In between wide grins, Brent Barker kept coming back to one word Monday evening at Dirtbag Ales Brewery and Taproom.
Surrounded by family, friends, former players and colleagues, the 52-year-old Barker arrived at the Hope Mills establishment for what was supposed to be a surprise celebration for the longtime coach and teacher.
But, like the true basketball fan he is, Barker was settled in on his couch in preparation for a night of NBA playoff action before his wife, Jennifer, told him what was planned that night at Dirtbag.
“I’ve used the word overwhelmed. It’s just amazing because as you’re doing it, you’re just working hard, trying to do the right thing and trying to get kids to do the right thing,” said Barker, who announced his retirement in late April after coaching girls’ basketball at South View High School for nearly 30 years.
“You build these relationships and I’ve had a tiny bit of time to reflect. You start thinking, ‘Wow, these are amazing kids that I’ve been lucky to be around.’ The adults that have worked with me, the teachers and the staff … I get goosebumps thinking about how lucky I am to have gone through this with amazing people.”
Barker, who has been a teacher and coach at South View for 29 years, logged more than 550 victories with the Tigers, including a state championship in 2007.
On Monday night, it was clear his influence goes well beyond what his teams were able to accomplish on the court.
Whitney Sentine, Nattlie McArthur and Jamilia Williams were among the former players in attendance Monday to celebrate Barker’s retirement.
Wins, records and memories of games took a backseat to their recollection of Barker’s incandescent passion for coaching and teaching.
“To know Coach Barker is to know that he cares about the players. He builds relationships with each of us,” said McArthur, who coached and played under Barker before taking over the Jack Britt girls’ basketball team.
More:‘I wouldn’t have believed it’: How the Jack Britt girls' basketball team made the most of its 7-game regular season
“My relationship with him is going to be different from Jam’s (Jamilia) relationship with him. We all have our own relationships with Barker. He’s the kind of coach who I can call right now and say, ‘Hey, Barker, this is what’s going on,’ and he’ll help us with those situations. If you build those relationships with your players, there’s nothing that they won’t do for you.”
Sentine, formerly Whitney Jordan, played on the 2006-07 squad, which finished with a 32-0 record for the best mark in Cumberland County history. The Tigers were the first 4-A girls team to complete an undefeated season since the championship moved to a neutral site in 1987.
“He is a wonderful person, a great teacher and a great coach,” Sentine said.
“He deserves every bit of credit that all of us have given him. I’m happy for him. To see all this love he’s getting, he works hard. He’s so giving and generous with his time.”
A nurse, Sentine said three traits come to mind when she thinks about Barker.
“His work ethic, generosity and kindness are three things that stick out to me,” she added.
Those attributes were highlighted by other former players in an hour-long video tribute, created by Jamaisha Ward, that featured 25 people. Each of them gave their favorite memories of Barker and a lasting lesson from their time with him.
Whether they were praising his dancing ability, rapping skills or his willingness to help his science students after school hours, each person shared their appreciation for Barker.
During her portion of the video, McArthur called attention to a plaque in her office that reminds her of her mentor.
“A good coach can change a game, a great coach can change a life,” she said as she pointed out the plaque.
“I’m here to say my life was changed because of you.”
With a bit more gray in his goatee, Barker couldn’t stop smiling as he fought back tears and watched former players, coaches and friends shower him with praise.
“Now that I’m old, seeing these guys go on and have children and amazing jobs … that’s really cool,” he said.
“When I finally diagnosed what was happening this evening, I said I hope I get to hear what everyone’s doing and where they are. That’s something that I’m really proud of. These are awesome people and I’m proud of them.”
Known for his calm demeanor, ability to adjust to in-game situations and his organizational skills, Barker had one saying that continues to stick with his former players — “Every possession is precious.”
In addition to that mantra, McArthur, Williams and Sentine mentioned Barker’s ability to make each of his players feel as if they were the most important player on the team.
Never one to let his anger get the best of him on the sidelines, Barker would throw down the occasional foot stomp in times of displeasure. In other situations, Sentine added, all the players had to do was look at his face.
