Rick Barry: He Lost a Battle and Won the War, 1968

[A seminal moment in the business of modern pro basketball came in California Superior Court during summer of 1967. It was the much-anticipated verdict in the San Francisco Warriors v. Rick Barry case. Until this decision, no state or federal court had ruled directly on the NBA’s option clause. This first legal salvo became the start of greater player movement to come, culminating in the 1976 settlement of the Robertson et al. v. NBA case (just for the record, the ABA also became a named defendant), which secured player free agency forevermore.

In this article, writer Joe Rogers offers his perspective on the verdict as well as an up-close-and-personal look at Barry himself. Rogers’ piece was published in Sport Review’s 1967-68 Basketball issue. Enjoy!]


It was 9:30 p.m. on a sultry July night in Oakland, California. It was the evening of Rick Barry’s “day in court” through the courtesy of the San Francisco Warriors, his employers during the 1966-67 season. It was also the night that professional athletes in all sports cast furtive glances at the California courthouse where Barry’s case was being presented. 

In the history of the National Basketball Association, there has never been a case where a player has actually played out his option, and it was Barry’s contention that there was a reason. It was impossible!

Barry playing with son Scooter

Although professional athletes in every sport were watching the Barry case in California’s Superior Court, the gangly NBA scoring leader for last season, seemed oblivious to it all that evening. He romped on the floor with Richard (Scooter) Barry, III, who at the time was a month away from his first birthday. It could have been any young father, anywhere in America, the scene was so typical. Scooter shaking with laughter as Rick rolled across the floor with him, and absolutely stunning Pam Barry poking her head in from the kitchen, occasionally, to enjoy the domestic scene.

Her chores were interrupted by the incessant ringing of the phone, to which Barry seemed oblivious. It was a New York sportswriter asking for Rick and about the outcome of his case earlier that day. The handsome youngster, who won’t be 24 until the very end of the season, took the phone and waited for the barrage of questions.

“No, I have no way of knowing how things will turn out, it’s all in the hands of the judge.” A pause and then he said,” Well, the Warriors presented their interrogatories which I had to answer under oath . . . They divulged the terms of my contract with Oakland in the ABA (American Basketball Association).”

Another pause . . . longer this time, and then, “. . . It would be ridiculous for me to say I was either optimistic or pessimistic. I have nothing to say about it now . . . only the judge. I’ve answered everything they (the Warriors) wanted to know, and now they have to present their case.”

The prying and digging from 3,000 miles away continued. “No, there isn’t a thing I can say that will help you . . . can’t you understand, my thoughts are my own and valueless to you and to the case . . . and to your readers. It’s only the judge’s thoughts that are important.”

Apparently rebuffed in his attempts to get a juicy quote that could scream Barry Says “We’ll Win” or Barry Says “We Haven’t a Chance” . . . the reporter backed off. In the tempestuous world of stardom and public adulation, it takes a clever youngster to know when to talk and when not to talk. Rick Barry is a clever youngster . . . on and off the basketball court. 

The basis for Barry’s jumping to the Oakland team is really quite simple. It is his contention that the NBA option clause is illegal, and he bases his thoughts—and a lot of knowledgeable people share his views—on the fact that the players who are a party to the contract have no option in the matter.

There is no record of any NBA player ever having successfully played out his option, although the discontent among the NBA players has been a matter of public knowledge for years. Each of the last five seasons, there have been NBA players who could not come to any amicable agreement with their owners. With this kind of dissatisfaction, why, then, wouldn’t some player just continue to play for one year without a contract . . . and at the close of that season try to negotiate with another NBA team?

Well, pal, if you think that’s possible, it’s obvious that you don’t know the lodge brethren of the NBA. Their marriage vows within the league start out with “I solemnly promise that I won’t talk to any of your players without your permission.” Then they all sign it in blood . . . of some of the players, of course. Then they back this up with a little thing which says that no player can play without signing a contract. At this point, they stick the one-year pact in front of the player . . . point to the option clause for his “protection” and say, “sign baby . . . right here!”

The catch for the player is in one phrase of the contract, which advises that “if the player does not return a signed contract by September 30, THIS AGREEMENT FOR HIS SERVICES WILL BE CONSIDERED TO BE EXTENDED FOR A PERIOD OF ONE YEAR.” There’s the option he gets in the NBA. He can’t play without a contract, and if he signs a contract for one year, the legal rules state that he must sign another one the following year in order to play, and that carries on for still another year, and another, ad finitum or until his legs give out . . . whichever comes first. The player has absolutely no privileges. The owner has a great big fat option, which supposedly permits him to offer any kind of money he wants, and if the player doesn’t like it, he can lump it . . . or get out of the NBA.

At this point in 1967, Commissioner Walter Kennedy and his playmates in the NBA have found things getting a little sticky. There’s a new kid named ABA on the block with some ideas about playing pro basketball, and if the players don’t want to play for peanuts in the NBA, the new guy will pay some real pesos.

In desperation, the NBA has suddenly become quite sanctimonious and has begun shouting legal party lines, like . . . “those players can’t jump, they have responsibilities under the option clause.” Suddenly, the option clause was important to them!

