It’s Suddenly Over: The NBA Odyssey of Jim Barnett, 1977

[Today, Robert Ward continues to earn high praise as a novelist, including most recently The Stone Carrier. But in the mid-1970s, Ward tried his hand at journalism, writing several excellent articles for SPORT Magazine. Numbered among them is this fantastic profile of NBA veteran Jim Barnett at the end of his pro career and trying to adjust to life without basketball. This article ran in March 1977 and ends with this quote from Barnett, “You can put your money on me—I’ll be back soon.” He sure was as one of the best color analysts in the business for the Golden State Warriors. Barnett, now in his 70s and retired from the broadcast booth, remains on the go and in great spirits.]

Tall, thin, red-moustachioed Jim Barnett is driving his Toyota Celica around a tight “S” curve out in the Orinda hills, a suburb of Oakland, Calif., and he is laughing wildly. The high-pitched laugh sounds as if it is pushing its way up and from under gobs of pain, confusion, and fear. It is not so much a laugh as a hysterical cackle . . . slightly out of control. 

“Hey, Barnett,” I say. “Slow down, baby.”

I grip the sides of my seat, then suck in my breath as he tromps the clutch and gears down, then hard-jerks the wheel and pulls us into a power slide, the car tilting up on two wheels through a 180-degree turn 20 mph over the limit. 

“Just a little controlled power slide,” Barnett says, laughing as the car straightens out. “Good for me to drive a little nutsy. Keeps the mind clear. I never have had a serious accident in my life, if you don’t count the one this past summer. Managed to slide perpendicular into the guy, so that even though there was big impact, I kind of went directly through him, but neither one of us was hurt.”

“That’s nice,” I say, reaching for my Valium. “Other than that, how have things been going?”

“Tough,” Jim Barnett says. “This is a tough period in my life. I know it doesn’t look so tough . . . I have a nice house, and we just had a new baby, and there is nothing more ‘up’ than that . . . but you’ve got to measure that stuff against not playing. I mean, I’ve never sat out a year of basketball since I was 15.”

After 10 years as a hard-driving guard and frenetic defensive player for the Boston Celtics, the San Diego Rockets, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Golden State Warriors, the New Orleans Jazz, and finally the New York Knicks, the 32-year-old Jim Barnett is through as a professional basketball player. A month into the current season, the Knicks put him on waivers, and Barnett went home and waited for another National Basketball Association team to call him. 

In his final season with the Knicks, Barnett (right) guards Buffalo’s Ernie DiGregorio

When the call never came, he began phoning his old friends on the Los Angeles Lakers and the Trail Blazers; he even tried to get through to the Celtics’ Red Auerbach, a man for whom he has little regard. That was when he realized it was all over. The adoration of the fans; the great pleasures of leading a fastbreak and scoring over a taller opponent; the big money (last year, Barnett made $130,000 as a substitute on the Knicks); the camaraderie on the plane trips; the parties in the hotels. All of it over. Not that he is alone. Every year in the NBA is somebody’s last. Barnett’s friend Clyde Lee was recently cut, too, along with a dozen other veterans. Theirs are the stories that do not get written. As suddenly as they shined for you and me, they have burned out, ceased to exist in the public consciousness. And each of them must deal with the rejection in his own way. 

Now, as we glide down the affluent Orinda streets, Barnett’s knuckles are white on the wheel, and one can almost palpably feel his desperation, the very tough battle he has yet to win against depression, feelings of inadequacy, and simple but profound grief. For Barnett is not merely being forced to give up a game, but a way of life, the only life he has ever known. 

As we slide out of the car in a restaurant parking lot, Jim Barnett is recognized by an attractive young lady, who waves. Instinctively, he is on the defensive: “Hi,” he says, giving a too-eager grin. “Out of work now, I can hang out in restaurants all day.”

His smile turns a little sheepish as we walk toward the door. 

