Bad News, Indeed

Pistons squandered shot at Moses Malone in ABA dispersal draft

Marvin Barnes
When the ABA disbanded, the Pistons netted Marvin "Bad News" Barnes instead of Moses Malone.
NBAE/Getty Images
You’d think a team that had posted 16 losing seasons in the 18 years since relocating from Fort Wayne, Ind., would have known better than to pick a player whose nickname was “Bad News” when the NBA held a dispersal draft to divvy up players left over from the two surviving ABA teams that weren’t among the four being absorbed into the NBA in the summer of 1976.

And Marvin Barnes came by that nickname honestly.

In high school, some of his buddies from rough-and-tumble South Providence, R.I., talked Bad News into robbing a bus with them. Alas, he was the one wearing his varsity letter jacket with the name “Marvin” emblazoned in script on it. As a Providence College All-American who led the Friars to the 1973 Final Four, he got into a fight with Providence teammate Larry Kitvirtis and pleaded guilty to assaulting him with a tire iron. Serving out the jail sentence that eventually came of the plea deal, in fact, delayed Barnes’ arrival to the Pistons.

A few months after signing with the Spirits of St. Louis, who along with the Kentucky Colonels were not absorbed into the NBA, he left the team, feeling he was underpaid. He had a history of oversleeping and missing practices or flights. One such time, he chartered his own plane for a game in Virginia, arrived in full uniform minutes before tipoff and put up 43 points. He famously installed telephones all over his St. Louis house so that he would never be more than arm’s reach from one. The first thing he bought with his signing bonus? A $35,000 Rolls Royce.

In two years in the ABA, Barnes put up 24.1 points and 13.4 rebounds a game. There was no denying his talent. He could run, jump and shoot. If Barnes had harnessed his talent – and not abused his body with Hall of Fame partying – he could have been an all-time great. There was also no denying his immaturity and aimlessness. He also posted 15 no-shows in two years with St. Louis.

The Pistons, armed with the No. 4 pick in the dispersal draft, knew all of that about Barnes – or, at least, they should have. Barnes was as flamboyant as he was talented, as gifted at grabbing headlines as he was rebounds. He called himself the Muhammad Ali of basketball.

Yet when Chicago picked Artis Gilmore first in the dispersal draft, followed by Portland grabbing Barnes’ St. Louis teammate Maurice Lucas and Kansas City taking guard Ron Boone, who’d been a great player on solid Utah teams in the early days of the ABA, the Pistons were left to decide between Barnes and Moses Malone.

Yup. That Moses Malone. He’d gone straight from high school in Virginia to Utah of the ABA, crushing the spirit of Maryland coach Lefty Driesell in the process, and averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds as a 19-year-old. When the Stars folded and Malone was reassigned to St. Louis the following year, playing in a remarkable frontcourt with both Lucas and Barnes, he still averaged 14.9 points and 12.7 rebounds in less than 30 minutes a game.

Even Barnes, in a 1975 Sports Illustrated article on the marvelous crop of rookies both the NBA and ABA boasted that season, seemed awed by Malone, while also further broadcasting to teams his own foibles: “I’m really impressed with Moses,” said Barnes, then 23. “He’s so young. Boy, if I was 20, can you imagine all the trouble I’d be in?”

Here’s what Barnes’ coach in St. Louis, Bob McKinnon, said about him: “We have a great rapport. He tells me what to do and I do it.”

Remember, 1976 was two years after Bill Davidson had purchased the Pistons from Fred Zollner, two years before he hired Dick Vitale as head coach and de facto personnel boss and three years before those painful lessons led Mr. D to the most significant move of his ownership to date – and maybe ever – when he hired Jack McCloskey and, at last, put basketball decisions in the hands of a proven pro basketball talent evaluator.

You never know how the course of history might have played out had the Pistons been paying attention to the obvious self-destructive course Marvin “Bad News” Barnes had already plotted for himself and selected Moses Malone, one of the NBA’s all-time great centers and rebounders, instead.

Maybe Malone and Bob Lanier, two Hall of Fame big men, wouldn’t have meshed, given that neither seemed likely to thrive while playing primarily outside the paint. But Lanier, in the prime of a Hall of Fame career, certainly would have fetched a few nice pieces in return, including the wing scorer those Pistons teams of the mid-’70s desperately lacked. For certain, Malone’s presence would have meant the Pistons wouldn’t have finished 21-61 in 1980-81 and, subsequently, wouldn’t have been in position to draft Isiah Thomas with the No. 2 pick that year.

So there’s no guarantee the Pistons would have any more than the three championship banners they claim today, or perhaps they wouldn’t even have that many, had they taken Moses Malone instead of Bad News Barnes 35 years ago when the ABA disbanded. But it’s hard to believe having Moses Malone as an alumnus wouldn’t have been a better thing for the Pistons than the 65 games they got from Marvin Barnes.