Sports Nut

Big Jerk, Bigger Hero

Rick Barry is one of the sports world’s most important trailblazers. It’s time he got the credit he deserved.

Golden State Warriors 1972 publicity photo of basketball player Rick Barry.
Rick Barry of the Golden State Warriors in 1972.

Photo by Golden State Warriors

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book Miracle at the Cow Palace: The Most Unsung, Underrated, and Misunderstood Team in NBA History.

Billy Paultz, an ABA and NBA player from 1970 to 1985, once told me the following story:

It was the 1980 season. Our head coach in Houston, coach Del Harris, was trying to heal some rifts between players. He brought in a psychologist who got the whole team together in the locker room for a visualization exercise. The psychologist asked us to close our eyes and visualize all of our troubles and problems, every one. Then he said, “Now, keeping your eyes closed, visualize picking up all your troubles one by one and put them in a bag. Then visualize throwing that bag full of your troubles off of a bridge.” He talked in a very soft and relaxing voice. “Now watch that bag of your troubles fly off the bridge, splash into the water below, sinking, sinking, sinking until it submerges and disappears. When I count to three, you will open your eyes, and when you do, all your troubles will be gone.” At the time I was reunited with Rick Barry on the Rockets. The psychologist counted to three. I opened my eyes and said “Hey Rick, I don’t get it. How come you’re still here?” Rick didn’t appreciate that.

Billy Paultz and Rick Barry were friends. They played together in New York, in the ABA. But Paultz had a keen sense of humor. He knew that to be funny you had to be true. What’s true is that no one liked Rick Barry. But one of the most loathed characters in basketball history is also one of the game’s biggest heroes. Too bad NBA fans and NBA players don’t give him the credit he deserves.

Barry is well known for two things: his subversive, iconoclastic underhanded free throw and his role as the most arrogant, impossible son of a bitch ever to play the game of basketball. Nobody got along with the guy. Even in his oddly premature autobiography, Confessions of a Basketball Gypsy (which, when it was released in 1972, was expected to be a kind-of apologia for his behavior), Barry admitted that he’d once punched a nun. In the same book, his own mother called him greedy.

In Barry’s second NBA season, the one in which he scored 40.8 points per game in a losing effort in the finals, observers sniffed dismissively and called him a ball hog. Despite his consistently high assist totals, fans derided Barry, wrote Ron Reid in Sports Illustrated in 1974, as someone who “would sooner give blood than give the ball to a teammate.” An unflattering 1983 Sports Illustrated profile by Tony Kornheiser cemented his poor reputation, featuring a string of stinging quotes from old teammates and associates:

  • “He had a bad attitude. He was always looking down at you.”—Robert Parish
  • “[H]e lacks diplomacy. If they sent him to the U.N. he’d end up starting World War III.”—Mike Dunleavy
  • “You’ll never find a bunch of players sitting around talking about the good old days with Rick. His teammates and opponents generally and thoroughly detested him.”—former Warriors executive Ken Macker

And then there’s the Bill Russell “watermelon grin” incident, which is discussed at length in Bill Simmons’ sublime The Book of Basketball. During the second half of Game 5 of the 1981 NBA Finals, CBS play-by-play man Gary Bender drew attention to a 1956 Olympic team photograph, one in which Russell, the African-American basketball legend, was smiling ear to ear. Barry, working alongside Russell as an on-air analyst, commented jokingly, “It looks like some fool over there with that, um, that big watermelon grin.” Amazingly, CBS chose to put the camera on the announcing table after the exchange, focusing in as Russell physically turned his back to Barry. I defy you to find a more awkward sequence in television history. (Though unfortunately all evidence of this amazing scene seems to have vanished from YouTube.) How can Barry ever explain that away?

The only thing you can say in Barry’s defense is that he’s an equal-opportunity offender. Unhappy with the prospect of being forced to play for the ABA’s Virginia Squires, Barry strategically offended everyone south of the Mason-Dixon line, telling Sports Illustrated, “My son Scooter is supposed to go to nursery school this year. I hate to think of the complications that’ll cause in Virginia. I don’t want him to go down there to school and learn to speak with a Southern accent. He’ll come home from school saying, ‘Hi y’all, Daad.’ I sure don’t want that.”

“Rick’s a superstar,” says his former coach Al Attles. “Superstars aren’t like the rest of us.” Maybe so. Yet not even a professional sports league desperate for a great white hope in the 1970s would bestow marquee promotional status on Rick Barry.

OK, enough with the Barry bashing—it’s time to set the record straight. Like his championship-winning 1975 Golden State Warriors, Rick Barry was a man way, way ahead of his time. What credit does Barry deserve? The credit that Curt Flood gets for his fight that led to the elimination of the reserve clause in baseball, and the birth of free agency. That credit should go to Barry, especially in professional basketball. Barry challenged the reserve clause in court in 1967, two years before Flood. He was the first modern professional athlete to do so.

The only time I’ve seen Barry credited properly in a piece of popular writing is in a footnote in Simmons’ The Book of Basketball: “Baseball player Curt Flood gets credit for standing up to The Man and paving the way for a new era of sports contracts, only Barry did the same two years earlier. So why doesn’t he get the credit? Because Rick Barry was a dick.” (Terry Pluto’s brilliant, definitive ABA oral history Loose Balls mentions Barry’s role well, but does not equate the basketball star with Flood.)

When Barry challenged the reserve clause by trying to leap from the NBA to the fledgling ABA, everyone called him greedy. Who the hell does a professional basketball player—someone who plays a kids’ game and gets paid for it—think he is to ask for more? As Ron Reid put it in his 1974 Sports Illustrated story, “Other basketball players—and athletes in other sports—have since jumped teams after breakfast and before dinner on some days, but Barry, who led the way, remains in contempt, not a pioneer but a Hessian, marching only to the sound of the fullest cash register.”

