The Clippers needed a star player around whom they could build a winning team. Fitch and General Manager Elgin Baylor believed that Barry could be that player. Brent was quick, long and tall. He handled the ball, saw the court and made plays like a point guard. He had the skills to play both guard positions as well as small forward. Based on his surname, it went without saying that he could shoot the ball. Brent started off well enough in his rookie season by averaging over 10 points a game while being just a part-time starter who played barely 24 minutes a game. Fitch had high expectations for Brent Barry and he rode him without mercy. No coach ever worked harder than Bill Fitch and he expected as much from his players. He expected more from Brent than from anyone else. He Expected it – Demanded it – Needed it.
Hardly a practice went by without Fitch hurtling a litany of curses at his promising rookie. It was not easy for Brent, but then life had not been easy for him or any of his three basketball playing brothers.
Brent Barry could not escape the fact that he was Hall of Famer Rick Barry’s son. He wanted to, but he could not. Virtually every interview he did that year included as many questions about his dad and his relationship with his dad as they did about his game. It was not fair but it was what it was. There were four Barry boys: Brent, Jon, Scooter and Drew. Their parents divorced when the kids were young. Jon was the only son to later live with Rick. The three other Barry boys were raised in the Bay area by their mom, the former Pam Hale. Her dad had been Rick’s coach at the University of Miami. There is no question that the boys had pretty good blood lines and Rick was fixated on that.
“I’ve told people that if my boys were racehorses, they'd be worth millions," Rick Barry once said.
Brent was just seven years old when his mom and dad separated. Most of what he learned about playing the game he learned from his maternal grandfather. Years later as a pro, Brent would say: “When I decided to make a commitment to play basketball, my dad wasn't there. Having him take credit for what we do now just isn't right. He wasn't there when we were making the decisions that got us here. That was the tough part to swallow, that the credit was never given directly to us, it was given to the name."
Brent probably looked more like his dad than any of his brothers did. He was also the best player among the four Barry boys, so the comparisons were unavoidable. Rick would show up occasionally to see Brent play during his 23-year-old son’s rookie season. He was unashamedly proud of Brent and told me time and again that he was going to be a very special NBA player. More than a few saw Rick reliving his own career through the young player’s potential.
As much as they might have appeared similar on the basketball court, Rick and Brent Barry were very different off the court. Bill Fitch had coached against Rick Barry and now was mentoring his son. Fitch was effusive in his praise when talking about Brent and his brothers: "I tell you this, they're all great kids. You have to give Pam a lot of credit. They're gregarious, they're thoughtful, they're well-mannered."
As hard as he was on Brent in the practice gym, Fitch could not say enough good about the quality of man his young player was: "He's a nice kid. He says 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir,' he's coachable, wants to learn. He's gifted, he does magic tricks off the court too, he plays the piano, and he's not an egoist. His license plate reads 'Bones.' "
You never heard such laudatory comments in stories about Rick. To be fair, I worked with him on TV a few times. I think he is a very good basketball commentator. We got along just fine but there was an air or attitude about him that just made you uneasy.
Rick Barry looks back at a brilliant playing career with many regrets. "The way I looked alienated a lot of people," he says. "I've seen films of myself and seen the faces I made. I looked terrible. I acted like a jerk.”
He wishes he were beloved like his most comparable contemporary, Julius Erving.
"It bothers me," the elder Barry says, "that I'm not even liked."
Like so many stories about Brent Barry, this one has morphed into a story about his Dad. I am happy to say that their relationship has improved greatly over the years.
And now, more about Brent:
He had a really promising rookie season. We all knew he was going to be a good player but could not be certain just how good. He was asked to compete in the Slam Dunk competition on All-Star weekend at the cavernous Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas in February of 1996. He won it with a Dr. J–like dunk after taking off from the free throw line.
It was a high-lite moment for the young player and a Clipper team in need of any good exposure it could get during those dire days in the mid-90s. Brent seemed almost embarrassed by the attention he got from the Slam Dunk title. We’d show the dunk on TV years later as the Clippers would play against Brent when he played in Seattle or San Antonio and he’d go: “Why are you playing that again?”
