Adia Barnes '98: Choosing Arizona Twice

By:
Margaret Regan, Jacob Chinn photos

When Adia Barnes ’98 was growing up in San Diego, she was as active as a kid can possibly be. 

The Pacific Ocean was only blocks from her house, and she’d ride her bike on the beach, steering between the waves and the sand. When she wasn’t at the beach she played every sport possible, from karate to soccer to skateboarding. 

The only sport that wasn’t available to her — at least not at first — was basketball.

“There was a public rec center across the street, but they had no girls basketball teams,” she says. “They had all boys teams.”

That didn’t stop Barnes for long. In fifth grade, she signed up for the team anyway. She was the only girl in the club — and the best player on the team. “I kicked the boys’ butts. And it was fun,” she says. 

It’s an understatement to say that Barnes has been having fun with basketball ever since. At the University of Arizona, she was a star player on the women’s basketball team from 1994-98 under Head Coach Joan Bonvicini and was Pac-10 Player of the Year in 1997-98. Her 2,237 career points rank ninth on the Pac-12’s all-time scoring list and also as the most points ever scored at the UA. 

After college, Barnes played pro ball for 12 seasons in the U.S. and Europe. In 2004, she led the Seattle Storm to victory in the Women’s National Basketball Association championship.  She later made the switch to coaching, and just last April — as an assistant coach at the University of Washington — she helped bring the Huskies women’s basketball team to the Final Four for the first time in school history.

A day later, the University of Arizona named Barnes the new head coach of women’s basketball, making her the first alumna the University has ever hired to coach basketball. Athletics Director Greg Byrne was delighted to welcome “one of Arizona’s all-time greats” back to campus.  

Barnes herself is beyond thrilled to be back with the Wildcats. 

“It’s a dream come true — an honor,” she says. “It’s choosing Arizona twice.” 

Back in McKale

On a blazing June day, Barnes is sitting in her new office at McKale Memorial Center. “It’s not really mine yet,” she says of the head coach’s digs. She’s only half joking. 

She’s been on the job only two months, but everything about her already says “Arizona,” from the red office couch to her navy T-shirt, emblazoned with the University logo. 

“It’s been a whirlwind,” she says cheerfully. In early April, she was in Indianapolis for the Final Four, back home in Seattle for a day, then down to Tucson for the press announcement. Days after she got the job at Arizona, she went out on a recruiting weekend.

Not only is Barnes a new coach, she’s also a new mom: Her son, Matteo, is 1-year old. When the UA hired her, she and her husband — Salvo Coppa, an Italian coach — had to pack up the family quickly and trade green, misty Washington for Arizona and its famous dry heat.  

“It’s an adjustment for me,” she admits. “But my husband loves the 100-degree weather. He’s from Sicily, and Tucson reminds him of home.” Little Matteo has already taken to splashing around in a pool. “He loves the water,” Barnes laughs. 

While the climate might be a shock, the return to her old campus has been a true homecoming. 

"So many of the same people are still working here at McKale, from the athletics staff to the people in the parking garage to the custodians,” she says. “It says a lot about the program. And I love that so many people in Tucson have been going to the games for 20 or 30 years.” 

Many in Tucson remember Barnes as a bulldog player on the court. At 5 feet 10 inches, she was small for a collegiate player — but she was tough. She played an aggressive game, ricocheting across the boards and zipping past much taller opponents. She was fierce, but her hairdo showed her whimsical side: On game days, she always pulled her hair into two pigtails.  

“I can’t believe you remember those pigtails,” she says with delight. 

Athletics in the Family

Barnes comes by her athletic talents honestly. Her dad, Pete Barnes, was a pro football player — a linebacker who played with the Patriots and the San Diego Chargers. He and Barnes’ mom, Patricia McRae, divorced when Barnes and her two sisters were young.

“My mom worked a lot,” Barnes recalls. The three sisters — Adia, Maisha and Candace — were all in a host of programs. Many of the girls’ activities took place at the Pacific Beach Recreation Center, where Adia would later play b-ball. As it happened, a group of retired NBA basketball players regularly came to the center to play pickup games. 

“I used to stand and just watch them,” Barnes recalls. “They were awesome.” And they took an interest in the young girl. Many of them knew her father, and they knew that he no longer lived at the family home. So they tutored her in basketball, taught her how to shoot and even took her on an outing to nearby Sea World. 

The kindness of these pros touched the little girl at a hard time in her life. Then, when she was 9 or 10, her mother remarried. Her new husband, Bruce McRae, is “a wonderful guy,” Barnes says. “He’s like my dad.” 

In middle and high school, Barnes was athletic and taller than most of the other kids. She spread her talents around, playing softball and volleyball as well as basketball. 

Looking back, “I was underdeveloped,” she says. “No one knew how good I could be.” It wasn’t until she started getting letters from colleges during her junior year of high school that she had an inkling that basketball could be her future. 

“Joan (Bonvicini) was interested in me. She came to see me play. That game, I had 38 points. I kicked everybody’s butt,” Barnes recalls.

Barnes’ high school coaches worried that she’d be lost in a big-time program like Arizona. “They asked me, ‘Do you want to go to the UA and be a small fish in a big pond?’ But Joan believed in me. I connected with her. I really loved her.” 

And she was happy to go to college in Arizona, not too far from home.

“I came here and I loved it,” she says. Right away, she got a lot of playing time — and she played hard. It paid off quickly: Barnes was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. 

Barnes got her degree in sociology, hitting the books between practices and games. “There was great support for academics,” she says. That’s something she plans to bring to her coaching as well. “I’m going to be huge on academics as a coach. It’s very important. Only a small percentage of the players will go on to professional careers. It’s not all about basketball.” 

The new coach has taken over a struggling team. During the eight-year tenure of previous Head Coach Niya Butts, the ’Cats won 101 games and lost 146. During the last season, they had a painful 11-game losing streak.

Barnes hopes to turn that around. Six seniors are returning, and they’ll be training under a new head coach and three new assistant coaches — plus Barnes’ husband, who has 14 years of coaching experience. Barnes has been hitting the recruiting trail, and within her first few months on the job she lined up Bria Rice, a highly ranked guard from Washington State.

All the changes will energize the student-athletes, Barnes believes. “When the boat is rocked, you get motivated. My goal is to create excitement and play a fun style of basketball.”