2019 NBA Playoffs
Q&A: Warriors analyst Barnett still living charmed NBA life
From playing days to Golden State's current run, broadcaster has seen it all
There might be a few people to bear witness of the evolution of the Golden State Warriors better than Jim Barnett, but none from a closer seat.
Barnett has been their TV analyst for over three decades and has verbalized it all, from Sleepy Floyd to Don Nelson to Chris Washburn to the “We Believe crew” and right up to the Stephen Curry-led rampage that’s still in progress.
Barnett played for the Warriors from 1971-74, giving him an additional perspective on the franchise. His 11 seasons as an NBA player was spent hopscotching around the NBA and was a teammate of Bill Russell, Julius Erving, John Havlicek, Pete Maravich and Nate Thurmond (among others).
An member of the 1970-71 expansion Portland Trail Blazers, Barnett averaged 18.5 ppg that season. During one game, a rally against the Los Angeles Lakers, Barnett heaved a lengthy shot that swished and tied the score. Blazers broadcaster Bill Schonely became excited and inexplicably shouted “Rip City!” into the mic, creating Portland’s signature hoops catch phrase.
Barnett was a lively, breezy, quick player with a quirky personality, but never was a star. His first contract paid $11,000 and, he says, he never had a guaranteed deal. To help make ends meet, Barnett had a side hustle in sales.
Eventually, though, the game came calling again, and Barnett became the Warriors’ TV analyst in 1985. The Warriors initially had moderate success and then went through a dry spell where they missed the playoffs in 17 of 18 seasons.
But all bad things must come to an end, and the turnaround was launched with the drafting of Curry and then, Klay Thompson.
He’s known for his wit, analytical mind and gift of gab – as well as the perspective of someone whose NBA knowledge goes back five decades. Not many team TV analysts have outlasted Barnett, which he owes to luck but also his connection with the evolving audience.
Barnett spoke recently with NBA.com about his career, how the game was played back in the day, those losing Warriors’ seasons and how Golden State’s dynasty stacks up with the Boston Celtics’ of the 1960s.
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Q: You were drafted by the Celtics as the eighth pick overall in 1966. That was also Bill Russell’s first season as player/coach. How was he as a teammate and coach?
A: He was very intimidating to me. I mean, this was Bill Russell. He won 11 championships in 13 years. My first impression was he was very fair, and I knew if I played hard, I’d get a fair shake. He was also kind of aloof and quiet.
Q: You arrived right in the thick of Boston’s dynasty, correct?
A: Those guys had won eight straight championships. You have to understand, when I came into the league, hell, I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it. I was very intimidated. Guys today think about playing in the NBA when they’re in eighth grade. I just wanted to go to college and maybe start by the time I became a sophomore at Oregon. My goals were modest. I didn’t think about the NBA until I was a junior in college and averaging 18 a game. When I went to Boston I worked by ass off.
The players were smarter then because we all went to college for four years. … But the players today are much more athletic. If you put Steph Curry or Kevin Durant back in our day people would be amazed by them.”
Jim Barnett, on the difference between players from his era and now
Q: What was that first training camp like?
A: Wayne Embry, who later became the longtime general manager of the Cavaliers but was the backup center then, hadn’t worked out all summer. Guys in those days came to training camp to get into shape; they weren’t already in shape, not like today’s players. Well, someone stole Russell’s shoes, so they thought and hoped camp that day would be cancelled, because Russell was a task master and we needed a break. Turned out Sam Jones stole his shoes. Well, Russell didn’t get mad often but he was angry that day. He had us run in place for about two hours. And Embry, poor guy, was in a puddle of water. Looked like he took a shower right there.
Q: You had the fortune of playing in the NBA and yet the misfortune of missing out on not just one championships, but two, right?
