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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 way I looked alienated a lot of people," Barry says. "I've seen films of myself and seen the faces I made. I looked terrible." He closes his eyes to the memory and shakes his head. "I acted like, a jerk. Did a lot of stupid things. Opened my big mouth and said a lot of things that upset and hurt people. I was an easy person to hate. And I can understand that. I tell kids, There's nothing wrong with playing the way Rick Barry played, but don't act the way Rick Barry acted.' I tell my own kids, 'Do as I say, not as I did.' "

What bothers him isn't that he's not beloved.

"It bothers me," Barry says, "that I'm not even liked."

Supposedly, the higher you climb, the harder it gets. Not so for Barry. At every rung things got easier for him. College basketball was easier than high school. Pro basketball was so much easier than college that it shocked him. In 1966-67, his second pro season, he led the NBA in scoring with a 35.6-points-per-game average—only Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor have ever done better.

Barry's game was founded on quickness. "He ran as fast in the mind as he did in the feet," says Phil Jackson, who, as a member of the New York Knicks, played against Barry. He darted around the court like a hummingbird and with the single-mindedness of a missile. "And that was before he developed his jump shot," says Tom Meschery, who played with Barry on the San Francisco Warriors from 1965 to 1967. "I can't imagine what he'd have been like if he could shoot."

Barry averaged 30 or more points a game in four different seasons; only Chamberlain, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar attained that plateau. He was the best foul shooter in the history of the NBA, with a lifetime percentage of .900. No true forward ever had more assists. "He was Larry Bird before there was a Larry Bird," says Al Menendez, director of player personnel for the New Jersey Nets. "He was a great artist. A Mozart. A Picasso. A Caruso," says Lou Carnesecca, who coached Barry for two seasons on the Nets. "I'd diagram a play, and Rick would instinctively see four or five options that I'd never even imagined. In 35 years of coaching I've never had another guy like that."

In sum, Barry was so good that he awed people. But he was so uncompromising that he antagonized them, too. He couldn't understand why the game didn't come as easily to others as it did to him. And for 15 years, in the NBA, the ABA, and on CBS he told them so—in private, in public and in no uncertain terms. He had no patience for mistakes, no tolerance for mediocrity. "He was such a perfectionist," says Butch Beard, who played with and against Barry. "He wanted the game to be perfect. And when it wasn't, he would jump all over you. He didn't mean it maliciously, but it could be very intimidating." Barry excused his behavior by telling teammates that as hard as he was on them, he was harder still on himself, but some didn't buy it. "He had a bad attitude. He was always looking down at you," says the Celtics' Robert Parish, an erstwhile Warrior teammate of Barry's. "He was the same on TV," says the Sonics' Phil Smith, another former Warrior. "He was so critical of everyone. Like he was Mr. Perfect."

Instead of being cheered by his peers as the pioneer whose jump from the NBA to the ABA in 1967 precipitated the salary explosion, Barry has been roundly decried for being self-absorbed and petulant. Yet no one who followed his lead—most notably the sainted Julius Erving, who attempted to jump to the NBA Atlanta Hawks in 1972 while still under contract to the ABA Virginia Squires—received anything but the mildest public reproach. And Barry, who many experts think is one of the two best forwards in NBA history—the other being Baylor—hasn't gotten full credit because of his abrasive behavior.

In the 1974-75 season, when he led the Golden State Warriors to the NBA championship, Barry averaged 30.6 points per game, led the league in free-throw percentage and steals and was sixth in assists, the only forward in the Top 10. Yet in the voting for MVP—a vote by players—Barry finished fourth. "A joke," says Clifford Ray, Barry's best friend on that team. "The man had the greatest season I'd ever seen. That vote was just a joke." There were whispers that Barry was a victim of race discrimination. Ray, a black man, demurs, "You won't get no black guys to say Rick wasn't bad. When it came to the hoop he was serious. The brothers might not have liked his style, but they knew the white boy could play some basketball."

Fact is, Barry was a victim of face discrimination. There was something about him that was hard to like, something that manifested itself on his face in the form of a sneer. Its origins may have stemmed from his adolescence, when Barry's permanent teeth came in so crookedly that he was ashamed to smile. The teeth have long since been fixed, but the self-consciousness has lingered. "He still doesn't smile much," says Bill King, the Warriors' broadcaster and a friend of Barry's. "It gives people the impression he's closing them off and sets up an immediate barrier that is very hard to break down."

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