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On the court his facial expressions range from pure Buster Keaton to the tortured look of an opera buff at an Alice Cooper gig, and they all serve to disguise the fact that this is the happiest of all his nine pro basketball seasons for Rick Barry of the Golden State Warriors.
Of course, things have never been quite what they seemed with Barry, the 6'7�" forward with radar-accurate shooting skill. He has been bad-mouthed on both coasts, booed in cities between and branded as a guy with dollar signs where his soul should be. Yet he has never flat out reneged on a contract, nor asked that one be renegotiated, and he currently relishes his nonpaying role as team-elected captain. If he fails to reveal the fun his profession affords him, it is only because he smiles in competition about as often as he misses a free throw.
Barry practices his trade best as a scorer, and he has known the hostility directed toward that talented breed ever since his first pro season (1965-66), when he was named NBA Rookie of the Year. Ignoring the statistics enumerating his assists and steals, fans grumbled about his seemingly indifferent defense—which wasn't all that bad—or asserted that Barry would sooner give blood than give the ball to a teammate.
Most of all, however, Barry has stuck in the public mind as the epitome of the disloyal moneygrubber ever since he jumped from the Warriors to the ABA Oakland Oaks seven seasons ago. Other basketball players—and athletes in other sports—have since jumped teams after breakfast and before dinner on some days, but Barry, who led the way, remains in contempt, not a pioneer but a Hessian, marching only to the sound of the fullest cash register.
"That reputation really bothers me," Barry says, "because I think it's unfair. I've never played one league against another, like some guys, and I'm not even one of the 25 highest-paid players in the NBA, but people brand me as money-hungry. [ Barry's current salary is around $218,000, and if that seems high it probably doesn't match the earnings of an Elmore Smith or a John Brisker, let alone that of an established superstar.] I guess I've inherited the reputation because I was the first name player to go to the ABA, but I went purely because Bruce Hale [ Barry's collegiate coach and father-in-law] was there. If he hadn't been general manager of that team, there's no way I ever would have gone to Oakland. Everyone thinks it was because of the money, but I know that I could have asked [Warrior owner] Franklin Mieuli for the same amount, and after he gulped two or three times, he would have given it to me.
"I've had sportswriters take out personal vendettas against me because I jumped. I was branded a traitor, which disappointed me more than anything, but I've accepted it. Adverse publicity has never affected my game. And one thing, no matter what they said about me, no one could ever criticize my ability to play the game."
Indeed, even when public scorn was at its height, only fools impugned Barry's talents, which have reached a pinnacle of all-round excellence in this, his 30th year and ninth active season. Last week his 32.9 scoring average was the NBA's highest, he led the Warriors in assists, steals and minutes played, and his free-throw shooting, which has always been remarkable, has moved up to astonishing. In his first 151 attempts from the line, Barry made 138 for a .914 percentage.
"I can't envision anyone playing better than Barry is right now," says Warrior Coach Al Attles, whose surprising club leads the Pacific Division despite the loss over the past six months of Nate Thurmond, Clyde Lee, Jim Barnett, Joe Ellis and Cazzie Russell through trades, release or the kind of front-office ineptitude that once made the franchise a Bay Area joke. Mieuli, in one of the few smart moves anyone remembers him making, turned personnel matters over to Dick Vertlieb, his new general manager, before the season started, and Vertlieb quickly signed the team's first three draft choices, including UCLA's Keith Wilkes, the No. 1 pick, who is having a fine season at forward.
Barry's statistics are not the only reason for his internal harmony this season. He has always scored a ton of points for whatever team he played for and rated high in the game's less obvious facets as well.
His relationship with his teammates is helping Barry to have his finest season. He is the key to the Warriors' success, and the team's newfound "chemistry" comes from the fact that everyone realizes this, accepts it and is determined to make whatever combinations are required work. The chemistry is a subject that arises whenever anyone discusses the team.