It was obvious this past weekend in Indianapolis and Louisville that Alex Hannum, the coach of the Oakland Oaks, possesses compassion—or at least a high sense of order. He and his co-owner, Rick Barry, were making their debuts in the American Basketball Association, and only rarely did Hannum rise to charge that his star had received an unsympathetic rules interpretation. It was a judicious exercise in restraint. On the couple of occasions when Hannum did protest that Barry was being manhandled, one could only be reminded of the title of Comedian Jack Douglas' new book, The Neighbors Are Scaring My Wolf.
Barry sat out last season, after jumping to the ABA, under a court injunction that he must honor the NBA option clause that bound him to the San Francisco Warriors. His return performance suggests that year-long layoffs are marvelously beneficial furloughs from life that politicians, teen-agers and, most particularly, lawyers might explore in order to improve the race. In his off year Barry moved to the suburbs, gained 10 pounds and lowered his golf handicap by 10 strokes. His accomplishments against the Indiana and Kentucky teams were equally prodigious as the Oaks—already schooled in the finest Hannum traditions—slaughtered the opposition 144-133 and 134-113.
Barry scored 36 and 46 points, making 31 of 54 shots and all 20 free throws. He picked up 23 rebounds, leading both teams in the Kentucky game with 14, and he passed off for 12 assists, which was second only to the total of Larry Brown, who was the league leader in that respect last year. In fact, during "garbage time"—late in one-sided games, when players usually go for their averages—Barry became even more intent on assists, as if that kind of action offered greater challenge. Most of this Barry appeared to manage with all the difficulty of a man opening a lunch pail. On the occasions when Hannum called a play like his "two-down" (clearing a side for Barry), Rick scored with such ridiculous ease that it seemed as if basketball itself was defeated—not just Indiana or Kentucky.
Since Oakland has picked up two league All-Stars, Brown and Doug Moe, and some fine rookies, notably Warren Armstrong of Wichita State, the Oaks could make a mockery of the ABA league race. Their small guards would be a serious liability against stiffer competition, but Barry says, heatedly, "Put us in a division with the NBA expansion teams, and I promise you—I guarantee you—we wouldn't finish last. And with a little time, maybe we'd win."
Though he enjoyed the year off and found it "less difficult than I expected," Barry never completely got the game out of his system. He almost came back once, after a secret three-and-a-half-hour conference with Warrior Owner Franklin Mieuli in Nate Thurmond's San Francisco apartment last January. The meeting was, officially, a nonmeeting, as lawyers from both sides agreed to it only with the stipulation that neither side could ever introduce its discussions in court.
Mieuli wanted to talk Barry into coming back and finishing out the season, and Barry, excited with that prospect, often lapsed into the old first-person plural, as in: "Sure we can still catch St. Louis."
"He was so enthusiastic," says Mieuli, "that if I had had a Warrior uniform to put him in then, he would have been back that minute."
"Well, I really wasn't in shape, but sure I would have done it, "Barry says now, "if only Franklin could have for gotten all this nonsense about litigation." Barry's lawyers cautioned him not to return, so he stayed on the sidelines till last weekend. His value to the challenging league was immediately recognized at the gate. Indianapolis had a near sellout, and Louisville drew an ABA record crowd of 13,067.
Barry and Bill Bradley have been the only two white players in recent years to establish themselves as genuine basketball stars. Bradley, the Renaissance Man, has received more attention; upon his return to basketball last year there was present the aura of a Ulyssean homecoming, a sort of patriotic fervor, the way it must have been in other times when Lindbergh or Admiral Byrd or the Rainbow Division came back.
Barry's return did not evoke vespers, because he is strictly of this moment—U.S. Modern—whereas Bradley is American Gothic. Barry is the practical achiever, not the epic hero. Lean and fair, impulsive and direct, he is the model product of an affluent society. He has a significant piece of his own action, making him possibly the firsts chattel-owner in professional sports. It is Bradley who is celebrated as the All-American Boy, but Barry best personifies that ideal now—because All-American boys, like images and other things, are changing, too.
He remains tremendously aware, invariably restless and full of opinions. Sitting in the dingy old locker room at the Fairgrounds in Indianapolis a few minutes before his debut, sweat beaded his forehead. Sometimes, as the snappy band music from below drifted up, he would suddenly set to drumming his fingers nervously in the air. But also, he yawned a great deal.
Hannum began to go over his color codes that signal the types of team defense. Barry yawned again; he has known these since 1965, when he broke in under Hannum at San Francisco. Suddenly, though, the coach changed his tone. Hannum believes in encouraging team response in these sessions, and Barry could sense that everybody was going to get a chance at something. He listened carefully.
"When we get into a situation like that," Hannum, now quite the schoolmaster, said, "where is the No. 1 place—and we've talked about this—where you should begin to get aggressive? Can anybody answer me?"
"Offensive boards," said one voice, immediately and firmly, louder and a split second ahead of the others, who muttered the answer. Barry was ready. That is his life style, to anticipate, get there directly and to score. "A break, a clear 20-footer, coming off a pick—whatever—he creates his own shot situations," says Brown, the Oaks' playmaker. "He is the greatest offensive opportunist ever. Listen, if all 10 guys go up for a rebound, Rick will not only get it, but the other nine will somehow fall down and he will end up with a layup. The first exhibition game, he was so tired he looked as if he'd have to come out for oxygen every seven minutes, and he still got 52 points."
Now it was time for the Oaks to move down onto the court for the opener. They stood there in the dark as each player was introduced in turn. With a proper sense of the dramatic, Barry was being saved for last. Only an hour or so before, on his way to the game, he had kidded Moe, who has a massive terror of airplanes. "You might be the first player in the NBA to lose 25 pounds a season from fear," Barry said.
"This is the ABA, Rick," Moe said softly, smiling. There was no reply.
The next-to-last Oak was introduced and ran out on the court, and Barry stood alone with Hannum in the dark. "Maybe I should trip and fall," he said, for something to say. Then the P.A. called out, "Rick Barry," and he was off, satisfied, not looking back, loping along in the spotlight that followed him across the court.