Although several cases have gotten into the legal category, most of them have been dropped. All eyes in the sportsworld were turned on Barry and his “day” in the California Superior Court. What came out of Judge Drewes’ court was grossly misinterpreted by most writers and all sports fans. It has been the general feeling that the decision in Barry’s case applied to all, the NBA jumpers, but this is not true. It involves simply the plaintiff, San Francisco Warriors and defendant Rick Barry, II, and has no legal scope beyond the state of California.

Flushed with what he likes to believe was a victory, Franklin Mieuli, owner of the Warriors, has seen his action against Barry backfire. It was the spark which has ignited a deep resentment against the NBA owners by the players and is certain to have the same effect that Wellington Mara provoked when he breached the thin peace between the National and American Football Leagues by signing [kicker] Pete Gogolak. George Halas of the Chicago Bears was livid with rage. One year and about umpteen million dollars in foolish payoffs later, the two leagues merged. 

So last August, a large group of NBA players held a secret meeting in Detroit because of their feelings against Mieuli’s action against Barry. At that meeting, many players agreed to play out their option, which had now been clearly defined by Judge Drewes and had become, at least, a matter of legal reference. Now at long last, the NBA option clause has been forced out from under a rock, and the players could avail themselves of the benefits it could offer. One more year of NBA servitude and then the legal right to negotiate with the ABA.

This is what Pat Boone referred to as a “victory” after the Barry decision had been handed down. Now the basketball marketplace was open for bartering with the players, who, in turn, had gained a new flexibility in their choice of working conditions.

Commissioner Kennedy’s playmates, who, for 1967-68 had expanded into a 12-team group, were struck with consternation when Judge Drewes’ verdict came down. The judge ruled that “defendant (Barry) must desist from playing with any professional basketball team during the 1967-68 season, other than the plaintiff (the Warriors).” They quickly saw that it was a serious defeat in the guise of a victory.

In the meantime, Barry had shifted his base of operations from California to his hometown of Roselle Park, N.J., where, as on that sultry July night in California, he seemed oblivious to all the confusion. Deeply entangled in a number of intriguing legal possibilities, he was completely non-committal for fear of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” in this case one Franklin Mieuli.

Lifting little Scooter high over his head and bussing Pam on the cheek, he left his parents’ home for a tour of several Eastern basketball camps, where he had been committed to instruct. This was truly a vacation for Rick Barry, for he is not too far removed from the backyard and playground games which give basketball its richest moments of nostalgia. Far from the din and cigar smoke of the big-city arenas; far from the schemes and contrariness of grown man; far from the digging, prying of the press, Rick Barry headed for the most-important period In 1967 for him.

The pop-eyed adulation of a youngster as he delivers the lightning jump shot like a skittish Impala. The sleep-robbing thrill of a gangly teenager who surprisingly blocked one of the shots. The busy, active days and quite restful nights . . . For one fleeting period of 1967, Rick Barry was away from it all.

In a relaxed scene such as this, it is hard to conceive of the handsome 6-foot-7 Barry having the kind of impact on the entire American sportsworld that he has had. Some wise words issued by a member of Congressman Emanuel Cellar’s House Subcommittee, which examined the pro football merger come to mind. That committeeman said, at a time when the merger was very uncertain, “. . . It’ll go through all right, and will be okay as long as somebody doesn’t rock the boat.”

What quieted down George Halas’ grief over the pro football warfare was the majority influence by his fellow NFL owners that he “not rock the boat.” In the same way, pro baseball has been an absolute masterpiece of diplomatic relations with its playing pawns . . . likewise not wanting to “rock the boat.”

That Barry’s boss, Franklin Mieuli, despite his legal rights, has hurt himself with his action against Barry is becoming increasingly obvious. Inquiries among fans on the West Coast show that they generally disapproved of his action. The NBA players definitely disapproved of his action . . . and their reaction may be the most damaging a year from now.

Even Judge Drewes emphasized in his decision that it was based on his belief that “Barry was aware of an area of responsibility for another year when he signed his contract,” and that was the basis of this verdict. There was no indication that he felt the option clause of the NBA was an equitable contract . . . merely a legal one.

Adding to all of Mieuli’s grief is the fact that he has since filed a $4.5 million suit against Pat Boone for tampering with his property, in this case Rick Barry. That in itself gives an indication of the seriousness with which the team-jumping situation is regarded.

Mieuli’s actions have not come with a complete blessing of his fellow lodge brethren. Several accepted his hollow victory over Barry and wished it had never happened. Others feel his suit against Boone is misguided, and still others have fought the situation by handing out three-year contracts to certain NBA players . . . a length of employment hardly known before Barry started the freedom movement.

It is a strange twist of fate that Rick Barry, whose first-year performance in the NBA earned him Rookie of the Year honors; whose second-year efforts gave him the NBA scoring honors, the first player in eight seasons to take that title from Wilt Chamberlain . . . shall be remembered best as the player who gained a new kind of freedom for his fellow players . . . by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.

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