"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."
Rick Barry is a lot like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.
Hoffman: What are you saying? That no one in New York will work with me?
Sydney Pollack: No, that's too limiting. No one in Hollywood will work with you either. I can't even send you up for a commercial. You played a tomato for 30 seconds, and they went a half day over schedule because you wouldn't sit down.
Hoffman: That's right. It wasn't logical.
Pollack: You were a tomato. A tomato doesn't have logic. A tomato can't move.
Hoffman: That's what I said. So how am I supposed to sit down?
It's as if all these years they—the owners, the players, the fans, the media—have been waiting for this moment to arrive, when they would pay Barry back for the way he carried himself. It has been three years since the end of his playing career and two years since CBS let his contract lapse; and Barry has no one to turn to. Have pity on the man who plans the Rick Barry testimonial dinner, because it's not likely he'll find a room small enough to accommodate the well-wishers.
"You'll never find a bunch of players sitting around talking about the good old days with Rick," says Ken Macker, the Warriors' executive vice-president. "His teammates and his opponents generally and thoroughly detested him." And while that seems an extreme judgment, influenced by Macker's loyalty to his boss, Franklin Mieuli, even Barry's defenders concede its essential truth. John Roche, a friend and teammate of Barry's on the Nets, says, "Many players resented Rick. The way Rick conducted himself could be construed as implying superiority. But I always felt it was unintentional. People misread Rick. Most people admire competitiveness. But apparently Rick's took forms that angered people." Another friend, the Spurs' Billy Paultz, who played with Barry on the Nets and the Rockets, says, "If you got to know Rick you'd have realized what a good guy he was. But around the league they thought of him as the most arrogant guy ever. I couldn't believe it. Half the players disliked Rick. The other half hated him." And there's this from Beard: "He'll never get the acclaim due him. It has nothing to do with his play. It was his manner, his honesty. He had everything going for him. He was white; he was well-spoken; he looked good on television. But he never learned to come across softly, and he ticked off a lot of people."
Barry doesn't bridle at the assessment. He doesn't, as he did regularly when he was whistled for a foul, stand with his hands on his hips, contemptuous of the call, snarling. His rehabilitation has begun. He seeks forgiveness, not exoneration. Yes, he feels rejected and hurt. Yes, he feels sorry.
"If you want to know the truth," Rick Barry says, "inside I'm dying."
On a typical day Rick and Pam Barry get up between 10 and noon in their house on Mercer Island outside of Seattle and begin their exercise routine: First, there's 15 minutes designed to develop the arms and upper body and then, to improve their flexibility, the hour-long Jane Fonda Advanced Workout.
After the workout Barry cooks up a pot of natural grain cereal, and they eat one of their two daily meals. Their diet permits virtually no salt, no sugar, no fat, no oil. They are committed to the pursuit of physical perfection, even at the cost of social isolation.
Barry adds bran, raisins and bananas to his cereal, flavors his one piece of Pritikin toast with a smidgen of butter and finishes his meal with fresh papaya and freshly squeezed orange juice, nonfat raw milk and so many vitamin tablets that if you turned him upside down and shook him he would rattle like a pinball machine. As a result of the exercises and the diet, Barry, who is 6'7", now weighs 202 pounds, 20 less than he did at the end of his playing career, and though he looks gaunt, with so many sharp edges that he appears to have been put together from an Erector Set, he's convinced he's in the best shape of his life.
After their meal the Barrys set aside a few hours for "business." Barry answers letters and phone calls, talks to his business manager, Harry Stern, about things like sportscasting possibilities, and checks on the progress of his television "projects," which are in the developmental stage and include a golf show for American distribution and a golf and baseball show for Japan. Along with the sports projects, Barry is also interested in hosting a game show. "I love game shows," he says. Although he hasn't worked in more than a year, he says he's financially secure. Still, it galls him that neither basketball nor broadcasting, the passions of his life, has found room for him. He has told Pam, "I think it's not because of my ability. It's because they don't like me."