She remembers South View’s struggles in the 2007 NCHSAA 4-A state championship, which was the final game of her prep career. The Tigers trailed by 13 points at halftime and saw their deficit swell to 17 in the third quarter before a fourth-quarter charge helped them complete the comeback for the crown.
“We got it together because of him,” Sentine said.
“To me, it was like when you disappoint your dad. You look at him, it’s like, ‘OK, we gotta do something to fix this.’ We wanted to go out there and give it 10 times more effort than we did before (halftime).”
Barker remembers that season as an “amazing, stressful year” and each of the five starters scoring double figures in that state championship game.
“That’s the only time that happened all season,” he said. “That’s awesome and they didn’t give up.”
The magnitude of that moment didn’t hit Sentine until South View held a ceremony in the school library to celebrate the championship.
“I honestly didn’t realize how much it all was. It didn’t sink in until later on,” she recalled.
“It was bigger than I realized it was at the moment. We had a good time and a good group of people. Coach created the culture of how loving we were and we worked together so well. … I think we all cried in that library.”
McArthur and Williams were a part of those first teams led by Barker, who was hired ahead of the 1994-95 season and helped the Tigers to a 26-3 record in his debut season.
Seeing that success out of the gate provides Williams with plenty of motivation as she steps into her new role as head coach of the Tigers.
“Just to be a part of that experience was amazing,” she said. “Just knowing he was a first-year head coach and he was able to do that, it’s an added piece of motivation for me knowing that it can be done because he trusted his players.”
Williams added that Barker taught her to be “insightful and patient.” She was often amazed at his in-game “strategizing and coming up with ways to win.”
“No matter what, he’s always patient with us. Motivate and always encourage,” she continued.
“He’s always been really laid back, just really easy to talk to. It was never like, oh, this is gonna be a scary person.”
McArthur soaked up everything she could during her time with Barker. In the last two seasons, she’s led the Buccaneers to a pair of historic seasons.
“As players, we learned life lessons playing for Barker … things that we will take with us for the rest of our lives,” she said.
“As a coach, I was a sponge. I learned how to practice, I learned practice scheduling, practice planning. You learned when to take timeouts, when not to take timeouts. He taught you all the intricate parts of being a coach, what to expect, how to do what you were created to do and block out all the outside noise.
“It wasn’t about what people said or how people said you should do it. You had to go with what you felt was right based on the personnel that you had. Those are things that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”
Described as a players’ coach who wanted his teams to be directed by its leaders, Barker often gave his players the freedom to show off their individual talent centered around the team concept.
“Give them a bunch of basics and fundamentals, make them love the game, make ‘em competitive and then you gotta back off and let them do their thing,” he said.
“That worked out more than not.”
The Tigers made the playoffs in 26 of Barker’s 27 seasons. Now, many of his former players are roaming the sidelines.
“What’s cool is a bunch of those girls are coaching,” Barker said.
“Whether they’re using stuff that they learned at South View or not, they’re good people and they’re teaching kids to be good people. It’s incredible.”
In a year that saw college basketball giants Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski announce their retirement plans, Barker stuck with the trend and the plan he had in place with his wife.
“This year has been in the plans for a while,” he said.
“We felt like we wanted to retire as early as we could, and not stop working, but doing some traveling."
Although he's “putting out feelers for a part-time job," Barker isn't worried about the state of basketball in Cumberland County.
“There are really good people still in it,” he said.
“I feel like we have some young people who are getting in it that are going to do the right things. For example, Jamilia, I feel like she’s gotten this spot, opportunity, and she’s going to do a great job with it.”
When asked how he wants to be remembered, Barker highlighted three areas.
“I hope they say I worked hard, I was fair and I sincerely cared about the people — not just who were playing for me or working around me — but the people we’ve played against,” he said.
Since his retirement became official, Barker has spent much of his time converting VHS tapes of South View basketball games to DVDs before uploading them to YouTube. Rewatching that footage gave him a chance to see some of the same people he chatted with Monday night.
“It’s quite a process, but it made me see a lot of faces. It is really cool,” he said.
“You’re so busy when you’re doing it, you don’t really have time to appreciate how lucky you are. It’s only been a couple of months, but I’m already seeing that. I was really lucky.”
Staff writer Rodd Baxley can be reached at email@example.com.