Rick Barry seems to be angry. He is talking loudly and stabbing his fork into a Caesar salad at an Italian deli in St. Petersburg, Fla. The croutons are a problem. They don’t stab easily. They roll.
“Hell, no, I don’t think of myself as Mr. Warrior!” exclaims Barry, stabbing and yelling. To be completely accurate, he’s talking loudly more than yelling. But it’s only 11:30 a.m., the deli is otherwise quiet and the patrons have to be wondering what this old guy did to make the big, athletic-looking old guy angry. “Wilt Chamberlain is Mr. Warrior. Shit, he’s the greatest center ever and I don’t give a shit what anyone says. Pick Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Russell over Wilt? Are you out of your mind?”
[[Seventh in a series of stories about the interviews that went into the writing of GOLDEN DAYS. Buy the book HERE.]]
Actually, I hadn’t even asked about Wilt. I asked about that Mr. Warrior thing, trying to get at the connection between the man I always believed to be the franchise’s centerpiece player before the current Curry-Durant crop happened along.
“Aw, the relationship is okay, I guess,” says Barry, who played eight seasons for the Warriors in two different stretches.
We’ll get back to that.
Barry is one of the most fascinating players in NBA history, the offensive versatility, the switching of teams and leagues, the gnarly personality, and of course the anachronistic and deadly accurate between-the-legs free throw. He makes sporadic appearances in GOLDEN DAYS, and Chris Mullin, who was drafted by the Warriors in 1985, 10 years after Barry had led the team to a surprising championship, said this about him: “The only thing I knew about the Warriors when I was drafted was Rick Barry. Coach [Lou] Carnesecca [Mullin’s coach at St. John’s] had coached Barry in the ABA. He told me, ‘Rick was a great, great player. But sometimes he couldn’t get out of his own way.'”
Another way of putting it: Barry was always his own worst enemy. He fled the NBA Warriors for the ABA Oakland Oaks after a contract dispute, and, while he thought he was in the right, he also concedes today that he should’ve stayed in the NBA. “No matter what anyone says,” opines Barry, “the ABA was a horseshit league.” Even as he was establishing himself as one of the game’s great talents, Barry didn’t particularly enjoy himself at his other two ABA stops, the Washington Capitols and the New York Nets. After getting back with the Warriors, he won a title in 1975 (an account of that strange championship series is in the book), but then contributed to the blowup of the team in 1976. And every time that someone told Barry how great he was, he always seemed to respond with some version of, That’s true, but I was even greater than that.
The thing is, he might’ve been. To the younger reader who may not be aware of how good he was, even Jerry West compares Barry favorably to Larry Bird, a subject that Barry will gladly attack with the same zeal with which he’s going after his Caesar.
“I was faster and quicker than Bird,” says Barry. “He was a better shooter, I was a better scorer.” I suggest that Bird was a better rebounder. “Hell, I don’t know. I was 25 and 10 my rookie year. [He averaged 25.7 points and 10.6 rebounds in 1965-66 with the San Francisco Warriors.] We were both good passers. Shit, I was in the top 10 in assists twice in my career.”
I would still take Bird over Barry for his clutch play, his unselfishness and his leadership. But for the record here are their comparative stats:
BIRD 24.3 PPG ON .496 SHOOTING PERCENTAGE. 10.0 REBOUNDS 6.3 ASSISTS 1.7 STEALS
BARRY (NBA ONLY) 23.2 PPG on .449 SHOOTING PERCENTAGE 6.5 REBOUNDS 5.1 ASSISTS 2.0 STEALS
You come away from any encounter with Barry—at least I always do—with a grudging admiration that he will say things other people won’t say. Throughout my research for GOLDEN DAYS, for example, I came across nary a negative word about Bill Sharman, the man who coached the 1971-72 Lakers to 33 straight wins and a championship …except for those uttered by Barry. He played under Sharman for only one season in San Francisco (66-67), and had this to say about him: “Bill was a great guy and all that. But he took the fun out of the game for me. No time off, too serious. ” Barry was nothing if not consistent: Forty-five years earlier, after Sharman had been hired by the Lakers amid much praise, Barry told the Los Angeles Times the same thing.
I also found what he had to say about Chamberlain fascinating. It’s almost verboten in NBA circles to come out so forcefully in favor of Wilt over Russell and even Abdul-Jabbar. But Barry clings to his opinion. Loudly.
“Wilt averaged 50 points a game!” Barry says, as a few patrons look our way. “They say records are made to be broken? But break that? Are you SERIOUS? Fifty points a game for eighty-two games? That’s insane! And he averaged over 48 minutes a game played. That’s SUPER HUMAN.”
Barry is referring, of course, to 1961-62 when Wilt, in his third season with the Philadelphia Warriors, did indeed reach those metrics. He continues:
“To match Wilt at my career best, I would’ve had to score over 13 or 14 points a game more. Some guys never average 13 points in their career. You average 13 points a game these days you’re a multi-millionaire.”