After business the Barrys play tennis. And then there is dinner with Jon, 13, Barry's second-oldest child and one of five he had with his first wife, also named Pam. They divorced in 1981 and Jon was sent by the court to live with his father. The three eat soup and salad and fish and talk of the things they did that day. Then Jon goes to bed, and Rick and Pam go to their bedroom to watch the soap operas they have taped during the afternoon, such as The Young and the Restless and All My Children. They frequently watch until two in the morning, commenting on the behavior of the characters. Then they go to sleep. The next day they do it all over again.
Rick Barry is in exile, the Napoleon of Mercer Island.
Rarely in sports is so extraordinary an athlete singled out for such public wood-shedding. Most often a hero is, was and always will be a hero. If he wants to stay in sports he becomes a coach, an executive or a broadcaster. If he doesn't, he finds his way into a corporation, a restaurant deal or, at the very least, the lobby of a casino. Somewhere, someone is happy to tell him, "You've earned it, pal. Thanks for the memories." Nobody says that to Barry.
Once Erving and Barry were the yardsticks by which all forwards were measured. Barry's situation discomfits Erving, a friend and an admirer. "I look at Bruce Jenner and see the different types of things he has gotten into, capitalizing on his Olympics success, and Rick was every bit the all-American guy that Jenner was," says Erving. "You could easily picture Rick making the same kind of transition." He shakes his head softly and something like wonder appears in his eyes. "It's heavy. Rick Barry could have had—should have had—a better time than he's having. You ask me if I see any parallels between Rick and other athletes. Let's put it this way. There aren't a whole lot of white guys I can find parallels with. I mean, it's really heavy to comprehend."
When Barry was a sophomore at Roselle Park High School in New Jersey, his goal was to be a professional baseball player, just like his idol, Willie Mays, whom Barry honored by wearing the number 24 most of his career. Barry pitched for the junior varsity, and he wanted to play the outfield when he wasn't pitching, but his coach wouldn't let him. Barry went to the coach and said, "How come you won't play me when I'm not pitching? I'm batting .500, and you're playing guys who are batting .167." The next game, Barry pitched and went 1 for 2. The game after that, it wasn't Barry's turn to pitch and the coach kept him on the pine. "It was stupid to waste my time sitting on the bench," Barry says. That afternoon he quit the team.
"He always wanted to be Number One in whatever he did," says Wayne Beckner, who roomed with Barry at the University of Miami and captained the basketball team in their senior year. "There were four of us living together. The phone would ring, he'd have to answer it. We'd go out for a milk shake, he'd have to ride shotgun. If you beat him to the front seat, he'd pout. Anything we did, he had to be first. We had a three-man drill where each threesome had to make 10 lay-ups in a row before it could quit. The two guys teamed with Rick sometimes would get to nine and deliberately miss so they'd have to do it over. It would blow Rick's mind because he then couldn't be first into the shower."
The desert sky is polished turquoise, the desert sun bone white. Rick Barry has come for a month to Palm Springs, his favorite vacation spot, to improve his tennis and his tan. The desert is barren and forbidding, but if you dig deep enough you will find the water you need to make it bloom. All it takes is a lot of work.
The same might be said of Barry. There are former teammates, like Roche, Paultz, Beard, Ray and Nate Thurmond, who feel that Barry is misunderstood, that down deep the water is there. They tell stories of Barry's generosity, of his splitting his $2,000 NBA All-Star Game MVP award in 1967 equally among his Warrior teammates, of his giving his NBA and ABA All-Star Game watches to trainers, of his handing over various "star of the game" awards—coupons for food and gas and jewelry—to rookies who were paid the minimum. They tell stories of Barry's planning Jeff Mullins' retirement ceremony, of his giving Christmas gifts to all his teammates and coaches. These stories all carry the same message: Get beyond the image. Know the man.