The restaurant is a plush Oakland Hills fern bar, and our waitress is a stunning-looking California girl. “Well,” I say, admiring her, “it must not be all bad staying home.”

Barnett smiles and shakes his head. “Yeah,” he says, “but it is hard. It seems only yesterday that I was trying out for the high school team. I was gawky, and didn’t know what I was doing really  . . . but I had a good coach, a man named Tom Williams. I remember him coming up to me after my lousy sophomore year, and saying, ‘Are you planning to start for us this year?’ I said, ‘Start? I didn’t even think you were going to ask me out for the club.’ But he did, and I started, and I grew a lot and then things just happened fast. Within a year, I was averaging 20 points a game and playing good defense. 

“The scholarship offers started coming in. I was afraid of going to USC, so I went to Oregon.         . . . and I picked up a lot, had four good years. I guess it was after my junior year that I thought I might make the pros. And then 1967 came around—it seems such a short time ago—and I was the first draft choice of the Boston Celtics. God, do you know what that felt like? I was still a real hick kid . . . and the World Champion Celtics wanted me. I would have played for nothing, which compared to what players are getting these days, is what I got. 

“I remember meeting Red Auerbach in his office. He sits me down at this big desk across from him, and he says, ‘Jim. I want you to see a letter our second-round draft choice sent us.’ His name was Leon Clark, from Wyoming. He had a lawyer, and his lawyer was asking for $20,000. Auerbach just gave me this sort of vicious smile and then said, ‘Here’s what we do to people who send letters from agents.’ Then he tore the thing up right in front of me. It scared me . . . but more than that, it confused me. I thought the Celtics wanted me, and I didn’t have a lawyer. I mean, in those days all the players felt the same way. You just didn’t get agents. It was considered . . . wrong, somehow. So here I was with no intention of hassling him at all, but right away Auerbach is intimidating me. They say he is a big man, but I’ve got other names for him.”

After the waitress takes our order, Barnett very quietly says, “I went through a real period of depression . . . when they didn’t call me.” He sighs and shakes his head. “It’s pretty flattering that SPORT wants to do a story on me. I mean, I don’t know anybody who wants to hear about a washed-up player. But that is the reality of the game. It happens to all of us, I don’t care if you were just a good player like me or a superstar, like Havlicek or Jabbar, or just a scrub who only played one or two seasons. When it happens, it’s the same for everyone. You simply can’t believe it. Basketball is what I know. That’s what I’ve always done. There has never been anything else for me. I know I must sound like a baby. Compared to what some people have to go through, it’s ridiculous that I should feel so empty.

“I’m 32 years old, and I’ve already accomplished all my life’s goals. You know, that first year at Boston, they paid me $11,000 and a $500 bonus. Then I went to San Diego, and I had three good years there, by the time I left, I was up to $23,500. Then I hit Portland, then I had another good year, and I was making $30,000. But the money wasn’t the main thing. I can say that for sure because I went to Golden State the next year, and I made $45,000, which is the mid-range of my salaries. But it was the greatest place in the world for me. There were fans there who had a special cheering section called Barney’s Bandits. That was because of the way I played. I know it wasn’t a great player, but I never gave anything less than my best. 

“And on Golden State, the fans loved you. I loved them, too. I loved talking to them. If a fan would give me a hard time, I’d yell back at him. Not that I was mad. Just for the hell of it. I remember one night I was guarding Oscar (Robertson), and he was scoring, and some guys started yelling, ‘Hey Barnett, you can’t do a thing with that guy,’ so I yelled back, ‘Hey, come on out here. You guard him.’ The fans at Golden State love that kind of thing. It got the team up, too.  

“Another night I had a technical called on me for yelling at [referee] Mendy Rudolph. So later in the game, we weren’t doing well, and I was having a rough night, and he hits me with another technical. Well, I took the basketball and just punted it. Man, it went all the way to the roof and bounced off. It’s the highest kick of all time, and Mendy gave a huge dramatic flourish and threw me out of the game. I sneaked into the stands and watched the rest of the game and, damn, if we didn’t come back and catch fire—and win the game . . . But, hell, let’s not sit here all day. Let’s go play some tennis,” Barnett smiles. 

