Few of basketball’s all-time legends come as under-appreciated as Rick Barry. The small forward’s demeanor certainly never helped folks fondly remember him on all occasions. Mike Dunleavy, Sr., declared, “You could send [Barry] to the U.N., and he’d start World War III.” So, needless to say he was never that diplomatic. He spoke his mind without a hint of tact.
That abrasive countenance was of great help on the basketball court. Barry brutally saw a situation for what it was and keenly saw how to fix it. And he had nearly all the tools for the job.
He was 6’7″ tall and had impressively long arms and a sleek physique. He could slide in between opponents on both ends of the court. On offense this meant he could prowl to the rim, make sneaky passes, and move off the ball with deft ease. On defense this meant he could attack passing lanes or strip an unsuspecting offensive player of the ball.
A great jump shooter with endless range, Barry was an even better free throw shooter. Perhaps the best in the history of basketball. Famously, he achieved his 90% free throw accuracy with the archaic underhand shot. To sum up all of this abilities I think it’s just good to throw out Barry’s stat line from 1966 to 1978: 27 PPG, 7 RPG, 5 APG, 2.5 SPG, 46% FG, 89% FT. Just because Barry had a surly attitude doesn’t automatically mean that that kind of production would be easily forgotten.
The following photo, though, helps to fully explain the riddle of the forgotten Barry…
Yep, look at that funny colored ball. Rick Barry spent four seasons in the ABA.
Add in a fifth season where had to sit out from pro basketball entirely because the justice system ruled he couldn’t play for the ABA thanks to the NBA’s reserve clause, and one-third of Barry’s career was spent with a league that has historically been disrespected. Furthermore, Barry was injured for significant portions of his ABA tenure, playing 35, 52, and 59 games in 1969, 1970, and 1971.
So, we had a player who in 1966 took the NBA by storm winning the Rookie of the Year and All-Star MVP awards. In 1967 he led the San Francisco Warriors to the NBA Finals and led the league in scoring with 35 PPG.
And then from 1968 to 1971, he faded into semi-obscurity during the midst of his prime. In the 1971-72 ABA season, however, Barry finally got healthy and carried the New York Nets to the Finals against the Indiana Pacers. To get out of the Eastern Division, though, Barry’s Nets had to slay the 68-win Kentucky Colonels. And they did so in six games with Barry setting the tone with 50 points in Game 1. In the next round the faced the Virginia Squires whose own Julius Erving was in the midst of a 30-point, 20-rebound average in the postseason. Again, the Nets prevailed, thanks to a Barry three-pointer in the final minute of Game 7.
In the ABA Finals, the Nets went into a see-saw battle with the Pacers, but the Indiana squad finished the Nets off in six games. It was a close and stinging loss as the Nets were defeated by just four combined points in the last two losses.
Barry’s contract was up after that 1972 season and the justice system again intervened and decreed that if Rick wanted to continue playing in the ABA he’d have to sit out yet another season. Instead of sitting on the sidelines again for a year, he returned to the Warriors.
Upon his return to the NBA in the 1972-73 season, Barry galvanized the Golden State squad to 47 wins and an upset of the 60-win Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semi-finals. After taking a step back in 1974 with 44-wins and missing the playoffs, Barry in 1975 led the Warriors with one of the great individual seasons in NBA history.
The small forward led Golden State with 30 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals a game. In the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors outlasted the Chicago Bulls in a feisty 7-game series. In the seventh game, the Warriors faced a 14-point deficit, but Jamaal Wilkes gave 21 points in the 2nd and 3rd quarter to narrow the gap, and Barry closed out proceedings with 14 in the 4th quarter to win the game 83-79.
In the Finals against the 60-win and heavily favored Washington Bullets, the Warriors wound up sweeping the opponent. There have been other upsets in Finals history, but this one may just be the biggest. No one else on the Warriors besides Rick averaged over 12 points or played over 30 minutes a game. It was truly Barry at his magnificent peak orchestrating a whirling dervish of victory.
In 1975-76, the Warriors were even better. At least during the regular season. They poured out 59 wins and a greater ensemble arose with Phil Smith, Jamaal Wilkes, and Gus Williams taking on bigger offensive roles to alleviate Barry. In the playoffs, though the Warriors held a 3-2 lead in the conference finals, but lost Game 6 by one point and then lost the seventh game on their home court. In 1977 another devastating seventh game loss ended the Warriors’ postseason.
Barry would end up playing one more season with the Warriors and spent the last two years of his career with the Houston Rockets.
So, when it’s all said and done Rick Barry was a man who was a 12-time All-Star, a nine-time 1st Teamer, played in three championship series, was a Finals MVP, and couldn’t miss a free throw if his life depended on it. And even if World War III is raging because of his foul mouth, don’t forget Rick Barry when conjuring your list of basketball titans.
Years Played: 1965 – 1980
4x All-ABA 1st Team (1969-’72)
4x All-Star (1969-’72)
Finals MVP (1975)
Rookie of the Year (1966)
5x All-NBA 1st Team (1966-’67, 1974-’76)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1973)
8x All-Star (1966-’67, 1973-’78)
All-Star Game MVP (1967)
All-Rookie Team (1966)