He led Tennessee State to three straight NAIA national championships. Then, he guided the Cleveland Pipers to the ABL title in 1962. He followed that up by winning NBA championships with the New York Knicks in 1970 and 1973.
Barnett, who is now 85 years old, played in five NBA Finals all together – three with the Knicks, two more with the Los Angeles Lakers.
He took a few minutes to reflect on his glory days.
Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been condensed and edited.
Also, current full-time HBCU undergraduate (rising juniors and seniors) and graduate students can apply via careers.nba.com/early-career-programs/ through Feb. 20, 2022 to intern with the league office or teams for a 10-week period this summer.
NBA.com: How often do you watch the NBA and who are some of your current favorite players?
Barnett: I watch the NBA sporadically. I like the perennial guys like LeBron James and James Harden. Kevin Durant, you know the guys like Stephen Curry who are really established and doing a tremendous job.
Who is your favorite team to root for?
I’m rooting for the regeneration of the Knickerbockers at some point in the future. I think the Eastern Conference as a whole has improved.
I’ve spoken to a lot of former players and they all agree that back in the day players used to get roughed up a lot more than they do now.
The game is different now, it’s tremendously less physical. Also, because of Curry, who has revolutionized the 3-point shot, the game of basketball is changed forever. The big man has been diluted. It was at its apex when we had Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell and those type of guys and that’s a rarity these days.
You won two championships with the Knicks. You had some pretty famous teammates.
We knew how to play well together. Clyde Frazier, Willis Reed the captain, the great Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. Red Holzman was our coach and his genius was recognizing the talent he had available and using it accordingly.
You and Frazier started in the backcourt and you averaged an impressive 15 points per game on that 1970s team.
Oh yeah, I played a big role on that first championship team. I was a starter and that type of thing. When Earl Monroe came in, I was the older guy on the team at that point for the second championship in 1973. My mindset was to make contributions not only as a scorer but play defense and be a part of the overall cohesion of what we were trying to do.
You grew up in Gary, Indiana … how did you develop your love for basketball?
Growing up in Gary, the only time we saw white people was when the police came around. We understood what segregation was all about. You had to be careful in terms of your behavior.
Back then everyone just wanted to finish high school and then go on with your life. It just so happened I got into playing ping pong ball with a tin cup at a community center called the Friendship House. From there I went on to a playground at Roosevelt High School to develop my talent.
Such a humble start to your career. You ended up being a three-time All-American at Tennessee State and won three straight national championships.
I was considered one of the best players in the nation when I was in college. Our team was the first NAIA team to win three championships in a row. We had to travel through the South in the age of the Klu Klux Klan and George Wallace and the White Citizen’s Council. America was going through these political gyrations. We couldn’t stay in hotels. We couldn’t eat at restaurants. We had to relieve ourselves in corn fields. This was in the 1950s. I was recruited to Tennessee State in 1955, the same year Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi. We have that history. We were a real part of the Martin Luther King generation.
What was it like playing for legendary coach John McLendon at Tennessee State?
He’s in the Hall of Fame for a reason. Coach McLendon changed historical and social dynamics in Kansas City. He told us we would be able to do the same things as the white players. Crowds were hostile and very combative at our games, but we believed we came to kick your butt.
A lot of people don’t even know what we accomplished at Tennessee State.
You were known for your jump shot, but you also were an above-average rebounder, too.
I was playing forward at that time and some guard. I wasn’t the greatest leaper in the world, but I knew how to position myself, how to anticipate and block people out to get rebounds. I won an ABL championship with the Cleveland Pipers in 1962 and I was one of the top scorers and the league’s most valuable player. George Steinbrenner was the owner of our team.
I was hitting my 25-foot jump shot in the 1950s before Curry was even thought of.
You had legendary teammates with the Syracuse Nationals and Los Angeles Lakers, too.
I was fortunate to play on some really good teams. On the Nationals, we had Dolph Schayes, Hal Greer, Larry Costello and Johnny Kerr. When I was with the Lakers for three years, I was with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. We were effective but couldn’t get past the Celtics.