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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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How could you begrudge him glory when he delivered? What more could you want? But it seems the only season in which he failed to provoke resentment was 1965-66, when he was a rookie, under Coach Alex Hannum in San Francisco. He scored 25.7 points per game, and Hannum called him "a delight." His teammates called him Sunshine because he was always smiling. "He went out of his way to be liked," Meschery says. "He'd follow us around all night long if we let him. But we had to duck him. We were bar guys, and the kid only drank milk."

The next season Barry lit up the league. He averaged 35.6 points and scored 38 in the All-Star Game. "His intensity was unbelievable," says Mullins, a guard on that team. "Night after night he was brilliant. No one could stop him. He was a threat to get 50 every time he stepped onto the court." The Warriors took a Philadelphia 76ers team that has been voted the best in NBA history to six games in the playoff finals before losing, and Barry's 40.8-point average is still the highest in a championship series. He was the toast of the league.

But even as his personal cable car climbed halfway to the stars, Barry was not happy. Hannum was gone—he'd been fired after the '65-66 season—and Barry thought his new coach, Bill Sharman, was too autocratic. "The game just wasn't fun for me that year," Barry says. "Bill made it a job." Sharman had instituted the shoot-around, a light, morning practice on a game day. Barry preferred to sleep late and rest the thin body that took such a pounding during games. Their simmering conflict boiled over in the playoffs, when Sharman insisted that Barry, whose right ankle was so sore that he was taking painkilling injections before each game, also practice, and with as much diligence as he showed against the 76ers. "I was already getting shot up to play," Barry says. "Now I had to get shot up to practice. It was insane." Barry never played for Sharman again. Instead, he signed a contract with the Oakland Oaks of the ABA—three years, plus an option year—bestowing instant credibility on the infant league.

They said he did it for money. But Mieuli matched the Oakland offer of a $75,000 yearly base pay. They said he did it for fame, because Pat Boone, one of the owners of the Oaks, had promised to make him a movie star. In fact, he did it for love. "The motivation was Bruce Hale," Barry says. Hale, who died in 1981, was then Barry's father-in-law; Hale had coached him at Miami, and Hale now had signed to coach the Oaks. Barry wanted to play for him again. He thought it would be perfection. The Warriors sued, claiming that Barry owed them an option year, and the California Superior Court enjoined Barry from playing for any pro team other than the Warriors for one year. Hale coached the Oaks in 1967-68 without Barry, won only 22 games and resigned to take a job in the front office. When Barry at last made it into the ABA in 1968, he wound up playing for the pro coach he respected most, Alex Hannum.

Barry led the league in scoring that year, averaging 34.0 points per game, although he played only 35 games because of a knee injury. He thus became the only player to lead the NCAA (in 1965, with a 37.4 average), the NBA and the ABA in scoring. The Oaks won the ABA title, even though Barry missed the second half of the season and all the playoffs. Before the start of 1969-70, the franchise was sold to Earl Foreman, and its assets—mainly a thin, blond forward with an improving jump shot—were moved to Washington, D.C. and rechristened the Caps. Hannum refused to go and was replaced by Al Bianchi. Barry insisted that he had a verbal agreement excusing him from all obligations to the Oaks franchise if it was moved. He wanted to stay in the Bay Area and attempted to jump back to the NBA, signing a contract with the Warriors for $1 million over five years. Barry then sought his release from the ABA, but a federal judge ruled against him. And so he packed his sorrows into his Ferrari 365GT and drove cross-country, reaching speeds between 140 and 160 miles per hour in Nevada.

After one season the Caps moved and became the Virginia Squires. But Barry wanted no part of that zip code. Trying to force a trade, he deliberately made scathing references about Virginia to a writer for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, and the resulting cover story, entitled "The Reluctant Virginian," made Barry persona non grata in the Old Dominion. Barry never played a game there. Foreman dealt him to the New York Nets. Barry renegotiated the remaining two years of his ABA contract upward to $130,000 per year and in addition signed a second deal with the Nets, worth $540,000 over three more years. The second contract was to become operative only if Barry could extricate himself from the contract with the Warriors, which hadn't even taken effect yet. Once again, Barry went to court, and once again he lost. The court ruled for the Warriors. In the fall of 1972, after averaging 29.4 and 31.5 points per game in two seasons with the Nets, Barry headed back west, back to the NBA.

Five years. Five teams. Three contracts.

Rick Barry the pioneer had become Rick Barry the carnival act.

"If I had to do it all over again," Barry says, first with a grin and then a grimace, "I'd wait for some other fool to do it. It did me more harm than good. It was bad enough that people didn't like the way I looked on the court, but when I went to the ABA I was cast as a money-hungry backstabber. So people who already didn't like me could really tee off on me; I was fair game. Had I stayed in the NBA, I'd have overcome most of it. Eventually they'd have talked more about my playing than my histrionics. But when I left, boy, I was a marked man."

During Barry's second sojourn with the Warriors he enjoyed the greatest stability he had as a pro. And the Warriors enjoyed their greatest success since moving from Philadelphia in 1962, winning their only championship when they swept the Bullets in 1975. Barry scored 118 points, still the record for a four-game championship series, and was named playoff MVP. "To this day I can't find adequate words to describe the feeling I was overcome with when we won," Barry says. "I went into the locker room and cried. I cried and cried. It was terrific. It was absolutely terrific."

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