JockBio Classic
Basketball Hall of Famer Rick Barry



After the 1967 NBA Finals, Rick was courted by the fledgling American Basketball Association, which was placing a team in the Bay Area. The Oakland Oaks had hired Bruce Hale (Rick’s father-in-law since 1965) to coach the club, and were dangling a $75,000 contract and a cut of ownership if Rick agreed to jump leagues. The All-Star told the Warriors and their owner, Franklin Mieuli, to give him their best offer—he would have stayed had it been close to the Oaks deal. But it wasn’t, so Rick became the first major NBA star to join the ABA.


 


Rick Barry, 1972-73 Topps

 

 
JockBio.com:

What did you see as the pros and cons of jumping to the ABA?

   
Rick Barry:

I loved playing for Bruce Hale in college. He made the game fun. I actually did not have fun my second year in the NBA. I was a scoring leader, All-NBA player, MVP of the All-Star Game, almost won the title, but it wasn’t fun.

I liked Bill Sharman as a person, but as a coach he made the game a job for me. It was the first time I felt like I was going to work when I played basketball. He was relentless. He wanted everyone to approach the game the way he had as a player with the Celtics, when he was fanatical about practice and conditioning. We had almost no days off and he was the one who started the morning shoot around, which I can’t stand. I was playing 40-plus minutes a game! It felt like a job. So the opportunity to join the Oaks and play for the man who was now my father-in-law was pretty appealing.


Rick was skewered by the press for being selfish and disloyal, but he didn’t necessarily want to leave the Warriors. The feeling was mutual. A heartbroken Mieuli hung jersey #24 in his office and vowed to get his star back some day.  

   
JockBio.com:

You took a lot of heat for your decision. Was it fair?

 

   
Rick Barry:

No. I was not the callous person I was portrayed to be—the person without values or loyalty. When the Oakland deal was on the table, I told the Warriors to give me their best offer. I told Pat Boone and the people there that if the Warriors came anywhere close to what Oakland was offering, I would not leave. What has never come out is that the Warriors did not do that. The offer they said they made to me was actually the second offer. Their initial offer was nowhere near what Oakland had offered. I don’t think they believed I would leave. When I left Franklin’s office that day I had tears in my eyes. And I was made out to be the bad guy when the Warriors basically screwed up. They did not do what I told them to do in order to keep me.


There was a price to pay for leaving the NBA. The Warriors contested Rick’s contract in court, and a judge ruled that he was bound to the team for the 1967-68 season. Either he played for San Francisco, or no one at all. Rick stuck to his guns, and spent the year doing TV work for the Oaks. He also suited up as the point guard for the KYA hoops team (the Radio Wonders), feeding the likes of Johnny Holliday (the play-by-play voice of the Maryland Terrapins for the past 20 years) and Steve Sommers (a popular overnight host on WFAN sports radio in New York). Without its star, Oakland stumbled to a 22-56 record, the worst in the league.

The following season, Alex Hannum took over for Hale and Rick became a one-man publicity campaign for the ABA as he led the Oaks to 15 wins in their first 17 games. Sixteen straight victories after that gave Oakland an insurmountable lead in the West, and the team cruised to the division title despite a knee injury that ended Rick’s season. He still led the league in scoring and was named MVP, but he was not good to go come playoff time. Incredibly, the Oaks still captured the ABA championship. Prior to the season, the team had picked up starters Doug Moe and Larry Brown from the New Orleans Buccaneers, and rookie guard Warren Armstrong muscled his way into the first five. Gary Bradds, Henry Logan and Jim Eakins gave Hannum the league’s best bench. The Oaks survived a tough series with the Denver Rockets, swept the Bucs in the semifinals, then surprised the Indiana Pacers in a five-game final.

 
 
JockBio.com:

The Oaks captured the ABA championship with you on the bench, defeating a superb Indiana Pacers club. How good was Oakland that year?

   
Rick Barry:

We had a lot of nice players on that team. Doug Moe and Larry Brown were outstanding basketball players. Ira Harge did a nice job at the center position, with Jim Eakins backing him up. Henry Logan, who got hurt, backed up Brown at point guard. This kid was one heck of a player. Gary Bradds was on that team, and we had another guard named Rusty Critchfield, an outstanding player at Cal. And we had Warren Armstrong, who became Warren Jabali. He was a tough guy; there were no holds barred with him. Alex Hannum, who was there my first year with Warriors, was the coach. We were the essence of a team; it was a really appealing situation. It was very disappointing for me to get hurt and not be a part of the playoffs. That was tough to swallow.


After the 1968-69 campaign, the Oaks, in dire financial straits, were purchased by Washington lawyer Earl Foreman. To save the struggling franchise, he planned to move the team to D.C. Rick, however, wanted nothing to do with the East Coast. With Mieuli desperate to bring his former star back to San Francisco, he signed Rick to a five-year contract worth $1 million. Now it was the ABA's turn to take the game from the basketball court to the court room.

