Say Hello to the Bad Guy: Rick Barry
Last week, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar voiced his displeasure with the fact that the Los Angeles Lakers had not honored him with a statue at Staples Center much like they did with Magic Johnson and Jerry West. One could make a pretty convincing argument that Abdul-Jabbar is the second best player in NBA history and perhaps even the its most dominant scorer ever, as evidenced by him holding the NBA’s all time scoring record.
And yet, when talking about Laker greats we often hear about players like Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and now Kobe Bryant. A lot of that stems from the fact that the players just previously mentioned were all personable in some way, shape or form. The public liked them for the most part except possibly for Kobe Bryant (more on this later), and thus the media have recounted their stories much like parents do when they read bedtime stories to their kids.
I draw this parallel only because it is necessary to understand how certain players are depicted and praised by the masses.
Once we get past this phenomenon, it becomes far easier to understand why Rick Barry never gets mentioned among the list of NBA all time greats. But it is not defensible though. Have a quick look at what he accomplished in his NBA career:
- 1965-66 NBA Rookie of the Year
- Four ABA All-Star Game selections
- Eight NBA All-Star Game selections
- 1965-66 NBA All-Rookie 1st team selection
- Five time All-NBA 1st team selections (even made it his rookie season)
- Four All-ABA 1st team selections
- 1966-67 NBA All-Star Game MVP
- 1974-75 NBA Finals MVP
- Best scoring average in ABA history (30.5 points per game)
- 20th all-time in NBA scoring average (23.2 points per game)
Just in case that failed to impress you, have a look the top playoff five scorers on the 1974-75 Golden State Warriors team that won the NBA title:
That season, Barry shot 91.8 percent from the free throw line in the playoffs while no one else on the team that average at least 15 minutes of playing time shot over 75 percent from the charity stripe.
Over the years, a lot has been made about players such Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James not having enough help, but Rick Barry made due with what he had he led his team to a title.
And yet, some people have never heard of Rick Barry.
To put it simply, people despised him. The former Warriors star had a knack for getting under people’s skin, and that’s putting it lightly. He was always critical of his teammates, acted like he walked on water and occasionally made racially charged comments towards African-American players. In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons obtained this quote from Ken Macker (he was the Warriors executive VP during Barry’s playing days): “You’ll never find a bunch of players sitting around talking about the good old days with Rick. His teammates and his opponents thoroughly detested him.”
Even when his playing days ended and he became an NBA analyst for CBS, Barry did little to change how people viewed him. He was still critical of others and made stereotypical remarks that often left you scratching your head (have a look at this broadcast of a Celtics and Rockets game that Rick Barry called with Bill Russell).
It’s not that the league or the media erased Barry from NBA history, but rather that they chose not to remind of us of his accomplishments as well how great he was.
Rick Barry is one of the greatest scorers/shooters the league has ever seen and also one of its best playmakers as well. Indeed, the Warriors former superstar is one of four players to average at least 20 points per game for his career while shooting at least 88 percent from the free throw line (the others are Kevin Durant, Larry Bird and Ray Allen).
Also, only four forwards have a higher career NBA assist average (in order they are LeBron James, Larry Bird, Maurice Stokes and Scottie Pippen).
Needless to say, Rick Barry was a phenomenal basketball player and we have not really seen anyone like him as a ball player. Or have we?
Read this quick scouting report on Rick Barry:
- Great basketball IQ on both ends of the floor
- Able to handle the ball and score with either hand
- Very good footwork
- Impressive skill at taking and making contested jumpers
- Can create an impressive array of tough shots and regularly convert them
- Great at setting up defenders with shot fakes
- Often drifts on jump shots (backwards, right or left)
Now add these observations:
- Not always liked by teammates
- Occasional struggle to find balance between feeding teammates and taking over
- Wears #24
In case you have not yet figured it out, Rick Barry could be seen as the predecessor to Kobe Bryant. Although he was not as athletically gifted, their games are quite similar. Both were at times seen as relentless gunners that just always found ways to score but that also eventually figured out how to get the ball to their teammates.
It’s an interesting comparison on many levels because Kobe Bryant will probably be remembered far longer than Rick Barry and his place in history as one of the all-time greats is undoubtedly higher. Granted, Kobe’s NBA League MVP award, his five championship rings and two NBA Finals MVP trophies obviously help his case a lot (especially in comparison to Rick Barry).
However a part of me does wonder, if the Black Mamba will fall victim to an unfair media bias much like Barry did. For years, there has been this perception that Kobe the “wingman” was a divisive force in the locker room because he just could not accept being in the shadow of someone else. In addition, the sexual assault case as well as the alleged rift between he and Karl Malone might indeed get people to refocus their stance on Kobe in the next few years.
For better or worse, Rick Barry has shown us what the blueprint is for a star to be forgotten and we can only hope that others do not follow in his footsteps.
Back in 1996, NBA commissioner David Stern announced the 50 greatest players in NBA history (voted by former players and media members) and Rick Barry was part of that elite group of individuals.
Barry played for a franchise that once had talents such as Baron Davis, Chris Webber, Mitch Richmond, Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin and Nate Thurmond (also top 50). We have often heard these names and Warriors fans have fond recollections of these players; but none of them were able to lead the Dubs to the mountaintop.
Perhaps now is as good a time as any to look back at Rick Barry’s career for what it was: one of the best ever in league history.
And that’s worth remembering.