Remember Dancing Harry—the odd fellow who followed Earl Monroe from Baltimore to New York when the Bullets traded Monroe to the Knicks in 1971? Dancing Harry, otherwise known as Marvin Cooper, wasn't easy to miss. He would swoop along the baselines at Madison Square Garden, wearing a flowing blue satin robe and a large pizza-size cap, and put an elaborate whammy on the visiting team. About four years before Monroe retired in 1980, Harry had disappeared.
Harry may be gone, but the breed hasn't died. During a fourth-quarter time-out in the Los Angeles Forum, attention is directed toward a 6'3", rail-thin man in a white tuxedo, as Jerry Lee Lewis' Great Balls of Fire blasts over the P.A. system.
The music transforms the man into a frantic, dancing whirlwind—strutting and gyrating along the perimeter of the court as though he has stepped on a hot wire. The appreciative crowd claps and stomps, and the Forum crackles with the energy generated by the Lakers' Dancing Barry.
Dancing Barry was simply Barry Richards, a graduate of the University of Houston, when he watched Dancing Harry's Knicks play the Rockets in the first round of the 1975 playoffs. Richards' first name, plus the fact that he had recently graduated from a five-lessons-for-$5 deal at a Fred Astaire dance studio, had convinced his friends that Barry was a prime candidate to be Houston's answer to Harry.
In the first half of the first game of that series, the teams played evenly, but the Rockets made the game a rout in the second half. The frustrated Knicks called time out in the fourth quarter, and the band started playing. "I'd never done this kind of thing, but I just ran down to the floor," says Richards. "They had all these uptight security guards, but I saw them coming. Before they could grab me, I put a fox-trot move on them. The fans loved it. I spent the whole song dancing and avoiding the guards."
When the music stopped, Richards ripped open his shirt to expose DANCING BARRY where Superman wears his "S." "The crowd went nuts," he says. The Rockets won that game 99-84 and took the series 2-1 before losing to Boston in the next round.
Over the next few seasons, however, interest in the act waned, especially as the Rockets' fortunes seesawed. Richards wasn't surprised. "I've always been the man with the Midas touch," he says. "Everything I touch turns to mufflers." He left his job as the corporate chef of an oil company because he felt his culinary skills were unappreciated. Richards claims the chairman thought he was being served a wilted salad, not realizing red-tipped lettuce leaves were supposed to be discolored along the edges.
He left Houston for New Jersey and a job selling, among other things, microwave dinners. "I packed away the old tuxedo," says Richards, who refuses to give his age. "I thought the next time I wore that thing I'd be saying 'I do.' "
Two years later, in 1982, Richards went to L.A. to seek fame and fortune as a popcorn-machine salesman. The business went bust, so Richards tried his hand at being a magician, which is how he earns part of his living today. Well, at least he got to watch the Lakers win a league championship.
The following season, a friend of Richards, who felt the Forum lacked zip, convinced him that it was time to dance again. Richards agreed. An opportunity came on March 20, as the Lakers were blowing a 17-point lead over the Dallas Mavericks. When L.A. finally called time, the Mavs had taken a one-point lead. "It was as quiet as a funeral home," says Richards. The band struck up When the Saints Go Marching In in an attempt to rally the crowd.
"Something inside me said, 'Now! Get up!'" says Richards. "So, I got up and got downnnn...." The Lakers regrouped and won 117-110. Dancing Barry has been a fixture in the Forum ever since, performing his Ben Vereen-style cheerleading in the fourth quarter of most games.
The Lakers have elevated Richards' status—he no longer pays his way into games—and he has applied more polish to his routine. At one game he had a 12-year-old girl, dressed in an outfit similar to his, mimicking his every move; another time he chose a little girl from the stands and danced with her in his arms, magically producing a bouquet of flowers at the end of the routine. And at Christmas he did his gig in a Santa costume. Each time he performs the L.A. crowd responds with whoops, stomps and cheers. It seems that at last the man with the Midas touch has struck gold.
Not only slick of foot but also sleight of hand, Richards produces posies in the Forum.