Two hours before the New York Knickerbockers were to play the Los Angeles Lakers, Dick Barnett began dressing slowly, meticulously for the four-block walk from his hotel to Madison Square Garden. "Clothes," he said, "must be had in quality, not in quantity. No plain pipe racks, darlin'." He began to sing, "We ain't doin' our Christmas shopping at Robert Hall's this year." When he examined himself in the mirror he seemed pleased. The white shirt had the block initials RB on the left breast, the midnight-blue blazer was freshly pressed and lintless, the French cuffs protruded just the right length and, as always, a silk foulard spilled from the jacket pocket. He put on his leather overcoat with the fluffy gray fur collar and went off to work.
This season, at the age of 29 and after five years as the excellent sixth man for the Syracuse Nationals and Los Angeles Lakers, Dick Barnett has become the first Knick in years with a knack. He is a genuine star, and he is going to have a tremendous influence on the closest divisional races that pro basketball has generated in a long time. At the end of last week he was the fourth leading scorer with a 28.6-point-per-game average, right there behind Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. His team, of course, was fourth, too, right there where they usually are, behind Boston, Cincinnati and Philadelphia in the four-team Eastern Division. But in recent weeks, since they acquired Barnett and Coach Dick McGuire, the Knicks have gained sudden respectability around the league with a running style that is beginning to win games.
New York's In crowd, from Andy Warhol and Joey Heatherton to The Gang at Arthur, has yet to discover Barnett the way Hollywood's Group has fallen for Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but there already are signs that this kind of pop hero worship is coming. Fans and nonfans alike in the metropolitan area have waited a long time for someone to come along with verve and skill and humor—someone who could transform Madison Square Garden, the Pompeii of sport, into a place of excitement and hope once again. Barnett should be their man. He is a marvelously graceful athlete and, far more important, he has inimitable style, wit and the indefinable magnetism that in the theater is called "star quality."
Since early in November crowds have been gathering at the edge of the Garden court to watch Barnett warm up, to holler salutes of praise, to see in person the name that looks so good in the box scores. Out on the court Barnett is a strange-looking man and, when surrounded by taller players, seems much smaller than his 6 feet 4. When the bright lights hit the sharp angles of his face he looks homely and lonely and cold. The method he uses in warmups is totally different from that of the majority of pro players. He takes the ball and dribbles it to a position, pretending that there is a defender alongside trying to frisk him. He practices fakes with his head and shoulders, and then he goes into his jump shot—the shot that Coach Paul Seymour of the Baltimore Bullets calls "the best in the league."
Barnett's jumper is an intriguing thing to behold, for it seems to attack all the basic laws of basketball, human coordination and aerodynamics. He leaves the floor with the ball cradled in his left hand directly below his ear. As he lets the ball go, he throws both feet violently backward. At the release he resembles a shotputter, but the result is a high trajectory flight with an extremely soft touch. Often when the ball heads toward the basket Barnett tries to steer it home with body English and delicate flicks of his wrists. Altogether it is a compelling performance.
The shot is so accurate and controlled that Barnett can score with it from almost anyplace on court. "Within 18 to 22 feet of the basket," he says, "once it goes up, those other cats can forget it. I work on it for 50 weeks a year, go round and play with anyone anywhere to keep workin' on it." When Barnett's jumper is especially sharp the defender is helpless. Five weeks ago John Barnhill of the St. Louis Hawks held Barnett scoreless in the first half of a game played in Boston, and Hawk Owner Ben Kerner promptly gave Barnhill a $1,000 raise, despite the fact that Dick got 22 points in the second half. Two nights later Barnett scored 36 points against Barnhill.
Barnett came to the Knickerbockers from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Bob Boozer and cash early in the season. There are some, however, who feel that he was destined to come to New York a long time ago. His former teammate on the Lakers, Hot Rod Hundley, remembers a morning in a motel near the airport in Pittsburgh when he first recognized evidence of this. The Lakers had played in Pittsburgh the night before, and Barnett and Hundley, who were roommates, left a message to be called at 6 a.m. in order to catch a flight back to Los Angeles. When the wake-up call came, Barnett bounced out of bed and went into the bathroom as Hundley rolled back for a little more sleep. Moments later Hundley awoke to find Barnett standing in front of a full-length mirror. "He was dressed in spats," Hundley recalls, "and he had on a Chesterfield topcoat, matching tie and vest, a bright-red handkerchief in his pocket. He wore gloves and carried an umbrella and was carefully admiring himself. Finally, he could stand it no longer. 'Go on, go on,' he cried. 'You got it, darlin'. Nothing going to stop you—all the way to Wall Street!' Then he turned and strolled out of the room."
Barnett's play and personality are not only bringing people into the Garden, but also are fetching after-game throngs back to the 49th Street side of the Garden, where many of the Knicks leave by the employees' entrance. These street crowds resemble those that used to gather for Harry Gallatin and Carl Braun during their early years, and Barnett knows how to handle the idolaters.
Small Negro boy: Dick, if I could learn to shoot that jump shot like you I could make it big in the NBA.
Barnett: When you do, darlin', I hope you make more money with it than I do.