 
 
JockBio.com:

Your legal hassles continued when the Oaks pulled up stakes and headed east, to Washington.

   
Rick Barry:

I had been given a verbal commitment that I would not have to go if the franchise left the Bay Area. I was told that I would be released from my obligation and free to return to the Warriors. My attorneys told me I needed to have it in writing or I could have a problem with this. Naive me, I said it was okay. So I got the short end of the stick and ended up having to go with the team to Washington, D.C.


Rick spent one season with the Washington Capitols, averaging 27.7 points—though his knee kept him out of two dozen games. Injury problems also felled Logan, Armstrong and George Carter, and the depleted Caps lost to Denver in the first round of the playoffs. Fan interest in the team was practically non-existent, so heading into the 1970-71 campaign, the team was uprooted once again. This time the club would play as the Virginia Squires and rotate between arenas in Richmond, Norfolk, Roanoke and Hampton. Rick decided enough was enough, and launched a campaign to get himself traded. The ABA, fearful their biggest star might return to the NBA, stepped in and brokered a deal between the Squires and the New York Nets.


Rick Barry,
1970 Sports Illustrated

   
JockBio.com:

How did you engineer the trade to the Nets?

   
Rick Barry:
I figured if the press is going to screw me and write all these things that aren’t true, I might as well use them to my benefit. It worked beautifully. Sports Illustrated put me on the cover and printed all the negative things I said about the area, which got people upset. I didn’t mean those things and apologized for them later. But it worked and got me out of a place I didn’t want to be and shouldn’t have been. I went up to New York, which was great, because I got a chance to do some TV, which opened up the doors to do broadcasting work. I had a wonderful experience with the Nets playing for Louie Carnasecca. To this day I keep in touch with him.


Rick transformed the Nets into a championship contender. Point guard Bill Melchionni blossomed into the league’s top assist man, John Roche electrified fans with his fancy dribbling, and St. John’s star Billy Paultz became one of the league’s best centers. In the 1972 playoffs, the Nets upset the powerhouse Kentucky Colonels, then edged the Squires in seven games to reach the finals—where they lost to an excellent Pacers club in six games. In two years with the Nets, Rick extended the range and accuracy of his jumper, his assist totals rose, and he further developed his defensive game.

After the 1971-72 campaign, Rick was compelled to change his address once again. A California judge ruled that he had to honor the contract he had signed with the Warriors three years earlier, so it was back to San Francisco (where the team was now known as Golden State).

After two years reacquainting himself with the NBA, Rick had a season for the ages in 1974-75. Expectations for the Warriors were low heading into the campaign, given that the team had cleaned house of veteran stars Nate Thurmond, Cazzie Russell, Clyde Lee and Jim Barnett. Guard Jeff Mullins, now in his 30s, was relegated to a supporting role. New to the team was center Clifford Ray and rookies Keith Wilkes and Phil Smith. Rick, named team captain by coach Al Attles, ran the show along with point guard Butch Beard. Attles utilized a deep roster of interchangeable parts, and guided the Warriors to a 48-34 record in the regular season. Rick pumped in 30 points and dished out six assists per game. In the playoffs, facing elimination in the Western Conference Finals against Chicago, Golden State fought back to take the series in seven games. That set up a showdown against the juggernaut Washington Bullets for the title. No one gave the Warriors the slightest chance of winning, but behind Rick's MVP performance, they ambushed Elvin Hayes & co. in four games.

   
JockBio.com:
How do you explain the Warriors sweeping an opponent that many believed would sweep the Warriors?
 
Rick Barry:

There is no doubt in my mind that it was the biggest upset in the history of the major professional team sports in this country. I defy anyone to find anything like it. The answer to your question is that everyone put their egos aside and accepted their roles and responsibilities. We had two rookies in Jamaal Wilkes, known as Keith then, who got Rookie of the Year, along with Phil Smith, who got a lot of playing time and really came through in the playoffs. Our coach, Al Attles, had the luxury of not having too big a difference in quality between the fourth and fifth man and the tenth and eleventh. If someone wasn’t playing well, he could put someone else in. The guys all rooted for one another, too. Everyone cared about winning and did whatever they could to win. It was an atmosphere you’d like to see more professional teams have.

     
JockBio.com:
What turned the Warriors into a championship contender?
 
     
Rick Barry:

Amazingly, the biggest difference was trading away a center who was voted one of the league’s Top 50 All-Time, Nate Thurmond, and picking up a guy who was the glue that held everyone on the team together. That was Clifford Ray. He had been Rookie of the Year with the Bulls, but when he came to the Warriors no one expected him to have much impact. But it all came together as soon as he came here. Clifford was smart. He really got to know his teammates as people. In my case, he realized that I was harmless—on the court I was in another world and what I did or said on the court stayed on the court. There was nothing personal. He told the other guys, “Look, Rick is crazy when it comes to basketball. Whatever he says, don't take it to heart. He doesn’t mean anything by it. He just wants to win and he can help us win.”

