When P.J. Hairston’s pickup game fight made news, it was brought to my attention that Kentrell Barkley, the high schooler who Hairston’s agent has said threw the first punch, had been featured in a multimedia project this past spring. The video shed light on Barkley’s upbringing and his social and basketball background. The Durham YMCA where the altercation occurred Sunday July 6 is also shown in the piece that was part of the project, Fault Lines: Race, Class and Education in Durham, North Carolina (link).

Barkley is a member of Mr. Rick’s Ballerz, a local AAU basketball program that is much more than just that. Before you read the following article and perspective on Hairston and Barkley’s meeting Sunday night, watch the video. Rick Phillips, director of the program, certainly sided with his player in his interview Monday, but past interviews with both Barkley and Phillips show the high schooler in a way that, in my opinion, vouches for the 17-year-old’s character. I could be wrong, watch and read for yourself.


Rick Phillips met Kentrell Barkley in 2008 and began coaching him at the Durham Y.M.C.A long before P.J. Hairston met the high schooler there.

The then-seventh grader joined Phillips’ AAU basketball program, Mr. Rick’s Ballerz, and also lived with Phillips off and on because of the location where his mother lived.

“Kentrell is a very sensitive kid, he lived with us because early on in his childhood, he was living in a bad area. There were always shootings,” Phillips said. “Through basketball, we met and we constantly had kids over at our house with the Mr. Rick’s Ballerz organization and [Barkley] just kind of loved it here, felt safe, so every since [his] seventh grade [year], he’s been living with us on and off.”

Phillips describes Barkley as someone who “hates violence,” and is concerned that the image now associated with him is misaligned with Barkley’s personality.

“He’s very, very…he wouldn’t go into a haunted house at one time,” Phillips said. “We went down to the beach for a tournament and he went to a haunted house and he just screamed and cried. At one point we did firecrackers when he was in the eighth grade and they only reminded him of gun shots. He’s been affected by his early living area. He does not like conflict.”

“He’s got older brothers who have been in trouble with the law, that’s why he was trying to get away from that.”

Barkley no longer lives with the coach, but the relationship is still there.

Phillips’ son, Vincent, was playing with Barkley when Hairston arrived at the gym and sent a text message about Hairston being, “in the building,” as the Phillips’ are North Carolina fans.

But the former Tar Heel was gone by the time the coach got to the Durham Y.M.C.A around thirty minutes after the altercation, he said.

Phillips’ account of Sunday night’s situation matches the 17-year-old’s, naturally, but the details aren’t the issue at this point. For the coach and the high schooler, the media-magnified event has turned into negative attention that the player is concerned may counteract the efforts already put in to ensure promise in his future.

“He’s worried now that this is going to hurt him in recruiting because his name is out there in social media and the media,” Phillips said.

Barkley is enrolled in Early College at NC Central. It was a decision made his freshman year of high school in light of concerns that staying the traditional public school route might come with trouble.

“High school choices in Durham…everybody was worried about what school,” Phillips said. “This school has gangs, that school has gangs, so knowing that he had talent and potential, we wanted to line him up to where he was going to get an education, so early college at NC Central was in his district.”

Now, the connection to a pickup basketball game fight with a high profile player and statements made by Hairston’s agent citing Barkley hit Hairston first are the biggest concerns.

East Carolina most recently offered Barkley, after he spent the most recent season with what Phillips calls “an elite level,” travel team. Team Loaded, out of Virginia, has helped Barkley receive more college interest than he would have in the roughly 30-person sized, Durham-based program.

Because of the high school shooting guard’s background, Phillips brings up the secondary concerns of the situation without being asked. Accusations against Barkley that he’s seeking attention and/or money have been numerous, as would be expected under such circumstances.

But the emphasis the coach places on resolving the altercation the right way has nothing to do with attention and everything to do with principle.

“We’re not someone that’s out looking for money, we’re not out looking for a law suit, we just know it was wrong and we don’t live that way,” Phillips said. “We’re people here in our community. We’re trying to help people.”

“I don’t want to back down from people who are posting dirty stuff about him because I know that’s not true and we know it’s not true. That’s what I’m trying to teach him because like I said, he’s terrified that it’s going to affect people that are recruiting him.”

Then why summon Hairston to court and extend the ordeal? According to Phillips, it was the suggested and the safest of options discussed when the high schooler’s parents met at the gym Sunday evening after hearing what had happened.

“There was a policeman on site at the YMCA, they took the kids into a room there until we got there,” Phillips said. “The officer that was there said we should go downtown and take a warrant for his arrest.”

Barkley’s mother offered the second option.

“Of course his mom thinks way different than me,” Phillips said. “She said, well, they all know people that would take care of it…I think they know that that’s what happens sometimes. People get ‘taken care of,’ the illegal way. Kentrell finally said to his mom when she kept saying, ‘Once your big brothers find out…,’ and he said, ‘Mom, will you please stop saying that.’”

Addressing the situation legally was something the community felt was necessary because, “it just isn’t right,” for an adult to hit a minor, Phillips said.

There was also significance in pursuing legal action because of Hairston’s past.

“Yes, absolutely,” the coach said. “That was a factor. We keep telling Kentrell that, that [Hairston] has a criminal background and he doesn’t.”

“I know that there’s a chance that [Hairston] may try and humiliate us, but I know what we do in the community and I know who Kentrell is and we’re not going to back down from people saying what they’re going to say.”

Durham County’s Sheriff Department advised that a court summons was the best handling of the situation, but in the meantime — between now and the August 8 court date — keeping wrap on locals who “have bought into the Twitter accusations of, ‘show the video, then, [if Barkley is innocent],’” is the difficulty at hand.

It’s a waiting game now, as the Y.M.C.A’s alleged video of the altercation will only be released to the Sheriff’s Department.

“I have no doubt in my mind that it will show what we have been saying about the situation,” Phillips said.

“We’ve been constantly in contact with the Y.M.C.A and the Sheriff’s department about getting the video because that will tell the story right there. I just want to sit down with somebody and say, ‘Look, there it is right there. What did the kid do?”

By August 8, Phillips and the community will be able to do just that.

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