Long before John Barbee crafted one of the more established coaching careers in the Puget Sound area, he was a kid who spent hours shooting hoops in his driveway.
“In my generation, that’s what you did,” Barbee said. “You’d shoot in the driveway for hours and play games. You’d beat Magic Johnson. You’d play one-on-one against Larry Bird. That’s what I enjoyed.”
It’s how he developed a lifelong attachment to the sport — one he’s passed on to his four children, three of whom attend Franklin Pierce High School, where Barbee, now 45 years old, is in his second season coaching the boys basketball team.
“It’s our whole life, pretty much,” said Barbee’s oldest son, Jalen, who starts for the Cardinals as a sophomore. “I think that’s what keeps us together as a whole. We just enjoy playing it.”
Growing up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Barbee spent his early years around a different sport. He and his siblings were immersed in baseball culture, living in the city that hosts the Little League World Series each summer.
When he moved to Colorado, where he attended junior high and high school, basketball became a bigger focus. He liked the level of competition the sport offered, and that it was one he could practice by himself, as long as he had a hoop.
He imagined playing one-on-one against those NBA legends, and eventually made his way onto the roster at Cornell University, before graduating college and moving to the northwest.
Since arriving here in 1996, he’s established one of the longest running local basketball coaching careers. At 23 years old, he became the first men’s basketball coach at The Evergreen State College, when the school added the program in 1997.
He spent eight seasons with the Geoducks before joining the high school ranks. He’s since coached the boys basketball program at Foster, the girls program at Kennedy Catholic, the boys program at River Ridge, and now the boys program at Franklin Pierce, which is 16-1 this season.
Timberline boys coach Allen Thomas, who played for Barbee at Evergreen, regularly speaks with his former coach. He said Barbee’s ability to connect with players has propelled a successful career for more than two decades.
“It was about family and relationships first,” Thomas said. “He would care about you outside of basketball. He would always check in with you, and make sure things at home are going good. He was trying to mold you into being a young man. I think that’s crucial for a lot of kids who don’t really have that structure or stability.”
Barbee works at Compass Housing Alliance in Seattle — which provides services and affordable housing for low-income or homeless community members — as the Director of Emergency Services. He says building those relationships is what has kept him so connected to coaching basketball.
“I love the game,” he said. “I love being connected to kids, and really making a difference. And, everywhere I’ve been, I’ve just been blessed with good kids and good administration that’s been supportive, since I’m not a teacher. Everything has kind of always lined up.”
At Franklin Pierce, his coaching job has lined up perfectly with his children beginning high school. Barbee coached Jalen last season as a freshman, and Jalen is one of the Cardinals’ key players as a sophomore. Barbee’s twin son and daughter, John and Zionna, are both playing varsity as freshman. And his youngest son, 11-year-old Javon, will be a freshman when the twins are seniors.
“It’s the greatest gift I could ever (ask for),” Barbee said. “It’s just so much fun. I think one of the biggest challenges is you don’t really get to spend a lot of time (together) because of schedules. People are at work, or for me, I’m always commuting. And, now it’s like every single day I get a couple of hours with them, doing what we all love in the gym. It’s really awesome.”
Barbee’s four children took to the game of basketball as quickly as he did growing up.
“They’re products of their environment,” he said.
Jalen supposes a basketball was probably one of the first things he ever touched. Barbee says says the twins were watching summer league games when they were days old. Zionna can’t count the number of basketballs they have at home.
“Too many,” she laughed. “They’re probably pretty much everywhere. I couldn’t even tell you.”
Their mom, Keeshia Thomas, is also a former player. She is an assistant for the Foster girls program, and coaches at Northwest Magic, where Zionna plays AAU basketball.
“I think the most important thing we value about basketball is we all love the sport, and we can all connect,” Zionna said.
The four Barbee children haven’t spent as many hours playing against invisible NBA stars like their dad did as a kid, but they do have a hoop in their driveway. More often, they’ve played against each other. The two-on-two teams were always the same, Jalen and Javon vs. John and Zionna.
“It’s super competitive, because we’re a super competitive family,” Jalen said. “We didn’t want to lose, so we would do whatever it took to win, even if it meant fouling hard. It just makes us stronger.”
Sometimes the game would get too heated, and they’d take a break. Other days, the siblings would play for hours. But, they were always together. Now, they’re together at school, or at practice, or spending time with each other at home, doing homework, or sometimes shooting hoops.
“We’re never apart,” Zionna said. “Even at school, we walk in our little pack. We’re there for each other.”
“It’s pretty cool that we’re always together,” John said.
Barbee said he values the extra time he gets to spend with his kids while coaching at Franklin Pierce, and knows they’ll reflect on these years playing basketball together as they get older.
“It’s just a cool thing to be a part of,” Barbee said. “For me, I just love being around them. ... It’s a good feeling. I’m loving it.”