(Editor’s note: The following is the cover story of the 2021 LSJ high school basketball preview, which is available for free in retail outlets throughout the area. Click here for retail locations)

By Steve Gunn

Ke’Ontae Barnes could have easily taken a wrong turn in life.

He has spent his teen years moving around, living with his mother, an aunt and uncle, and now his father and grandmother.

He’s had to direct himself through the challenges of adolescence, and be careful to avoid the pitfalls that so often plague teens who lack structure at home.

And there was not a lot of structure for Barnes. He explained it in a paper he wrote two years ago, and shared with LocalSportsJournal.com.

“I lived with my single mother and my little sister my whole life until I was 14, and it wasn’t easy,” he wrote. “My mom was struggling trying to get a job, but it wasn’t going so good, so it made it hard for her to provide for me and my sister.

“But my getaway was always basketball. When I would go to the gym I would forget about everything in my home life till I got home. And my grandpa was a good motivator for me also. He always told me God don’t put you in situations you can’t overcome.

“But at 14 I didn’t think my life could get any worse. My grandpa had passed away in 2016 and on the same day me and my little sister got taken away from our mother by CPS, and that killed me because she was the only one we had. But I couldn’t show my little sister that I was scared for her sake, so I had to be tough.

“My little sister had to go stay with her dad in Atlanta and my dad wasn’t much in my life, so my uncle and aunt took me in and I’m so thankful for that because without them I don’t know where I would be.”

There were temptations and potential pitfalls along the way.

He said he knew troubled kids who tried to talk him into doing a lot of things on the other side of the law, like selling drugs, smoking pot, and shoplifting.

Luckily Barnes has always been good at navigating challenges. He has a clear understanding of his life and situation, and has been mature enough to understand the right way and wrong way to go.

“You don’t have to go to the streets,” said Barnes, 18, an All-State guard for the Orchard View basketball team. “There are lots of ways to make money without doing things illegal. Everybody is trying to make money the wrong way. I know a lot of them. I had a whole lot of friends who were cut out of my life because of it.”

Orchard View All-Stater Ke’Ontae Barnes averaged nearly 30 points per game last season. Photo/Tim Reilly

His basketball dreams helped Barnes continue to move forward. He grew up around older basketball players, started playing organized ball himself in elementary school, and has been laser-focused on the game since then.

Barnes had some help along the way from a coach who wasn’t even his coach when they met.

When Barnes was in middle school, Nick Bronsema, then the assistant varsity boys basketball coach at Orchard View, got word that there was a potential standout coming up through the OV system.

Bronsema met Barnes and watched him play, and started inviting him to practice with the varsity, when his own team practices were done for the day.

It was a pretty tough challenge for a middle school kid. Barnes would practice every afternoon with his middle school team from 2-4 p.m., then join the varsity practice that went as late as 7:30 p.m. He said it was an exhausting experience, but well worth it.

He reflected on that in the paper he wrote when he was 16:

“From 7th and 8th grade (Bronsema) let me practice with the varsity until I was big enough to be in high school, and I knew every time I stepped in the gym I was going to have to work my butt off, so I did, from shooting over 300 shoots a day to all the sprints and a lot more.

“I always had the mindset that if you work hard it will pay off. That’s why I practice like I’m in a game. And I’m trying to get better because I know I’m not nearly as good as I could be, so that’s why I try to be a gym rat all the time.”

Bronsema said it was obvious from the get-go that Barnes was a kid with a ton of potential.

“I know they didn’t have the greatest success in middle school as far as wins or losses, but he was always scoring points,” Bronsema said about Barnes. “You could see how good he could be in the way he handled himself, the confidence. You could see other guys on the middle school team deferring to him.”

Bronsema has become more than just a coach to Barnes. The two of them have spent a lot of time together in recent years, working out on the court, and just talking about basketball and life in general.

For a kid who has been largely finding his own way for years, having a trusted adult to turn to has been priceless.

“He’s a person I can come to and talk to and clear my mind,” Barnes said. “Whenever I need to get something off my mind I can call him.”

“He will tell me what’s on his mind,” Bronsema said. “I try to help him figure things out, where he and the team can go this season, but more importantly, where he can go in his life. My next goal is to put him in a good situation so he can be successful in college, and be successful as an adult down the road. I see him as being a leader in life. He’s not going to be a follower.”

That ‘it’ thing

Barnes joined the Orchard View varsity as a freshman, the same year that Bronsema was promoted to head coach of the team, after the retirement of the former coach, his father-in-law, Russ Doane.

Barnes with OV coach Nick Bronsema. Photo/Jason Goorman

In Doane’s last season, OV won only six games, and it had been quite some time since the team had posted double-digit wins.

But with the talented freshman on the roster, things started to improve rapidly. The Cardinals won 10 games in his freshman year, 15 and a Division 2 district championship his sophomore year, and 13 last season.

Every year Barnes’ skill set improved, and his confidence soared. The more confidence he had, the more points he scored.

As a freshman he was streaky and averaged 10 points per game.

He took off in his sophomore season, averaging 22 points per game.

By that point he felt fully comfortable in the varsity environment, and started believing that he could dominate games with his scoring ability.

The highlight of that season was winning a Division 2 district championship in a nail-biter against perennial power Spring Lake in the finals.

Barnes played a huge role throughout the contest. He hit six three-pointers and totaled 19 points in the first half, helping the Cardinals gain a 35-24 lead.