At The Sleepy Hollow Tennis Club, Barnett is out of the car in an instant, racing up the steps toward the courts, turning and joking with me. 

“Hey, come on,” he says. “I’ve got to get this energy burned off somehow.”

“Right,” I say, jogging up the steps.

“This is a great place. Only $25 a month. Everyone knows me here.”

We go out on the court, and Barnett lobs a few at me. I manage to hit them back, then he really begins stroking the ball, putting backspin and topspin on every shot, and I find myself doing a wonderful imitation of a sieve. 

After a couple of quick one-sided games, Jim says, “This is great for me. It helps take my mind off of things. But I’ve got to be honest. It’s not the same as it used to be coming here . . . I guess I’m starting to realize just how much my ego, my whole sense of self-esteem was tied up in basketball. Like when I was a player and I came here, I felt great, people saw me as Jim Barnett the player . . . now I wonder how they see me. 

“Don’t you think they see you as a person, someone they like? Maybe you’ve taken all this celebrity stuff too seriously.”

“Well, yes,” Barnett admits, somewhat reluctantly. “I guess I have. But it’s not easy . . .”

Barnett working with kids after his release from the NBA

Then Barnett starts teaching me how to play tennis. He is patient while I hack away, and he hits me lob after lob so that I can get my swing down. It’s strange watching this man who moments before seemed to be in agony, a man with very little sense of himself. But now he is the perfect teacher, complementing me when I make a good shot, giving me constructive criticism when I fail. He is positive, comfortable, relaxed, confident. It is apparent that as long as Jim Barnett is around sports, he is all right. It is when he stops that he begins to cave in. 

After about an hour in the warm sun, I begin to feel last night’s tequila, and I suggest we stop. 

“Sure,” says Jim. “Listen, let’s go over to the gym at my health club. A lot of the local guys get out about now. We can play some four-on-four basketball, and then hit the steam, the sauna, and the whirlpool. You’ll feel like a million bucks after that.”

Then he bounds down the steps, while I stop and, breathing heavily, pretend to be intensely interested in a couple of kids hitting the ball. 

“C’mon, Ward,” Barnett shouts. “We don’t have to miss playing.”

“Right as rain, Jim,” I say.

On the drive to his health club, Barnett manages a couple more power glides, which send my stomach out to the Golden Gate Bridge.

“You don’t have any self-destructive things going for you, do you, Jim?” I ask weakly. 

“No, I’m a lot quieter now than I used to be. I guess it’s just a matter of getting older. I used to be known around the league as a flake. Once I couldn’t sleep on the seat in a plane, so I climbed up on the luggage rack and stretched out. Another time, I set off firecrackers under the team bench. I loved doing stuff like that.”

He becomes quiet again, then he shakes his head. 

“I guess I’ve got to get used to the idea that all that kind of stuff is over with. I mean, in most jobs you can’t be a flake. And pretty soon, I’ll have to get something. But I don’t want to do some kind of drudge job. It’s tough on my wife. She wants me to start looking soon. She’s a very goal-oriented person, and me just hanging around the house, going off and playing tennis and basketball everyday . . . it really bothers her. But that’s what I’ve always done. Gone off and played ball every day of my life . . . I don’t know how to quit . . . I know I’ve got to learn a new way of living, but I can’t see what it might be yet.”

At the health club, Barnett is greeted vociferously by other members. Older men touch him as they might a good-luck charm. Younger guys smiled at him in admiration. One realizes that Barnett’s coming to the club means far more to him than merely playing ball. 

