Barnes' mother, Shirley Barnes, was such a Michael Jordan fan that she decided in 1987 to videotape as many of Jordan's televised games as possible.
"In watching Michael on the court, I just realized it was something special," she said. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone to capture. I thought, 'You know what? If I ever have a son, he needs to see this guy play.' "
Her idea paid off better than she could ever have imagined.
The kid who spent his childhood studying that collection of videotapes is about to follow his idol to North Carolina. Harrison Bryce Jordan Barnes - yes, Jordan is one of his middle names - will arrive in Chapel Hill as the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2010 recruiting class.
"That was kind of my first segue into basketball, watching all the tapes of Michael Jordan and just seeing him play," said Barnes, a 6-foot-8 forward from Ames (Iowa) High. "Those were the first basketball images I had."
Barnes now is trying to follow Jordan's example, both on and off the floor. He knows it would be foolish to compare himself to Jordan and Kobe Bryant - his other favorite player - at this point in his life. But that hasn't stopped him from studying how Jordan and Bryant made themselves global successes.
"Michael Jordan, I think, is the greatest player to ever play this game," said Barnes, a member of his high school's student entrepreneurship club. "I've seen his success and the way he's had a staying power almost on his product and his brand. For Kobe, how he's just developing right now, how he's gone to Asia and the impact he's had over there. People don't know how global he is overseas because we only see him here. People think LeBron [James] is way more marketable than Kobe, but if you go outside United States lines, it's completely the opposite. That's the level I want to attain."
Barnes understands he has a long way to go before he gets there, but he doesn't see any harm in using Jordan and Bryant as role models. He has followed their examples by making himself as well-rounded as possible. When analysts call Barnes one of the most talented players in the incoming freshman class, they aren't necessarily referring exclusively to his basketball skills.
Barnes started his own bible study group in high school and learned to speak Spanish. He plays the alto saxophone proficiently and took cello lessons from fourth to eighth grade.
"He wanted the violin," said his mom, a secretary in Iowa State's music department, "but his fingers were too long."
Barnes never let his other interests interfere with his basketball pursuits. It became apparent early - when he started watching the Jordan videotapes when he was 5 - that Barnes had a passion for the game.
"Those were his Sunday-morning cartoons," Shirley Barnes said. "Rather than go out and play or rather than playing Game Boy, he'd watch his Jordan tapes. That was his TV time."
Of course, trying to imitate Jordan right off the bat isn't necessarily the best thing for an aspiring basketball player.
Top of the charts
How good a prospect is North Carolina freshman forward Harrison Barnes? Even though he hasn't begun his college career, the websites draftexpress.com and nbadraft.net already project him as the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA draft. Here's a look at how each website forecasts the top 10 picks in their 2011 mock drafts.
"He was probably in like third grade, and he's out there doing all those Jordan moves," his mother recalled. "Everyone else is thinking, 'My goodness, that guy's out of control. What's he doing?'
"But in his mind, he's doing Jordan. It's not what a coach probably wants to see."
Barnes eventually grew into stardom. He closed his high school career by leading Ames to back-to-back undefeated seasons and state titles. He averaged 26.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per game as a senior and won the Morgan Wootten Player of the Year Award as the nation's top high school performer. Barnes also scored 18 points in just 22 minutes at the McDonald's All-American Game.
Barnes combines the height of a frontcourt player with the skills of a perimeter player. He shot more than 40 percent from 3-point range in each of his last three prep seasons.
"He is a great student, a big-time player, and he has a tremendous amount of self-discipline," North Carolina coach Roy Williams told reporters when Barnes signed in November. "Harrison is very talented. He's a tremendous scorer, a tremendous basketball player. He knows how to play. He can really shoot and he can put the ball on the floor. It's like Coach [Dean] Smith would say about Tiger Woods - he's got the total package."
Williams had a tough time landing Barnes' signature. While the Jordan connection might make it seem as though Barnes was a lock to end up at North Carolina, he almost signed with Duke, the Tar Heels' archrival. What was the deciding factor for UNC?
"Their success, their business school and the campus lifestyle," Barnes said. "Those were the three things that stood out to me. First of all, the business school. I want to major in business administration and finance. They have one of the top undergraduate business schools in the country.
"They came off a national championship last year. They didn't play so well this year, but we can get that rectified next year. And the campus lifestyle, it was the best campus I've been on. It was very homey and very comfortable."
Barnes didn't question his choice even as North Carolina staggered into the NIT while Duke was driving toward a national title.
"My decision wasn't based solely on basketball," Barnes said. "It was based on what Carolina can do for me and a lot of other factors. Them having a down year in basketball didn't make me regret my decision."
North Carolina's chances of bouncing back depend in part on whether Barnes makes an instant impact. The Tar Heels must replace starting forwards Ed Davis and Deon Thompson. The frontcourt suffered an additional blow in the offseason when reserve forwards David Wear and Travis Wear transferred to UCLA.
North Carolina fans discovered last season that a high recruiting ranking doesn't necessarily guarantee instant success. John Henson was the No. 5 prospect in the 2009 class, but he spent much of his freshman season struggling to deal with the physical grind of ACC basketball. Barnes seems more equipped to adapt. Henson arrived at North Carolina carrying just 195 pounds on his 6-10 frame. Barnes is a couple of inches shorter but 15 pounds heavier.
"Harrison has a body that's ready for college basketball," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "John Henson didn't. He just wasn't strong enough to utilize his skills. Harrison will be ready physically, and he's strong mentally as well.
"They're going to need him to make a huge impact, and I expect him to have a huge impact, primarily as a go-to scorer."
That's a lot of pressure to put on a freshman, but Barnes doesn't mind. After all, he's the one who talks freely about such luminaries as Jordan and Bryant when he discusses his long-term goals.
"If I want to play this game and I want to master this craft, why not look at the best in the business and try to follow them?" Barnes said. "I wouldn't say it puts pressure on me. It gives me perspective. It gives me a kind of focus almost. This is what they did. So why not try to do the same thing?
"I don't look at it as pressure that I have to be the next Michael Jordan or the next Kobe Bryant because I'll never be them. I just want to be Harrison Barnes, but hopefully I want to just try and follow the example they've set."