Against such an imposing array the ABA counters with its own top rookies: Marvin Barnes of St. Louis, Utah's Moses Malone and Bobby Jones of Denver. Plus St. Louis' other young Spirits—Gus Gerard, Maurice Lucas, Fly Williams and Jimmy Foster; Denver's Jan van Breda Kolff; Virginia's David Vaughn; Billy Knight and Len Elmore at Indiana; and New York's Al Skinner.
"It's just too bad there can only be one Rookie of the Year award," says Barnes, the 6'9" forward who is not supposed to make mature statements. "Look at our league: me, Malone, Jones and Knight. I wish all four of us could get it because we all deserve it. But three guys are going to be disappointed. It's something every rookie wants. It says you're the best. Each in his own way has had a heck of a year. I'm really impressed with Moses. He's so young. Boy, if I was still 20, can you imagine all the trouble I'd be in?"
Barnes has had enough trouble at the age of 22. By his own admission he is immature and irresponsible—and he is impossible to stay angry at for any length of time. For some reason he has never been totally forgiven for saying before signing with St. Louis that maybe he'd rather work in a factory. Then, in late November, he left the club, claiming he was being ripped off and announcing that he wanted to renegotiate his $2.1 million contract. No way, said the Spirits. No play, no pay. A week later, after spending some time at a pool tournament in Dayton, Barnes returned, apologized and played. And how he has played.
"He's just a nice, irresponsible kid who can play great basketball," says Weltman, who once toured with a college all-star team that provided opposition for the Globetrotters. "He'd sure be a lot easier to deal with if he were surly. Then you wouldn't mind zinging him once in a while. But not Marvin. You can get angry at him, but when he walks in, you can't stay angry."
Ghetto-born and ghetto-bred, Barnes is, as Rod McKuen put it, making the morning last while buying up all the butterflies. He knows poor and now he knows rich, and has learned to live with almost as much gusto as he plays basketball. The only rookie All-Star starter, at last count he was scoring 24.0 points a game—fifth best in the league—and hauling down 15.6 rebounds, No. 3 in the ABA. He also leads the league in fines for swearing—which he says he has now forsworn—and for missing planes and being late to practice.
There was, for instance, the plane he missed for a game in Norfolk. Then he missed the next one. And so, at the cost of $800, Barnes chartered his own plane. Twenty minutes before the game he walked into the arena. With his uniform on. That night he scored 43 points.
"Marvin has had a great year," says Coach Bob MacKinnon, who believes in punctuality but is an understanding man. "He has had more to carry than any rookie in a lot of years. With all our rookies this is pretty much like an expansion team, and he has had to carry the club while adjusting to forward from center. He's extremely coachable. He just has to become more professional. If he breaks a rule, he is fined just like any other player."
He grinned at a recollection. " Freddie Lewis, who has been around for nine years, tried to take him in hand, and damn if Freddie didn't almost miss a plane, too."
Barnes grew up in South Providence, R.I., one of the country's smaller asphalt jungles, and was hardly into his teens when a close friend died in his arms with four bullets in his body.
"South Providence is a tough place," Barnes says. "The hustlers, the pimps, the junkies. I'm not ashamed of it. I just had it. I still go back to visit, but I don't want to live there." Basketball was the way out, except that at age 16, although Barnes stood 6'5" he weighed only 165 and didn't want to play. He thought he was too skinny.