Legends profile: Rick Barry
Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry is the only player ever to lead the NCAA, NBA, and ABA in scoring. His name appears near the top of every all-time offensive list. He scored more than 25,000 points in his professional career and in four different seasons averaged more than 30 points. He was named to 12 All-Star teams, four All-NBA First Teams, and five All-ABA First Teams. Barry was a nearly unstoppable offensive juggernaut, a passionate competitor with an untempered desire to win. Occasionally his fiery competitiveness would grate on rivals — and teammates, too.
Mike Dunleavy, a teammate and friend of the tempestuous Barry, told the Chicago Tribune, “You could send him to the U.N., and he’d start World War III.”
“I was not an easy person to get along with,” Barry admitted in the same article. “I didn’t have a lot of tact.”
However, he did have remarkable talent. He led an otherwise ordinary Golden State club to the NBA Championship in 1975, captaining the team and averaging 30.6 points, second in the league.
When he left the game, Barry was sixth on the NBA-ABA all-time scoring list with 25,279 points. And although his defense was sometimes criticized for being less-than-intense, his 1,104 career steals ranked 10th. He was a deadly free-throw shooter, using an odd, outdated underhand style. At the time of his retirement, Barry’s .900 career free-throw percentage was the best in NBA history. In one season, 1978-79, he missed only nine free-throw attempts.
Born the son of a coach in Elizabeth, N.J., Barry attended Roselle Park High School and then accepted a scholarship to play for the University of Miami. In 1964-65, his senior season, he was the NCAA Division I scoring champion with 37.4 points per game.
Barry started his pro career with the San Francisco Warriors, who selected him in the first round of the 1965 NBA Draft. He scored 25.7 points per game (fourth in the league), made the All-Star Team, was named NBA Rookie of the Year and earned a berth on the All-NBA First Team.
In his second season, 1966-67, Barry hit for a career-high 2,775 points and led the league in scoring with an average of 35.6 points (five points better than runner-up Oscar Robertson). Only Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor had previously averaged more, and only Michael Jordan did better over the next quarter century. On Dec. 6, 1966 against the New York Knicks, Barry set an NBA record for most free throws made in one quarter when he canned 14, a record later matched by others. (That record has since been broken by Vince Carter, who made 16 free throws in a 2005 game.) He made the second appearance of his eight NBA All-Star selections and won the game’s MVP Award in 1967 after pouring in 38 points. At season’s end, Barry earned a second consecutive selection to the All-NBA First Team.
The Warriors won the Western Division that year and took Chamberlain’s great Philadelphia 76ers team to six games in the NBA Finals before losing. Barry matched Chamberlain’s playoff record set five-years earlier by launching 48 shots in Game 3. He made 22 of them, to share the all-time Finals record with Baylor. His 55 points in the game are the second-highest total in NBA Finals history, tied later by Jordan in 1993 and trailing only Baylor’s 61 for the Lakers in 1962. Barry also scored 43 and 44 points in two other games of the series. His 40.8 scoring average for the series was an NBA Finals record until Jordan scored 41.0 per game in the 1993 championship series.
After two seasons in San Francisco, which produced a league scoring title and two All-NBA First Team selections, Barry attempted to jump leagues and signed with the Oakland Oaks of the ABA. A court dispute over his obligation to the Warriors sidelined Barry for the entire 1967-68 season, but he did join the Oaks for the 1968-69 campaign. The ensuing public fuss did not reflect well on Barry. His league-jumping was perceived by fans as being driven by greed, even though other players were also taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the upstart ABA.
According to Barry, the move was about more than money. San Francisco had offered equal compensation, but the Oakland franchise had hired Bruce Hale as its coach. Hale was not only Barry’s former coach at Miami, but also his father-in-law. Ironically, by the time Barry was cleared to play for Oakland, Hale had departed and Alex Hannum had taken the coaching reins.
Barry made an immediate impact on the fledgling league, leading the Oaks to the ABA Championship in 1969 and finishing second to Indiana’s Mel Daniels for the ABA Most Valuable Player Award. Although a knee injury limited him to 35 games, Barry averaged 34.0 points to become the first player to win scoring titles in both leagues. At season’s end, Hannum was named ABA Coach of the Year.
Before the start of the 1969-70 season, the Oakland team announced plans to move to Washington and change its name to the Capitols. Barry balked. He was quoted in the Los Angeles Times: “If I wanted to go to Washington, I’d run for President.”
