Middle-aged man: Dick, I came in tonight from Bayonne over in Jersey just to see you play. I love basketball, Dick. Where was it you went to college?
Barnett: Tennessee State. I was three times Little All-America there—whatever that means.
Bayonne man: How d'ya like bein' in New York?
Barnett: Man, I understand that lately winners get pretty lonesome around here.
Bayonne man: Thanks, Dick!
Barnett: No, no. Thank yoo-oo.
The Syracuse Nationals selected Barnett as their first draft choice back in 1959 after he had led Tennessee State to three national small-college championships. At State (enrollment 5,200) he had averaged nearly 25 points a game during a 36-game winning streak. His ability to dribble behind his back and hit with his weird jump shot helped fill Kean's Little Garden, the school gymnasium, to its 4,500 capacity for every game. During the time Barnett was at State the school began to produce athletes like Wilma Rudolph and the Tiger Belles and Ralph Boston, and within a three-season period it sent five players to the NBA. Barnett was signed by the Nationals for $7,500.
His two years at Syracuse were filled with frustrations for Barnett. When he got there the Nats already had two excellent guards, Larry Costello and Hal Greer. Playing only part time that first season, he scored 12.4 points per game; the next year, again used as the sixth man, he averaged 16.9, seventh among the league's backcourt men.
("Ever been to Syracuse, darlin'?" Barnett asked one afternoon recently, while lying on his hotel bed in a magnificent red lounging robe. "It's out to lunch. As soon as I got there I took a little walk around town to see what it was like. When I found that I could go from one end of the town to the other and back again without ever having to raise my arm for a taxi I said, 'Oh, oh, Dick darlin', forget it.' ")
During the 1961-62 season Barnett jumped the NBA to play for the Cleveland Pipers in the short-lived American Basketball League, and when that folded he was involved in what was then the highest player-for-money transaction in the league's history. The Lakers bought his contract from Danny Biasone, the Syracuse owner, for $35,000, thus giving Biasone a profit of $27,500 on Barnett.