Spring Lake tightened things up in the second half. In the fourth quarter, Barnes hit a triple then made two free throws with about two minutes left to give OV a 53-50 lead. Then Spring Lake standout Sam Negen nailed a triple to tie the score at 53-53 with 42 seconds left on the clock.

With 10 seconds left, Barnes drove the lane and the ball was tipped out of his hands. He was able to recover it, then swing a pass between three defenders to teammate Demari Mitchell in the paint. Mitchell made the easy layup with 2.1 seconds left to give the Cardinals a 55-53 victory and the first district title for OV since 1995.

“It was crazy,” said Barnes, who finished with 27 points in the game. “I never saw that many people in the crowd for one game. It was a hard battle, back and forth.”

Barnes will never forget the final play that put his team over the top.

“Everybody thought I was going to shoot,” he said. “There were 15 seconds left and I had the ball. When it got down to 10 seconds I started moving, and I instantly got triple-teamed. Mitchell was there with his hands up, so I just threw him the ball and he did the rest. The whole game was unreal.”

Barnes in action as a sophomore. Photo/Jason Goorman

Last season, in his junior year, Barnes reached the truly elite level, averaging an astonishing 28.6 points per game, passing the 1,000 point mark for his career, and earning first-team Division 2 All-State honors.

He had the game of his career last season on the road against Belding, scoring a school-record 49 points in the victory.

Barnes scored 13 points in the first quarter, 15 in the second, 10 in the third and 11 in the fourth.

“We were pressing (on defense) a lot, and the ball kept coming to me and coming to me,” Barnes said. “I had a lot of layups in the first half, and in the second half I made a couple threes. I dunked once, then on my way back up the court I stole the ball and dunked again, then I got the ball back and dunked it again.”

Barnes could have finished the game with 51 points, but a controversial call at the end denied him that distinction.

“It was really 51, but he called travel on a layup,” he said. “Dang, (50 points) was the goal.”

For Bronsema, it’s sometimes just a matter of watching in awe as his star point producer piles up the buckets, game after game.

“He just has that ‘it’ thing,” Bronsema said. “He just makes things happen in games, and as a coach you just kind of go ‘wow.’ He’s very quick and athletic, and he just knows how to score. He doesn’t have any fear.

“I would say he plays with a chip on his shoulder. Many kids are as talented as he is, but he wants to make his own legacy. He hits big shots, he can knock down the three, and he can definitely get to the rim. When he drives it’s fun to watch. In the open court he knows how to make things happen.

“With the amount of attention he receives defensively, for him to do what he does is really amazing. They all know about Ke’Ontae, they try to stop him, but he still does what he does.”

Helping to turn around a program

Barnes admits that he wants to shine on the court and be recognized as a standout. As he put it, “I just love watching the ball go in the hoop and watching the crowd get all hyped and jumping out of their seats.”

But he also has another motivation for pushing himself to improve and playing so hard every game.

When he was middle school he watched the OV varsity struggle every season, and he wanted to help change that, for his school and for Coach Bronsema.

“That was my goal,” he said. “I had seen my coach work so hard (as an assistant coach), then go out and have like a three-win season. I knew when I got up there I didn’t want us to lose any more.”

Barnes also admits that he has heard from various sources from other schools, trying to convince him to transfer, but he has never been interested.

“The coaches can’t talk to you, but they have players text you and tell you all this good stuff,” he said. “Sometimes assistant coaches have told me how I could do this or that at their school. But there are certain things I want to do at OV, like breaking the scoring record.

Barnes scored 49 points against Belding last season. He thought he had 51, but his last bucket was called a travel. Photo/Kris Rake

“And I didn’t want to leave my coach, either. He’s been there for me since I’ve been at OV, and it wouldn’t be right for me to just up and leave.”

With a delayed senior season still ahead of him, Barnes is focused on setting the school’s career scoring record. He currently has 1,135 points in three seasons. Record-holder Brian Montanati, who went on to play at Oklahoma State and is now the head boys varsity coach at Owosso High School, had 1,461.  

He is also excited about his team’s potential. With four starters returning from last season’s winning team, he thinks the sky could be the limit for the Cardinals if things go well.

“The whole summer we were at Mona Lake Park working out together,” Barnes said. “We’ve got good chemistry, and when we get on the court everybody connects. We just need to get back in shape.”

Beyond that, Barnes is very focused on his future. He has been getting a lot of interest from college basketball programs, and has yet to narrow down his choices.

Wherever he goes to school, he wants to major in business, because he’s smart enough to know that very few college athletes end up making a living from their sport.

He’s already started his business career, in fact. He and teammate Donovan Daniels recently started a company called “Make it Out,” and they plan to sell clothing and other items online.

When asked what the name stands for, Barnes’ reply was a reflection of the lessons he has learned throughout his young life.

“Instead of going the wrong way, and selling drugs and being involved in gun violence, you can go to school, get a degree and make something out of yourself,” he said.

Those words back up what Bronsema says about Barnes – that he’s mature beyond his age, and somehow managed to keep his head on straight, despite the challenges he’s faced.

“Ke’Ontae was forced to learn to grow up younger than many of his peers,” Bronsema said. “I’m very proud of him for being able to persevere. He finds the bright side of things quite often, and it shows in his game.

“A huge part of basketball is played between the ears, and when Ke’Ontae has a bad practice or a rough day at school, he finds a way to make something good out of a not necessarily good scenario.”