The truth is that it wasn’t about the money for Barry—the contract offers he weighed from the NBA and ABA were both for $75,000. He recalled his basic thinking in Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls:

I was supposed to be tied to the Warriors for another year after my contract was up by the “reserve clause,” a clause that said every player had to play an extra year for his team after his contract was up. … But it was never challenged in court, and the lawyers I talked to didn’t think it would hold up. So when the [ABA’s Oakland] Oaks called, I was willing to listen, because I thought I could change leagues without missing a year.

The 1967–68 season was to be the ABA’s first. The upstart league was at that time not much more than a thinly veiled attempt by a consortium of risk-taking businessmen to force their way, likely via merger, into the NBA. The ABA had convinced retired NBA legend George Mikan to be its first commissioner, but they could not, until Barry, convince any NBA players to jump leagues.

Barry’s rationale was simple. Bruce Hale was the coach of the ABA’s Oakland franchise. Hale was his father-in-law. If that’s where he wanted to play, and the money was the same, why shouldn’t he be able to go where he pleased? In today’s sports world, such thinking would not raise an eyebrow. But in Barry’s day, no athlete had demanded his rights in such a way.

It sounded good in theory. But Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli, a free spirit who likely agreed philosophically with Barry, just could not bear to let his star player go. He filed an injunction and later a San Francisco judge said the reserve clause was binding.

The ruling was that Barry had to play for the Warriors or sit out a year. Barry chose to sit. He chose principle. He chose sacrifice. He lost his case (as did Curt Flood), and missed a full year in the prime of his career, which became two years after an injury sidelined him for most of the following season. What was the gain for Rick Barry? A lost two years and, after the Oakland Oaks folded, a series of transactions that led him to teams and places he never wanted to go. And what was the gain for everyone else?

The ABA had its first NBA player and a legitimate jumping off point to launch a bidding war. That bidding war gave players an option to choose between leagues. It increased their average salaries from $18,000 in 1967 to $110,000 in 1975. When the NBA wanted to stop the spending madness by merging with its rival league, do you know who blocked it? The NBA players. Why? To keep the salary war going.

The ensuing legal action became what is known as the Oscar Robertson suit. In his otherwise extremely forthright autobiography, The Big O, Robertson recalled the ABA’s genesis. He wrote, “[The ABA] stole the flashy young star, Rick Barry.” No, they didn’t steal him. Barry went on his own—the harder road—and the ABA was legitimized because of it. Barry’s stature gave other NBA players and top college players the green light to go to the new league. Through his highly publicized lawsuit to invalidate the reserve clause, Barry pioneered the idea that every professional athlete could control his own contract. The ripple effect of his actions was profound.

The existence of the ABA created the conditions for the Oscar Robertson suit. In September 1971, the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Anti-Trust and Monopoly convened to discuss a bill to grant the NBA a so-called “Sherman waiver.” Such a waiver would allow the league to proceed with the ABA merger despite the court-ordered injunction blocking it. “The players recognize the unfairness of a system of professional basketball which allows them to negotiate with only one team,” Robertson said in that hearing. “They have gone through the experience of no competition prior to the ABA’s existence and of great competition since 1967. They understand that every player has been dramatically helped by the competitive aspects of a second league. All of their salaries have increased, from the last man of the team to superstars.”

Do you think Rick Barry had anything to do with that? Do you think that the crack in the dam that Barry created ultimately led to the watershed moment for players’ rights in professional basketball?

Later in the hearing, the Big O went one-on-one with pro-merger Sen. Roman Hruska.

Robertson: I think it is terribly wrong for anyone to limit anyone’s ability to earn money no matter where it may be, whether it is in business or sports. I think any time you limit a person as to where he can go, such as the case was prior to the two leagues, I think it is terribly wrong.

Hruska: Is it wrong to limit the amount of money a man can earn?

Robertson: I think in America it is.

Hruska: Does the draft system do that?

Robertson: I think if you only had one league, that is true. As long as you have two leagues, there is no telling what a person can earn.

A year later, in September 1972, the subcommittee granted the NBA a Sherman waiver approving the NBA–ABA merger. However, the committee declared, among other things, that the reserve clause was illegal and that until there was either a settlement or verdict in the Oscar Robertson lawsuit, the injunction blocking the merger would not be lifted.

Ipso facto the ABA was the death knell for the NBA reserve clause. Consider this syllogism: No two leagues, no end of the reserve clause. No ABA, no two leagues. No Rick Barry, no ABA. Therefore, no Rick Barry, no defeat of the reserve clause.

In no way do I mean to diminish the courage of Oscar Robertson, who no doubt lost professional opportunities after his playing days due to lingering owner resentment. But he did what he did and Barry did what Barry did. Barry simply did it first, and what he did was condition predicate for Robertson’s actions and all that followed.

Oscar Robertson retired from the NBA in 1975. The Oscar Robertson lawsuit was finally settled as a condition of the 1976 merger between the NBA and ABA. The settlement included the abolition of the reserve clause. Now, the average NBA salary is greater than $4 million annually. Bill Bradley once told me that every player in today’s NBA ought to thank Oscar Robertson. No, thank Rick Barry. Rick Barry made this happen. He took the risk. He took the hit. Send him the thank you notes.

This article is adapted from Dave Hollander’s forthcoming book on the 1974-75 Golden State Warriors, Miracle at the Cow Palace: The Most Unsung, Underrated, and Misunderstood Team in NBA History.