By Neil Beldock
On September 8th, 2014 the news began to spread rapidly. Marvin Barnes was dead at the age of 62 after once again falling victim to an old foe; drug addiction. A sad ending to a sad story of unrealized and wasted potential.
The landscape of basketball history is littered with players and playground legends who should’ve been, could’ve been, and would’ve been. But perhaps the poster child for the “should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve been” roster is Marvin Jerome Barnes.
At 6 foot 9 inches tall and weighing 210 pound, Barnes had everything one would want in a basketball player. He had size, strength, quickness, athleticism and played angry. He was relentless in his pusuit of both offensive and defensive rebounds and offensively he was described as being “unstoppable” with both a tremendous first-step to the basket and an equally effective shooting touch from outside.
Marvin Barnes was born on July 27, 1952 in North Kingston, Rhode Island. He grew up in Providence and there wasn’t a level of basketball in which he participated where he didn’t overwhelmingly dominate the competition.
He attended Central High School in Providence, leading the team to consecutive state championships and being recognized by the Providence Journal as “the greatest basketball talent the city ever produced”.
After high school Barnes chose to stay home and enrolled at Providence College where his dominance was once again on display.
In just his first year of varsity competition (1971-72) Barnes was nothing short of spectacular averaging 21.6 points per game and 15.7 rebounds per game.
He followed up his first year at Providence with an equally spectacular second season averaging 18.3 points per game and 19.0 rebounds per game while teaming up with another Providence College great, Ernie DiGregorio, to lead the Friars to the 1973 Final Four.
Many believe that had Barnes not suffered a sprained knee early during the semi-final matchup with Memphis State forcing him to leave the game for good, Providence, who had a sizeable lead when Barnes was injured, would have won and advanced to the NCAA championship game against the Bill Walton led UCLA Bruins.
And there are even those who believe that had Barnes not been injured, and Providence did advance to the championship game to face UCLA, Bill Walton, playing against Marvin Barnes never would have gone 21 for 22 from the field in scoring 44 points and leading UCLA to the NCAA championship.
In his final season for Providence (1973-74) there was no drop-off. Barnes averaged 22.1 points per game and led the nation in rebounding averaging 18.7 rebounds per game.
He concluded his college career with an overall average of 20.7 points and 17.9 rebounds per game and was a 2-time All-American selection.
Following his collegiate career Barnes was the 2nd overall pick in the 1974 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. (Bill Walton was selected 1st by the Portland Trail Blazers.)
Instead of signing with the 76ers however, Barnes chose to sign with the St. Louis Spirits of the upstart American Basketball Association (ABA). The Spirits would become known as “The Wackiest Team Ever”.
With the ABA struggling to survive, and The Spirits having recently been relocated from Carolina, ownership targeted the signing of Barnes as vital to their survival.
Said Spirits President Harry Weltman: “We went after him because he was 6-foot-9 and had tremendous basketball skills. I wanted him badly. He would make an immediate impact for us, give us a big man who could help us be competitive right from the start. We were able to cut a deal because we offered some serious money.”
Barnes did in fact make an immediate impact, but it would not turn out to be all good.
From a basketball perspective The Spirits got exactly what they hoped for. In his rookie season (1974-75) Barnes posted numbers of 24.0 points and 15.6 rebounds per game and won the ABA Rookie-of-the-Year award.
But from a personal/personality standpoint The Spirits got more than they bargained for. And this would become a major problem.
In his second year with The Spirits, Barnes continued to post impressive numbers, averaging 24.1 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
But it was during his second professional season when Barnes started to use and abuse drugs. From that point forward his play would never be the same and in fact show significant deterioration.
By his third professional season his numbers dropped to averaging just 9.6 points and just 4.8 rebounds per game.
Barnes’ career would last just six years. Over the final four years of his career, Barnes, mired by cocaine abuse, would never average more than 11.8 points per game or 7.6 rebounds per game. This in comparison to his first two seasons when he averaged a combined 24 points and 13.2 rebounds per game.
Given an opportunity to play for the Boston Celtics for the 1978-79 season, Barnes later admitted to snorting cocaine while sitting on the bench during games.