Instead, he tried to recross the Bay to the Warriors and the NBA. Once again, he wound up in court, where he was ordered to honor his ABA contract. After one season in Washington, the Caps moved again, to become the Virginia Squires. Barry made some comments to sportswriters about Virginians (“I don’t want my son coming home saying ‘Howdy, y’all'”), and he was soon dealt to the New York Nets. Somehow, the tumult settled down, and he averaged 29.4 and 31.5 points in two seasons with the Nets.
Barry’s four seasons in the ABA produced four All-Star selections, a championship, and an ABA scoring title. But his seven seasons in professional basketball had landed him in two leagues — with three different teams in four different cities — and in court twice. “If I had to do it over again,” Barry said, “I’d wait for some other fool to do it.”
The saga wasn’t over. Although he had become comfortable with the Nets of the ABA, a court decision forced Barry to return to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors for the 1972-73 season. Upon his return to the NBA, he was a different, better player. For one thing, he had bulked up by about 20 pounds so that he could muscle with the NBA’s big boys when he had to. He also had developed other skills beyond scoring.
Barry explained his development as an unexpected benefit of playing in the ABA, where the skill level was beneath that of the senior league. He had once distressed ABA officials when, with hyperbolic candor, he suggested that only two ABA players had the skills to play in the NBA. (He graciously excluded himself.) Barry’s assessment was typically blunt, and, furthermore, it was wrong, since many ABA stars were able to flourish after the leagues merged. But his general point was well taken: he did not have much of a supporting cast. Because he had to do it all to win in the ABA, he had been forced to develop his ballhandling and defensive talents.
After his return to the NBA, Barry experienced the longest period of stability in his career. He played six more seasons with the Warriors, and they made the playoffs four times. In 1972-73, he scored 22.3 points per game. He also earned the first of six NBA free-throw percentage titles. A perennial All-Star, he began a string of six more midseason appearances and nabbed the first of three consecutive All-NBA First Team selections, to go with the two honors he had won in 1966 and 1967.
Barry was a nearly unstoppable offensive juggernaut, a passionate competitor with an untempered desire to win.
Barry boosted his scoring average to 25.1 points per game in 1973-74. He had his greatest scoring night on March 26, 1974 against the Portland Trail Blazers. In the first half he was merely hot, with 19 points. In the second half, however, he lit the Blazers up, hitting 21 field goals for 45 points. Barry’s 64-point total was his career high and made him, at the time, only the third player to go over 63 (Chamberlain had done it 15 times, Baylor twice), although three other players would reach the same level over the next two decades.
So, to nobody’s surprise, he could score. But Barry had added another dangerous dimension to his game. When the Rick Barry of old got the ball in his hands, he would shoot it. The new Rick Barry was passing, too. He ranked among the NBA’s top 10 in assists with 6.1 per game.
Barry had a career year in 1974-75. He led the Warriors to the NBA title, averaged 30.6 points (second to the Buffalo Braves’ Bob McAdoo), and led the league in free-throw percentage (.904) and steals (2.85 per game). He also ranked sixth in the NBA in assists with 6.2 per game, the only forward to make the top 10.
Golden State’s 1974-75 roster included NBA Rookie of the Year Keith Wilkes (known later as Jamaal Wilkes), a smooth, unselfish, sure-handed small forward. The rest of the squad was a collection of hardworking but unspectacular role players. Barry led the team to a 48-34 regular-season record. Coach Al Attles used a 10-man rotation and pressure defense to keep opponents off balance. The Warriors led the league in scoring, with 108.5 points per game. Barry led the squad in scoring, and Wilkes was No. 2 with 14.2 points per game. Nine players logged more than 1,000 minutes and eight averaged better than 7.6 points.
In the 1975 NBA Finals, the Warriors astonished the basketball world by sweeping the Washington Bullets in four games. Because nobody had expected the Warriors to go so deep into the playoffs, the arena in Oakland had been booked for another event. The championship games were moved to the Cow Palace in San Francisco.
Barry, who averaged 29.5 ppg in The Finals, was named NBA Finals MVP and began to attract increasing admiration for his play. During that era, Barry and Julius Erving were the yardsticks by which all forwards were measured. Barry was putting up some incredible numbers. The only member of an NBA championship team to have posted a higher scoring average was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who poured in 31.7 points per game for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971. Those marks held up until Jordan hit 31.5 ppg in 1991 and then 32.6 ppg in 1993 for the Chicago Bulls.
