Cordero Barkley forced Robert Riolo’s hand in the spring of 2015.
And he did it by simply being too outstanding of a person for Riolo not to disregard.
Cordero, the 2005 All-Racine County Player of the Year in boys basketball for St. Catherine’s, was applying to be the senior client adviser for the Green Bay market of Associated Bank. He was already a senior banker, but Riolo, director of retirement plan solutions, and his staff didn’t know if Barkley was ready for such an important position.
And then Barkley, just 28 at the time, simply proceeded to be Barkley. This is a kid, after all, who wore suits and ties as early as the third grade, his mother, Rose said, because, “He knew he was going to wear suits and ties in this world.”
What stood out to Riolo?
“He asked good questions about the position,” he said. “He had researched for the position, so he did his homework. And when you interact with him, you could see he had other life experiences that he is able to apply to a new discipline.”
The interview ended. And when Riolo and his staff walked out of the room, they were mesmerized. Maybe Barkley wasn’t quite ready for this position at the time, but one makes room for young men of this caliber.
“When we walked out of that interview, we all looked at each other and said, ‘Wow!’,” Riolo said. “He might not be quite there, but he’s got other skills that are worth putting this investment into him.”
Riolo ended up hiring someone else for the position. But then he created a second position with that same title so he could hire Barkley.
That’s Barkley’s story. That’s what he’s all about. He was raised in a single-parent home, just as so many kids are these days, and his life could have easily veered into another direction. But, motivated by a tragedy when he was 12 in 1999 and pushed by his strong mother, Barkley made himself into something special.
Making his mark
The 6-foot-5 Barkley was second-team Associated Press All-State for St. Catherine’s in 2005 despite averaging just 11.3 points per game for the Division 2 state champion Angels. It was defense — the dirty work — along with his consummate leadership that made Barkley the player he was.
“He played great defense,” retired St. Catherine’s coach Bob Letsch said. “I had him on the toughest forward or center.”
Despite his modest statistics, Barkley had such a presence on the floor that he earned an athletic scholarship to UW-Green Bay, where he made his name as a force off the bench during his four seasons while excelling academically.
“Cordero was always an unbelievable team-first guy,” said Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk, who led UW-Green Bay’s program from 2003-10. “He was extremely selfless and never cared about individual numbers or glory. Because of that, his senior year, we were a very good team (the Phoenix were 22-13 in 2009-10).”
But the best was yet to come for Barkley, who lives an eight-minute walk northwest of Lambeau Field with his wife, Erin. When he moved to Green Bay in 2005, he invested himself in the community and his involvement has become widespread.
He serves on the Associated Bank’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. He does color commentary for all men’s and women’s UW-Green Bay basketball home games for ESPN3 and ESPNPLUS. He is a member of UW-Green Bay’s Council of Trustees and Alumni Advisory Board, the Green Bay Police Foundation and serves as a financial committee member for Young Life — Green Bay.
The list goes on and on. The impact he’s made in his community is so impressive that Barkley was among five graduates honored by UW-Green Bay last October at the 2018 Alumni Association Awards Night.
“When you look at the people who received it and the people who were in there with me, they were doing some really, really amazing things in the world — not only in their space, but in the world,” Barkley said. “They had an impact.
“You’re humbled to be sharing a stage with people who are making a difference and you’re in that same conversation.”
Making the right choice
There was a dynamic in Barkley’s family that helped mold him at an early age. His mother consistently pushed him to achieve. He had a younger brother (Tre’LaZahn) who looked up to him. And then there was tragedy. His older brother, Julian, was murdered in Racine just after 1 a.m., April 25, 1999 at Leslie’s Continental Club on 17th Street.
Suddenly, a growing boy came to realize that tomorrow is never promised.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Barkley said. “At the moment, I thought, ‘You’re either going to go down his path or you’re going to stick to academics and athletics.’ “
It didn’t happen overnight. Barkley was devastated in the aftermath of his brother’s murder and his grades started to slip. He had some minor disciplinary incidents at McKinley Middle School.
Cordero had no real father in his life to begin with and now Julian, the person who was trying to fill that role for him, was gone.
There was an awful lot of mental baggage he would take with him when he left Racine in 2005.
“I ended up minoring in psychology (at UW-Green Bay) because I was trying understand what the hell I went through growing up in Racine,” Barkley said. “In death, a lot of people focus on the parents who lose the kid and the siblings are overlooked. For me personally, it was devastating. He was like my best friend, big brother and he was my father figure, too.”
Like so many kids who played basketball, Barkley had visions of playing in the NBA, but he also had a backup plan.
“Jameel Ghuari at the Bray Center always preached, ‘You can chase the NBA, but you always have to have a backup plan,’ “ Barkley said. “Some us listened and some of us didn’t.
“I made it to Division I basketball and that was my peak. And in the back of my mind, I was going to knock out my degree.”
He did just that, earning a degree in business administration with an emphasis on marketing in 2009 and then a Masters of Science in marketing in 2016.
A community leader
It seems to keep getting better and better for this young man.
On April 25, Barkley will be among those on hand at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center in Green Bay for the “Future 15 & Young Professional Awards.” The annual event honors 15 young area professionals and a Young Professional of the Year will be selected that night out of that group.
What does Barkley envision he will be thinking about that night?
“You have to take a minute and appreciate where you are and, for me personally, I’m always thinking about what more I have to do yet,” he said. “I was always the one who needed the help and now we’re in a position to do it for others.”