"Too many people judged me by how I looked on the court. It wasn't fair. I was a different person off the court," Barry says. He is lying in a lounge chair, wearing the skimpiest of bathing suits, challenging the sun on its home court. "I think I'm a good person. I'm a lot more sensitive than people understand—even if I was an ass on the court." He giggles nervously from the impact of his admission. Small puddles of sweat bubble up on his chest. The hotter it gets, the more he likes it. "I respond instantaneously. Some people can count to 10 before they react. I can't even count to one. It's one of my shortcomings. It's the perfectionist in me. I wish I could correct it. Believe me, I've tried. But there was no ill will, no hard feelings. Anyone who really knew me knew what I was doing. I say something on the court, it's gone, it's over. I always assumed that guys I played with understood that. Maybe not everybody understood. The thing is, nobody ever came to me and said, This is the way the guys feel, and this is why they feel that way.' "
Barry is many things, but subtle isn't one. If the warning signs weren't written on a billboard, he wouldn't have seen them.
"I figured they knew me, and they understood. Maybe you can never forget. But hopefully you can learn to forgive someone for his shortcomings. You should look at someone and ask, 'What has he done since that time?' And if he's changed for the better, why can't you change your opinion of him?" Having done some hard time, at age 39 he's seeking parole.
But..."He's an extraordinary guy. There's nothing he wouldn't do for you," says Mike Dunleavy, who, along with Paultz, was Barry's best friend on the Rockets, with whom Rick ended his career. "But he lacks diplomacy. If they sent him to the U.N. he'd end up starting World War III."
Bill Russell worked with Barry on CBS's pro basketball telecasts in 1980-81. During the fifth game of the NBA championship series between Boston and Houston a picture of Russell from the 1956 Olympics was shown on the air, and Barry joked about Russell's "watermelon smile." Barry insists that he had no idea that the comment had racial overtones. As soon as he learned it did, he called Russell to apologize. Neither Russell nor anyone else interviewed for this story thinks Barry intended any slur. But, beyond that, Russell won't talk about Barry. When asked about him, Russell's immediate reaction was his trademark, a rich, high-pitched cackle. For half a minute.
Al Attles coached Barry for six years at Golden State and was his teammate for two years before that. Attles built the Warriors around Barry, who spent more time playing with and for Attles than with anyone else in Barry's career. But Barry says he left Golden State for Houston in 1978 because he realized that "Attles didn't want me around anymore." And Attles won't talk about Barry. When asked why, he says cryptically, "Rick knows why."
Franklin Mieuli owns the Warriors. When Barry jumped to the ABA, Mieuli publicly pined for the star he said was "like a son" to him. Such was his passion to get Barry back that he turned down a million-dollar offer from the Nets to retain the NBA rights to Barry. During the five years he waited for his prodigal son to come home, Mieuli kept Barry's uniform hanging in his office. Barry returned and played six seasons with the Warriors. They made the playoffs four times and won one NBA championship. But when Barry became a free agent and left for Houston, Mieuli erased him from his life. Mieuli won't talk about Barry except to say, "I've got one line for you: Rick Barry was a great basketball player." When asked how he could leave it at that, Mieuli said, "What was it your mother always told you about family? 'When you've got nothing nice to say, you don't say anything at all.' "
Barry wanted fame and all that went with it. He wore his talent like a crown and his attitude like a target. In the world according to Barry, winning was everything. And the way to win was to put the ball in his hands. If a great pass was needed, he would make it. If a last-second shot was needed, he would take it. His team would win, and he would be the hero. Everyone would know that they couldn't have done it without him.
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."
But the Golden State years weren't without their controversies. In Barry's first two seasons back the Warriors were split over the issue of whom the team belonged to, Barry or high-scoring Forward Cazzie Russell. When Russell became a free agent and departed for L.A. for the 1974-75 season, the Warriors made Barry captain, and he responded with a stunning season. But it's unlikely that the Warriors would have won the championship had Clifford Ray, then new to the team, not rallied the players around Barry. "When I first got there, most of the guys didn't even talk to Rick," Ray says. "They got on me for being his friend. I called them in and told them, 'Rick is this team. He's a superstar. Now Rick may not be the kind of guy to say please, but he's in it to win. Maybe he does some things that bother you, but maybe you don't understand him, either. I'm telling you, we got to blend in with him. This man is our ticket.' "
The next season the Warriors won 59 games, tops in the league, but lost 94-86 to Phoenix in the seventh game of the Western Conference playoff final at home. Barry's performance in that game was uncharacteristic of so great a clutch performer. Barry had 14 points in the first half, but only six after that, taking only six shots in the second half.
