Adia Barnes has been keeping a secret for 25 years.
Well, it’s such a good secret that she really didn’t know about it.
And certainly not all these years later.
“Isn’t that crazy? Honestly, I had no clue,” said Barnes.
Back at San Diego’s Mission Bay High School, Barnes did something that no girls basketball player has ever done.
Barnes holds the national high school girls basketball record for shots blocked with 1,112. Caroline Houge, who played at Little Rock (Arkansas) Baptist from 2011-2015, sits in second place — 179 blocks behind Barnes.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Barnes, for one, is 5 feet 10 inches tall. She was an undersized forward at the UA who was known more for her scoring — a record 2,237 career points — and rebounds (921) than blocks. In four years, she had a total of 27 of them.
Barnes was considered undersized or a “tweener” as a pro, and re-invented her game as a result. In seven seasons in the WNBA — 13 total as a professional — she had a total of 28 blocks.
To put it simply, blocks were not part of Barnes’ game — or at least they weren’t after high school. Barnes learned about her record from former UW standout Kelsey Plum, who also grew up in San Diego.
“It wasn’t part of my game,” Barnes said. “I was so much smaller than everybody else (in college and the pros). That’s what I can’t believe. It’s so long for that record to be standing. It’s amazing. There’s no way I blocked more shots than Brittney Griner. Are you sure the record book is right? Or maybe because I fouled so much they could have counted as a block instead of a foul.”
Former Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini saw Barnes play one game in person before she offered her a scholarship to the UA. Blocks aren’t even on the list of why Bonvicini was so taken by Barnes.
“That was the least thing I remember about Adia — blocking shots,” said Bonvicini. “Definitely the thing that I was impressed with was how competitive she was, how versatile and how tough she was. I really liked that she was competitive.
“What attracted me to Adia was her internal motor was so high she impacted the game in so many ways. She got to the free throw line and was a very good rebounder. That’s what I remember. Of all the records for her to have, that would be the last one I would expect.”
At the time, Barnes’ Mission Bay team was considered an up-and-comer. The Buccaneers were “smart, played together and wanted to win,” Barnes said.
But there has always been good competition in San Diego. Barnes won co-player of the year honors in her senior year in Division ll and the Division l player of the year, was her soon-to-be UA teammate DeAngela Minter, a product of Vista High School.
Griner, who played college basketball at Baylor, owns the NCAA blocks record for men and women with 736. In high school, Griner had 794 — putting her in fifth place. A few weeks ago she moved up to third on the all-time WNBA blocks list with 613.
Griner, who is 6-8, was surprised to hear about Barnes’ number —1,112 — and said it’s not as easy as it looks.
“To get over 1,000 blocks that’s pretty, pretty impressive,” she said. “That’s a lot of hard work. A lot of people don’t think it’s hard work, they think ‘oh you’re tall go get a block.’ But it’s timing, making sure you don’t foul them, getting it at the high point. It’s tough.”
And when you’re 5-10?
“Man, that’s pretty impressive, that’s super impressive. I’m pretty blown away,” Griner said. “Now knowing all this, I want to go look (Barnes) up now. That just shows it’s hard work. You have to make a conscious effort. Doing that … I mean I would’ve loved to be on her team because she was taking away a lot of shots.
“I mean 1,100 blocks and not knowing how many altered shots she had, too. That’s another stat that goes along with blocking and that doesn’t really get acknowledged — all the shots she probably altered.”
Said Brian Agler, coach of the WNBA’s Dallas Wings: “Anytime you have a record like that, it doesn’t really matter who you are playing, it’s impressive.”
So much goes into blocking shots. It’s about having the proper timing, reading the offensive player, being in the right position and knowing where you are on the floor, and it’s not going for the pump fake and not fouling, among other things.
Barnes admits that no one taught her the technique for blocking.
“I was a hack,” she said. “I used to just swing like it was a volleyball. I used to wind up.
“I don’t have a 35-inch vertical, either. I was pretty athletic. I was blocking taller players because I was quick and aggressive. The difference was that I was aggressive. Post players always develop later. It’s very rare to have a Brittney Griner, who is a great player and was in high school. Usually, when you are tall you are really skinny and get pushed over a lot. I got to play against them and muscle them.”
So, what made Barnes such a good shot blocker?
Agler thinks it has to do with her athleticism.
“Adia was a smart player and athletic — and that’s a great combination to have in basketball,” he said. “She is a really athletic individual. She was springy. Strong and springy. So when I thought about it, it wasn’t a total shock to me. She has an idea of how to be successful. So when you have an idea of how to do that, and you are successful doing one thing, a lot of times you’ll be successful doing a lot of things, because you just figure it out. She has that knack.”
Bonvicini praised Barnes’ physical traits — her dad, Pete, played in the NFL; Adia has big hands and feet — and something else.
“Adia was special,” she said. “People who played against her in college saw her super competitiveness. They respected her. She did not back down. She was mean on the court and sweet off of it. I like to say she was one mean sucker — and I mean that as a complement.”
Barnes said this all comes from her parents — Bruce and Pat — and playing hoops with the boys.
“I was a fierce competitor and you weren’t going to outwork me,” she said. “If I was on a team with (current UA star) Aari (McDonald) — she is faster than me and would beat me in sprints. (But) I would get her when she was tired, or start faster or learn how to turn better. I would not stop until I beat her. I would never quit, never show pain. It’s just how I was.
“Where I got that was my (step) dad and my mom — to never stop. My family was never satisfied, never complacent.
“I was always playing with the boys at the rec center, every day. I never cried — if I fell, I got back up and played. And when I could do it with the boys, it was easier with the girls. I had to suck it up at times. It made me competitive and aggressive and tough. Look at (WNBA stars) Lauren Jackson, Katie Smith, Sue Bird — they all grew up doing that and they are way tougher than this generation (of players). Katie Smith or Lauren would elbow you in practice. It is a completely different mentality.”
At the time, Barnes didn’t know she had set a record. Now, she calls it “cool” and “amazing” — especially because it hasn’t been broken yet.
“I would’ve been happier to win the state championship,” she said. “The record is very funny. Winning is way more important.”
The game that almost was
Earlier this summer, USA Basketball announced that it would prepare for the 2020 Summer Olympics by playing college teams.
Arizona was almost one of them. The Wildcats tried to move one of the upcoming season’s games to accommodate a scrimmage against the superstar team, but were unable to free up the date.
“I think we could have easily gotten 10,000 fans,” Barnes said. “It would’ve been great.”
Bonvicini gets the call
Bonvicini will be inducted into the UA Hall of Fame on Sept. 7. Bonvicini, who coached the Wildcats from the 1991-92 season through the 2007-08 season, is the winningest coach in program history. Former players and family will be flying in to Tucson for the event. Barnes will have a front row seat.
“A lot of people were helping me,” Bonvicini said.