Clifford was the person who convinced the team that we had an opportunity to accomplish something very special—and that part of that was to understand and tolerate me a little better. Also, for the first time in my life I was voted captain of a team. That meant a great deal to me. I felt like I had to go out and lead by example. So, I went out and had my best all-around season as a professional basketball player.


Rick Barry, 1975-76 NBA Guide
     
JockBio.com:
Was that the high point of your career?
 
     
Rick Barry:
Definitely. That’s what it’s all about. Winning. The way that it happened, in “Cinderella” fashion, with the camaraderie, there’s nothing better. I wish I could have had that experience more than one time in the NBA.
 


Golden State was unable to defend its title the following year. After posting the league's best record, the Warriors were surprised by the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Semifinals. Though Rick's scoring average for the 1975-76 campaign dropped by nine points, he still earned his third straight nomination to the All-NBA First Team. Critics blamed him for the defeat to the Suns, however, claiming he had wilted under the pressure of the post-season.

     
JockBio.com:
Was the loss to Phoenix in 1976 the low point of your career?
   
Rick Barry:
It was a very disappointing thing. I did the finals for CBS and I don’t think there was any way the Celtics would have beaten us. Phoenix should have beaten them, except for a couple of bad calls.
     
JockBio.com:
How did you lose that series?
 
     
Rick Barry:

We altered the chemistry after the championship season and it hurt us. Against the Suns, we made some tactical mistakes and wound up losing a series we should have won. Had we still had Butch Beard I believe we would have won a second championship. It was sad. He was traded away because the GM, Dick Vertlieb, couldn’t stand listening to Butch’s wife complain to him all the time. To think that we lost the chance to repeat because of that.

Butch really understood the game. When he was in the lineup, there was never a time when I would go three or four minutes without touching the ball. Butch always made sure to run the offense through me.

After we gave away Game 6 of the Phoenix series, I had a big first half in Game 7. But in the third quarter I hardly saw the ball. Looking back, I should have been the pain in the ass that everyone always thought I was, called a timeout and asked my teammates, “What the hell is going on? Give me the damn ball.” Years later, when I was coaching minor-league ball, Darren Hancock had 26 points for our team in the first half, and then he goes three minutes into the third quarter without touching the ball. I called a 20-second timeout and brought the team in. “Guys,” I said, “I’d like to introduce you to Darren Hancock. He’s your teammate and scored 26 points in the first half. Do you think we could give him the ball?”


Rick Barry, 1976 Sport
     
JockBio.com:
You took some heat for the loss to the Suns, right?
 
     
Rick Barry:

Yes, and it really hurt my feelings. Al McCoy, the Phoenix radio announcer, had the audacity to say I got mad at my teammates and quit on them. Anyone who knew me knew that Rick Barry always played as hard as he could and did whatever he could to win—especially with a chance to go to the NBA Finals. You had to be sick to believe otherwise. It was an insult to me. What happened was that late in the game, when the ball was finally coming to me, I didn’t want to do what had gotten us in trouble during the second half, which is going one-on-one and trying to do everything individually. We began to work the ball around again, made a comeback and got Phoenix’s lead down to four points. I ran a pick-and-roll with Clifford Ray, but he missed the shot. The Suns came down and Alvan Adams got a dunk that broke our backs. Had Clifford scored, I think we would have won and made it to the finals.

 

After two more solid seasons with Golden State, Rick became a free agent. He signed with Houston, where he hoped to win another championship. The Rockets were loaded, with Moses Malone, Rudy Tomjanovich, John Lucas, Mike Newlin and Calvin Murphy. But Rick's experience in Houston was unfulfilling. The team lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1978-79, then lumbered through the following year and barely qualified for the post-season. After an opening-round upset of the San Antonio Spurs, the Rockets were sent home by Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. 

     
JockBio.com:
What drew you to Houston?

John Lucas & Rick Barry,
1980-81 Topps
   
Rick Barry:

That was such a joke. The only reason I went to Houston was because I saw a team with a chance to win and I wanted a chance to play with John Lucas, who was an outstanding point guard. I go over there and Ray Patterson, the GM, gives Lucas to the Warriors as compensation for losing me. I couldn’t believe it. It was crazy.

   
JockBio.com:
Some people say you invented the "point forward" position with the Rockets.
   
Rick Barry:

I actually did that early in my career. In Houston, I ended up being totally misused. I was playing like a point guard, standing 30 feet from the basket passing the ball and only shot 12 or 13 times a game. That team should have been so good. Even with John Lucas leaving we should have been better. It was such a waste of talent it was unbelievable. Murphy and Newlin should have shared the two-guard position, Mike Dunleavy should have been used more and I should have been utilized more effectively, along with Rudy Tomjanovich and Moses Malone.

    

 

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