Milton Barnes (‘79) gives me a firm handshake with an infectious smile at Biggby Coffee in Albion. Barnes sits at 13th on Albion’s men’s basketball all-time scoring list and led the 1978 Britons to an MIAA championship and a third-place finish in the NCAA Division III tournament. After graduating from Albion, Barnes volunteered as an assistant coach at Albion College, and that became a catalyst for what would culminate into over 30 years of coaching high school, collegiate and professional basketball.
With a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, Barnes thinks back to the times just after he graduated from Albion and was working for legendary men’s basketball coach Mike Turner. What really got him started in coaching, however, was working with kids in the Albion community.
“What led me into coaching was during the summer of my sophomore year [of college], I began working in the community with kids, and that’s when my first love struck with coaching,” Barnes explained. “For those last three summers, I worked with kids in Albion and that’s how I initially got started with my love and appreciation for the community of Albion. When you work with kids, you work with basketball, but you’re being exposed to them and they’re being exposed to you, and you share. As a result of that sharing, I had a chance to influence their lives and see the impact it made on their path. That got me hooked into coaching.”
Barnes’ coaching tenure at Albion became a catalyst for other collegiate coaching jobs that included Kent State University, University of Detroit, Eastern Michigan University and the University of Minnesota. In between two stints at Minnesota, Barnes returned to Albion to coach the Albion High School basketball team. It was there that Barnes began to understand what coaching meant in his life.
“It’s funny how you come to a point in your life where everything comes together, and I like to think that as a high school coach, I really got a true understanding of what coaching is,” said Barnes. “As a high school coach, you have to do a lot and you find out how much of an impact you have on your people’s lives. That’s one of the things I’m drawn into — making an impact in the lives of young people. My love of coaching is probably secondhand to my true love, which is helping young people.”
From 1988 to 1991, Barnes tallied a 65-11 record with Albion High School. He led the team to a 26-1 record and an appearance in the Class B state championship game in his final season. Although Albion fell short in the game, Barnes says he was proud to make an impact on young people’s lives and the community.
In 2000, Barnes took his coaching skills to the professional basketball ranks, starting with the Harlem Globetrotters. This was a completely new experience because he learned about the entertainment side of basketball and the importance of marketing, professionalism and training.
In between stints with the Globetrotters, Barnes coached the Greenville Groove of the NBA D-League in 2001. In a newly formed league, Barnes led the Groove to the D-League championship.
“If you rank the things I’ve done and been a part of, that ranks second right behind my experiences at Albion as a coach. That team was built from the ground up. So something you had a hand in in terms of building something from the very bottom, you feel a special attachment to it. The fact we won the championship makes it even more special.”
Barnes then moved on to be a scout in the NBA, getting opportunities with the Washington Wizards and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Most recently, Barnes was the coach of the U.S. Virgin Islands national team, and he encourages young people to see what other worlds are out there, “just so you have a better appreciation for what we have here.”
Play Right Basketball Academy
Now residing in Dallas, Barnes is still doing everything he can to give back to the communities of Calhoun County. Each week, Barnes flies from Dallas to Calhoun County to run the Play Right Basketball Academy, an after-school program in Battle Creek for boys and girls from the greater Calhoun County area. For nine months, three days a week, kids can learn desire, dedication and discipline to be their best, work hard and make good decisions on and off the basketball court.
“I think leadership is important based on the example you set,” Barnes explained. “Your level of commitment, your level of enthusiasm and your level of sacrifice, and that’s what I’m doing for the betterment of Albion, Battle Creek and communities in between. That’s why my program includes Calhoun County because I want to touch as many lives as I can and I want to make a difference with as many kids as I can. That’s what the objective of this program is.”
Although he could have started the program in Dallas, Battle Creek seemed like the right fit. Barnes coached the younger brother of the Jill Kingsley Hinde, CEO of the Battle Creek YMCA, when he was at Albion High School. Much of the reason for coming back to Calhoun County was the level of opportunity and commitment from the area.
“[Jill and I] came together with the understanding that we could run this program in Battle Creek and Albion to help kids because she knew having experienced first-hand my philosophy as a head coach,” he said. “She knew what I was all about and she embraced my idea.”
Play Right Basketball Academy is starting small, but Barnes could see the program turning into a signature model for other programs across the country. The original intent of the program, Barnes says, was to cater to the kids of Calhoun County, but if it expands past that, Barnes doesn’t want to get in the way of progress.
Albion College then and now
As a kid growing up in Saginaw, Barnes’ community was primarily black. Every once in awhile, he would see white people in downtown Saginaw, but that was the extent of his experience. He said he didn’t have personal relationships with white people except for teachers. Coming to Albion College, a predominantly white school, Barnes fondly remembers how uncomfortable he was being exposed to a large number of white people for the first time, and even living with one.
“This is a true story — My teammate, Mike Williams (’78), who is now on the Board of Trustees, he and his roommate were from Flint. Flint and Saginaw were close and we competed against each other, but they were a year ahead of me. I literally went to their room and stayed in their room and slept on the floor most of that year. My roommate didn’t really even know me. My world and where I came from was totally different. I’m from a large family of 11 kids, so believe me, I was used to sleeping on floors or couches or chairs, wherever you could sleep. I was just that uncomfortable.”
Much of the adjustment wasn’t physical but psychological. Walking into a classroom and being the only black person there was different, but Barnes says it wasn’t hostile. He befriended a football player, Fred Boggan, and he helped Barnes get comfortable within the Albion community. Although it was a different cultural experience for Barnes, it was an experience that opened his eyes to learn more about himself.
“I didn’t see color; the only color I saw was the color of our [basketball] uniforms,” said Barnes. “All of a sudden, I had relationships with white guys and that never happened before. It’s amazing, that whole transition of growing up. But as you’re growing up, learning some important lessons in life that will carry you much further than just those four years.”
When Barnes visits campus today, he walks the Quad and reminisces about his time at Albion. His first time on any college campus was at Albion, and that’s when it struck him as a special place. Looking at Albion College today, Barnes is both pleased with what President Ditzler is doing in terms of diversity and excited to see what the future holds for Albion.
“You can accomplish so much when you have different representations and cultures, and not have the barriers. Now, there’s more opportunity to make your exposure and experience as a current student a broader experience. It gives you a better perspective of the world and life in general when you leave Albion.”
Having goals and objectives
In the summer of his freshman year, Barnes worked at the Albion Malleable Iron Company. Barnes only lasted one month because it was so taxing, but he then realized why he was at Albion: to get his degree.
“It was tough,” Barnes said with a laugh. “I realized what my dad was working in for more than 30 years. I almost cried. I said ‘There is no way in hell I’m not going to get my degree. There’s no way I’m working in these kinds of conditions.’”
A large part of what the Play Right Basketball Academy preaches is the dedication to hard work within both basketball skills and life skills. Through all of Barnes’ experiences, he has developed as a basketball player and as a person. In basketball terms, Barnes said he was a “late bloomer,” claiming he was decent in high school and became a good player in college. As a person, Albion College and the community was the place where Barnes truly developed as a person.
“The biggest thing is the development of Milton Barnes as a young, black man in America happened in Albion,” said Barnes. “It didn’t happen in Saginaw, it happened in Albion. That’s what gives me that commitment, that deep-down commitment to Albion is seeing the best of Albion and the best for Albion.”
Photos courtesy of Albion College Archives