It was a typical Barry rant, straying a little off-kilter and referencing, inevitably, his own stats and career. Barry’s best individual scoring campaign was his 35.9 points per game average in—what do you know?—the dreary season under Sharman in 66-67. But he seems sincere about his affection for Wilt above all others.
“First of all, he was an amazing, amazing athlete,” says Barry. “He ran a 48-second 440. He high jumped seven-feet. Powerful. Strong. Shaq was dominant during his time because he was so huge, but Wilt was the most dominant because of his overall athleticism.
“Russell was great defensively, no doubt about it. He is the guy most responsible for winning championships, no doubt about it. But on an individual level? Are you kidding me? No comparison.”
(That was the point I was trying to make when I rated the top all-time 50 players last year, a list, incidentally, that needs updating every year. I would always choose Russell as my center on any all-time time because he was such a seamless complementary player who didn’t need the ball. But as far as picking the best players on an individual level, I put Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt ahead of Russell. Which put me on the most-wanted list in Boston.)
Barry makes fairly frequent visits to Oracle from his home in Colorado and watches almost every minute of every Warriors game.
“I love watching Steph play,” Barry told me. “ I DVR them whenever I can’t see them live. They play intelligent, team basketball. I compare them to San Antonio, because they play smart, they play the way they want to play.
“They’ve changed the whole game, the whole philosophy. Until they came along, what were the three things you wanted to do? Stop fast break chances, minimize second chance opportunities and make them beat you from the perimeter. Well, the Warriors cannot only beat you from the perimeter, they can embarrass you from the perimeter. All of a sudden one of the main things you’re trying to do is altered when you play them.”
Barry probably realizes he’s being a little too complimentary. That’s not his style. “Still, they’re their own worst enemy,” he says (truthfully) of the Dubs. “They screw around, take the first shot, throw the ball around carelessly way too much.”
When Joe Lacob and Peter Guber bought the team, they put forth more of an effort to bring former Warriors back into the fold, Barry being one of them. He feels, well, sort of accepted, and his 24 jersey is one of six hanging in the Oracle. (The others are Chamberlain’s 13, Tom Meschery’s 14, Al Attles’s 16, Mullin’s 17 and Nate Thurmond’s 42.)
“Look, I’m a Warrior,” he says. “But I didn’t wear anything Warrior for years. Shit, I was embarrassed because of how bad they were. I wore my NBA stuff, but never Golden State. But now I wear my Warriors stuff. The owners have been good to me. They have me back. Still, I’m maybe not on the inside, inside.
“And as far as the NBA in general goes, I am not one of the chosen ones. They give me some things to do, which is nice, but I’m not in the in crowd. I’m accepted but not embraced. I usually get a call when one of the so-called ‘chosen ones’ has turned something down.
“I was one of the first pro athletes who was not afraid to speak his mind. In those days you were supposed to not say anything. But I go with the Jack Nicholson line. ‘You can’t handle the truth.’ If people ask you a question and you give them an answer that’s truthful but harsh, they get mad at you. My wife tells me, ‘You can be honest but you have to get the brutality out of your answer.’ But why should I sugarcoat? Just because it hurts somebody? That’s their problem, not mine.”
No piece about Barry would be complete without some mention of his his free-throw shooting and his primacy as the practitioner of the old-fashioned underhand method. I was somewhat surprised to discover that, with a percentage of .8931, he is “only” the seventh-best foul shooter in pro basketball history behind Steve Nash (.9043), Mark Price (.9039), Steph Curry (.9010), Peja Stojakovic (.8948), Chauncey Billups (.8940) and Ray Allen (.8939). However, he continued to get better as the years went on, and, when just his NBA numbers are considered, he is behind only Nash, Price and Curry. And Barry certainly has his own thoughts about who is best.
“I still think of myself as the best free throw shooter ever,” says Barry. “My stats are a little skewed because early in my career I shot so many of them and I wasn’t quite as good. As time went on I made a refinment to the underhand technique. If I would’ve shot with that refinement my whole career? My numbers would’ve been off the chart. My last six years when I made the change, I shot over 92%. I took the wrist out of it, made it a much simpler stroke. Instead of doing this [he mimics an underhand motion with a lot of wrist action], I did this [he makes a much subtler motion.] It still has spin, but not quite as much. But it wasn’t about that. It was more about feel. I just felt I would never miss.”
Over the years Barry has offered his free-throw shooting services and other training ideas to various players but has gotten no takers. “I reached out to LeBron, but he ignored me,” says Barry. “If LeBron would do some of the stuff I knew how to do, as great as he is, he would be greater. It’s a joke what he would do to people. Because he does have flaws.”
Speaking personally, I’m glad that Barry is back being a Golden Stater, even if he thinks the relationship could be closer. He kind of epitomizes the old Warriors—out-of the-mainstream, prickly, counterculture. For young players, he will never be a Jerry West type, able to offer careful counsel without dwelling on his own career. But if you’re able to accept a gallon of ego and a quart of vinegar with the pinch of sugar, you could probably learn something from him.