BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)– Ka’Ron Barnes has been working for Byron Brown for a year and a half now. He marvels at the Buffalo mayor’s energy and vision, seeing Brown as one of those leaders with a knack for making the people around him better.
“He’s so good at understanding what people are good at,” said Barnes, the city’s Director of Urban Affairs. “It’s so fluid how he ties it together and makes it all work. The way he leads and puts people in their spots, he’s just like a coach on the floor.
“He has point guard tendencies for sure.”
Well, it takes one to know one. Brown played a little point guard in his youth, as a high school kid in Queens and for a year on the Buffalo State junior varsity. His respect for former Braves great and Buff State legend Randy Smith was one of the things that attracted him to the school.
So the mayor must have seen some of those qualities in Barnes, one of the best point guards ever to come out of Buffalo. Barnes, who was nicknamed “Trooper” as a baby, was the point guard on the great Turner/Carroll teams of the late 1990s under Fajri Ansari, now the head coach at Buffalo State.
Barnes was the fourth-best college prospect on those teams, which sent Leonard Stokes to Cincinnati and Julius Page to Pitt. But he was the competitive heart of those teams, a cerebral leader who made the right decisions on the floor and got the absolute best out of his teammates.
He went on Cornell, where he became team captain and all-Ivy League. I remember sitting in his living room on Buffalo’s East Side on Martin Luther King’s birthday in 2000, as Trooper showed his acceptance letter from Cornell while his parents, Donald and Rosalind, beamed with pride.
Barnes said he was living Dr. King’s dream. At Cornell, he became team captain, all-Ivy League and the fifth-leading scorer in school history when he graduated with a degree in business management in 2004. Not bad for a point guard who often deferred to more gifted teammates in high school. I
In 2015, he went into the Cornell Hall of Fame, with Ansari in attendance.
Ansari once said Barnes “made it popular to be a student” at the now-defunct Turner/Carroll. Trooper had a 99 average and the other kids tried to keep up. Ansari ran an academic hoop camp called Achieve to prepare young city basketball players to take the SATs and be eligible after high school. He couldn’t have asked for a better role model than Trooper Barnes.
“I never wanted to be one of those coaches where after the kid graduated, you pat him on the back and that’s it,” said Ansari, who has continued the academic program (now called Solid Foundation Prep) with his sons. “I wanted them to get their degree.”
As a high school senior, Barnes said an Ivy League education would open up “a whole new world” for him. It did. First, he played two years of pro ball overseas. In Toulon, France, he was a teammate of fellow Buffalo native (and point guard) Jason Rowe, who had starred at Traditional High four years earlier and had a successful pro career in Europe. Rowe, his dear pal, is now Timon’s head coach.
After two years of pro ball, Barnes worked for two and a half years at ESPN as a production assistant on SportsCenter. He was on the fast track, but he left in 2009 to be an assistant basketball coach at Army, where he worked for two seasons before leaving the game.
“I had a great experience at ESPN, but I love basketball,” Barnes said. “I went to try it out from a different viewpoint. I liked the process of helping players get better and pass on the knowledge I had. It’s a joyful thing to see guys actually listen to the things you say and apply it and have it work for them.”
“But I also had to think about my career, because I was getting older. I was pushing 30. Your parents tell you by 30 you need to figure it out. I was thinking about that, and I decided I would further my career in the business world rather than the grind of assistant coaching.”
Now it was the business world that came calling. After leaving coaching, Barnes came back to Buffalo and took a job as a credit support associate at Bank of America. He worked eight years there, and would sometimes bump into Mayor Brown at various events in the city.
“He’s a busy man, and everyone wants to talk to him,” Barnes said, “so I would have short conversations. I heard from someone else within City Hall that there was a position that would be good for me to pursue. I looked into it and fortunately, it worked out for me.”
He was a born point guard, a facilitator, experienced in production, marketing, business, media. Barnes was a natural choice for a job that involved connecting people inside government and helping teams get things done.
“Primarily, I’m working with the legislative affairs team,” Barnes said, “As far as different items the executive departments are working on, I make sure we keep communications with the Common Council to try to get those items approved.
“It’s like a utility position, almost,” he said. “Yeah, it involves community work as well.”
Barnes said he didn’t have many expectations when he took the job in July of 2019 — around the time he finished his MBA at the University at Buffalo. He’s found over the years that things don’t always happen the way you anticipate, and you need to be prepared for anything.
“So I came in with eyes and ears open, just trying to be a sponge and learn everything,” Barnes said. “The thing that I’ve loved about the position is being able to see the different departments work together, and to be able to see how things are structured and how they happen behind the scenes first before the city sees it.”
“I’ve been in a lot of different places since I left for Cornell. The city is so much different than when I first left, and it’s considerably better. It’s pretty much the time period the mayor has been in office.”
Barnes, 38, laughed when he was asked to describe a typical day for the director of urban affairs.
“It seems like every day is different,” he said. “There’s something new every day. That’s also the beauty of this position, being a public servant, there’s a new task that needs to be accomplished. You’re in the moment, creating a laundry list of things to do in your head.”
He had been in his new job about eight months when the pandemic hit, then the summer of protest. It was a stressful, hectic time in city government. Barnes said he had a larger array of tasks on his plate. Like a true point guard, he had to see things through a wider perspective.
“I was asked to do different things for different departments,” he said, “and it was beneficial, because you get to know people you don’t normally have lengthy conversations or interactions with.”
“It was a time when people found a different way to express themselves,” he said after the protests over racial inequities following the George Floyd killing. “I saw a lot of young people out trying to get their voices heard. It was a different time, a time that will forever be remembered. I was hopeful that it would lead to a better city, a better country, a better world.”
A lot has changed since Trooper left for Cornell. But Buffalo was always close to his heart, and he feels lucky to have a chance to give back to the city.
He’s still a hoop guy, too. In 2016, Barnes became certified as a basketball official. Last year, he began doing non-Division I college games, including Buff State. The games are on pause right now due to the pandemic.
Ansari jokes that Barnes “went to the other side.” He also seemed proud, and unsurprised, to know that Barnes was a really good referee.
“Oh yeah, he’s always maintained that calm demeanor,” Ansari said. “I think that’s what helped him move along so well in the officiating. It’s good to see him in the city job, too.”
Barnes said officiating is quite different from playing or coaching. But it’s similar in that you have to be well-prepared and razor-sharp in your focus. An official is required to see the floor, to know the skills and tendencies of the people around him. You’re not the one passing the ball, that’s all.
“It’s been an awesome experience,” he said. “It’s been good for me. I’m just fortunate and lucky. I happened to know some good guys, some veteran referees who were on the college level and they saw potential in me and suggested to the assigners that they give me a shot.”
He claims he was lucky to get a job officiating basketball and fortunate to get the job in urban affairs. People who know Trooper Barnes would tell you the city is the lucky one.