Out on the court, Barnett is fast. He moves quickly to his left, then suddenly whirls and cuts across the center. But it is not Abdul-Jabbar clogging up the lane. Hell, it’s not even Bob Ferry. Rather, it’s a guy named Sam. Sam is about 45, an investment counselor, with graying temples and a roll hugging his waist. He moves with the speed and agility of Ralph Cramden chasing after a more-agile Ed Norton. Barnett goes up and over Sam, and gives the ball a nice, soft finger roll. The ball hits the hoop so gently that it seems to worm its way down, and Barnett trots back out to the halfcourt line to play defense. Now Sam has the ball. He makes a head fake, which resembles a turkey hen looking for rain, and Barnett doesn’t even blink. Sam then dribbles out of ways, stops and shoots a set shot. Score. 

“Hey,” Barnett says to Sam. “Nice shot.”

A huge grin breaks across Sam’s face. 

“Thanks a lot, Jim,” he says. 

“That was good the way you tried the fake, then went back outside,” says Jim. “A lot of guys would have tried to drive past, but you knew what you were capable of, and made the shot. That’s smart basketball.”

Now Sam looks really pleased. Barnett has obviously made the guy’s day, and watching Jim’s diplomacy, I cannot help but feel a real hope for him. 

After the game, we sit in the steam bath, and Barnett talks about his speed:

“I’ve still got the quick steps. You can see that. I know I could still play on a couple of teams. But it’s not this season they are thinking of. It’s next season. I’m 32 years old. It seems to sneak up on you. Nobody wants a 32-year-old ballplayer . . . You want to go with youth . That’s exactly what happened in New York.”

Barnett leans his head back for a moment, then says, “It’s not a money problem, so much. I had a lot of my salary deferred, so I have about $30,000 coming in for the next five years. But it’s an identity problem. I mean, I’ve always been like a kid. Suddenly, it’s the real world. It’s like I’m going through the last stages of adolescence. At 32—for God sakes!”

Back in the dressing room, a couple of the businessmen we were playing with asked Barnett’s advice on how to deal with a pulled muscle. Barnett answers each of their questions fully, and hands them some tape, saying, “That’s pro tape.”

Soon we are dressed, and people are touching him again, saying goodbye, see you tomorrow, Jim, take it easy, Jim. One senses how important this is for Barnett, and how tough it must be for him to know that in a year or two he’ll just be a guy who once played pro basketball. On the way to a restaurant, we talk about that, and Barnett nods. 

“Yeah,” he says. “That is tough to take. You know I remember when I first started coming to the health club after I was cut. They’ve got a TV room there, and one night all the guys were in there watching the Knicks play. I sat down and watched, and it just didn’t seem real to me. What in the hell was I doing here with these businessmen, who come out and hack at one another . . . when I was supposed to be on the Knicks? Then I started thinking how it was when it was playing and the other guys had been cut. You felt bad for them maybe for a week, if they were a good pal, maybe two weeks. I know it sounds cruel, but it was necessary. You were sorry for them a little, but they were no longer playing, and soon you never mentioned them at all. It was almost as if they had never even been there. Now, I know that I’m like that. It’s like I’m dead, but still have to keep on living.”

I want very much to try and comfort Barnett. So, as we sit by the fireplace in the restaurant waiting for a table, I say, “Listen, it seems to me that you have taken a lot of this stuff too much for granted. You’re continuing to see yourself as empty because you are always measuring what others think of you. In a way, maybe this is a break for you, because it will give you a chance to forge out a private self, one which doesn’t need constant approval.”

Barnett swallows hard, and I suddenly worry that I’ve being presumptuous. Yet he does finally nod. 

“I know. I’ve been going over that in my head, over and over. I mean, it started in high school, really. Here I was a big gawky kid afraid of girls, and then I found I could get girls by simply being Jim Barnett the basketball star. The same for friends. I could make friends that way . . . and I guess it just snowballed. As pros, we are used to the best equipment, freebies from sporting goods stores, we are used to traveling in elite circles, meeting people we would never meet in regular life . . . for 10 years it’s been that way, and now . . . I don’t know . . . I mean, we have big egos, all of us. And to have all that pulled out from under you. That’s why I tried the color deal down in Phoenix two weeks ago. I had a tryout as a color man for CBS-TV. I did a Phoenix-Portland game. But I didn’t have it down yet. They kept doing instant replays, and I didn’t have it together. I let a lot of the replays just go by without saying anything at all.”

