Rick Barry: Tales of a Happy Warrior, 1974

[One more Rick Barry story—and there were lots of them back in the day. This one, published in the magazine Pro Basketball Illustrated, 1973-74, picks up Barry’s pro basketball odyssey entering his second season back in Oakland with the Golden State Warriors. The courts had forced him to mothball his five-year ABA career, and the Warriors and the NBA have changed considerably since his 1967 departure.

As detailed by reporter Larry Bortstein, who would later move on to greater journalistic fame covering horse racing for the Orange County (Ca.) Register, Barry returned as a more-polished team player and, coupled with his elite skills, was custom-made to thrive in the fleeter NBA of the mid-1970s. The proof would be in Golden State’s 1975 NBA championship to come, with Barry leading the way in every way.]

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The magazine business being what it is, with article deadlines roughly two months or more before the publication of an issue, it used to be that preparing an article about Rick Barry fell into the category of a risky gamble. You might do an article telling all about Barry’s plans for the coming season with the team he happened to be playing for at the moment—then, quicker than one of his own drives to the basket, he would land with another club by the time the article appeared in print.

There’s no risk this year. Rick is a confirmed member of the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association, and likely to remain so for quite a while. Though the Warriors made a surprising dip from 51 victories in the regular season of 1971-72 to 47 last year with Barry in the lineup, the Golden Staters showed what they were made of when they knocked Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks out of the postseason playoff tournament. That they were subsequently eliminated themselves by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western finals hasn’t changed the opinions of many pundits who see the Warriors as potential title candidates this time around.

This is a solid ballclub, possessed of classy and talented veterans like Jeff Mullins, Nate Thurmond, Clyde Lee, and Jim Barnett. Then there’s Kevin Joyce, the 6-foot-3 former All-American from South Carolina, and Butch Beard, the outstanding defensive guard acquired by trade during the offseason from the Seattle Supersonics for Mahdi Abdul-Rahman (the former Walt Hazzard).

But mostly there is Barry. In an offseason informal poll of coaches around the NBA and American Basketball Association to determine the outstanding forward in the pro game, Julius Erving, entering his first season with the New York Nets, won the nod. The 23-year-old Erving, late of the Virginia Squires, has made tremendous advances toward super-stardom in only two years of pro ball. Barry finished second in the balloting.

Erving and Barry’s careers have, of course, other parallels. Rick balked at playing for the Virginia club when the ABA moved its folded Washington franchise there three years ago, so the Squires sent him to the Nets. The Virginians eventually signed Erving a year early out of University of Massachusetts, and he became an instant ABA sensation.

Though he was a great favorite in New York, and landed an offseason television job that many felt would be the prime motivation toward keeping him happy in Gotham, Barry jumped back to the Warriors, the team for which he had been NBA Rookie of the Year in 1965-66. Rick had signed a five-year contract with Warrior owner Franklin Mieuli prior to going to the Nets. The contract with Mieuli stipulated that he had to return to the West Coast for 1972-73.

“I’ve never broken a contract,” Barry often said in a fit of exaggeration during his two-year stay with the Nets. Referring to his nomadic wanderings through the two leagues, which took him from San Francisco’s NBA Warriors to Oakland’s ABA Oaks to Washington, to Virginia, and to the Nets, Rick said, “People misunderstand what has happened.” But when Mieuli went to court again to get Barry to honor the five-year deal signed in 1970, Rick was finding reasons why he had to stay in New York.

However, once Mieuli had won back his services, Barry went on San Francisco television to tell Bay Area fans that his evocations of love for New York had merely been “business, I had to say those things.” The William Morris Agency, which handles noteworthy personalities from all fields—including one Rick Barry—agreed with Barry’s tactics. “That Rick is a shrewd businessman,” said a William Morris representative.

“I had commitments to Franklin Mieuli and the Warriors,” recalls Barry, “and also to Roy Boe and the Nets. It was a difficult situation to be in. I had heard that the whole thing wouldn’t be settled for a long time, and that disturbed me because I felt that it wasn’t right to give up my career to try and take the matter [to] its full legal course.”

Rick’s status wasn’t settled until October 6, 1972, virtually on the eve of the 1972-73 opener. He already had sat out the full season of 1967-68 after jumping the Warriors. The courts had ruled he couldn’t play for Oakland until 1968-69.

But all that is behind Barry now. After playing in four cities in seven years, while being traded only once, Rick has been welcomed back wholeheartedly by the San Francisco fans, and could be the catalyst in the Warriors continuing rise to the NBA throne room.

“It took Rick a little while to get accustomed to the way we play the game,” says Warrior coach Al Attles. “Although he and Big Nate (Thurmond) had been together a couple of seasons here before, our style is different now than it was when Rick first came here. Rick doesn’t have as big a rebounding load now as he had then. Once he got rolling, though, he was the same old Barry. He may be the best all-round forward in the NBA, though I suppose I’m prejudiced.”

Attles can’t be too far wrong. Rick made the All-NBA second team last season after topping Golden State scorers with a 22.3 average and hauling in 728 rebounds. His league-leading .902 free-throw average—on 358 of 397—was one of the highest ever recorded. Barry seemed headed for a new NBA record for consecutive free throws when he opened the 1972-73 season by hitting his first 39 straight. The record of 56 belongs to Bill Sharman, who was Rick’s first pro coach at San Francisco.