It was suggested that Barry was so disgusted by his teammates' play that he deliberately removed himself from the offense, as if to say, "Go ahead, win it without me." Barry now says, "Anybody who knows me knows that there's no way in the world I'd intentionally do something that would jeopardize an opportunity to win a ball game, especially when we had a chance to win a championship. There's no way in the world I'd do that." He's angry now, banging his fist on the table. "I didn't pout. I didn't try to prove a point. It means too much to me to win."
Barry played three more years at Golden State. He wanted to finish his career there. In fact, he thought he and Mieuli had agreed in December of 1977 to a two-year extension of his Warriors contract. The extension gave Barry an option to buy 5% of the franchise when he retired, the same deal Attles has. But Barry forwent that and settled for a pay raise. At the time Barry was making $325,000 a year. The extension would have raised his salary to $445,000. But before Barry signed the contract Mieuli went away on a long cruise. By the time he got back in February, and he and Barry and Scotty Stirling, then Golden State's general manager, got together, the deal being offered was not the one Barry had assented to. When an agreement couldn't be reached Barry shopped himself on the open market. "It became obvious to me I wasn't wanted anymore," Barry says. "It wasn't Franklin Mieuli. Al didn't want me there."
Of all the teams Barry talked to, Houston showed the most interest in him. The Rockets had Moses Malone, Rudy Tomjanovich, Robert Reid, Calvin Murphy and John Lucas. With Barry they could think championship. Ray Patterson, the general manager, and Tom Nissalke, then the coach, thought it unlikely that the compensation that would be awarded the Warriors for Houston's signing of Barry would be either Malone or Tomjanovich, and they concurred that anyone else would be worth the move. They offered Barry $1 million for two seasons. Barry thought it would be perfection.
"It was the worst move I ever made," he says now. "What a zoo."
The Houston media put Barry on the hot seat before he ever put on the uniform, because the compensation turned out to be $100,000 and Lucas, the second-best assist man in the league. To justify signing Barry, the media argued, the Rockets had to win the championship. Nissalke responded by relegating Barry to passing forward, and he responded with 502 assists, the most ever for a true forward. But Nissalke's offense cost Barry eight shots a game, and his scoring average fell from 23.1 to 13.5. When the Rockets were swept by Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs, Nissalke was gone. Barry was pleased that his replacement was Assistant Coach Del Harris, who Barry thought would restore his role to its former eminence. But under Harris, Barry averaged only 25 minutes and 12 points a game. Barry thought Harris had betrayed him. By the time the Rockets were swept by Boston in the second round of the 1980 playoffs, Barry's NBA stock had dropped through the floor. He asked Patterson what kind of money the Rockets would offer him to come back. Patterson said $150,000. Barry didn't know whether to spit or go bowling.
Barry thought he could still play, but no one else did. He got in touch with the Lakers, the Sonics and the Knicks, but when they all passed, he retired. It bothers Barry that his career ended on a sour note. He never got a farewell tour, as Havlicek and West did. He never even got his jersey retired.
"I didn't expect anything," Barry says. "Seriously, if I'd had a grand tour, how would they have promoted it? Your last chance to boo Rick Barry?"
Would he have liked a ceremony?
His voice is an orphan at Christmas. "Yes. Down deep I would have. I really would have liked it."
