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A Voice Crying In The Wilderness
Tony Kornheiser
April 25, 1983
Rick Barry has a problem. He would like people to regard him with love and affection, as they do Jerry West and John Havlicek. They do not.
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April 25, 1983

A Voice Crying In The Wilderness

Rick Barry has a problem. He would like people to regard him with love and affection, as they do Jerry West and John Havlicek. They do not.

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The desert sky is polished turquoise, the desert sun bone white. Rick Barry has come for a month to Palm Springs, his favorite vacation spot, to improve his tennis and his tan. The desert is barren and forbidding, but if you dig deep enough you will find the water you need to make it bloom. All it takes is a lot of work.

The same might be said of Barry. There are former teammates, like Roche, Paultz, Beard, Ray and Nate Thurmond, who feel that Barry is misunderstood, that down deep the water is there. They tell stories of Barry's generosity, of his splitting his $2,000 NBA All-Star Game MVP award in 1967 equally among his Warrior teammates, of his giving his NBA and ABA All-Star Game watches to trainers, of his handing over various "star of the game" awards—coupons for food and gas and jewelry—to rookies who were paid the minimum. They tell stories of Barry's planning Jeff Mullins' retirement ceremony, of his giving Christmas gifts to all his teammates and coaches. These stories all carry the same message: Get beyond the image. Know the man.

"Too many people judged me by how I looked on the court. It wasn't fair. I was a different person off the court," Barry says. He is lying in a lounge chair, wearing the skimpiest of bathing suits, challenging the sun on its home court. "I think I'm a good person. I'm a lot more sensitive than people understand—even if I was an ass on the court." He giggles nervously from the impact of his admission. Small puddles of sweat bubble up on his chest. The hotter it gets, the more he likes it. "I respond instantaneously. Some people can count to 10 before they react. I can't even count to one. It's one of my shortcomings. It's the perfectionist in me. I wish I could correct it. Believe me, I've tried. But there was no ill will, no hard feelings. Anyone who really knew me knew what I was doing. I say something on the court, it's gone, it's over. I always assumed that guys I played with understood that. Maybe not everybody understood. The thing is, nobody ever came to me and said, This is the way the guys feel, and this is why they feel that way.' "

Barry is many things, but subtle isn't one. If the warning signs weren't written on a billboard, he wouldn't have seen them.

"I figured they knew me, and they understood. Maybe you can never forget. But hopefully you can learn to forgive someone for his shortcomings. You should look at someone and ask, 'What has he done since that time?' And if he's changed for the better, why can't you change your opinion of him?" Having done some hard time, at age 39 he's seeking parole.

But..."He's an extraordinary guy. There's nothing he wouldn't do for you," says Mike Dunleavy, who, along with Paultz, was Barry's best friend on the Rockets, with whom Rick ended his career. "But he lacks diplomacy. If they sent him to the U.N. he'd end up starting World War III."

Bill Russell worked with Barry on CBS's pro basketball telecasts in 1980-81. During the fifth game of the NBA championship series between Boston and Houston a picture of Russell from the 1956 Olympics was shown on the air, and Barry joked about Russell's "watermelon smile." Barry insists that he had no idea that the comment had racial overtones. As soon as he learned it did, he called Russell to apologize. Neither Russell nor anyone else interviewed for this story thinks Barry intended any slur. But, beyond that, Russell won't talk about Barry. When asked about him, Russell's immediate reaction was his trademark, a rich, high-pitched cackle. For half a minute.

Al Attles coached Barry for six years at Golden State and was his teammate for two years before that. Attles built the Warriors around Barry, who spent more time playing with and for Attles than with anyone else in Barry's career. But Barry says he left Golden State for Houston in 1978 because he realized that "Attles didn't want me around anymore." And Attles won't talk about Barry. When asked why, he says cryptically, "Rick knows why."

Franklin Mieuli owns the Warriors. When Barry jumped to the ABA, Mieuli publicly pined for the star he said was "like a son" to him. Such was his passion to get Barry back that he turned down a million-dollar offer from the Nets to retain the NBA rights to Barry. During the five years he waited for his prodigal son to come home, Mieuli kept Barry's uniform hanging in his office. Barry returned and played six seasons with the Warriors. They made the playoffs four times and won one NBA championship. But when Barry became a free agent and left for Houston, Mieuli erased him from his life. Mieuli won't talk about Barry except to say, "I've got one line for you: Rick Barry was a great basketball player." When asked how he could leave it at that, Mieuli said, "What was it your mother always told you about family? 'When you've got nothing nice to say, you don't say anything at all.' "

Barry wanted fame and all that went with it. He wore his talent like a crown and his attitude like a target. In the world according to Barry, winning was everything. And the way to win was to put the ball in his hands. If a great pass was needed, he would make it. If a last-second shot was needed, he would take it. His team would win, and he would be the hero. Everyone would know that they couldn't have done it without him.

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