LOUISVILLE — This weekend is the culmination of Cobie Barnes’ high school hoops career.
Friday night the recent Floyd Central graduate donned the No. 8 jersey for the Indiana All-Star team in its game against Kentucky at Bellarmine University’s Knights Hall. He’ll do the same tonight when the Hoosiers host their Kentucky counterparts at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
And while it is a time of celebration for Barnes, who is about to embark on his college career at Indiana State, and his family, it is also a bit bittersweet.
That’s because Barnes’ biggest fan won’t be there to witness any of it. Jeff Byrne Sr., Barnes’ maternal grandfather, passed away a little more than two months ago.
“Dad was always Cobie’s biggest fan,” Jackie Diaz, Barnes’ mother, said last week. “I think Dad was a bigger fan of his than I was and I’m pretty in love with the boy. But my dad, he was Cobie’s biggest fan.”
And both of them dreamed that Barnes would be an Indiana All-Star one day.
Byrne was a good basketball player in his own right in the late 1960s at New Albany, where he wore No. 20.
“He was pretty decent,” Diaz said. “He was big, so that was nice. Dad was never real braggy about it, so we don’t know a whole lot. But I think he probably could’ve played in college. But he was smitten with my mom and so he wasn’t going to go anywhere. They ended up getting married shortly after high school.”
Byrne and the former Barbara Hogan had three children — a boy and two girls. Jeff Byrne Jr. also played basketball at New Albany, as did daughters Jennifer and Jackie. Jackie was a standout volleyball player as well, helping the Bulldogs to a state runner-up finish in 1992. She earned a scholarship to the University of Louisville, where she met Clayton Barnes. The two married and had a son, Cobie.
However Clayton, who had sickle cell anemia, passed away suddenly when Cobie was 5.
“My dad really stepped in and was just a surrogate father for Cobie most of his life,” Diaz said. “Before Cobie’s dad died he was sick a lot and would have to miss things. So my dad was just always there. He did all the dad things, like took him to WWE wrestling, and he would take him out shopping for Christmas presents for me.”
He also provided occasional counsel.
“He’d talk to my dad about girl problems and that jazz. Dad usually had good advice for him,” Diaz said with a smile. “Actually whenever I’d want to talk to Cobie about something, Dad would do it for me, because he wouldn’t get mad at dad.”
In 2010, Byrne was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Despite the fact that the cancer was caught early, it created some long-term health issues for Byrne. Those, though, didn’t keep him from keeping up with his grandson.
“I think it changed all of us with just spending more time with dad and being more mindful of it. [Just knowing] this is serious business, so we all appreciated the extra time,” Diaz said. “Same thing with Cobie, he appreciated getting the extra time with him.”
Eventually Jackie remarried, wedding Brian Diaz in 2012.
“Actually my dad had a really hard time at first when I got married to Brian because he was afraid he was going to lose that place with Cobie. But they stayed close, of course, because they’d just built that bond from when he was little,” Diaz said. “He just watched him all the time and took care of him. He took him to school every day. He would be the one that would pick him up most days from school for me, because I was teaching over in Kentucky. They were just close.”
Shortly after marrying Brian Diaz, the new family moved far away — to Hawaii. Despite the distance, Barnes and Byrne stayed in touch.
“I think him and Cobie probably FaceTimed several times a week. Dad was constantly bugging him and texting him and doing those kind of things,” Diaz recalled. “And then my mom and dad also would send him money, so he could go get treats. My dad used to take him to McDonald’s every day, so my dad, he would send me like $30 and say, ‘Take him to McDonald’s this week.’ And my mom would do the same for him.”
The Diazes moved back to Southern Indiana the summer before Barnes began high school. He enrolled at Floyd Central and requested uniform No. 20, his grandfather’s former number.
“Dad didn’t miss anything. Everything of Cobie’s that he could be at, he was there,” Diaz said. “Of course they split time with all the grandkids because we had a lot of boys playing ball, football and basketball and everywhere. … On road games when dad wouldn’t be there, when we were traveling with Indiana Elite, he would call and want to talk to Cobie and get the run-down of every ball, every touch, every shot. Sometimes Cobie was in a really good mood for it and sometimes he wasn’t. But dad always wanted to talk to him. I said, ‘Cobie you’ve just got to deal with it, he just loves you that much.’"
Barnes reciprocated that love this past season.
“The night he got his 1,000-point ball he took it over and gave it to my dad. He didn’t tell any of us he was going to do that, but he was like, ‘I just wanted to honor him,’” Diaz recalled. “I think he has a lot of respect and love and just wanted to honor him. That’s the relationship they had. Because he knows how much my dad poured into him and was grateful, even when dad was irritating. Which, he’s gone now, so he was never irritating.”
As the season progressed, the health of Byrne — who dealt with several issues, including malnutrition, after cancer surgery — continued to deteriorate.
“We’ve all watched dad get worse through the last couple years and Cobie really just cherished and valued having him there,” Diaz said. “Never once did he complain or roll his eyes at dad.”
Byrne actually missed Floyd Central’s first sectional game, a 70-47 win over Jennings County, because he was in the hospital. Three days later, though, he was released and Barbara, his wife of 47 years, immediately drove him to Seymour for the sectional semifinals.
“His pulmonologist, was like, ‘I’m going to get you out of here and if I have to drive you there I’ll get you there,’ because they all knew how important it was for dad to be there,” Diaz recalled.
Prior to the start of the game against New Albany, Barnes shared his typical pregame moment with his grandfather.
“Cobie ran over and fist-bumped him. Actually I have a picture of it, the last fist-bump,” Diaz said while tearing up. “Cobie would always say something nonsensical to my dad, like, ‘You know I’m the greatest player that’s ever played.’ Because he loves Muhammad Ali, so he was always trying to be silly and have a Muhammad Ali quote up in there. My dad would just roll his eyes and laugh at him and was like, ‘OK boy, get out there and show me.’”
Barnes scored 12 points that night, but the Bulldogs beat the Highlanders on a last-second shot. It was a difficult defeat, but Barnes had dealt with much worse.
“He’s a very grounded, resilient guy, but not because of anything I’ve done,” Diaz said. “I’d say God blessed me with the easy button with him. He doesn’t get in trouble, he makes decent grades, he handles life’s adversity pretty easily. When things are thrown at him he just kind of catches them and throws them back. He’s got a really strong sense of what it takes to be okay. I’m proud of him, he’s a good kid. But there’s a lot of people that have poured into him through the years.”
Especially her father. The two continued their special relationship until the end. One day in late March, Diaz couldn’t find her eldest son.
“So I did the find-my-phone thing, and he was over at my parents’ house and he was watching the [Purdue] game with my Dad,” Diaz said. “It was just kind of that safe place, dad was that safe place to go for Cobie. He’d go over there and hang out with him.”
Byrne passed away a few days after that visit, on April 3. Four days later Barnes found out he would be an Indiana All-Star — Floyd’s first since 1989 Mr. Basketball Pat Graham. Two days later, during Byrne’s funeral, the announcement of the All-Star team members was released on social media.
“It’s great, just being able to do that for my grandpa and have such a good season and honor him in that way,” Barnes, who averaged 27.3 points and eight rebounds per game for the Highlanders this past season, said that day.
Friday night Barnes tallied seven points, four rebounds and two assists in Indiana’s 97-64 win. Diaz sat in the front row with her husband and their 3-year-old son Owen.
“We’re excited about this, but I wish Dad was here, and Cobie does too,” she said. “It’s just something we’ve wanted since he was little and it’s exciting. … Cobie just really misses his grandpa — he misses his dad too — and wishes he was here to see it.”