The Warriors are very deep in nicknames. The Johnsons—George and Charles—are Newpie and Jack, the latter a trim little man with a beard so neat he appears to be out of a 19th century daguerreotype. Ray is known as Yo, which comes from his signaling stewardesses, "Yo, Hon." And there are Silk, Bubbles (rookie Robert Hawkins) and Sarge. It says all the more of him, then, that the second-year guard Phil Smith is just Phil or, increasingly, the more formal Phillip. Mullins compares him favorably to Jerry Sloan of the Bulls: a plugger, solid, industrious. But he is dour. Smith's mournful expression never changes, and when he is in the backcourt with Gus Williams, all of the attention is drawn to the rookie.
On Williams' puckish face there is always the sly hint that he is up to something mischievous. His halfback thighs bloom suddenly off thin legs, and he is conceded to be one of the quickest men ever to play in the NBA. There is a great deal of talk among the cognoscenti about how Williams plays the passing lanes, which means he makes a bunch of steals. Everything Williams does he does easily and with flair. He will be very famous as a basketball player soon. He wears uniform No. 1, and high-top sneakers with the laces tied in back. Eleven years ago Rick Barry brought tennis wristbands to pro basketball. If there is anything sure in this world, it is that the playground children of America will be wearing high tops and tying their laces in back by next season at the latest.
The bench forwards are the bearded Double Ds, Derrek Dickey and Dwight Davis, who support Barry and Jamaal Wilkes—Silk—the Rookie of the Year last season. A quiet, understated player, Wilkes is like a character in a novel whose true importance is not revealed until it is time for the message to be delivered or the princess rescued. While the Warriors pride themselves on their team defense, it was Wilkes who had to personally face Spencer Haywood, Bob Love and Elvin Hayes in the playoffs last year. Each of the three All-Star scorers had a big game against him early in the series, but that told him what he wanted to know, and thereafter they all folded, Haywood shooting .337 for the series, Love .384, Hayes .416.
Barry seems to have come to terms with himself. On the court he still rails at the referees, convinced that a conspiracy against him exists—twice already this year he has been thrown out of games—but he has lost that great passion he once had to get his hands on the ball. His scoring is way down, from 30.6 last year to 21.7, and now he concentrates more on passing, steering the ship, or just waiting in the wings until he is needed in a tight spot. A lot of great scorers have mellowed this way, rather like leading men adapting to character roles.
When the Warriors drafted Barry he was disparaged by many scouts as "just another skinny white kid." College recruiters tend to categorize prospects as "playground players" or "suburban players." The best thing you can say about a prospect is that "he is a playground player with a suburban jump shot." Barry always was a playground player; that is, he played black. (By contrast, Wilkes is a classic suburban player.) In preseason sprints Barry proved he is still the fastest man on the team, but he does not drive for the basket as much as he used to, preferring instead to shoot outside. Barry has apparently decided, though, that when the other team gets in foul trouble the odds improve for the driver. Watch for him to take it in in the last stages of the quarters.
After a brief separation, Barry has patched up his marriage, and he and his wife, like the Attleses, have adopted a daughter. When a deal with CBS fell through last summer, Barry agreed to go on playing under a contract that had three seasons to run. He is an excellent commentator, one of the best of the jocks with a microphone, well-informed, articulate and candid on the subjects that matter to him.
Whether he is on the court, on the tube or just eating toast in a coffee shop, Barry invariably produces a strong impression on anyone who watches him. Usually the feelings are negative, for he carries a certain natural imperiousness that tends to put people off. It is a sensation hard to describe, but when most basketball players do something spectacular, it thrills the crowd because the athlete is excelling at the game. When Barry does something out of this world, the reaction is strangely different. The crowd does not give as much because somehow its primary response is not that Barry is excelling in a pure sense but that he is lording it over the unfortunate opposition. Oscar Robertson was another who elicited that attitude.
Last year Barry had a simply incredible championship season. With his runaway enthusiasm, Vertlieb declares, "He had the greatest year of any athlete at any point in history," and if it was not quite that, Barry was still awfully good. Yet in the MVP voting, he finished fourth. He wasn't even in the hunt—an absolute travesty. In baseball, where the writers determine the MVP, black players have suggested that some recent white victors have been selected because of the bias of white electors. In the NBA, the MVP is decided by a vote of the players, and the league is predominantly black. Barry refuses, however, to attach any racial implications to his dismal vote total. "These kids all come together in college now," he says. "They're more subdued, and race just isn't that important. The MVP vote was just all personalities. That's all."
Meaning players don't like you?
"Yeah." He shook his head. "Listen, there are better things. I got my two oldest boys working as ball boys for the team. Nobody can imagine what a kick it was for me playing for the championship of the world, and to turn around at a time-out and get a drink of water from my own son. I saw the films, and there was this one time where I patted one of them on the head. Right there, in the middle of the game. What's a vote? Whoever had anything like what I had before? This team, this is the way I always thought it could be."