A: My rookie year with the Celtics we lost in the conference finals to that great Philadelphia team. The Celtics had won eight straight titles before I arrived. Then I left and they won it the very next year. I was with the Warriors for three years and then I went in the expansion draft in 1974 [to the New Orleans Jazz]. The Warriors won the ’75 title. I got picked up by the Sixers in 1977, that was (Julius Erving’s) first year. Early on I’d asked to be released because they were going to put me on injured reserve. Worst decision I ever made. I went home and World B. Free got hurt. I would’ve been activated and played in the NBA Finals. The Sixers lost to Portland, but still.
Q: Big regrets?
A: I wished I’d won a championship, sure. But I’m not one to regret too much. I go on because I’m a survivor. Getting divorced is a bigger deal; I end up crying for a few days. Things happen to you. What are you going to do about it? You’re not going to change things.
Q: Speaking of change, you played in the ‘60s during great social, political and racial shifts. What did you see?
A: There were racists on the team in St. Louis when Lenny Wilkens played for the Hawks, that’s for sure, and I know he went through a lot. I’ll tell you a story: I went to a get-together not long ago and someone in a group that was all white made a comment about African American players, a stereotypical comment about whether they’re taking care of their money. Well, I spoke up and said that most of the greatest people I’ve ever been associated with didn’t look like you. I went on and on. I said I wish I had the character and integrity and intelligence of a Stephen Curry. That changed the conversation.
Everywhere we go we get thousands of people wanting to see him, and these kids with his jersey on, and most of them are white, they love him. Kids are saying, ‘I don’t have to be 6-8 and 250 pounds to play in the NBA. I can look like Steph Curry.’ “
Jim Barnett, on Stephen Curry
Q: What are the major differences in the players from your day and the players today?
A: The players were smarter then because we all went to college for four years. We were better from the neck up. And we never had some of the advantages that players today have, like travel, modern medicine, surgical procedures, better diet, strength and conditioning, all the things that make you more athletic and careers longer. What would a guy like Elgin Baylor do with the modern physical therapy that would save his knees? But the players today are much more athletic. And better for the most part. If you put Steph Curry or Kevin Durant back in our day people would be amazed by them. They’d be just as good if not better than they are today.
Q: Not only do you watch the great Warriors of today but you played next to Rick Barry, a Hall of Famer and certainly one of the great Warriors ever. How was that?
A: I think he’s one of the most under appreciated players because he’s alienated a lot of people because of his personality. Rick and I have done a lot of personal things together and I know him well. He was one of the great basketball players, one of the 20 best of all time. He’s the greatest Warrior of them all and a smart broadcaster who really should have had my job all these years. But they were never going to hire Rick Barry.
Sometimes he sticks his foot in his mouth. I respect him highly and I think he’s really smart. But as I told him years ago, ‘Rick, you’re your own worst enemy and sometimes you’ve got to let the other guy win even though you’re right 99 percent of the time. You’re right, but it doesn’t serve you well to insist you’re right.’ I love Rick but he gets a little intense when, at this age, you can’t take it that seriously.
Q: Best centers of all time?
A: Russell for sure. Wilt (Chamberlain) was the most dominant player to ever play. Inch for inch Michael Jordan was the most dominant but not like Wilt. Wilt got 55 rebounds against Russell. Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) for his longevity, and (Hakeem) Olajuwon. Then Shaquille (O’Neal).
A: Jordan, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and then you got Kobe (Bryant). When Stephen Curry retires he’ll have some credence.
A: LeBron James, Larry Bird, Dr. J, Karl Malone. (John) Havlicek played both ends, and Rick has to be in there. Kevin Durant makes the game look so damn easy and it’s hard.
The Warriors are still going to win 50-55 games with or without Durant. They’re better with him but won’t all of a sudden slide into the second tier.”
Jim Barnett, on Warriors if Kevin Durant leaves this summer
Q: You mentioned Curry. What impresses you besides the obvious?
