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In Los Angeles, Barnett was an immediate hit with the Lakers and their fans. Used again as a sixth man, he still scored 18 points a game on a team that already had the best one-two punch in the pros in Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. That season the Lakers were on their way to setting a Western Division record for victories when West injured his ankle. Barnett took over for him as an occasional starter during the last third of the season. "One of the chief factors in our late-season slump that year," says Laker Coach Fred Schaus, "was not that we couldn't replace Jerry's output, because Dick started to contribute about 25 points a game during the time when West was out. It was because we couldn't replace Barnett . There was no sub able to supply Dick's 15 points a game coming off the bench."
Barnett developed a trademark in Los Angeles that still follows him around. Whenever he popped a jump shot that he felt was sure to go in or saw a teammate take a shot that looked good, he would yell, "Let's go back!" urging the Lakers to fall back on defense. Soon all the Lakers got in the habit of calling this, even at practice. When Baylor told the Laker announcer, Chick Hearn, about it Hearn began to holler over the radio with each of Barnett's jump shots, "Fall back, Baby," and now fans everywhere have taken it up.
In a game against Cincinnati, Hundley was coaching the team after Schaus had been expelled for arguing with the referees, and the Lakers were two points behind with four seconds to go. Los Angeles had the ball and called time-out. Hundley said to Barnett, "Dick, you're going to take the ball out." Barnett looked at Hundley. "Oh no, man," he protested. "Don't worry," said Hundley, "you're going to get the shot." Everyone anticipated that either Baylor or West would get that last shot, but Hundley's theory was that if both West and Baylor went to one side of the court most of the Cincy players would follow them. Then Rudy LaRusso could set up a pick on Oscar Robertson and hand the ball back to Barnett, cutting by for a layup or an easy 8-footer. LaRusso did set the pick, he gave the ball back to Barnett and, with the way open for a simple drive-in, Barnett suddenly stopped and threw up a 35-footer from near the Laker bench. The ball was still in the air when he turned to Hundley and said, "We're in overtime, darlin'!" It went through the basket, and the Lakers won in overtime.
On the road Barnett became known as the "expert" on cards, particularly poker. He would arrive in a hotel, grab the phone and call up several teammates. The call was always the same. He would riffle a deck of cards into the phone and announce, "Darlin', they are playing the National Anthem." Most of the time he lost, but he always managed to stay in the game until the last card was drawn. When he was reduced to nickels and dimes he would say, "I'm down to children's money, but count me in," and he was always headed for "Tap City." Often he would find his baggage in the lobby already tagged by Laker players, "Richard Barnett, Tap City, U.S.A."
Baylor, generally regarded as the best dresser in the NBA, enjoyed needling the upstart Barnett about his clothes. Once, when Barnett finally broke Baylor in a poker game, he waited for Elgin to enter the team bus. "When Baylor got on," recalls Darrall Imhoff, "Barnett made like a trumpet and blew taps for him."
Part of Barnett's contribution to the happy-go-lucky Laker atmosphere was his "Falcon Flyer," a car that was forever giving him trouble. Leaving the Los Angeles Sports Arena one night, Barnett was quickly surrounded by youngsters begging for his autograph. He finished with them, leaped with a flourish into the Falcon as his fans cheered and, according to West, "the Flyer went about 10 feet, gave one big bark like a dying dog and quit. Right then one of the kids yelled, "Fall back, Baby.' "
West also recalls the night that the horn on the Flyer got stuck, and Barnett woke up and ran outside to stop it. "He beat on it, kicked it and jumped on it," West says, "but it still wouldn't quit, so he finally gave the steering wheel a real rap. The horn stopped, but the windshield fell out."
With the Knicks, Barnett is making "somewhere around $20,000," but he has a promise from General Manager Eddie Donovan that if he performs well his contract will be torn up and a new one drawn. For the last eight weeks he has been the leading scorer in 15 of the Knicks' 22 games, despite playing with a split left hand that required nine stitches to close. "I've got to make some cash here," Barnett said recently. "That sixth man stuff doesn't mean much money. When I was a kid back in Gary, Ind. I lifted crates and pushed carriages of steel in a mill. I carried things and moved heavy stuff and ran lots of errands. I learned one thing, and that is that I didn't want to be a steelworker. I ought to make it here, but I guess it's hard to get a following when you're new in a town as big as this."
The crowds are forming, Dick Darlin'. They may soon be following you all the way down to Wall Street.