[Not much of an intro needed for this one. The headline says it all. A reporter asked Rick Barry to rate his toughest opponents, then turned on his tape recorder. Barry’s answer appeared in Basketball Digest in April 1980.]
As one of the few players who had the chance to play pro basketball in three different decades (the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s), it also was my fortune to play both against—and with—most of the great players produced by the National Basketball Association.
Each decade has had its own unique characteristics—and unique players. The early ‘60s and mid-‘60s were the years of the big burly guys, players like Luke Jackson, my old coach Al Attles, Tom Meschery, Bailey Howell, Willis Reed, and Wilt Chamberlain. From about 1965 into the ‘70s, there was a new breed of player, guys coming to the front like Walt Frazier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earl Monroe, Julius Erving, and George Gervin. In the ‘80s, you are likely to see still another type of player—with names like Marques Johnson, Walter Davis, Moses Malone, Dennis Johnson—dominating the sport.
Trying to sort out the top three or four players at each position with a list like that to choose from is difficult. The game has changed so dramatically, it’s difficult to determine just how good a player would be or could have been in a different era.
When I first came in (1965), everyone’s team was stocked with strong forwards. That was the thing, get the 6-foot-10, 250-pound guy at the forward spot.
About the same time that I started, however, the concept began to change to the guys who had fair size but still were quick, people like Billy Cunningham, the Van Arsdales, myself. At the same time, the search was also on for the quick big forward, producing players like Elvin Hayes.
That has remained a priority ever since, the 6-foot-9 guy who is big but still can go outside and hit the 15-foot shot. Guys who had outside agility, yet who could come down close and play tough under the basket.
Of course, the play at center has changed drastically, too. In the ‘60s, the function of the defense was to channel everything into the middle, where the seven-footers, the Chamberlains, the Nate Thurmonds, the Russells, would try to stop everything.
Now, the emphasis is on guys who are much more mobile, like Dave Cowens and Bill Walton, guys who can guard you all over the court, not just under the basket. The function of the defense now becomes more and more to keep everything out of the middle, and for everyone to pick up a guy who has gotten loose and is coming up the lane. Now, if a man beats me, he probably will have to beat a guard helping from the weakside, maybe the other forward, and also my center.
With these disclaimers in mind, the fact that it’s very difficult to tell how each player would do in a different decade, here’s how I would break down the best of my opponents:
GUARDS: This is going to be short, because there’s no way I could pick anybody but Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.
There’s nobody who has come close to what those two guys have done over an entire career. I’ve played with them and against them, and they’re the two best guards I have ever seen on a basketball court.
CENTERS: For all-around skills and abilities, of all the centers I have ever seen play the game, the most complete was Bill Walton in those glory days in Portland. That one year, he was the best center I have ever seen. I’m talking about all phases of the game—passing the ball, setting screens, timing the rebound, getting the ball out on the break, knowing when to block shots, and when to help a teammate defensively. He did more for that Portland team that year than any center has done for his team in the history of the game.
It’s tough to go against what (Bill) Russell accomplished. I never was afraid to challenge him, but I never really caught him at his best. I caught him at the end of his career, so my assessment of his talent really isn’t legitimate.
Everyone knows he was the greatest defensive center of all time. He would never overcommit himself, and he had the unbelievably quick reflexes that made him impossible to beat consistently.
As a shooter, I think even he will agree that he was terrible. But he proved that you don’t have to be a shooter to contribute to the offense. He would grab the ball and pass it around to the right man, set good screens, and get on the offensive boards often enough to still score in double figures.
You can’t mention centers without mentioning Wilt. He showed at different stages of his career that he had the tools to do it all, but he was another center, like Kareem in the present era, who was never asked to do it all in one season.
At one stage of his career, he was asked to score, another stage he was asked to rebound, another year he was asked to concentrate on defense. But he had the ability to do everything, as the record book clearly attests.
In the past, I’ve said negative things about Wilt that I am sorry for today. As I’ve grown older, I’ve had a chance to better analyze this game, and the things that Wilt Chamberlain accomplished amaze me more and more each year.
Wilt Chamberlain might have been the most unique, singularly talented athlete of our time . I’ve seen films of him doing things on a basketball court that I would have said were impossible. He played 48 minutes a game, he got beat on and belted around, and yet, he kept right on doing it all. To average 50 points a game, regardless of what level of basketball you’re playing at, is astonishing. My God, it’s hard to score 50 in just one game, but to average 50 over season is unthinkable.
As far as modern-day centers, if Kareem had been asked throughout his career to be the total center, he could have had an incredible record, too. He has always done what he has been asked to do. The only limitations he has ever had was that he wasn’t always asked to contribute in every phase of the game—passing, rebounding, defense, screening, and scoring.
FORWARDS: Naturally, this is the position I know best, since I have made my living on that part of the court for 13 years. I think if I had to pick one guy to have on my team, to play opposite me as a forward, I would pick Dave DeBusschere. He was just an outstanding all-around player. He played tough defense, he got on the backboards, he was an acceptable outside shooter, and, if you gave him an opening, he could drive to the basket.
He wasn’t real quick, but the guy knew how to play this game. He set screens, he was just a hell of a player. He was the one guy I would most like to have as a teammate at the opposite forward spot.
There have been so many great forwards, to single out any one is to slight the others. One guy whom I played against at the end of his career, but who I always thought was a great player, was Elgin Baylor. He was truly a player ahead of his time. I patterned my game after Elgin. I thought he was always a great passer, an unselfish player who never felt it was beneath him to give the ball up.
He could drive with the best of them. He had an advantage on his drive in that the officials gave him a step and a half his whole career, but he was smart enough to know how to take advantage of that. He changed the sport’s concept of how a forward should play this game.
There are a lot of young guys playing today who may be recognized as the greatest by the time they are finished. As far as that category is concerned, I think the Doc (Erving) is an incredibly exciting player. If he keeps shooting that outside shot as well as he did this year, he can be right in that category with the two or three greatest ever at this position.
I think Marques Johnson has the potential to become a great forward. I think Walter Davis has that capability, too.
Where does Rick Barry fit into this list? Well, I’ll let my opponents do the judging. I’ll just say that my years have been event-filled. I’ve experienced the negative—the fact that the fans have never gotten to know the real Rick Barry. But I’ve also experienced a lot of positives. And the good and positive things have far outweighed the negative.
I wish, indeed, that everyone in this country could be as fortunate. In my years in this profession, I have played with some of the greatest athletes of all time and also some of the finer people.