A: Who he is and how he handles himself. He goes on these tears where he gets 24 points in a quarter and changes the game. But he’s just so calm about it and about himself. Everywhere we go we get thousands of people wanting to see him, and these kids with his jersey on, and most of them are white, they love him. Kids are saying, ‘I don’t have to be 6-8 and 250 pounds to play in the NBA. I can look like Steph Curry.’ He’s transformative.
Q: What about Steve Kerr?
A: Steve Kerr is one of the most remarkable, special men I’ve ever met in my life. Obviously he gets a lot from his father who was a diplomat, and from his upbringing. He’s extremely intelligent. His parents were remarkable. That’s rubbed off on him. He has incredible integrity. I wish I could be like that. I’m not. He has been a great son, great father, great husband, great human being. He’s extremely stable.
To persevere with all he has gone through with his ailing back has been remarkable. He’s in pain a lot and things are very difficult for him. He doesn’t talk about it but I know he’s hurt more than he lets on. I marvel at it. When he gets fired or leaves or retires or whatever, I’m going to write him a note. I have the utmost respect for him.
Q: What’s his best attribute as a coach?
A: He knows how to communicate and I think communication is the key to life. He can communicate with Draymond Green who’s very different and Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, he can talk to anybody. He can talk to fans and say the right things, he can talk to the media and have good conversation. He’s very patient. He can be hard. He can be demanding when he has to be and he has a temper and start breaking clipboards. But he gets his point across.
Q: Kevin Durant could leave this summer through free agency. How will that affect the Warriors, who can’t replace him, obviously, even if they wanted to?
A: I think the Warriors will still be one of the best teams. Whether they win another championship, I don’t know because everybody’s getting better. They’ve raised the standard. Other teams are reaching their potential because of the Warriors. The league is getting stronger. Milwaukee and Giannis (Antetokoumnpo) is getting better. The Celtics, Toronto, Denver, a few others. The Warriors are still going to win 50-55 games with or without Durant. They’re better with him but won’t all of a sudden slide into the second tier.
Q: How did you deal with the bad old days, before Curry and Kerr and Durant, when the Warriors were dreadful? Was it tough calling those games on TV?
A: I didn’t look and say they are 17-62 and a bad season. I just looked at each game and compartmentalize. For me it was easy to do that. I’ve got natural enthusiasm. I can have fun and be enthusiastic. And those were great years for me in broadcasting because people got to realize I knew how to play the game and it was a stage for me to put my brand on the Warriors and basketball. Because we were so bad as a team, we also didn’t have all the advertising and things we have now that interrupt the game, so I could talk more about the game.
Q: It’s tough to win one championship let alone two straight or string together a stretch that makes you legendary. You had a stint with the Celtics and now work the Warriors games. Which dynasty was tougher?
A: Look, no team today can win 11 championships in 13 years. But there’s a reason for that. There were only 10 teams in ’66 when I came in so it was easy for the Celtics to dominate. You had great players on the team and your competition wasn’t as much. The Celtics could dominate because they had Russell and they were just better. Now you’ve got 30 teams and while it makes it easier to win more games in the regular season because you’ve got patsies out there, you also have to go through more playoff rounds and there’s free agency.
I think it’s more difficult to do it now because of the sheer number of teams. It’s much more difficult for the Warriors to repeat than the Celtics.
Q: The Warriors have only two more months, assuming they’re good as well as fortunate to last that long, to call Oakland their home. Will the move to San Francisco be a good one?
A: It’s going to be different. A more sophisticated crowd, more elite. It’s exciting to get into a new arena because it will be modern but the most exciting thing to me is I want the Warriors to win a championship this year in order to go over there with a positive thing. The owners we have are great.
They put up $1 billion to pay for an arena without any tax money or public funding and that’s great. It will be a big plus for ownership if they go over there with a championship and make a seamless transition. It’s not like we’re moving across the country, just across the Bay and I suspect the local support won’t change. It’ll just be different inside the building.
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