But make no mistake about it…..This is not the way it could have or should have been. Marvin Barnes was a rare and unique talent.
To best understand the dichotomy which highlights the extremely talented yet extremely problematic Marvin Barnes, here are things which were said about him by those who played, coached and were around and associated with him;
Said teammate Steve Jones who played 8 seasons in the ABA, 1 season in the NBA and was then an NBA broadcaster: “Marvin had a number of good things going for him on the court. He just attacked the ball off the glass. If he was on the right side of the rim and the ball went off to the left, he didn’t just stand there like most guys. He went across the lane and got the ball. When he was in the mood he could get a rebound, throw an outlet pass, race down the court and catch a return pass for a dunk as well as any big man in basketball. He had every physical ingredient you’d want in a big man and he had the killer spirit to go with it.”
Jones also said: “But so much of what Marvin did was counterproductive to his career. He disdained practice. He stayed up all night. He didn’t listen to anyone about anything, but then he’d come out and play a great game. You’d see that and know that the gods had touched this man and made him a great player, only he had no idea what he had. They would talk about rules to Marvin, but I swear Marvin learned all the rules just so he could break them. Once he spent the entire pre-game layup drill in full uniform, sitting in the stands and talking to this girl. (Coach) MacKinnon ripped into Marvin and didn’t start him. Then he brought Marvin off the bench and Marvin went for 40 points and 20-some rebounds. That was the kind of talent he was. He thought he was Superman, and for a while he was.”
Said team President Harry Weltman: “He had reflexes like a snakes tongue. He would just go out and get the ball. For all his excesses, and no player ever had as many excesses as Marvin, he was a tremendous competitor. Marvin was a helluva player.”
Said Rod Thorn, former ABA coach and NBA Director of Operations: “Marvin was a problem. A big problem. On the court he could do everything. He could guard any power forward, most small forwards and most guys playing center in the ABA. He could score inside, outside – the whole package. But off the court I have never seen a player who was so totally disruptive.”
Said former ABA & NBA player and NBA coach Don Chaney: “I don’t know how many times I saw him (Marvin) stay out all night, get about an hour’s sleep and then score 35 points. His pregame meal usually was hamburgers, hot dogs and Twinkies.”
Said Boston Celtic great Dave Cowens who coached Barnes during his season with the Celtics: “Simply hanging around he was just better than everyone else. He did things easily. I’d say he was a combination of Alex English and Connie Hawkins. There were times when he really wanted to play and get after somebody. He would get to the point where he was unstoppable.”
Said St. Louis Spirit Owner Donald Schupak in 1976: “He’s a nice guy, a sweet guy. Everybody likes him. He’s just totally unreliable. He’s probably in the top 5 players in basketball talent-wise. In terms of value to a team, he’s probably in the bottom 10%.”
And this from legendary broadcaster Bob Costas who was The Spirits play-by-play announcer: “In my mind, the symbol of The Spirits would always be Marvin Barnes tooling down the street in his Rolls (Royce). He’d spot some kids on the corner, stop and pick them up and drive them in that big car to an ice cream stand, where he’d treat them, then drive them home. He felt like the Pied Piper, and he was nothing more than a big kid himself. But this was the same Marvin Barnes who must have missed 100 personal appearances in his two years – everything from lunches to charity events to boys clubs. He was constantly giving away tennis shoes and shirts to kids on the street, yet he couldn’t make it to practice or catch a team flight. He had great talent, yet that talent was lost in all the excess, and after just a couple of years he was finished, when he should have been just entering his prime.”
And this from Terry Pluto in his book “Loose Balls – The Short, Wild Life Of The American Basketball Association”: “Hardcore basketball fans think about Marvin Barnes as much as they think about Julius Erving when it comes to the ABA. It’s like Barnes was the bad angel on one shoulder, Erving the good angel on the other.”.
Said Marvin Barnes about himself; “I got introduced to some drug dealers and I got real close with them. They became like my family. I was living my fantasy though. I always wanted to be a gangsta, a drug dealer, a pimp, a player, a hustler. I was like, I’m going to die young, die fast, gonna die quick, and I’m gonna have fun. That’s it.”
Marvin Barnes; What could’ve been, what should’ve been, but barely was…….