It wasn't as though Barry had no means of support. He went straight from the NBA to CBS, where he'd been under contract as a broadcaster for seven years during his playing days. He'd done analysis on the NBA playoffs and the Pan Am Games, and location work on golf and other sports. CBS was quite pleased with his work, especially on basketball. "Everyone here thought he had a real shot to be the best ever," says a CBS executive.
Which is just what Barry wanted. Ever since his days at Miami, where he'd taken radio and TV electives, he'd wanted a career in sportscasting. He was always a man with a plan. And the plan was to be in the tower on the 18th fairway at Augusta National, or above Centre Court at Wimbledon, or in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis 500.
CBS had dropped its NBA regional format for the 1980-81 season and planned to use a single game of the week and a three-man announcing team: Gary Bender. Russell and Barry. The Russell-Barry pairing didn't work from Day 1. They were both strong men with monumental egos, and they didn't much like each other. Midway through the season the decision was made to return to a two-man team for the next season.
"I came out of the locker room after the last game of the Houston-Boston championship series, and the guys in the truck came running out to tell me what a great job I'd done with the postgame interviews," Barry says. "Next thing I knew, my contract wasn't being renewed. I have no idea why they dropped me."
Barry wasn't the first outspoken athlete behind a microphone: but unlike Barry. Jim Palmer and Reggie Jackson managed to be ingenuous on television. Barry praises and pans in the same critical tone of voice. The perfectionism that made him a terrific player and the incisive candor that made him an exceptional announcer left him vulnerable to the vicissitudes of network TV.
"Rick's negativity came across to the viewers." says Jim Harrington, then the executive producer of CBS's pro basketball telecasts. "His comments always centered on referees making bad calls, players making bad plays. I sometimes got the impression that Rick took so much care to criticize star players to validate his own career by comparison. Time and time again his whole approach to the game—and to life—was negative. He was an extremely disliked individual. We'd be in a limousine together and people would pound on the windows trying to punch him in the face."
Harrington says that neither the "watermelon" comment nor an earlier Barry gaffe—he thought the green ribbons being worn in sympathy for murdered black children in Atlanta were in honor of St. Patrick's Day—was responsible for his contract not being renewed in the summer of 1981. "The decision was already made," says Harrington. "But both incidents reveal something about the individual. They are evidence that Rick lived in a narrow sphere of influence."
As Harrington's quotes are read to him. Barry's facial muscles tighten, but he forces himself to remain calm. Finally the pressure cannot be contained, but when he speaks, it's not so much in anger as in pain: "That was a job I'd wanted all my life. I loved it. I still want to do it." He holds his hands out, palms up, in a gesture of innocence. "None of these guys ever came to me and said I was being negative. God knows I'd have bent over backward to be more positive if they had, because I never dreamed I was being negative. I thought I was being informative and explaining what happened. I never, never, ever looked to criticize someone to put him down. I was hearing nothing but good things. The press was good. The refs used to come to me and tell me I was doing a good job. Even the players said good things. And Harrington said good things. Harrington was one of the guys who came out of the truck and told me what a great job I'd done after the final game." His voice sounds like a tire deflating as he says, "All they had to do was tell me. They never did."
Bob Stenner, who produced many of the NBA games that season, says he had conversations with Barry to the effect that Barry might be coming across too negatively. Perhaps the talks were not direct enough. But Stenner adds that even if Barry was overly critical, he was a superb analyst. "He's as good a color man as there ever has been," Stenner says.
Barry's last broadcasting work was during the 1981-82 season, when he did color on 17 SuperSonics games on KIRO-TV in Seattle. That season the Sonics also were to start their own cable channel, and Zollie Volchok, the GM, asked Barry to be the team's broadcaster and do all their games. "I thought I had a deal." Barry says.
According to Barry, the deal he made with Volchok included a provision that Pam, his new wife, who is two years younger than Rick, would accompany him on the road and keep stats for him as she'd done the season before. But in September, while Rick and Pam were in Lake Tahoe honeymooning. Barry learned that Pam was no longer part of the deal. The Sonics have a policy, instituted by their coach. Lenny Wilkens, barring wives and girl friends from traveling with the team.
