Rick Barry: Larry Bird Before Larry Bird

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Rick Barry: Larry Bird Before Larry Bird

By Neil Beldock

Rick Barry was not only one of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game, but one of the “best of the best” to ever play the game. His prowess seems to have been overlooked as the years progressed, and he doesn’t get the accolades he deserves or the proper positioning amongst the greats of the game.

Aside from being a great, great player, his personality would be described by many as repugnant and he was loathed for his on-court personality. His fiery competitiveness was known to exacerbate both opponents and teammates.

Said Mike Dunleavy, a former teammate and friend of Barry’s: “You could send him to the U.N. and he’d start World War lll”.

Butch Beard, a teammate of Barry’s from the 1975 NBA Championship Warriors team had this to say: “There’s no doubt Rick’s on-court demeanor hurt his image”.

From Clifford Ray, another 1975 teammate: “Rick may not be the kind of guy to say please, but he’s in it to win”.

Barry was quoted as saying: “I was not an easy person to get along with, I didn’t have a lot of tact”.

But Barry had the following to say about the way he was viewed: “People who don’t know me have opinions about me. That’s the part that’s very hurtful. Because how do you form an opinion about somebody if you’ve never met them or spent time with them? So it’s all based upon hearsay or things that they’ve read.”

Liked or not liked, there is no question as to Rick Barry’s greatness as a player.

In the history of basketball there are players who’s style and greatness appears to have been shaped by someone who came before them. As an example, Oscar Robertson, a big and powerful point guard of his day with a propensity to post triple doubles was a precursor to the type of player Magic Johnson would be. Wilt Chamberlain, with his dominate offensive game in the low post established a protocol followed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And the high-flying, high wire act of Julius “Dr. J” Erving was first seen from Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins years earlier.

For those who never saw him play, it would not be inaccurate to describe Rick Barry’s game as “Larry Bird before Larry Bird”. And we all know how great Larry Bird was. Much like Bird, Barry was an unstoppable offensive tour-de-force who could both score and pass at a superior level from the forward position.

Barry, as Bird would turn out to be, was a great scorer who possessed the ability to shoot from both long range and mid-range, and could drive to the basket as well. He posted a career average of 24.8 points per game. Bird’s career average? 24.3 points per game.

And, very much overlooked, Barry was a great and willing passer, who posted a career average of 4.9 assists per game. Bird’s career assists per game? 6.3 assists per game establishing both as exceptional passers from the forward position.

Bird, slightly bigger at 6 feet 9 inches tall and 220 pounds as compared to Barry who stood 6 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 205 pounds, was the more dominant rebounder averaging 10 rebounds per game for his career. But Barry’s career average of 6.7 rebounds per game was a very strong number establishing Barry as one of the better rebounders from the small forward position. Both Barry and Bird were outstanding rebounders.

In another close comparison, both Barry and Bird were as good as there was when it came to foul shooting. Barry, with his throw-back, underhand foul shooting technique was a career 89.3% foul shooter while Bird was a career 88.6% foul shooter. Put in terms of today’s game, just as there would be no Hack-a-Bird today, there would certainly be no Hack-a-Barry either.

Barry, much like Bird, was an impassioned competitor with an undeniable fire within.

In yet another interesting comparison, both Barry and Bird reversed the fortunes of their teams upon their arrivals.

Bird turned a Celtics team from a 29 win & 53 loss team to a 61 win & 21 loss team in his first year. He would ultimately guide the Celtics to three NBA Championships.

Barry, upon his arrival to the San Francisco Warriors, led the team to 35 wins in 1965-66 and 44 wins in 1966-67. The team had won just 17 games in 1964-65, the year before Barry became a member.

After leaving the Warriors to join the upstart American Basketball Association (ABA) for the 1967-68 season, Barry would return to the NBA and the Warriors for the 1972-73 season. Two seasons later, Barry would lead the Warriors to the NBA Championship, their first-ever NBA championship as a San Francisco based team.