But — and there was always that “but” — Barry’s behavior reflected the nature of a perfectionist, and an outspoken one at that. He played the game with a look of mild (and sometimes not-so-mild) disdain that suggested his surroundings were beneath him. He never held his tongue. He was an equal-opportunity critic: teammate, opponent, referee, coach, or bystander might be the object of his choler. Not surprisingly, teammates and opponents alike often resented his blunt criticism.
In subsequent years, some NBA players have cultivated a villainous image as part of their court persona. The Detroit Pistons’ Bill Laimbeer, for example, played rough, complained to referees and was booed by fans around the league in the 1980s. But that seemed, at least partly, to be an act. Barry did all the same things, but for him they weren’t theater, just a natural result of his single-minded desire to succeed.
Teammate Clifford Ray diplomatically told Sports Illustrated, “Rick may not be the kind of guy to say please, but he’s in it to win.”
When it came time to dole out the 1974-75 postseason honors, Barry was snubbed, despite having had a great year. He finished third in the NBA MVP balloting, behind the winner, McAdoo and Boston’s Dave Cowens.
“There’s no doubt Rick’s on-court demeanor hurt his image,” said Butch Beard, point guard on the 1975 Warriors, to HOOP magazine in 1990.
The next season, 1975-76, the Warriors won 59 games, tops in the league, but fell to Phoenix in seven games in the Western Conference Finals. With the Warriors’ young players developing both skills and confidence, Barry shouldered less of the scoring burden. He averaged 21.0 points while distributing 496 assists.
In 1976-77, Barry averaged 21.8 points, as the Warriors fell off to 46-36 and lost in the conference semifinals. The next season he averaged 23.1 points, a single tick below his career average of 23.2. Golden State, despite a winning record, finished out of the playoffs in the resurgent Pacific Division.
When his contract with Golden State expired in 1978, Barry shopped his talent around the league and signed with the Houston Rockets, where he played the final two seasons of his illustrious career. With the Rockets in 1978-79 his role changed. Houston had Moses Malone, Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich to do the scoring, so Barry was used as a passing forward. He dished out a career-high 502 assists (6.3 apg), while his scoring average fell from 23.1 to 13.5 points per game. The next season his productivity dropped even further, to 12.0 points per game.
Although his impact was diminished, Barry made the most of his opportunities. He led the league in free-throw percentage in both seasons, at .947 in 1978-79 and .935 in 1979-80, closing out his career with three consecutive free-throw crowns. Including his ABA years, Barry claimed eight free-throw percentage titles in the 1970s. Only Ernie DiGregorio, who bested him twice, stood between Barry and a solid decade of charity-stripe dominance.
Barry retired after the 1979-80 season. In 14 seasons of professional basketball (10 in the NBA), he had played in more than 1,000 games, never missing more than four NBA games in a row until his final year. He averaged 23.2 points in the NBA and 30.5 points in his four ABA seasons. His combined scoring totaled 25,279 points, which ranks him among the top scorers in professional basketball history.
In the playoffs he was even more prolific, scoring 24.8 points per game in his NBA postseason career and 33.5 points per game in the ABA. At the time of his retirement, Barry was the most accurate free-throw shooter in NBA history, having hit 90.0 percent of his free-throw attempts.
In 1987, along with Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Bob Houbregs, Bobby Wanzer, and Pete Maravich, Barry was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
After his career ended, Barry became a broadcaster, at one point teaming with Bill Russell to form a highly opinionated announcing duo. After several seasons at the mic, he drifted out of the public spotlight in the mid-1980s.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was mentioned mainly as the father of four talented college and professional players. Scooter Barry played for the University of Kansas and then in the Continental Basketball Association; Jon played for Georgia Tech and various NBA teams. Barry’s second youngest son, Drew, played for Georgia Tech, and the youngest son, Brent, played at Oregon State and entered the NBA as the 15th overall selection of the 1995 Draft by the Denver Nuggets although his draft rights were traded to the Los Angeles Clippers.
In the early 1990s Barry resurfaced as a minor league coach. He began in the Global Basketball Association, then moved on to the CBA’s Fort Wayne Fury, who went 19-37 in 1993-94. In 1996, he was named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.