Brent’s rookie season gave the Clippers some hope for the future. The team had won only 17 games the season before he was acquired. They improved that mark by 12 games in his rookie year. I recall the plane ride home with the team at the close of the final road trip of the season. Brent came to me with a “thank you note” and a story about his special summer work-out plan. He promised that he would come back in October bigger and stronger and able to run faster and jump higher. We shook hands and he suggested: “You ain’t seen nothing, yet.”
Sadly, the next season got off to a rocky start for the second year player when he badly sprained the thumb on his left hand in a preseason game. His wrist was placed in a cast and he’d miss the first five or six weeks of the campaign. His shooting stroke was slow to return when he came back. There was one notable exception to his shooting woes. On the night of December 16th, 1996, the Clippers played the Phoenix Suns at the Pond in Anaheim. Phoenix led by 7 late in the 4th quarter. The Clippers mounted a furious comeback to set the stage for a desperation three-pointer from the right corner by Barry at the Buzzer.
The game was tied and the Clips would win in overtime, 122-121. It was the most dramatic shot of Brent’s Clipper career.
The team would have its annual Christmas party the following evening at club owner Donald T. Sterling’s penthouse office suite in Beverly Hills. I had hardly arrived when an excited Brent Barry rushed over to me to thank me for all the nice things I’d said the night before on TV about his game-saving three-pointer. That gives you a glimpse at what a fine young man he is. In case you haven’t figured this out – that doesn’t happen all the time.
Back in those days, the NBA would produce basketball trading cards not just of the players but also of the team broadcasters. They were not in wide circulation and few people outside of family and close friends ever even knew about them. Well, one night at the old Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in 1997, Brent was riding Bill Fitch’s bench throughout most of the game. Fitch finally called on him to enter the game in the 4th quarter. As Barry passed my press row broadcast location en route to check-in with the official scorer, he paused in front of me, bent over, reached into his sock and pulled out one of my Basketball cards and tossed it on the press table. I almost fell off my chair. Each time our eyes would meet during the balance of the game – he’d give me a wicked grin. He told me after the game that he’d had that darn card in his sock the entire game as he wondered if Fitch would ever call his name.
Brent was a delightful travel companion. We’d have dinner together on the road or go to a movie or a Broadway play. When the Clippers would play the Warriors in Oakland his mom would invite the entire team over for dinner at their Walnut Creek home. It was a valuable bonding experience for the players. Brent Barry’s stats were not as good in year two as they had been in year one, but the team was much improved and even snuck into the playoffs, where he played the best ball he’d played as a Clipper. He was probably as valuable to the team off the court as he was on it.
Barry was better than ever the following year but the team was not. They were 11-40 as the trade deadline approached. The team was woefully weak in the middle where they’d gone from Stojko Vrankovic to Keith Closs to Lorenzen Wright at the center position. 6-10, 270 pound Isaac Austin was stuck on the Heat bench behind Alonzo Mourning in Miami. The Clippers parlayed Barry into Austin, rookie guard Charles Smith and a first-round draft pick. It was too good of a trade to resist. Brent Barry was gone. (Do you still have your “I Like Ike” buttons?)
It didn’t work for Brent in Miami. Nor did it work the following season in Chicago. He did score a handsome contract with the Bulls. He signed for 6 years and 27 million dollars, but it was becoming clear that at 27 years old, he was not a star-quality player. He was a valuable role player who could help a team win. He’d spend the next five years in Seattle. He had a career year in the 2001-02 season with the Sonics when he replaced the departed Gary Payton as the team’s starting point guard. He started 81 games and averaged over 14 points while adding 5+ in assists and rebounds. He also shot over 50% from the field and made 42% of his three-pointers.
Still, the best was yet to come. Brent would be in San Antonio with the Spurs for four seasons after his five solid years in Seattle. He would contribute to two NBA Championships with the Spurs. He’d finally found a way to top his dad who won his single championship ring with the Golden State Warriors 36 years ago.
I honestly think Brent’s second career could surpass his first. 39 now, he is a studio commentator for NBA TV.
If he learns to let his engaging personality come through on television, he would again be a budding star. So far, brother Jon has outshone Brent on the tube. I think some personal issues may have temporarily stolen the sparkle from Brent’s eyes. Hopefully, he can get past that and have a stellar career in television. He seems so serious on that sterile TV set.
“Loosen up, Brent! Smile. Have Fun!” That is encouragement that I never dreamed I’d have to give to one of my all-time Faves – Brent Barry.
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