Promising Talent

The Pistons acquired Marvin Barnes in the dispersal draft, when the NBA absorbed four teams from the ABA in 1976.
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Marvin Barnes began his professional career with the ABA's St. Louis Spirit
Promising Talent

by John Maxwell

The world of professional sports is littered with the remains of promising yet unfulfilled careers. Sometimes fate intervenes through injury, yet more often the trappings and temptations of stardom coupled with a penchant for self-destructive behavior conspire to bring down these larger-than -ife figures

One of the more remarkable cases of careers and lives gone awry belongs to former Pistons forward Marvin “Bad News” Barnes.

One might assume that “Bad News” was a play on words of the 1976 Walter Matheau comedy "The Bad News Bears" nickname actually predates the movie by several years harkening back to Barnes’ high school days when he would routinely get ejected from games for fighting. Once saddled with the moniker, Barnes seemed to do everything in his power to live up -- or down, as the case may be -- to it.

Barnes first came into national prominence during his time at Providence College where he helped lead the Friars to two NCAA tournament appearances and a spot in the 1972-73 Final Four. He also made a name for himself by allegedly beating a teammate with a tire iron in 1972. Although he pleaded guilty to the charge two years later, Barnes maintained his innocence in public statements claiming that he agreed to the plea deal only to guarantee that he would be placed on probation rather than serve jail time.

Having earned his freedom, the bidding war for Barnes’ services at the pro level could now begin. The Philadelphia 76ers made Barnes the second overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft while the ABA’s St. Louis Spirit had an offer of more than $2 million on the table.

Barnes opted to sign with the Spirit, and in his two seasons in St. Louis, he was named rookie of the year and made two All-Star appearances. He also missed 24 games during that time, including one stretch as a rookie where he disappeared for several days in a contract dispute before resurfacing at a pool hall in Dayton, Ohio.

Despite the distractions, Barnes averaged 24.0 points and 15.6 rebounds as a rookie and 24.1 points and 10.8 boards in his second year.

When the NBA absorbed four teams from the ABA in 1976, the players on the remaining teams were disseminated throughout the league in a dispersal draft. Given Barnes’ talents, some team was going to take a gamble on the 24-year-old. That team was the Detroit Pistons, passing up the opportunity to select a 21-year-old hoops prodigy named Moses Malone for the privilege.

Things got off on the wrong foot immediately for Barnes and the Pistons. When training camp opened in 1976, one player wasn’t in attendance – Barnes. He was suspended immediately.

Things quickly got worse. Incidents involving Barnes ranged from the relatively minor nuisances of being late for practices and games, and generally flouting authority, to the more major transgressions of carrying loaded weapons through the Detroit Metro Airport metal detector. The latter misstep was a violation of Barnes’ parole, which meant that jail time was in his future.

He finished his first season in the NBA playing in 53 of 82 games and averaging 9.6 points and 4.8 rebounds – a far cry from the eye-popping numbers he compiled in the ABA.

The stories continued to roll in during Barnes' stay in Motown: He reportedly had 13 telephones in his apartment so that he could answer the phone without ever having to move; and he also uttered his infamous “I ain’t getting’ on no time machine” line when told that a team flight to the West Coast would technically arrive minutes before it left due to crossing time-zones.

Barnes' days were numbered in Detroit following his first season and he played in just 12 games with the Pistons the following year before being traded to Buffalo. He spent two more years in the league, with Boston and San Diego, before he was out of basketball for good, spent at the age of 27. His NBA career averages consisted of 9.2 points and 5.5 rebounds.

As you might have already guessed, drugs also played a huge part in Barnes’ downfall. He even claims to have partaken while on the bench during games while playing. As he told Michael Murphy of the Houston Chronicle in an interview, “I was young, I was wild and I thought I knew everything. I was doomed. I never thought I was going to live past 30. ... I didn't want a long life. It wasn't my ambition to live long. You know, live fast and die young. That was my goal.”

Since his playing days ended, Barnes' path has probably not deviated much from what you would have expected: He has spent time in prison on drug-related offenses and entered himself in the John Lucas Treatment Center program; he battled a liver problem – no doubt a product of his many addictions – that caused him to be hospitalized for a time; and he’s tried to turn his life around working as a director at a halfway house and a bootcamp for kids.

Sadly, it doesn’t appear as if Barnes has completely quelled his demons as on May 16, 2007, he was once again arrested for drug possession.

In that same interview with the Houston Chronicle, Barnes spoke about his wasted talents and concluded in rather understated fashion, “I just took a few wrong turns along the way.”


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