During that championship year Barry averaged 30.6 points per game and 6.2 assists per game. He also led the league in foul shooting percentage at 90.4%, and steals averaging 2.85 steals per game. He missed just 9 foul shots all year.

For those who can remember the 1974-75 NBA Finals, and for those who either can’t/don’t or perhaps weren’t born or old enough to remember, the lasting memory from that series against the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) was the play which was consistently barked out by Coach Al Attles for what seemed like the entire 4th quarter of each game.

In that deep, loud and raspy voice that Attles possessed, for each possession Attles would be heard barking “24”. 24 was Barry’s number and the play being called from the bench was simple; give the ball to Barry and get out of the way.

The Warriors swept the Bullets behind Barry’s dominance.

And one last Bird/Barry comparison. As to Barry’s less-than-embraced personality, need I remind anyone that many who played against him said that Bird talked more trash than anyone else in his day.

Barry was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on March 28th 1944, the son of a basketball coach. He attended Roselle Park, New Jersey High School before matriculating to the University of Miami. His senior year at Miami he led the nation in scoring averaging 37.4 points per game.

A review of Rick Barry’s career evidences him as the only player in the history of basketball to lead the NCAA, NBA and ABA in scoring. He averaged over 30 points per game in 4 of his 14 seasons. He was a 12-time All-Star game nominee, a 4-time First Team All-NBA nominee and 4-time First Team All-ABA nominee. By the way; Larry Bird was a 12-time All-Star game participant as well.

As a rookie for the Warriors in 1964-65, Barry was fourth in the league in scoring averaging 25.7 points per game, was named Rookie-of-the-Year (as Bird would be) and was chosen to participate in the All-Star game and was named to the All-NBA First Team.

In his second season he led the league in scoring averaging 35.6 points per game, 5 more points per game than runner-up Oscar Robertson. In the history of the NBA only Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor had ever averaged more points per game than Barry’s 35.6 points per game. At the conclusion of the season, Barry was once again named to the All-NBA First Team.

Barry’s second season saw him guide the Warriors to the NBA finals which they lost in six games to the powerful and dominant Philadelphia 76ers led by Wilt Chamberlain. In 3 of those 6 games, Barry scored 43 points, 44 points and 55 points. For the series he averaged 40.8 points per game, the best ever in the NBA and a record which would stand until 1993 when Michael Jordan averaged 41 points per game during the finals.

Barry was then lured to the Oakland Oaks of the upstart American Basketball Association (ABA). Getting Barry to switch leagues was viewed by the ABA as paramount to their survival. They got Barry to switch leagues by not only offering him a handsome sum of money, but by hiring his college coach and father-in-law Bruce Hale to coach the Oaks. In his first season with the Oaks, Barry averaged 34 points per game and led the Oaks to the ABA championship.

Before returning to the NBA and the Warriors, Barry played 4 seasons in the ABA for the Oakland Oaks and the New York Nets. His resume from the ABA includes a league championship, four All-Star game selections and an ABA scoring title. And in true Rick Barry form, he also found a way to rustle feathers with his mouth.

When the Oakland Oaks announced they were moving to Washington D.C., a move Barry was opposed to, he said: “If I wanted to go to Washington I would run for President”.

Then, when it was decided that the Oaks would move to Virginia and become the Virginia Squires, Barry was at it again. In explaining his opposition to playing and living in Virginia he said, “I don’t want my son coming home and saying ‘Howdy, y’all'”. Shortly thereafter he was traded to the Nets.

Barry retired after the 1979-80 season, ending a 14 year playing career. In 1987 he was selected as a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1996 he was named by the NBA as one of the 50 greatest players to ever play in the league.

His sons Scooter, Jon, Drew and Brent all played Division I college basketball with Jon (16 years) and Brent (15 years) having played in the NBA as well. His youngest son Canyon Barry currently plays for the University of Florida.

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