouldn’t be just any team to bump around in YMCA rec leagues. His would be a squad that would compete at the highest level of youth basketball.
“I just hit the ground running, you know, researching tournaments, figuring out how much everything would cost,” he said. “Just went out trying to get all my paperwork together, 501c3, did all that type of stuff.”
Barnett cleared every hurdle, and the Rising Stars, made up of nine-year-olds, took the floor in 2014. True to his word, Coach didn’t waste any time throwing his boys into the deep end of the competitive pool, racing headlong into tournaments that featured national-caliber competition. They were soon hanging with the more established teams thanks to an up-tempo style of play and rabid defense that kept opponents on their toes.
“I drive hard on defense because I was a defensive guy when I played,” Barnett said. “Defense first and then I like to play up-tempo. The more chances you get to put up a shot, the more chances you have of one going in.
“I teach good spacing, it’s a team sport. So if you do your job and the other person does their job, then the team’s job gets done.”The Stars finished a respectable twentieth and eighteenth in the nation in 2014 and 2015, respectively. In 2016 the squad broke through with an eighth-place national ranking and was third in the country last year. This year, the squad has already played in seven tournaments, won four and was runner-up in a fifth. Individual players have also excelled on their school squads, with several standouts on junior high teams or playing up to freshman high school teams.
“I know for a fact that I have several who can play college basketball,” Barnett said, “if they stick with what they know.”
The Stars program has grown to include a twelve and under sixth-grade squad, which formed in 2015. Its rise has been even faster, with three consecutive top-ten finishes in the nation, two in the top five rankings. An eleven and under fifth-grade squad came along in 2016 and posted a sixteenth-place finish nationally.
The team’s reputation has attracted athletes from throughout the region and even from out of state; one athlete commutes from Monroe, Louisiana, for practices. Another lives in Dallas. But success hasn’t made the day-to-day administration of the program any easier. Barnett hustles practice time and facilities and is constantly on the lookout for sources of funding to pay for tournament fees and other expenses. A lot of times, that source has been his own pocket.
Through it all, Barnett finds the competitive success gratifying—that’s the point, after all—but as a high school teacher by trade, he’s equally committed to matters of character, respect, and intellect, attributes that will far outlive a crossover dribble in the lives of his players. It’s a responsibility he feels and carries every day, like the father and father figure he is.
“I’m trying to be a positive role model,” he said. “I come from the same neighborhoods that they came from.”
During practice, the younger brother of one of the players dribbles non-stop on the sidelines. The tot is too young for the Rising Stars, but never too young to learn the fundamentals. Seeing him, Barnett pulls him aside and gives him a piece of advice, then sends him streaking down the court, focused yet joyful. Barnett watches him go, and a smile plays briefly on his face.
That’s the funny thing about dreams. They’re so easily gained yet so hard to shake. Coach Barnett calls the squad in and goes back to work.
Arkansas Rising Stars
870.489.5716 | arkansasrisingstars.com