During dinner, we discuss Barnett’s options. Coaching is mentioned. 

“Yeah,” Barnett says. “I swore I wouldn’t do that. But I guess I might have to. I don’t know, though. Maybe I should be a D.J. I have every old record in the world. Oldies are my specialty.”

I mention that they are a passion of mine, too, and soon we are involved in a trivia game.

“Who made ‘Priscilla’?”

“Eddie Cooley and The Dimples.” 

“Who made ‘Over the Mountain’?”

“Johnny and Joe.”

On the drive to Barnett’s home, Jim grows pensive and mentions once again how he appreciates being interviewed, saying that this is probably “officially the last thing I’ll ever do with basketball.” 

We pull into the driveway of his beautiful house, which is set among trees and rocks and a stream, and silently walk inside, and I keep thinking about Jim’s words, that I am the last link with his past, his identity. 

His wife, Sandy, is sitting in the living room with their sleeping daughter, watching Barbara Walters make a fool of herself interviewing President-elect Jimmy Carter. I tell Barnett that it is late and I can only stay a few minutes; but he insists that I have to see his collection of old 45 rpm records, and—though I have a long drive ahead of me that night—that’s all I have to hear. He leads me to his bedroom and the stacks of 45s, and soon we are staring at the little round plastic discs that were the magic tokens of our youth. 

“C’mon,” Barnett says, dragging me back into the living room. “You gotta hear some of these. And I’ll let you in on an NBA secret. You remember ‘A Thousand Miles Away” by The Heartbeats?”

“Sure,” I say. 

Then both of us are nostalgically singing. “You’re a thousand miles awa-ayyyy, but I still have your love to re-mem-ber you by!”

“Well, nobody knows this, but the coach of the Golden State Warriors, Al Attles, sang on that record. He was one of the Heartbeats.”

“You’re kidding!” I say, as the record comes on loudly. 

But our pleasure is interrupted by his wife. 

“Jim,” she shouts over the music. “I don’t watch many shows, and I really want to hear this one. How about turning that down?”

“Yeah,” I say. “It is late, and I have to drive all the way back to San Francisco. Maybe I better go.”

“Sure,” Barnett says, his voice falling. Then he brightens. “But first, listen to this one.”

He puts on The Cleftones’ “For Sentimental Reasons,” and abruptly I remember high-school gyms, and what it was like to be young in the ‘50s, a time I loved but would never want to go back to. Then I look at Barnett, and I see him staring out the window into his dark garden, and I know that for him, the records mean much more. They were the beginning for him. When he started on his career. Once you listen to them, and the world was full of promise, of a kind of infinite grace, and now, just now, all that has been washed out. Because of that I stay and listen longer than I want to, probably longer than is good for either of us. Yet I realize that there will come a time when Jim Barnett will find himself, when things will look balanced again. I have to figure that is genuine warmth, his inner determination and, most of all, his sense of humor will carry him through this troubled period. For just as I think both of us are going to be drowned in a sea of sentimentality, Barnett notes the commercial on TV for a machine that reduces whole vegetables into anything from chunks to pulp, something called “Popeil’s Vegematic.”

“That’s it!” he shouts, laughing. “That’s what I can do—sell Popeil’s Vegematic. ‘It dices, slices, chops, pops, cuts, and stacks! Get it now, folks—Popeil’s Vegematic! Yessir, yessir, yessir. .  .”

He has the rap down so pat that we both roar, and when I shake his hand and leaving, he grows serious and says, “It’s not easy, but I figure I’ll make it. If I can survive the NBA for 10 years, then I can survive this. You can put your money on me—I’ll be back soon.”

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