Barry’s streak was snapped when he missed twice against Buffalo, but he kept up a blistering charity stripe pace all year. He’s still the only player in the NBA who shoots his free throws underhanded. 

“It’s kind of a lost art form,” he says. “It’s just practice and a certain feel. Practice, feel, and concentration. I started out shooting them underhanded and never saw any reason to change.” Rick never has averaged less than .862 from the line in any season.

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Jeff Mullins (23)

Prior to last season, Barry’s last NBA season of 1966-67 saw him end Wilt Chamberlain’s string of seven consecutive scoring titles. Barry averaged 35.6 ppg that winter. In 1968-69, his first year in the ABA, Rick became the only player in pro basketball annals to lead both leagues in scoring, hitting 34 ppg for the Oakland Oaks.

Pro ball is a different game now than it was when Rick played his early seasons in the NBA. Jeff Mullins, the Warriors’ high-scoring backcourtman, who was a teammate of Barry’s his first time around in the Bay Area and now is a teammate again, analyzed the type of game Barry employs. 

Speaking one afternoon early last season, Mullins pointed out, “Defenses have changed since 1967. Playing against teams like the Knicks, Bulls, Lakers, and others requires intelligent defenses. Defenses try to jam you now, try to overplay you, double-up, sag, or anything legal to change your pattern. The forwards are shorter. The game is faster. And Rick, Mullins included, “is ideal for today’s game.”

During his two prolific seasons in New York, Barry lost in the headlines war with other New York-based players such as Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, and Willis Reed. But most keen observers felt he was the top all-around cage performer in town. The combination of skills, grace, and poise that first made him a schoolboy sensation in nearby Elizabeth, New Jersey, then at the University of Miami, has been tempered by maturity. At 29, the 6-foot-7, 220-pounder is deceptively slender, but packs plenty of strength in his blond-topped body.

It was Barry who almost single-handedly led the undermanned Nets to the final round of the ABA playoffs two seasons ago against the Indiana Pacers. The Nets staged a colossal upset in the first round when they knocked off the Kentucky Colonels, winners of a record 68 games during the regular season, in six games.

Though he had been hurting for weeks, Rick played magnificently against the Pacers and played the major role, along with rookie guard John Roche, in steering the Nets to the final round. The Pacers, loaded with talent at every position and on the bench, finally wore down the New Yorkers after six tough games. Rick’s final seconds as an ABA player—though he didn’t realize they were his last ABA seconds at the time—were ignominious. He muffed a pass out of bounds in the closing seconds to give Indiana possession and ensure the Pacers’ victory.

No one could possibly attach the goat’s horns on Rick, however, as it was clear to all that the Nets couldn’t have gone nearly as far in the ABA Championship tournament as they did without Barry’s services. When Rick departed New York for good the beginning of the 1972-73 season, Lou Carnesecca, then the Nets’ coach, called Rick’s leave-taking “a terrific loss. He was a wonderful team man.” 

But Carnesecca categorization of Barry as “a wonderful team man” lives on. Once considered an unabashed “chucker,” Rick now blends well into any team he plays for. He passes when the situation demands, plays defense, and hustles up and down the court every minute he’s on the floor—and he’s on the floor the great majority of every 48-minute game. He has an offensive polish that he lacked when he first played for the Warriors. Because the club has plenty of good shooters, he doesn’t go to the hoop as often as he did when he was with the Nets. And his passing on the give-and-go play may be the best of any forward in the game.

There was one sequence in a game against the Knicks last season that revealed Barry’s tremendous versatility and drive. The Warriors were winning their second game in a week over the New Yorkers, and at one point, Rick hit a spinning jump shot from the top of the key, went down to the defensive end of the court and deflected a jumper by Bill Bradley. Bradley had beaten Barry downcourt and went up with what he thought was a clear 25-footer, but Rick reached over the Knick’s shoulder and partially blocked the ball, which was grabbed by Thurmond on the bounce.

Barry took a pass in forecourt and calmly swished through a 25-foot jumper that gave the Warriors a 96-92 lead with 39 seconds left. The Knicks tied the score, but eventually lost in overtime, thanks in no small part to Rick’s 44-minute contributions—27 points, eight rebounds, and five assists.

Barry’s the complete forward now, though during his five-year absence from the NBA, officials within the league tried to pretend he didn’t exist. His accomplishments in the ABA, still referred to as “that other league” in many NBA circles, didn’t rate a mention.

But now that he’s back within the confines of the senior pro basketball circuit, Barry’s a good guy again. His past indiscretions have been forgotten, and that’s the way it should be, really. Rick seems to have many fine years ahead of him with the Warriors and finally should receive the many and diverse honors from the national media that he has been deprived of for so long.

He may even get around to revising his autobiography. Written a couple years ago with the help of Los Angeles-based freelancer Bill Libby—and if articles about Barry during that period were risky ventures, consider Libby’s difficulties in getting the book finished, not knowing where Rick might be playing at any given time—the book was titled Confessions of a Basketball Gypsy.

The new addition may have to be called, Tales of the Happy Warrior.

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