Barry had just gone through an acrimonious divorce, leaving his wife after a long, stormy marriage. Having seen that marriage fail at least partially because he was on the road so much, he didn't want to risk it happening again. Barry wanted Pam with him at all costs. He offered to fly with the team and send Pam on separate flights so they could be together on the road. The Sonics declined. No wives. No girl friends. It was policy.
He has not worked since.
The last five years have been brutal: the falling-out with Mieuli and Attles; the fiasco at Houston; the divorce, which isolated Barry from many of his friends; the release from CBS; the disappointment in Seattle.
"The fact that I didn't turn to alcohol or drugs ought to prove I never will," Barry says. "Just about the only good thing that happened to me was Pam." He looks at her and smiles. "I'm very happy now, with her. Very happy."
What is most striking about Barry is that he actually doesn't seem bitter about the events of the last few years. Surely some of that equanimity is the product of sound investments. He's financially secure enough that he doesn't have to work to pay next month's rent; for the time being, at least, he can wait until he finds something that he likes. He's disappointed, but not discouraged. Hurt, but not sad. He remains, incredibly, an optimist.
"I've been scraping bottom," he says. "I'm certainly due for a rise. I'd like to get back into broadcasting. I might even like to coach in the NBA if the right situation came along. I think I'd be good at it. I'd try and make it fun for the players, the way I always wanted it to be."
And if he had a player like Rick Barry? Great talent. Pain in the butt.
He laughs and says, "I think I'd know how to handle him. I've been there."
The rehabilitation continues. "In most people's minds Rick Barry doesn't have any feelings," he says. "He's a jerk who cares only about himself. That Rick Barry would be very bitter because he thought he was so wonderful that he'd feel it was their loss, not his. But the real Rick Barry is a lot deeper than that."
"All former professional athletes, not just Barry, are victims," Meschery says. "But Rick may be more victimized than the rest of us who weren't quite so good. It's a terribly difficult transition from that world to this. Not so much in giving up the sport as in giving up the idea of oneself. You had come to see yourself as larger than life. Rick was so hungry for fame that when he got it, it was easy for him to get lost in it. He was so caught up in image that he probably lost sight of himself. People were eager to make allowances for everything he did, and so there was never any reason for him to stop doing them. He was constantly told—so naturally he came to believe—that life on a pedestal was reality. In fact, it wasn't. He went through a terrible divorce. He lost a job. I think maybe for the first time in his life he has to deal with what the real world is all about. He has to get work. It's not a question of whether or not he needs the money. He has to work because he's a purposeful, single-minded man who needs to see himself as something. He's a great producer. But to produce, he has to first be asked. And now, who's going to ask him?"
In the dream there are only five seconds left in the game, and Barry's team is down by one point. It has been down by 12 or 14, but he has single-handedly brought it back with a dazzling display of shooting and passing.
He has the ball on the right side, foul line extended, and he can hear the crowd urging him on. "They're going crazy," he says. "I've been playing out of my mind the last few minutes, doing it all in front of the home folks, and they love it. I fake my man left, and get past him and head for the hoop. Now here's the interesting thing. All of a sudden I'm going up and I've got more spring and bigger hands than I've ever had before. And that's all I ever needed, because I could always figure a way to get around the guy who was guarding me, but then I had to worry about the guy who picked me up, because I was never afforded the luxury of being able to jump over people and dunk. But in the dream I've got Julius' hands and jumping ability, and I can do some of the things that Julius can do. So I've gotten by the first guy, and now I'm up in the air. And the second guy comes to pick me up, and, I mean, I absolutely just jump right over top of the guy and—crash!!!—jam it home, and we win the game." He closes his eyes, the better to soak up the supreme ecstasy of the moment.
"It feels so great, so wonderful," he says. "I hear them cheering for me."
Cheering just for him.
"And the best thing is," Barry says, "that they're not just cheering for me because I won the game. They're cheering for me because they like me. In my dream, the thing that's different is that they really like me."